Behavioural Issues for Dogs

Jul 05, 2024
Dogs are quite prone to behavioural issues – they’re sensitive creatures and are dependant on their pack, friends and surroundings. Factors such as breed and upbringing can predispose a dog to behavioural issues, and high density living with long owner working hours often doesn’t help.

Behavioural Issues for Dogs

Dogs are quite prone to behavioural issues – they’re sensitive creatures and are dependant on their pack, friends and surroundings. Factors such as breed and upbringing can predispose a dog to behavioural issues, and high density living with long owner working hours often doesn’t help.

Separation anxiety, thunderstorm anxiety, aggression, excessive barking and chewing are the most common serious behavioural problems for dogs.

There are a also number of other common but less serious behavioural issues such as jumping up, going to the toilet in the house and begging – although these are often the result of subtle encouragement given by the owners, such as sneaking a treat from the table, or when training hasn’t gone according to plan.

These more minor behaviours can be frustrating an may need to be gently corrected, although I wouldn’t generally consider them to be medical behavioural issues. These issues are usually more easily addressed with gentle training, distraction with treats or chewing toys, and of course not rewarding the behaviour by giving the dog what they want.

Behavioural issues can become a big problem, and once ingrained they can be quite difficult to fix. Many of these issues can be prevented by good socialisation as a puppy, effective training and a strong owner-pet bond. Puppy classes and play dates with friend’s dogs are an excellent way to build confidence and social skills in a young puppy, and effective training will build a foundation of trust and respect and understanding.

But it’s also never too late, and if you do have an adult dog with behavioural issues there is definitely much that can be done. Training, counter-conditioning and positive reward can go a long way, and if you aren’t sure or would like some help I’d highly recommend seeking professional advice – there is an excellent veterinary dog behavioural specialist, Cynthia Smillie, in Hong Kong as well as a number of highly qualified trainers.

Lastly, if training and behavioural therapy seems is not effective enough or we are having some hurdles there are also some very safe and effective medical treatments that can be used in certain cases. Your vet would be more than happy to discuss these medications and if they would be helpful for your dog.

And remember, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Are Some Breeds More Likely to Have Behavioural Problems?

Specific breeds definitely have tendencies towards behavioural issues. Breeds used for guard dog duties such as German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are naturally alert and suspicious, which can make them more prone to anxiety and fear based aggression. Protection dogs such as Rottweilers and Mastiffs are often likely to show dominance aggression traits. And the smaller dogs such as Shih Tzu, Poodles and Pekingese often have a very close bond with their owner which makes them more prone to separation anxiety. I would always recommend someone researches a breed closely before they decide to bring a new dog into their family so they can be aware of any potential behavioural issues, and make sure the dog is right for their situation. But the real influence comes from the owner – I don’t believe any dog breed is always aggressive or always fearful, a great deal of the behaviour comes from how we as people train and treat our dogs.

Are Behavioural Problems Worse with the Hong Kong Lifestyle?

As a vet, I definitely see more behavioural issues and problems in Hong Kong than when I have practised in other countries, and I believe this is mainly due to the way we live. Apartments in Hong Kong can be quite small and have limited opportunities for contact with the outside world and socialisation. I see many dogs that never leave the house – and it’s hard to expect a dog to know how to behave towards strangers or new situations when they have very little previous experience. People also work hard in Hong Kong, and long hours and travel can mean less time to spend with the family dog. In both of these cases I think it is important that people devote time every day to just being “pet time”, spent playing with the dog, taking him for a walk, interacting and having fun. Maybe also try to get a local dog walking group going – this will really help with socialisation and interaction.

On the flip-side, many houses in Hong Kong have a helper, which can mean that a dog is rarely alone and hence can get very anxious if they do have to be left. For this reason I think that dogs should get used to being alone for short periods right from when they first come to a new family. This way they are familiar with being left and will not become anxious. Of course I don’t think a dog should be left alone for more than a few hours if possible.

