Dealing with Specific Behavior Problems

Depending on your poodle's individual personality, how well socialized he is, and how well you manage his environment to prevent behavior problems, there are several types of challenges you might encounter. Many of these are entirely preventable. Others may require a little work on your part to solve.

Aggressive Behavior

Poodles aren't known as an aggressive breed, either with people or with other dogs. But every dog is an individual, and problems with aggression do sometimes occur. Having a dog that is aggressive toward humans is not only dangerous for the humans around you, it's dangerous for your dog. If you think you're facing an aggression problem with people — that is, if you're afraid your dog will hurt you or another person — seek professional help immediately. Until a solution is found, don't let him come into contact with people out in public. Muzzle him if necessary.

Essential

If your normally docile poodle suddenly becomes aggressive, take her to the veterinarian to see if there's a medical cause for the problem. She could be in pain, or she could be suffering from a neurological or even a thyroid problem.

If your poodle is aggressive toward other dogs, resist the urge to put him in doggie isolation. Try instead to find a solution to the problem. A behaviorist can help, as can classes intended for aggressive dogs. In these classes, sometimes dubbed “Feisty Fido” or “Growl” classes, safety precautions are taken to see that no dogs hurt one another. Look for one that uses positive methods like classical conditioning (in which the dogs' associations with other dogs are changed from negative to positive) and operant conditioning (in which dogs are rewarded for good behavior around other dogs).

Whatever you do, don't get aggressive with your poodle when he acts aggressively. Violence begets violence, and you could endanger yourself. If your poodle is dog-aggressive, punishing him around other dogs will only give him more reason to think ill of them.

Fact

Neutered male dogs are less likely to be aggressive than intact males. If your intact male is lashing out against other dogs, neutering him might help solve the problem. It might not be that simple — working with a trainer to counter-condition and desensitize your dog to other dogs may be in order as well. But neutering is a good first step.

Constant Barking

If your poodle is annoying you and the neighbors by barking at everything in the yard, refrain from putting him outside without supervision until he learns how to be quiet. When he's in the yard, you should be there with him. As soon as he starts barking, figure out what he's barking at, acknowledge his cleverness at letting you know, then try to divert him with a rewarding behavior, like throwing a ball for him or practicing obedience commands. Or just go back inside the house together.

If it's indoor barking that's bothering you (or your neighbors, if you share walls), try to take away the stimulus. If you're not home when the barking occurs, close the blinds on the window that lets your dog see things that make him bark. If it's noises that make your poodle bark, try leaving the radio on to drown them out. You might also confine him to an area of the house where he can't hear noise from the street.

Alert!

If your neighbors complain about your dog's barking, don't ignore them. Not only is excessive barking bad for neighbor relations, it can be a sign of unhappiness in your poodle. Either she's bored, lonely, overstimulated, or upset by something. Figure out the reason she's barking, and address it.

If your poodle is barking while you're home, perhaps when the mail carrier arrives or when other dogs walk by the house, don't shout at him. Instead, enthusiastically call his name. If he stops barking even for a moment, click and treat him. Acknowledge the reason for the barking, then divert him from the situation. Getting him away from the stimulus should stop the barking.

Barking is a very natural behavior for your dog. It should be okay for your poodle to bark at perceived threats. But if your dog is barking for hours on end, look at it as a symptom of a bigger problem. And try to address that problem. Don't ever punish your poodle with anti-bark collars that shock him. If barking is a critical issue — you're going to be evicted if your dog doesn't stop barking — consider an anti-bark collar that sprays a blast of citronella when your poodle barks. It doesn't address the source of the problem, but it's less cruel than some alternatives.

Begging for Food

If a meal at your home isn't complete without a poodle giving you sad eyes or putting his paws on your leg to ask for a morsel of food, you pretty much have only yourself to blame. If your poodle was never rewarded for this behavior, he wouldn't repeat it.

So what if the damage has already been done, and you want your poodle to stop begging? Stop rewarding the behavior. Never, ever give him food from the table, and don't allow anyone else to do it, either. Ignore his begging completely — even (especially) if he gets noisy about it. After a few minutes, you can hope that he'll give up and go lie down (though some dogs are more persistent than others).

Essential

If you don't mind sharing your food with your dog, go right ahead. Some might call it rewarding the begging. But if it doesn't bother you, it can be a nice ritual — assuming that you eat healthily. When you have guests, however, you might need to confine your poodle away from the dining room.

A more proactive approach is to give your poodle something delicious of his own to chew on while you eat (like a stuffed Kong toy or a raw bone) and to put him in his crate or on a down/stay on his bed to enjoy it. Do this right before you sit down to eat, and he'll be too busy to pester you.

Inappropriate Chewing

Dogs chew for the fun of it. Young dogs need to chew. If your poodle is chewing things you don't want him to, there are two things you can do. Supply better chew toys, and prevent him from getting to things you don't want him to chew.

If your poodle picks up something to chew on that he shouldn't, take it away from him while offering something more appropriate. A rubber Kong stuffed with something delicious, like cream cheese or peanut butter, will deliver more satisfaction to your dog than any shoe can! Be careful not to leave things where your poodle can get to them, particularly when you're not home to replace them with chew toys.

Alert!

If you leave chew toys for your poodle to work on unsupervised, be sure they're safe. Watch your dog when she's chewing on a new toy to make sure she can't break off any pieces that are big enough to choke on.

Prevent your poodle from chewing on dangerous items, like toxic plants, by keeping them out of reach. Electrical cords can be covered to prevent electrocution from chewing.

