Bark, Bark, Meow? Recognizing Abnormal Behavior In Dogs

How do I recognize abnormal behavior in my dog?

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Bark, Bark, Meow? Recognizing Abnormal Behavior In Dogs

The word abnormal can seem scary, but in reality, all this means is how do we recognize the behavior that our dog might be exhibiting that is causing the dog discomfort or harm. Being able to recognize and manage abnormal behavior will create a much more positive environment for both owners and pets. 

What’s “normal” behavior?

Before we can deep dive into abnormal behavior, we have to talk a little about normal behavior. This gives a baseline and helps us understand how to recognize behavior that deviates from the norm and may be harmful. 

  • Breeding
    • Normally a dog will act in ways that conform with what the dog was bred to do. A collie will try and herd, and a greyhound will normally have a high prey drive. 
  • Minimizing Risk
    • Dog are risk-averse, a normal dog will try to avoid unnecessary risk or discomfort.
  • Sociability
    • We expect normal dogs to be social towards humans and other dogs.
    • Have the ability to learn
    • Not to show a ton of fears and phobias
  • Motivation and Drive
    • Normally a dog will always try to achieve comfort and safety. Dogs should have a sense of self-preservation. 

These are just examples of normal behavior, remember that it doesn’t mean your dog is “wrong” if they don’t exhibit this behavior. It just means that they are showing some abnormal behavior and it might be worth looking into the reason they are acting that way. 

That’s normal, what’s abnormal? 

It can be tricky to understand what abnormal behavior is. One way to look at it is your dog acting in inappropriate ways for the situations. A dog growling at an introducer? Normal. A dog growling at a person who is just petting it without any noticeable triggers? Abnormal. Some common examples of abnormal behavior include leash reactivity and separation anxiety. 

What causes this abnormal behavior? 

Here are some of the more common reasons a dog might start exhibiting abnormal behavior. Keep in mind that each dog is different. 

  • Homelife – If the environment and humans around the dog are stressing the dog out. For example, living next to a super busy Chicago street with the constant sound of traffic or construction. This noise could be overly stimulating to a dog and bring them over their threshold of comfort leading to abnormal behavior. Some dogs are more genetically predisposed to tolerate noise so not every dog will have the same threshold level for outside stressors. 
  • Overly punishing  – A good example of this is punishing a dog for growling. Dog’s often use growling as a warning sign so when you punish them for growling they could resort to simply ramping right to biting without giving the warning. A dog’s first instinct is to avoid conflict, if a dog is moving straight to more aggressive actions, it could be that they’ve been overly punished. 
  • Overindulgence – On the flip side, a dog that is given what it wants all of the time can also start to exhibit abnormal behaviors. If you give a dog a treat every single time they bark at you, you are training them to beg and bark. 
  • Trauma – Especially if you’ve rescued a dog they may have had trauma in their past that shows up in the current behavior. A dog might have triggers that don’t come to the surface right away. A dog that was neglected and not properly socialized might have trouble exhibiting normal behavior around other dogs or humans. 
  • Illness – If a dog is sick or injured it can be difficult or impossible for them to act normally. None of us perform our best when we are sick! 

What can you do with a dog that is showing troubling behavior?

The first step is to determine if this is a changeable behavior. Does that dog show a predictable pattern of behavior? Even if it doesn’t seem so at first, most of the time you can trace the patterns back to figure out what the trigger was for the abnormal behavior. At this point, it’s time to bring in a trainer! A professional trainer should be able to help create new healthy patterns for your dog’s behavior. Remember to always stay safe if your dog is exhibiting aggressive behavior. 

What do you do if a dog is acting aggressively and there isn’t a trigger? 

This is the time to go to the vet. If a dog is acting out aggressively and this behavior isn’t predictable, there may be a medical reason behind it. 

Be patient! 

It can be scary to see your dog acting in unusual ways. Try and remember that there is often a solution but it will almost always take time, patience, and training to work through the issue. You got this! 


Zoe Sjogerman is the North-East manager for Rover-Time and has been part of the RT team for four years. When she isn’t walking dogs she is the executive director of Avalanche Theatre and an avid book reader. She lives in the north-side of Chicago with her fiance. Although she doesn’t have a pet of her own, she loves getting to walk pups all over the Chicagoland area. 

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