Separation Anxiety in Dogs

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is the most common behavioural issue in dogs, and occurs when a pet becomes very distressed if the owners leave the house. The dog feels alone, nervous and uncomfortable, and starts acting out with excessive barking, whining, scratching at the door, going to the toilet inside or even damaging household furniture. Separation anxiety is essentially a by-product of being bred over the years to be “man’s best friend”. Dogs are very social pack animals and loyal companions, and the other side of this means that they feel very uncomfortable when they are alone.

What can owners do to help?

There are a number of good strategies that can help calm a dog with separation anxiety.

Firstly, for any behavioural issue, it is important to make sure the dog is being exercised regularly, having regular meals and having a decent amount of owner-dog play and interaction daily. Setting the foundations for a normal, healthy relationship will go a long way in preventing these issues from occurring, and a tired and satisfied dog is much less likely to cause trouble than a bored, energetic and ignored dog.

A dog with separation anxiety should be occupied and distracted while the owner is out. When leaving in the morning, make sure your dog has a chewing bone or toy to play with, or an even better option are the dog toys that can be stuffed with kibble or treats, requiring the dog to work at getting the food. Only give the toy just before leaving, so the dog will now associate the separation with something positive – a new treat or toy. This training method is called counter-conditioning and can really help.

A product called Adaptil can also really help dogs with separation anxiety. Adaptil contains a pheromone, a special scent that is only detectable to dogs, and has no odour or effect on humans. It is bioidentical to the dog’s normal territory marking scent, and makes the dog feel comfortable, relaxed and safe. It is available as a plug-in pheromone diffuser, spray, or pheromone-impregnated collar. Adaptil is completely safe, does not contain any drugs and has no side effect, but can be a great aid in helping calm anxious dogs.

Another tip for separation anxiety is to reduce the excitement and hence anxiety levels. Owners coming and going can be an emotional rollercoaster for a dog – they become quite distressed when the owner leaves in the morning, and then wildly happy when the owner returns in the evening. Try to reduce these peaks and troughs – say goodbye in the morning in a casual and relaxed way, and when you come home in the evening you should greet your dog and say hello, but keep it calm. Of course don’t ignore the dog or make them feel unwanted, but try to save the mad play sessions for another time.

Lastly, it is possible to build a dogs confidence by starting out with small breaks – just leave for 5 minutes at a time initially, then slowly increase the time spent away so the dog becomes accustomed to spending time alone.

Thunderstorm Anxiety in Dogs

Thunderstorm anxiety is very common

For some dogs there seems to be nothing more terrifying than a thunderstorm. Whether it’s hiding in a closet, under a bed or between the owners legs there are many who seem inconsolable, and they often seem to sense the storm is before it arrives.

Thunderstorm anxiety is very common, and ranges from mild cases to severe phobias. The good news is there are a number of strategies to help your dog deal with the fear and emotion.

What can owners do?

Provide a safe, supportive environment

The best initial advice is to be there for your dog. Support them, console them and pat them. Give them a safe place such as their bed, a dog crate or a seat on the floor next to you. Even dogs with mild anxiety should be supported as thunderstorm phobia is often progressive, and can worsen over time if not helped. Leaving a dog to ‘toughen up’ won’t help with anxieties – in fact it will usually make them worse. Crates can work especially well with some dogs as they simulate a natural den, where a dog would instinctually seek to hide in the wild.

