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Dog Behaviour Explained – what normal and abnormal dog behaviours look like

Amy Holloway

There is a range of behaviours your dog will display at any given time or situation, but do you know what is a normal behaviour and what is abnormal? Are you aware of the differences between undesirable behaviours and behaviour disorders? Read on to discover the differences and what you should be looking out for.

Our recent dog behaviour event was hosted by Vet JT and practice manager RebekkaFollowing on from the success of our recent Dog Behaviour Event, we want to share some invaluable insights with you from JT’s presentation, to help you spot any behavioural disorders your dog may be suffering within your home environment, as the sooner you can get your dog the help it needs, the better the potential outcome can be.

Here is our second instalment on ‘Dog Behaviour Explained’:

What is a ‘Normal’ dog behaviour?

A normal dog will eat, drink, sleep/rest (for up to 18 hours a day!), play, explore and interact with members of their families/friends and their environment.

A normal dog will also get scared occasionally, but will learn from their experience and move on – they will get used to not fearing common environment stimuli given that these do not cause him/her any harm – in a process called habituation. It is important to realise fear is actually a normal and adaptive physiological response to threat – it is a natural survival mechanism.

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

Fear = mental and emotional state triggered by a perceived threat or aversive stimulus

Anxiety = state of apprehension in anticipating a threatening situation; may be displayed even in the absence of a fear-eliciting stimulus. Anxious animals predict most events as potentially fearful.

How do dogs show fear/anxiety? (aka the 4F’s)

This dog is showing a displacement type of behaviour, licking its lips when there is no food1. Fiddle – also known as ‘displacement behaviours’, these are normal dog behaviours displayed out of context and are an expression of an emotional conflict. Examples are yawning and stretching when not tired, panting when not hot, shaking fur when not wet, pacing with no apparent direction, or lip licking in the absence of food. These behaviours are similar to humans scratching their heads when uncertain, or chewing on nails and twisting rings when nervous.

2. Freeze – immobilisation as an attempt to go undetected, this is a common sign of unease and a clear expression of an internal conflict and it could be considered another form of displacement behaviour. Sometimes dogs display an incomplete freeze as if they are walking in slow motion.

3. Flight response – by removing themselves from the situation, they increase the distance to their perceived source of unease. Most dogs will choose this response if given the chance.

4. Fight – overt aggression. This is usually a last resort, as a confrontation is always potentially dangerous for both parties involved. Unfortunately, it is also the most effective, as most times it results in the removal of the threatening stimuli. Although there may be individual differences, dogs tend to only use a ‘fight response’ when all the other ‘Fs’ have been tried, unsuccessfully.

This dog looks aggressive as if it is responding to a perceived threat

It’s important if you see your dog go into any of these modes that you move them away from the situation they are in to protect them, you and any other person/animal involved. Avoidance is crucial.

What is a behaviour?

A ‘behaviour’ can be defined as the way in which an animal/person behaves in response to a particular situation or stimulus. It is a very complex set of interactions between the individual and the environment.

‘Behavioural Problems’

Do you know the difference between an undesirable behaviour and a true behavioural/mental disorder?

a) Normal but undesirable (eg. soiling inside, barking, chasing, herding, urine-marking, mounting, roaming)

The level of undesirability for the above behaviours is very subjective, what may be acceptable to one dog owner will definitely not be ok for another. If it’s something that really bothers you and is harmful to your dog and/or their environment, it is definitely worth seeking professional help to try and improve the situation, however, it’s important to remember that what they are doing is just part of being a ‘normal’ dog.

This dog with his chew shoe is showing a normal but undesirable behaviour

b) Pathological = true behavioural/mental disorders

A result of genetic factors, stressful perinatal environment, insufficient early socialisation, medical conditions affecting brain health and development, or particularly traumatic events.

Examples of pathological behaviours are anxiety-driven compulsive behaviours (eg. tail chewing, flank sucking), separation-related distress, fear-aggression.

Read about the 5 most common dog behavioural disorders in our previous blog post.

Thanks for reading, keep checking back on our Facebook pages and blog for the next instalment!

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