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Disobedient and Excitable Dogs

Debra F. Horwitz DVM, Diplomate ACVB
Veterinary Behavior Consultations
St. Louis, Missouri

What is a disobedient and excitable dog? Generally the unruly dog is one that continues to be difficult for the owner to manage past puppyhood or say 6-9 months. This is the dog that will not respond to commands to sit, will not walk on a leash, jumps on people, continually barks for attention, steals things all the time and generally wreaks havoc on the household. The problem is compounded in large dogs because of their size so that these owners tend to seek attention for these problems earlier than owners of smaller dogs, yet the problem deserves attention in either case.

History In Disobedient And Excitable Dogs

Usually these are dogs that are 12-18 months and out of control in the home. The people may have tried traditional obedience training classes without success. The dog still jumps on people, barks incessantly and defies commands. Often times these owners are making training and reinforcement errors inadvertently. They have tried yelling at their dogs, pulling on choke collars and usually have resorted to isolation to avoid the problem. Certainly isolation only makes the problem worse. Dogs are very social and want to be with people. The more that they are isolated, the more excited and therefore unruly they will be when they are finally let out. Often people actually end up reinforcing the very behaviors that they do not want. A good example is barking to come inside. If a dog is outside and barks to come in and the owners ignore the dog for say 10 minutes but finally let the dog in, what have they accomplished? Lets look at this scenario first from the owners perspective, and then from the dogs. The owner probably let the dog in to stop annoying the neighbors or themselves due to the incessant barking. But what does the dog learn? The dog has just learned that 10 minutes of incessant barking gains access to the indoors. Therefore the dog will be willing to bark longer the next time especially if it also then gains access to the inside. In other words the owners have just reinforced the very thing that they did not want, barking. This is not the only scenario that this type of incorrect training occurs. Another common problem is giving a command, the dog not performing what was requested, so the owner repeats the command. This again sends the message to the dog that 2-3 repetitions of the command are needed to get the desired behavior. However, if you have never taught the dog the meaning of the word, then compliance is not possible.

Methods To Gain Control Of Excitable And Disobedient Dogs

For many of these dogs, the use of a headcollar aids in the owner regaining control. The Gentle Leader/Promise Headcollar is actually a halter type collar developed by Dr. R.K. Anderson a veterinarian and Professor and Director Emeritus of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of Minnesota and Ruth E. Foster, Past President of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors. Premier Pet Products markets the collar. The collar uses a dog's natural instinct to follow a leader using pressure points that cause the dog to respond in a behaviorally appropriate way. One strap goes behind the ears over the back of the neck, this simulates the pressure control that a mother dog uses on her puppies. The second strap encircles the dogs nose and simulates how the leader dog would put his mouth over the muzzle of a subordinate dog and stimulate submissive behavior. Thirdly dogs have a natural instinct to pull against pressure, so when you pull backward with a traditional choke collar the dog instinctively pulls ahead. But with the Gentle Leader headcollar, when you pull on the lead, the pressure is exerted on the back of the head and the dog will pull backwards to avoid the pressure, rather than forward and stays by the owners side. Most of all, they allow the owner to control where the head of the dog goes and thus the dog. They really allow the owner to get control, which makes them feel empowered and able to begin training.

These collars are particularly useful in the older unruly dog. Any puppy could be trained with one from 8-10 weeks on. Usually the unruly dog is fitted with a Gentle Leader headcollar which is left on the dog all the time that they are with the dog. They are also to attach the 10-foot indoor lead that comes with the collar. This way as soon as the dog begins to engage in behavior that is unacceptable, a correction can be made and the dog will know what you want him to do. By the same token, if you give the dog a command and he does not obey, with a collar and leash on the dog you can get the compliance that you require. It is especially effective in jumping dogs and dogs that pull their owners while walking. Any size person can use it on any size dog. Strength is not a factor in the use of the headcollar system. It also does not rely on controlling the dog through force.