Below are a few of recommended cozy beds, habitats & enclosures for dogs:

Chocolate - Gray Flower Pet Nest

Price: $238.00

  • The bottom is anti-slip and prevents movement
  • The edge of the bed can provide support, it can be used as a pillow for cats and dogs to lie on, and the ultra-soft filling relieves joint and muscle pain

Zeze - Checkerboard Ice Nest-Green And White Checkered Pattern

Size: 55x55cm

Price: $198.00

  • Polyester fiber/polymer cooling gel/PP cotton

Dogit - Gray Portable Aircraft Cage

Price: $295.00

  • Comply with air transport standards
  • Four-side ventilation design, not stuffy
  • Opening skylight to appease pets
  • Plastic combination transport cage, simple and lightweight
  • Easy-to-assemble side locking system


Counter-conditioning can also help. Try to associate the thunderstorm with something good. Find a treat your dog really loves and save these as a special reward for thunderstorms or anxious times. This can help slowly build a connection between a storm and a positive experience. Playing with a dog, inside of course, can also help great a good association, and may take their mind off the storm. Some owner further this training by coupling it with desensitisation – search for some thunderstorm sounds on the internet and play these at a low volume on a normal sunny day, whilst giving treats and pats. This can help a dog slowly ease into the counter-conditioning with only a mild anxiety.


Some owners also find a storm jacket or thunder coat can really help. This is a fairly snug fitting jumper or vest that is worn by the dog, and the compression seems to make a dog feel safe and secure.


Lastly, in some cases medication such as Clomicalm can provide a real assistance to dogs with severe thunderstorm anxiety. If you feel that you pet is really nervous and is not responding to training, discussing clomicalm with your vet or an animal behavioural specialist may be a good idea.

Aggression in Dogs

Types of Aggression

The two most common types of aggression seen in dogs are fear aggression and dominance aggression.

Fear aggression occurs when a dogs is placed in a situation that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable. Sometimes these situations may seem completely harmless, such as a new person coming around to the house or a motorcycle driving past while on a walk. The dog becomes anxious and nervous, and reacts with a very aggressive response to try to protect themselves. One example would be the family dog barking or snapping at a dinner party guest when they try to pat the dog.

Dominance aggression is very different from fear aggression, but can look outwardly similar. Dogs are quite territorial animals, and will have specific areas that they consider to be theirs and they may act dominantly and aggressively to protect their belongings and territory. Dominance aggression can occur inside the house, such as when a dog fiercely guards their bed or a chair and growls if people come close. However, it is more commonly seen outside – a dog that barks wildly at other dogs through a fence or on a walk is usually showing dominance aggression.

What can owners do to deal with aggression?

Before you start any type of training or behaviour modification it is important to remember that aggression issues, whether they are related to fear, dominance or any other cause, can become serious and in some cases can be dangerous. It is vital to make sure that you never put yourself or any other person at risk of being bitten. With that said, there are a number of safe methods for helping dogs with aggression issues.

For any behavioural issue, it is important to make sure the dog is being exercised regularly, having regular meals and having a decent amount of owner-dog play and interaction daily. Setting the foundations for a normal, healthy relationship will go a long way in preventing these issues from occurring, and a tired and satisfied dog is much less likely to cause trouble than a bored, energetic and ignored dog.

How to determine whether aggression is fear or dominance based

It is also very important to differentiate between fear and dominance aggression, as the treatments and solutions are very different. A fear aggressive dog will normally have a low crouching stance with their tail between their legs and their ears back against the head. A dominance aggressive dog with generally have a high stance, the tail is pointed stiffly back from the body and the ears are pricked up and forward.

Dealing with fear aggression

To help with fear aggression, first determine situations that trigger the behaviour. Then slowly expose the dog to the situation in a calm and controlled environment. Try to keep the dog’s attention or prevent him focussing on the trigger – some trainers will use a loud clicking device or a whistle to help focus the dog. Then give them a treat and a reward. As with separation anxiety, this is a counter-conditioning training technique which works to replace a negative emotion with a positive feeling. Remember that we’re never trying to scare the dog, so if they are finding the situation uncomfortable then stop the training and try again later. Also, try to work with the dog’s anxieties, and prevent exposure or triggers if possible – for example, if a dog is uncomfortable when new guests visit then the owner should welcome the guest as a friend to show the dog they are no threat, then ask the guest to leave the dog and not make eye contact or try to pat the dog, at least for a few minutes until everything is settled.

