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Flower-digging means ‘i need you’
Dr. Spiegel, I'm contacting you with some concerns on behalf of my dog's behavior. Facts about my dog: Yellow Lab, six months old, 65 lbs., good health, living area - fenced in backyard and basement of my house. My concerns are that, with the onset of spring, I'm planting roses, vegetables, etc. in my backyard. My dog continues to pull them out and throw them around. I've tried scolding him, then spanking... all to no avail. I can now tell by his behavior when I return from work that he's done a dirty deed. I also praise him and reward him when all went well in my absence. Is this normal behavior for a puppy? How do I reprimand him, when this happens? Should I build a run (cement slab w/ fence) to keep him in? Thanks for your help in advance. Sincerely, J.S., New Castle
Dear J.S., Even though this is a lab, let's forget that for the moment. Assuming this is a fairly typical six month old dog, without any unusual idiosyncrasies or personality traits, given the facts you've mentioned there are some areas that are of concern to me which are probably having the greatest impact on this problem. Dogs are highly social animals. They evolved along with their social system which is based on a family or extended family unit. Puppies were with mom, or at the very least with each other, and played and interacted amongst themselves and with different components of their environment through each and every day. If it is just you and your dog, and his access to you is limited to the areas you've described... there will be lots of times where you are in other parts of your house, separated from him, ...but still there. He being a young energetic, highly social animal is probably thrilled and excited to see you when you come into his areas. And he probably has very strong desires to interact with you at these times. If one of your prime uses for his outside area is gardening, and he has to compete with that for your attention, his activities are ultimately accomplishing exactly what he is setting out to do... that is to get your attention. Even though the attention you've described him getting has been negative (though I suspect that somewhere in there, there's some inadvertent positive reinforcement), he still manages to get your attention. You probably have to do some chasing to get to him, and even that little bit of interaction may be something he so strongly desires at that point, that he doesn't in that moment think about the negative consequences. You very well may be right that he knows he has done a "dirty deed." More likely, however, is the notion that when a dirty deed has been done and it is found, that the time when he sees you come in is a very scary time because horrible things follow (this is probably the way he has experienced it, or, in other words, what he has learned). There is another component as well, which is simply the fact that when left alone through the day with exposure to all sorts of fun things, and some dogs just love to dig, he will get bored and he, as a lab, most likely has lots and lots of energy. That energy has to go somewhere, and in your situation it is into your garden. Give him appropriate outlets for that energy... e.g. Chew Toys (as described one month ago in this column). It can sometimes seem like a stretch, but what he does with your garden is not unlike what a friend's German Shepherd pup at eight months used to do with her checkbook, and another client's shepherd used to do to their t.v. remote control and the books they were actively reading. These were all situations where those objects seemed to be given lots of attention from the owner... while the dog was around. The dog was not getting this attention and directed its "misbehavior" at the object. With the checkbook, the dog would take it outback to bury it. The remote control and books were chewed to bits, and in your case your garden is torn up. He may very well be trying to send you a message that he is a living, active social being, and when you are in his yard, he thinks he should get your primary attention. As for your garden (a not-quite-so-social creature), you may want to let it assume a more subordinate role. Have him sit for you first before he gets the attention he wants, and make sure you bring interactions (interactive play and positive reinforcement training) to him (before he has the opportunity to get into trouble) as a means to get what he most values... your attention.