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Behaviour Articles
By Donna Brander, Animal Behaviourist

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This information is to be used as guidelines only. Decisions made about the future of any pet should be based on a professional assessment and a course of treatment that is personalised for the pet's individual situation.

The importance of social skills in a dog

When visitors came to visit Sykes, the Staffordshire Terrier, chaos would ensue. Sykes would constantly demand attention by jumping up on people, whining, barking and bringing toys. Even when petted, it did not seem to be enough as he would only demand more by attempting to crawl into laps or across the back of the sofa in order to be closer to the person. This behaviour made conversations impossible, as you can well imagine. The owner was unable to sit and read or watch television or even speak on the phone because of the endless demanding behaviour from Sykes.

Sykes had not had a very good start in life. He was rescued from the streets of Glasgow at the age of about 5 months. Nothing was known of his life before he was rescued but when found, he was starving, covered in a skin eczema and had little knowledge of how to behave in a home. He was not housetrained and, worse of all, became completely over excited and uncontrollable when around people. Sykes constantly demanded attention from his owner by pawing and bringing the owner various toys and items from around the house.

Sykes' well meaning owner was inadvertently encouraging the behaviour. Because of Sykes' background and physical state upon being found, the owner thought of him as being a victim of abuse. She would therefore acquiesce to Sykes' demands with petting and commiseration. Because Sykes had been so thin and starving, she continued to overfeed him until he looked like a little pig. Now Sykes was a HEFTY demanding pet. In self-defence, the owner now sometimes shouted at him and occasionally smacked him as well for jumping on her and her guests. This not only did not work, it appeared to make him worse. Sykes' efforts to interact with people became more and more overbearing and hysterical.

So, what is going on here? Is the owner correct in her feelings that Sykes is anxious to be close to people because he is afraid of losing them? Is this a form of separation anxiety? Sykes appears to be very competent on his own. When his owner leaves him there are no signs of anxiety upon her departure. No one has heard him barking hysterically nor has the owner found a scene of destruction upon returning home. This does not really sound like the behaviour of a dog who is afraid of being abandoned forever.

When I met Sykes, he could hardly contain himself even though I made no overtures toward him whatsoever. His demeanour was one of desperation and anxiety and when I did touch his head, the hyperactive behaviour became a frenzy. Sykes desperately wanted to show his willingness to be friends and just did not know how to go about it.  Sykes had no social skills! Social behaviour is something that dogs (and people) learn by being social. From a young age we are either rewarded or punished for how we behave around people. Dogs are the same. During the first four months of a dogs life, it learns how it is to behave around puppies and adult dogs. Because it is domesticated, the puppy also learns how to behave around human beings from being around people.

The overstimulated and uncontrollable behaviour in Sykes was based in a lack of social training. He simply did not know what he was to do in order to get attention. Unfortunately for Sykes, his owner had reinforced this bad social behaviour by giving him attention. First she had praised and petted him because she felt sorry for him and then she had given him negative attention by shouting at and smacking him. Something to remember when raising puppies or children is that attention of any kind is better than being ignored.

Sykes' owner had to learn to ignore his socially unacceptable behaviour and at the same time, teach him the new behaviour that will always get him the praise he desires. When Sykes approached his owner for attention, she would ask him to “sit”, reinforced with shake of tin, if necessary. If he did not comply, the owner was to get up and walk away. She was not to push him away because then she was giving him her hands. She was not to shout at him because then she was giving him her voice. Sykes was to get no attention until he sat quietly. Sykes was now learning socially acceptable behaviour when he wanted to interact with people. He must come and sit and wait for titbits, praise and petting. No need to be so pushy!

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