The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Cocker Spaniels" by Sara Hansen. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.
Author Credit: Sara Hansen
Defining Problem Behavior
For most dog owners, problem behavior is easy to identify. It’s any behavior that makes living with a dog annoying, difficult, or potentially dangerous.
Common dog-behavior problems include barking, begging, chewing, digging, and jumping.
When your dog barks once to alert you that someone is at the door, that’s helpful. When the dog barks non-stop for 20 minutes after the UPS truck drives by, that’s annoying. If your dog barks incessantly at night and keeps you from sleeping, the problem becomes difficult or potentially dangerous.
Nonstop barking also can trigger complaints from neighbors and potentially lead to fines for violating noise ordinances. If you’re renting, the noise could even cause you to be evicted.
The good news is most of these issues can be prevented or eliminated with training. The key is not to let problem behavior become ingrained.
When puppies do something, it’s cute. Their little barks are squeaks. When they jump up, they often tip over. When they chew, it’s easy to excuse it as teething. When they beg, we cave because they are so adorable. If they dig, it’s a small hole.
But if you don’t let the puppy know the behavior is unacceptable, the puppy will continue to do it. As the dog gets bigger and stronger, the problem will only get worse.
Determining the Cause of the Problem
Determining why your dog is exhibiting problem behavior usually boils down to a few issues. And it’s important to remember the dog really isn’t responsible.
Usually, the problem is caused by the dog’s owners. They fail to train the dog properly, don’t give the dog enough exercise, and leave the dog home alone for extended periods.
Training: Dogs need training. They crave routine. Your dog wants to please you but can’t if he doesn’t know what you want or how to meet your expectations.
Start by bonding with your dog and socializing him. Taking your dog out to meet new people and experience new situations is critical to making sure your dog is confident and happy. Dogs that don’t bond well with their owners and aren’t socialized routinely are nervous, fearful dogs. They suffer from separation anxiety. Dogs that bite most often do so because they are afraid.
Unfortunately, dogs that suffer from stress and anxiety can become aggressive if those issues aren’t addressed.
Exercise: Cocker Spaniels need one to two hours of exercise each day. This is especially important if a dog is left alone for extended periods.
Without adequate exercise, your dog can become anxious, and Cocker Spaniels common express their anxiety through barking and chewing.
Too much time alone: Cocker Spaniels are social dogs. They enjoy spending time with their people. If you need to leave your dog alone for more than 10 hours per day, you might need to consider choosing another breed or deciding against getting a dog at all.
If you have to leave your Cocker Spaniel home alone during a typical workday, think about what you can do to break up the time. Can you or another family member use your lunch break to come and give your dog a quick walk? Or can you hire a dog walker a few times a week? Or maybe your dog would enjoy spending a day or two each week playing with other pups at doggy day care?
Find ways to provide your dog with mental stimulation when you are away. Consider using puzzle toys or interactive feeders to make your dog work to get food. Make sure your dog has safe chew toys.
You also can use sound to help soothe your dog. Consider leaving the TV or radio on. Or you can play classical music or use a white-noise machine.
Be sure your dog is getting enough exercise. If you’re walking your dog twice a day for 20 to 30 minutes and your pup still seems anxious, try to add a third walk. Or extend your two daily walks to 40 or 45 minutes. Tired dogs are good dogs.
Preventing Bad Behavior
The best way to avoid problem behavior is never to let it start.
Don’t want a dog that begs? Never feed your dog from the table.
Don’t want a dog that chews? Give your puppy plenty of safe chew toys and keep everything else picked up and out of reach. If your puppy starts to chew on something he shouldn’t have, immediately get the dog to trade you that item for one of his toys.
Don’t want a dog that digs? Supervise your dog when he is in the yard. If he starts to dig, stop him immediately and distract him with a quick game of fetch or some obedience training.
Don’t want a dog that barks? Stop him when he starts barking excessively. Whatever you do, don’t yell. If you do, your dog will think you are joining in to scare away the invader.
Don’t want a dog that jumps? Don’t reward the dog with attention when he jumps. Instead, always make your dog sit before you greet him.
It’s impossible to overstate how vital basic obedience training is to raise a happy, healthy, confident dog.
Having a dog who understands good behavior and quickly responds when you give basic obedience commands will make life better for both of you.
Correcting Your Dog’s Behavior
When you catch your puppy doing something inappropriate, correct the behavior immediately.