Often the key to turning an unruly dog into an acceptable pet is the continuous control until you reliably can get the behaviors that you want. This is most easily accomplished by the owners having the dog on leash. Although this seems like a simple solution, most owners have never tried this. Once the dog begins to engage in the unwanted behavior, prolonged attempts at control are frustrating to the owner and do not really teach the dog the correct lesson. In fact because they are unable to stop the behaviors that they do not want, they actually end up reinforcing them by allowing them to continue. An integral component of controlling an unruly dog entails restructuring the situations so that the unruly behavior is not able to take place. This can take various forms examples are, keeping the dog on leash so that they can not run through the house, closing doors to other rooms and limiting the access of the dog to areas where he is unsupervised, only interact with the dog in a positive manner and set up situations so that the dog will do as the owner asks.

Destructive Chewing

In puppies this behavior can be the result of teething, stimulation or lack of supervision. These motivations can occur in older dogs as well and result in costly destruction. First of all you need to find out when the dog is chewing. If it is when the owner is home, then supervision and providing chew toys may be the answer. Usually, chewing is an owner absent behavior and takes place when the owner is gone. What then is the owner to do to stop the behavior? Certainly by the time the owner has spoken to you they have already tried the use of punishment after the fact, i.e. when they get home. Unless you have punished or rewarded in 15 seconds, the dog is unsure what you mean. Punishment when the owner returns can make dogs anxious about the return of the owner, which may stimulate these displacement activities like chewing. So what can an owner do?

First they should find a place they can confine the dog while they are gone that is relatively safe, like the kitchen. Outside is not a good spot because often dogs that chew will bark when their owners are gone. Next they need to provide the dog with chew toys that are attractive and desirable for the dog. How can they do this? Dr. Ian Dunbar has come up with an effective method. One way is to purchase toys the dog will like and stuff them with treats. Good toys to use are Kong toys and redi-bones. These can easily be stuffed with treats and entice the dog to use them. First you need to make the dog want the toy. Start with obvious tasty treats like peanut butter or small amount of steak smeared on the toy. Then you can progress to stuffing things inside the toy that are harder to get out. The dog will try to get them and after 10-20 minutes will be done chewing. Before they go to work they can stuff 3-6 toys and leave them with the dog so that he can chew on them while they are gone. When the owner comes home, they should ask repeatedly for the toys and praise the dog for getting them and not give the dog any attention until it brings a toy. Sometimes it helpful to make other areas the dog may chew aversive using electronic devices, scent markers and mousetraps. Naturally it is also important to rule out separation anxiety as a cause for the destruction.


If it is a dog that is barking outside while the owners are gone, you should ask the owner why the dog is outside all day. What you may find is a dog who not housetrained or destructive and the owners cannot leave the dog in the house while they are gone. So your barking problem is really housetraining or another problem that you need to attend to first. If the problem is barking while the owner is home then the first thing you need to do is to teach the dog a command for quiet.

The owner needs to be able to associate the word they are using with silence. Therefore, the owner needs an effective means of pairing the command for quiet with the absence of noise. Quiet can be obtained using a distraction such as noise (i.e. a shaker can, an ultrasonic trainer) or even a toy or food treat. Then the owner needs to praise the pet for silence. Repetition of this sequence will help the dog learn the meaning of quiet.

Alternative methods to discourage barking include remote punishment type collars that are activated either by the owner, or by the barking itself. These include ones that make audible noises, ultrasonic collars and shock collars. All of these can be objectionable to owners. Another alternative is the citronella bark collar. It is called the ABSsystem and is distributed by Premier Pet Products. The collar works by emitting a spray of citronella that is triggered when the dog barks. Approximately 85% of the dogs will stop barking with this collar. 1 The client acceptance is high because no shock is used. Another method to control barking is with the Gentle Leader headcollar and an indoor lead. When the dog barks, the owner can administer a correction from a distance and then reward quiet. Additionally, a pull on the leash closes the dog's mouth and forces the dog to be quiet.

An additional problem barking behavior is barking for attention. Many dogs will do this and owners inadvertently reward the behavior with attention even if that attention is negative. If owners are willing, often this behavior can be extinguished by not ever responding to barking demands as well as teaching more desirable methods to get attention.

However, when talking about barking behavior, it is important to assess the dog's motivation for barking. Any type of attempt to correct barking behavior can fail if the motivation for the dog to bark is greater than the aversion or reward for not barking. Therefore, if the dog is barking because of extreme territorial behavior, fear motivated behavior or separation anxiety, other treatment modalities are needed to control the barking behavior. This might include counter-conditioning and desensitization and require appropriate diagnosis of the problem.