Dealing with dominance aggression

Dominance aggression is much less common that fear aggression, but it can potentially be much more dangerous. I would be very careful when working with a dominance aggressive dog, and I would generally recommend an owner to consult with a veterinarian or professional trainer before any training begins. Dominance aggression is usually the result of a dog thinking it is above other members of the family in the dominance hierarchy -they think they’re the boss. I would never suggest an owner directly confronts or challenges a dominant dog, this is very likely to escalate into a fight. Instead, I’d suggest a gentle shifting of the pecking-order. Whenever the dog wants something they must perform a command first – this way they are following your commands and subtly acknowledging that you are the boss whilst still getting a reward. For example, the dog should sit before being fed dinner or going on a walk. The dog should also be fed in their area – not near the table, and food should not be given from the table. Lastly, there should be human-only areas of the house, such as the chairs and beds, where the dog is not allowed to sleep. This will help reinforce the idea that they are not the master of the house. Of course I’d always recommend that a dog has their own personal sleeping area as this will give them a sense of belonging and sanctity. I should also note that this hierarchy should include everyone in the house, including helpers and other family members, being above the dog, and everybody should engage in the training as long as there is absolutely no risk.

Lastly, I would also suggest that owners consider using a muzzle when outside or in potentially risky situations with a dog with aggressive issues. Even if the chance of a dog biting is small it’s important to make sure everyone is safe.

Barking Dogs

It is perfectly normal for a dog to barking a few times as part of their normal communication, and they shouldn’t be scolded for this. Some of the normal and appropriate reasons for barking include warning their owners that somebody is coming, communicating with another dog or during playing and games. Some of the less acceptable reasons for barking include when they are anxious, seeking attention or bored.

However, if the barking continues for a longer time or they’re yapping for no particular reason, owners should definitely try to correct the behaviour. Barking dogs will get worse over time, and the problem becomes harder to fix, so training should be started before the barking becomes a major issue.

Helping Dogs who Bark Excessively in the House

Firstly, I would suggest that a specific command word is used, such as “Quiet”. All family members should use the same word. When the dog barks at the door the owners should let it go on for a few seconds, then if the dog doesn’t stop barking the owner should say “Quiet”. If the dog continues to bark the owner should say “Quiet” again, then close the hold the dogs mouth closed for a few seconds. Gently release the dogs mouth. If they start barking again then repeat the above steps. When they’ve stayed quiet for 15 seconds reward them with praise and maybe a snack.

On that note, it’s important to be careful with praise and rewards. Owners will often accidentally reward bad behaviour by praising a dog when they are barking. If a dog starts barking or yapping don’t try to calm them by patting them or saying “good boy” – they’ll think that you approve of the barking behaviour and will yap more in future. Only praise a dog after they have stopped barking for 15 seconds or more, so they understand the correct behaviour.

Dogs barking when they are at home alone are often bored or anxious. The first step is to properly tire out a dog before leaving – the best way to do this is a good walk first thing in the morning. I’d also feed the dog before leaving – they’re often more relaxed on a full stomach. Then when you leave, give the dog treat or toy to occupy them. There are excellent ‘treat puzzle toys’, where kibble or snacks are put inside the a special plastic toy and the dog has to play with the toy to get the treats out. These toys serve two functions – firstly, they keep the dog occupied, and secondly the dog associates being left with a toy and treats, which is a positive reward. Some people also find leaving a radio or television on quietly can help. If a dog keeps barking I suggest to people to do desensitisation training – start building a dog’s confidence by leaving for only short periods, even just 30 seconds to begin with, then slowly build up the time to allow them to get used to being alone.

One last option is using an electric collar. These are designed to give a dog a small electric shock if they bark. I really rather avoid these if at all possible because they are painful and are a very negative way of training, but if the situation is becoming critical and all other possibilities have been tried I will sometimes use them for a short time to get the training started.