If your Cocker Spaniel puppy is chewing on your shoe, say no firmly. Then take the shoe away and give the puppy a chew toy. When the puppy chews on the toy, praise the puppy and give the dog a treat.
You need to help your puppy understand that it’s OK to chew on some things but not others. That can be confusing for the dog, so keep temptation away. Your puppy needs to chew, especially when he is teething.
If you catch your puppy trying to go potty in the house, pick him up and take him outside to do his business. If you discover your puppy had an accident, don’t yell, hit him, or rub his nose in the mess. That won’t help him learn, and it can make the puppy afraid to have you touch him.
Instead, refocus on potty training. Be sure you’re getting your dog outside often enough, especially after the puppy eats or drinks.
Although most dogs look guilty after they have done something that upsets you, they don’t necessarily understand why you are angry. Their posture and body language is a response to your mood and body language.
Help your puppy stay out of trouble. Focus on obedience training and make sure your puppy gets enough exercise.
Eliminating Bad Habits
If your dog establishes a bad habit, you will need to work with the dog to stop that behavior. Consistency is critical. You can’t let the dog bark or jump one day and then expect him to sit quietly the next.
Barking is one of the chief complaints of dog owners (and many of their neighbors). Look at why your dog barks.
If your dog only barks when a stranger approaches your door or an unfamiliar vehicle or the mail or UPS truck stops by the curb, you don’t have to worry.
The problem occurs if your dog barks incessantly with little provocation—a squirrel is sitting in a tree outside, the UPS truck drives by your house, or worse, you see no reason to prompt your dog’s barking.
Start by trying to distract your dog. Tell your dog “Stop” or “No bark.” If the dog stops barking, praise the dog and give the dog a treat.
If the dog continues barking, stay calm. Yelling at the dog will only encourage the behavior because the dog thinks you are barking too.
Try closing your drapes or moving in front of your dog to block the dog’s view outside. Again, tell the dog “Stop” or “No bark.” Then give your dog a “Sit” or “Down” command. If you successfully distract your dog from barking, praise and reward the dog.
Don’t try to distract your dog with a toy or treat. The dog may see this as a reward, and that will only encourage more barking.
If the barking primarily occurs when you are not home, you may need to keep your dog in a windowless room, so your pup doesn’t see or hear anything that triggers barking.
If you are unable to distract your dog or stop the barking with commands, you may have to try more severe methods. One option is to squirt your dog from a small bottle filled with tap water. A cold splash to the face may be enough to distract your dog so you can get the dog’s attention and give a “Stop” or “No bark” command. Or you can try a “Sit” or “Down” command. The dog will need to concentrate on completing the task, and that will be enough to stop the barking.
You also can try to distract the dog with a penny-filled soda can. The dog won’t like the noise, and that may be enough to let you capture the dog’s attention so you can give a command to stop the barking.
If you are unable to distract your dog, you might try using a collar that emits a high-pitched noise or a puff of citronella. The scent or sound should distract the dog enough that you can use a command to stop the barking.
Try a training collar that uses a slight shock as a last resort. Aversion training may stop the noise, but it also can harm your relationship with your dog. You don’t want your dog to behave because he fears you. You want the dog to understand commands and respond because he wants to please you.
A jumping dog might not be as annoying as a barking dog, but the bad behavior can potentially injure owners, small children, or guests. It’s cute when a five-pound puppy jumps to get your attention. But it’s dangerous when a 40-, 50-, or 70-pound dog jumps against you. The dog could easily knock someone over.
Like most bad habits, it’s easier to prevent jumping from the beginning rather than try to retrain the dog later.
No matter how cute the puppy may be, don’t reward jumping. Instead, tell your Cocker Spaniel puppy to sit. Do not fuss over the dog or touch the dog until the dog sits calmly. Then you can praise the dog and offer treats and pets.
If your puppy jumps, say “No” and give the “Sit” command. If your puppy obeys, bring on the praise and treats.
If your puppy continues to jump, try turning your back and not making eye contact. This may show your puppy that you are serious and will help stop the jumping. But, unfortunately, it also could encourage jumping.
If your puppy thinks you didn’t see him, he might run around to face you and try jumping again. When that happens, give your dog a “Sit” command. If you remain calm and consistent and don’t reward jumping, eventually your dog should learn that he only gets treats and praise when he sits calmly.