Jumping Up

Jumping up on family members and visitors is an objectionable behavior that many dogs engage in. It is important to try and identify what type of positive reinforcement may be occurring in these situations. Possible reinforcers could be attention and interaction with people. Often the traditional methods of stepping on back feet, kneeing in the chest and squeezing paws are not successful, usually because it is difficult to get compliance with these methods whenever the dog engages in jumping behavior. What often can be successful is leash control and teaching the dog to "sit" on command in order to receive attention from family members and visitors. This will entail owners spending time teaching the dog how to behave prior to company arriving, but will be beneficial when they do have visitors. Again, this is a behavior that can be controlled using a Gentle Leader Headcollar.


What about digging? Many dogs really like to dig; this is a normal behavior. Owners could often live with this behavior if the dog only dug in an appropriate place. So one answer given by Dr. Dunbar is to create one. When you bury enticing objects in the yard at a spot the dog is allowed to dig, you create the impetus for the dog to choose that spot for its digging behavior. You also need to know why the dog is outside all the time and be sure that it is not a housetraining issue. Motivation for digging is also important to ascertain. For example, some of the northern breeds of dogs will dig to create a cooler spot to rest. If that is happening, then a digging area that provides shade and a cooler temperature is important; not enticing toys to dig up. Other dogs will dig to get to animals burrowing in the lawn, and until those are removed digging will continue.


Dogs often engage in stealing behaviors that can be very annoying for owners. Several factors need to be explored in order to appropriately counsel owners in treating this problem. First, it is important to ascertain what the owner does when the dog steals something. If the owner chases the dog, then the owner has helped create a "game" out of stealing, thus reinforcing the behavior. This can create a situation where the dog will steal objects for attention and the play opportunity. One solution is to change the response. Owners can ignore the dog, therefore not engaging in a chase game. Another solution would be for the owners to get excited and encourage the dog to bring the object to them and then reward the dog after it sits and relinquishes the object. An additional treatment modality for dogs that steal objects continually is leash control using a Gentle Leader headcollar.

Destructive Behaviors

Destructive behaviors in dogs often are the result of isolation; separation-related behaviors or lack of adequate opportunity for play and exercise. Especially in large breeds of dogs, young animals have abundant energy that needs to be channeled in the appropriate direction. Paying attention to the exercise, play and training needs can help destructive behaviors that are not the result of separation anxiety. Fetch type games work well to exercise dogs and enhance owner leadership. For dogs that will not drop toys on command, owners can use two toys, throwing one which the dog retrieves, then holding up the other and saying "drop it" when the dog brings back the first, and then throw the second. Most dogs will relinquish the object they have to get the one the owner has.

If these behaviors are the result of separation anxiety, then a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist or an applied animal behaviorist is needed. Separation anxiety can often be identified by its occurrence only when the owner is gone or separated from the dog, and usually occurs on all departures.

There are many behavioral products on the market that owners can use to control unruly behaviors and help in training. These include:

•  Gentle Leader Headcollar  Premier Pet Products 1-800-933-5595

•  Handouts  Lifelearn Diskette-Horwitz and Landsberg-1-800-375-7994

Direct Interactive Punishment

•  Barker Breaker (sonic), Amtek Pet Behavior Products, 11025 Sorrento Valley Court, San Diego, CA, 92121, 800-762-7618, 619-597-6681

•  Direct Stop Repellent, (citronella spray), USA: ABS Inc, 5910-G. Breckenridge Pkwy, Tampa FL, 33610-4253, 800-627-9447, CAN: Multivet, P.O Box 651, St-Hyacinthe, QC, J2S7P5, 800-303-0244, 888-456-2626

•  Easy Trainer (ultrasonic) Radio Systems Incorporated, 5008 National Drive, Knoxville, TN, 37914, 800-732-2677, 423-637-8205

•  K-9 Bark Stopper/Sonic Pet Trainer (sonic), Innotek, 1000 Fuller Drive, Garrett, Indiana, 46738, 800-826-5527, 219-357-3148

