In the world of behavior modification there exists what we call The Human Hierarchy of Behavioral Change. It is a very simple concept to understand but not one many people practice. When a dog misbehaves the traditional thinking is to jump straight to punishment. That is that the behavior you don't want needs to be corrected. We have gone over the issues with punishment in a previous post but let's recap that punishment has been shown to not be effective mainly because the timing of the punishment rarely if ever occurs concurrent with the behavior. That is the dog chews up the couch while the owner is away, the owner comes home to a chewed up couch, owner screams and yells at dog, dog now associates the owner coming home with the punishment and not the behavior the owner wishes to correct.
In the Humane Hierarchy of Behavioral Change positive punishment or the addition of the negative stimulus to correct behavior is step six. It is the last and final stop to correct an undesirable behavior. Step one is to make certain the dog is well taken care of and disease free. A case in point might be a dog that is suddenly aggressive towards their owner. Brain tumors and other medical conditions can cause the sudden onset of aggression in dogs that have never been that way before. Dogs can also get night terrors and awake suddenly in fits of rage. These are believed to be caused by mini-seizures and can be treated with anti-seizure medication.
Dog aggression can be caused by pain or injury as well. When the dog is in pain they will lash out at anything that causes the pain and touching a sore or tender spot will cause pain. This is why when treating an injured dog, even your own dog, the first step is to muzzle them. In that moment they won't understand that you're trying to help them and will only see you as a source of additional pain.
Step one can solve a lot of perceived behavioral issues in dogs and it is why it is important for dog owners to find a vet they not only trust but one they can build a relationship with as well. Knowing your vet and being able to talk with them about issues the dog is having is important. Think about the common issue of resource guarding or trying to steal food at family meal times. It is easy to see and understand how these issues can be linked to a dog's basic needs not being met. Finding the right balance of food to maintain a healthy weight and give the dog the correct nutrition is a struggle a lot of dog owners face. Dogs will often tell us they want more when we know they've been fed but a dog that fed properly is less likely to engage in certain behaviors.
As you can see before even moving on to step two which is environmental arrangement a lot of common dog issues can be solved. We always want to make certain our pets are well taken care of and malady free. That is why when your dog starts displaying behavioral issues the first person to call isn't a dog trainer but instead your vet. First make certain the dog is healthy and has no diseases or injuries that could be causing the behavioral issues and then if that is not the case consult a trainer on how best to arrange your environment to produce the desired behavior as well as using counter-conditioning and desensitization to modify the behavior. One of the worst things to do for your dog is to skip not only step one but steps one through five an go straight to positive punishment. Ask yourself do you really want to find out that you were punishing your dog for being sick or injured?