If your poodle is chewing furniture, he's not ready for access to the house. Confine him in a furniture-free safe area with appropriate chew toys. Gradually give him access to more of the house, under your supervision, until you can trust him to only chew his own toys.

Digging Holes

Digging holes in your yard shouldn't be a problem if you're in the yard with your dog. If you catch him starting to dig, interrupt him and divert his energy elsewhere. Let him know, gently, that digging in that area is not appropriate. If it's happening when you're not out in the yard with him, stop letting him out in the yard unsupervised until he understands that he shouldn't dig. He should be in the house with you, or snoozing in comfort when you're not home, and not out in the yard excavating!

Fact

To make a digging pit for your poodle, dig up an area of ground and frame it with two-by-fours, as if you were making a child's sandbox. Or you can use a plastic wading pool, with some holes cut in the bottom for drainage, and fill it with sand, dirt, or rodent bedding.

Poodles don't have an inbred need to dig, but some will dig to amuse themselves. If your poodle derives great pleasure from digging, you can make a pit for him where he is allowed to dig to his heart's content.

Spice the digging pit up with some favorite toys for your poodle to discover — this will reward him for using the sanctioned pit. When you first introduce it, praise him for going in the pit and digging, so he knows it's okay. If he digs in other parts of the yard, redirect him to the digging pit.

Mouthing and Nipping

It's perfectly natural for your poodle puppy to mouth at you and nip you. That's one of the things puppies do (and one of the reasons some people prefer to adopt adult dogs!). A puppy's mother and littermates help teach her about bite inhibition — they yelp and stop playing when nipped too hard.

If your puppy mouths at you in play and it hurts, you need to continue the lessons of bite inhibition. Your poodle needs to learn that his teeth cause pain. Sit down and play with him. If he mouths you, say “Ouch!” and stop playing. After about a minute, go back to playing. If he mouths you for a second time, say “Ouch!” again, and actually walk away from him for several minutes. (Make sure he's in a safe area where it's okay to leave him alone.) After a few minutes have gone by, go back and start again.

Even if your puppy's mouthing doesn't really hurt, he needs to be taught not to apply pressure with his teeth. Continue to yelp and walk away whenever he mouths you, gradually decreasing the amount of pressure needed to get a reaction out of you, until he learns that important lesson and doesn't mouth you at all. Remember to praise and treat him for appropriate playing.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety, in which the dog becomes very anxious when his human is away, can be a very serious problem. The best course of action is to prevent the problem by gradually leaving your dog alone and making sure he is occupied, as described in Chapter 16. But if you're faced with a poodle that suffers when you're gone, you'll need to take action to solve the problem. In most cases, you'll need to call in a professional behavior specialist. (Your vet might be able to recommend one.) Through a program of behavior modification and counter-conditioning, the specialist can help your poodle become accustomed to your absence without an anxious response.

Essential

If you make sure your poodle gets plenty of exercise before you leave her in the morning, she may fall asleep before she can get too anxious about your departure. Regular exercise, as part of a routine — dogs thrive on routine — might lick mild separation anxiety.

It can take a while for such a program to work. In the meantime, you have to keep your poodle (and your home) safe. If possible, take him to doggie day care or to a friend's house where someone is home during the day. (A retired neighbor might be a great asset here.) If your poodle has a close dog friend, see if that friend can come over during the day. If so, leave them alone together for a short while and see how they do. The company may be enough to ward off the anxiety.

Your veterinarian may want to prescribe a drug called Clomicalm to help with the separation anxiety. If you choose to go this route, do it in conjunction with a program of behavior modification and counter-conditioning so that your dog doesn't have to stay on the drug for the rest of his life.

Poodles enjoy living with canine companions — especially other poodles.

Thunder and Fireworks Phobia

If your poodle is afraid of loud sounds, like thunder and fireworks, it can be stressful for both of you. Recognize that this kind of behavior isn't really within your dog's control, so there's no point in getting angry over any destruction that happens during a storm.

It's also counterproductive to soothe and coddle your poodle when he's afraid of noises. That can reward and encourage his fearful behavior. Instead, be upbeat and adopt an attitude that communicates there's really nothing to be afraid of. You can even try to distract him during a storm by throwing a ball or working on some obedience exercises or tricks. Make sure he has access to her crate or other place of refuge.

Fact

It may sound odd, but putting a T-shirt on your poodle during a thunderstorm or fireworks display can provide a sense of security. Put it on your poodle with the tag at her throat. Then cinch it up and tie the excess fabric in a knot at your poodle's waist (or use a hair scrunchie to hold it in place). It may just calm her down.

Some safe over-the-counter preparations that might help your poodle stay calm during storms and fireworks include the Bach flower remedy Mimulus (available at health-food stores) and the amino acid l-theanine. Give a few drops of flower remedy or a single capsule of l-theanine at the beginning of a thunderstorm and repeat after a couple of hours, if necessary.

In extreme cases, your veterinarian can supply a pharmaceutical, like Prozac or Valium, that might help your dog's noise phobia. Don't try just sharing your own prescription, however; your veterinarian needs to decide whether your dog is a good candidate for this kind of medication and what the dosage should be.

Crying or Whining

Dogs whine to get attention. Whining can be really annoying, particularly if it goes on for any length of time. The key to curbing the whining is not to reward it. Just ignore it. Don't give your dog any attention if he's whining. None. By no means should you let him out of her crate while he's whining. Wait until there's a moment of quiet before you open the door.

The worst thing you can do is to give in and give your dog attention (this even includes yelling at him to stop) after he has been whining for some time. That just teaches him that if he whines long enough, he'll achieve his goal. If you don't want him to whine, don't reward whining. It's really that simple.

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