•  Pet Agree / Dazzer (ultrasonic), KII Enterprises, P.O. 306, Camillus, NY 13031, U.S.: 800-262-3963, 315-468-3596

•  Ultrasonic Pet Trainer, Radio Systems Incorporated (electronic stimulation) - see above

Monitoring Devices

•  Tattle Tale, (vibration motion sensor), KII Enterprises, see above

Remote Punishment Collars

•  ABS Remote Trainer, (citronella spray), USA.: ABS Inc & Radio Systems Incorporated, CAN: Spray Commander, Multivet-see above

•  Innotek Incorporated, (electronic stimulation) - see above

Exercise, Play and Chew Products

•  Buster Cube, Jorgensen Laboratories Inc., Loveland, CO, 80538, 800-525-5614

•  Goodie ship, Space Ball, Planet Pet, P.O. Box 11778, Naples, Fla., 800-811-8673

•  Home Alone Food Ball, Activity Ball, Hightower USA, 4691 Eagle Rock Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, 90041, 800-246-6556, 213-255-1112

•  Kong Products, 16191-D Table Mountain Parkway, Golden, CO 80403-1641, 303-216-2626

•  Mutt Puck, 6260 Reber Place, St. Louis, MO, 63139, 800-274-MUTT, 314-781-MUTT

•  Nylabone Products, TFH Publications, 1 TFH Plaza, 3rd and Union Ave, Neptune, NJ 07753, 732-988-8400

•  Pavlov's Cat (cat scratch feeder), Del-West Enterprises, 1015 Summerwood Court, San Diego, CA 92131

•  619-689-9999

•  Tennis Bone, Happy Dog Toys, P.O. Box 5424, Phoenix, AZ, 85010, 602-585-3511

Booby traps (Environmental Punishment Devices)

•  ABS Indoor and Outdoor Pet Containment Systems, (citronella spray), USA: ABS Inc and Radio Systems Inc., see above, CAN: Spray Barrier (Indoor citronella spray containment system), Virtual Fence (outdoor citronella spray system), Multivet, see above

•  Innotek Incorporated Indoor and Outdoor Pet Containment Systems (electronic stimulation), see above

•  Invisible Fencing, Indoor and Outdoor Pet Containment Systems (electronic stimulation) Invisible Fence Co., 355

•  Pet Mat, Radio Systems Incorporated, see above

•  Phoenixville Pike, Malvern, PA, 19355, 610-651-0999 - Canadian Distribution: Trans Canada Pet Boundaries, 905-983-3647

•  Radio Systems Incorporated, Indoor and Outdoor Pet Containment Systems (electronic stimulation), see above, Veterinary Distribution: DermaPet, see above

•  Scat Mat, (electronic stimulation mat), ScareCrow, motion activated sprinkler, Contech Electronics, P.O. Box 115, Saanichton, BC, V8M 2C3, Canada, 800-767-8658, 604-652-0755

•  Scraminal /Critter Gitter, Amtek Pet Behavior Products, see above

•  Smart Bowl, Aqcon Inc., 340 Kingswood Road, Toronto, Ontario, M4E 3N9, 416-691-0558, 800-891-2695

•  Snappy Trainer, Interplanetary Incorporated, 12441 West 49th St., Suite 8, Wheatridge, CO, 80033, 888-477-4738, 303-940-3228

•  SofaSaver, Abbey Enterprises, 235 West 1st Street, Bayonne, NJ 07002, 201-823-3690

•  Ultrasonic Pest Deterrent, Radio Systems Incorporated, see above

Bark Deterrents:

•  A.B.S. (Citronella Spray collar),US: ABS Inc, see above, Aboistop, (Citronella Spray Collar), Canada, Multivet (see above)

•  K-9 Bark Stopper (audible bark activated), Innotek, see above

•  Radio Fence Incorporated, (electronic stimulation bark collars) see above

•  Silencer Bark Activated Collar, (ultrasonic bark activated collar), Radio Systems Incorporated (see above)

•  Super Barker Breaker, (audible bark activated) Amtek Pet Behavior Products, see above

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Kimberly Baldwin, LVT
Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, JHA, FACHE
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