Behavioural problems


What is a behavioural problem?

A pet has a behavioural problem when it behaves in a way which is inappropriate or unsociable. Behavioural problems are a very common reason for the re-homing of pets and in some instances can even lead to the euthanasia of a pet. They can develop and be reinforced very easily, at which point they can become very challenging to treat.

Prevention is always better than cure, and you should take steps to reduce the possibility of problems developing.


What is socialisation?

Socialisation is the early introduction of your dog to new environments, events and objects. Puppies are most receptive to new experiences during the first 14 weeks. For much of this important time a puppy will be with its mother and litter-mates, therefore, seeing the home and environment from which your new puppy has come from is important.

As soon as initial vaccination is complete and immunity has developed, puppies should go to as many new places as possible and meet other dogs and also children. All new experiences should be made fun and positive, with plenty of treats and encouragement.

Socialisation should continue through life, and although the early period is very important, it is never too late for a dog to learn.

Why is training important?

Training is important for your dog to learn what is expected of him or her, both within a family and also the wider community. It is extremely important for your dog’s safety and your long-term enjoyment of your pet that basic commands are understood and followed. Good recall, sitting and waiting when commanded are the most important.

Training classes vary a great deal. It is important to find a class which you enjoy and that works for you and your dog.


When do I start?

It is never too early or late to start training. You can start training in basics as soon as you take your puppy or new dog home.

How do I start?

Moving into a new home with a brand-new family is a scary experience. You will need to reassure your puppy by providing a safe comfortable environment. He should have a safe place of his own – either a bed or ideally a crate/cage. Cage training might feel a bit mean initially, but you should think of it as the puppy’s own safe room.

Children should be taught that the puppy should not be disturbed when he is in his cage. It is best not to use the cage as a punishment for bad behaviour, as this will lead to negative connotations. The puppy will be safe at night in this cage and will not be able to damage property. The cage also helps with toilet training.

For the first few nights your puppy may be lonely and cry. It is natural to feel sorry for him and try to console him. Unfortunately, any interaction with your puppy after he has cried will reward him for the behaviour and he will learn that crying brings his owner.


Toilet training my puppy

When puppies are little, they need to be actively taken outside very regularly. Any activity such as eating, drinking, playing or waking up will be followed by urination and/or defecation, so the puppy should be taken out after any such event, as well as numerous times in between. Just leaving the door open is not good enough – puppies need to be taken out, encouraged, and praised.

We do not recommend negative reinforcement – shouting at your puppy and ‘rubbing his nose in it’ is very distressing and unnecessary. If you catch your dog going in the wrong place firmly say ‘no’, then take him to the appropriate place and use the usual command with lots of affection and encouragement.

Play biting

All puppies play-fight and bite. This is play, but they are also testing their strength and what they can get away with. Biting and mouthing during play should not be allowed as eventually it may do harm. If your puppy is playing in an inappropriate manner say ‘no’, push him away, stand up and then ignore him for a while. He will soon learn that play stops when he bites and so the behaviour will stop.


All puppies chew – it is normal investigative behaviour for a puppy. It also can provide comfort especially if the puppy is teething. Make sure your puppy has plenty of appropriate things to chew that are relative to the size of your dog. Puppies will tend to chew when they are bored or seeking attention, so giving then plenty of exercise and stimulation should reduce his desire to be destructive.


When a problem has already developed

If your dog is exhibiting inappropriate behaviour, it is important to seek advice as soon as possible. Pet behaviour can be rather complex and owners frequently reinforce bad behaviour inadvertently, thus perpetuating the problem. If you have any concerns, please speak to your Vet who will be happy to give advice where appropriate. More complicated behavioural issues may require referral to a behavioural specialist.

What is a pet behaviourist?

There are many people who offer advice and who claim to be ‘behaviouralists’ or trainers. However, there is no legal requirement for certification or qualification. Inappropriate advice can be damaging, so be careful who you entrust your dog to. We strongly recommend that advice is sought from a fully qualified behavioural counsellor who is recognised by the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.

Is behaviour covered by insurance?

Some insurance policies will cover behavioural consultations and treatments where a veterinary referral has taken place. However, all policies differ, and it is worth checking with your insurance company first if cost is an issue.


Will neutering help?

There are many reasons for neutering your pet. There are some inappropriate behaviours which will be helped by neutering; however, neutering is not an alternative to effective training, and this should be discussed with your Vet.

Is my pet dangerous?

Any aggression towards people or other dogs should be treated extremely seriously. You are legally responsible for the actions of your dog. There have been several high-profile cases recently where criminal convictions have followed dog attacks. It is extremely important that you understand your responsibilities.

The most common victims of dog bites are young children, the average age being five years old. You should never leave a child alone with a dog, even if the dog has always appeared trustworthy. One of the main problems is the inability of children to understand canine body language.

Cats with behavioural problems

Cats can also display behavioural problems although they are recognised and discussed less often. This may be because cats are smaller and therefore pose less of a threat to humans, and also because they interact with their owners in a different way to dogs.

Common causes of behavioural problems in cats relate to stress. Certain situations will commonly cause stress – for example, cats which are kept indoors all the time frequently show signs of stress as this restricts their normal activities and behaviour.

Some cats in multi-cat households will also exhibit signs of stress. In the wild, cats are solitary animals, so sharing territory with other animals can be a very stressful experience for them, particularly where there is competition for resources such as food bowls, litter trays and resting places.

Cats may show that they are stressed by exhibiting inappropriate behaviours, such as fear, aggression or marking (spraying urine). Medical conditions such as hair pulling, colitis and cystitis are also seen when cats get stressed.

Rabbits with behavioural problems

Rabbits certainly can display behaviours which are unacceptable to their owners. They are also very prone to stress. Please discuss with your veterinary surgeon should you have any concerns about your rabbit’s behaviour or welfare. You may also find our rabbit information sheets of assistance.

Pet Health Information

Find out more

To assist owners in understanding more about a general pet health conditions we have put together a range of information sheets to talk you through some of the more common health concerns seen and treated by our General Practice Vets.