Helping Dogs who Bark Excessively Outdoors

The best way to prevent this kind of behaviour is to take control before the barking begins. If you see a situation that may trigger barking such as another dog approaching, first get your dog to sit. Keep their attention focussed on you and give them reassurance and a pat or stroke. When the trigger has passed and your dog hasn’t barked give them a treat. This is called counterconditioning, and makes your dog now associate that trigger with a good reward. If your dog does bark use your control word (such as “Quiet”). If they continue barking use your hand to close their mouth, as described above, as long as it is safe to do so. It will take some time and some repetition, but over time this type of training works really well. And again, make sure not to accidentally reward bad behaviour by patting or praising a barking dog.

Chewing Furniture or Household Items

Chewing furniture, shoes or whatever takes a dog’s fancy can be one of the most frustrating issues for pet owners – especially when they come home and find a trail of doggy-destruction.

Chewing is often due to separation anxiety and boredom. 

But chewing is also quite a natural and normal behaviour, especially for puppies as they are developing their teeth. Puppies should be allowed to chew – it is important for their dental development, but of course they should be directed towards socially acceptable chewing.

There are a number of good chew toys and products that can help distract a pup, and many of these are more ‘interesting and desirable’ for the dog than chewing on a slipper.

Feeding a dry kibble dog food and some chewing bones and treats will also really help. This will allow a dog to chew and give their jaw a workout naturally. 

A great selection of dry puppy dog food is available here.

Below are a few recommended dry food for puppies:

Royal Canin - Small Puppy Food For 2-10 Months

Size: 2kg/4kg/8kg


  • Large dogs refer to dogs with an adult weight of 26 to 44 kilograms. Their powerful working ability has been praised by people for a long time
  • Large breed puppy food uses rice as the main source of starch, and adds probiotics, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), beet pulp, and flax husks and seeds to improve the intestinal microecological environment, strengthen the digestive tolerance of the intestines, and ensure Best digestive safety
  • The suitable energy content (3948kcal/kg) and high protein content (32%) of large dog puppy food ensure ideal growth and development and prevent the occurrence of obesity. It has a balanced calcium-phosphorus ratio and very high levels of chondroitin and glucosamine to protect joints. Synergistic antioxidant complex (vitamin E, vitamin C, lutein, taurine) exclusively developed by Timpup French Royal

Royal Canin - Medium Puppy Food

Size: 4kg

Price: $272.00

  • Medium-sized dogs refer to dogs that weigh between 11 and 25 kilograms as adults. There are 137 medium-sized dog breeds publicly recognized by the World Federation of Kennel Clubs
  • The medium-sized dog puppy food adds the synergistic antioxidant complex (vitamin E, vitamin C, lutein, taurine) and oligosaccharides exclusively developed by the French royal family to help build the puppies' own immune resistance
  • Contains high energy (4288Kcal/kg) and high protein (32%), fully meeting the needs of medium-sized puppies at the peak of growth
    Use highly digestible protein L.I.P., reduce starch content (25%), and add fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and beet pulp to improve the intestinal microecological environment and ensure optimal digestive safety. A reasonable calcium to phosphorus ratio ensures the strength and health of bones and teeth

Advance - Daily Care Small Puppy Food

Size: 1.5kg

Price: $115.00

  • With chicken and rice as the main ingredients, it is an excellent source of highly digestible protein and carbohydrates
  • The optimal calcium to phosphorus ratio and vitamin D ensure healthy bone growth and development
  • OMEGA 3 fatty acids support the healthy development of the central nervous system, learning process and vision
  • Active immunoglobulins, nucleotides and high protein to support your puppy's natural defenses

Lastly, avoidance is also a great strategy. Sometimes a pup just wants to chew the wrong things, and if the shoes are put away or taken out of their reach it can help prevent an incident before it’s even started.

The above content is provided by Dr. David Gething.

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