But if your dog fails to learn that lesson, you may have to try more extreme measures.
Some owners will use their knee and push against the dog’s chest when the dog jumps. This may help stop the bad behavior, but by knocking your dog off balance, you also could injure him if he falls. Or worse, your dog will fear you and become unwilling to approach you.
Another extreme option is to enlist the help of a friend. Leash your dog and if he tries to jump on your friend, give the leash a quick firm tug. When the puppy focuses on you, give a “Sit” or “Down” command. If the puppy responds, give praise and treats. But pulling on your dog’s neck always poses the risk you can injure the dog’s throat.
Cocker Spaniel-specific Bad Habits
Given a chance, most dogs will beg for food. But Cocker Spaniels with their sweet, soulful eyes seem to be especially hard to resist.
But you must be firm. Feeding your dog from the table encourages more begging. It can never be a once-and-done opportunity. If you give your dog food, the dog will come back again and again.
If you decide to occasionally give your dog some healthy human food, put it in your dog’s bowl. Puppies need to learn to eat from their own bowls.
When your dog whines for food during meals, ignore the dog. Eventually, your dog will get the message.
Feed your dog before you eat. A satisfied dog is less likely to beg.
If your dog continues to whine, or worse, tries to snatch food from the table, you may need to bar the dog from the dining room.
You also need to alert any guests to the “no feeding at the table” rule and then enforce it. Guests often think they can break the rule, but dogs need consistency. Food is a powerful motivator, and if they are fed from the table, they will repeatedly try to get food there again.
Occasionally, if you want to reward your dog for being quiet during meals, you can give the dog a few leftovers. Don’t make it a habit and always put the food in the dog’s bowl.
A rare after-dinner treat will teach your dog that you sometimes reward patience.
Cocker Spaniel puppies often experience excitable or submissive urination when they are excited or nervous. You might experience this behavior when you return at the end of the day.
If your puppy dribbles a little urine, don’t get upset, and never yell or punish the puppy. Clean up any mess and be patient. Most dogs will outgrow the condition.
This condition is different than potty training, and taking your dog out more often won’t make a difference.
Avoid surprising your Cocker Spaniel when you return and, if possible, keep your reunions brief and calm. Walk in the room, greet the dog, and immediately clip on the leash and take your puppy out for a walk.
If you remain calm, it will help your puppy stay calm.
Because Cocker Spaniels love to spend time with their people, they often experience separation anxiety when they are left alone for extended periods.
The dogs most often express their anxiety with excessive barking and destructive tendencies such as shredding, chewing, or digging.
Address your dog’s anxiety first and try to cut the time you leave your Cocker Spaniel alone. If possible, break up the dog’s day with a walk either by you during a lunch break or a hired dog walker.
Taking your pup to doggy day care once or twice a week also helps break up the routine.
Focus on training and exercise and provide your dog with chew toys, puzzle games, and interactive feeders. All will help to tire your dog, so he has less energy to burn and turn into nerves.
Confine your dog to an area where he can’t see out, to reduce barking triggers, and make sure his space is safe.
Don’t leave any paper to shred. Be sure the dog only has his own toys to chew. And don’t leave your Cocker Spaniel alone in the yard where the dog can dig. Supervise your dog to prevent digging.
Knowing When to Call a Professional for Help
Many dog owners are confident in their abilities to train their dogs.
But if your dog starts experiencing behavioral issues, you just might want to get some help.
The sooner you can correct behavior issues, the better. The longer you let the dog bark, chew, jump, or dig, the harder it will be to stop that behavior.
This is an ideal time to sign up for a basic obedience class if you haven’t already taken one. Even if you have taken a class, you and your dog likely will benefit from repeating it.
Working with your dog in a class setting provides you with professional help and the camaraderie of fellow dog owners who may be experiencing similar issues.
The classes also give your puppy more opportunities to socialize with other people and dogs. Confident dogs respond better to training, which helps them learn the skills they need to be well-behaved dogs.
If you can’t attend training classes, consider hiring a trainer to come to your home. The dog trainer will work with you to develop strategies that target your dog’s specific behavioral issue.
Don’t be shy about asking for help. If you don’t know a trainer, ask your friends, consult with your vet, or search online.
For most dogs, positive-reinforcement training can work wonders to resolve behavioral problems.
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