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Can Your Dog Learn Bad Behavior From Other Dogs?

By Linda Cole

Dogs are social beings that patiently sit and watch us and other pets, observing what we do. I never had a problem with my dogs digging up their pen until one of them dug a hole one summer to lie in the cool dirt. When I found the hole, I filled it in to keep the dogs from hurting themselves if they stepped in it while playing. The next day, the hole was back, so I filled it in again. This went on for about a week and then more holes started to appear. My other dogs had learned from the first dog that digging a hole in the shady areas of the pen would give them a cooler place to lie down in.

A door separates my living room from the dining room, and we built an escape window in it so the cats can move between the two rooms and get away from the dogs if needed. One day my dog Keikei was watching the cats jump through the window and I almost fell over laughing when I saw her fly through the opening behind them. I have to admit, I was amazed with her grace and the athletic ability it took for her to actually jump through a small window in a door. Now, I wouldn't call that bad behavior, but it certainly wasn't something I wanted or expected her to learn just by watching the cats.

Dogs learn by watching, and if one dog gets away with bad behavior, other dogs in the family may follow their example. To them, it's not bad if their behavior isn't corrected. If a dog's behavior changes, that's cause for concern because it could be due to a medical issue or behavioral problems like separation anxiety and food aggression. However, a dog that is copying bad behavior is a completely different situation. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between bad behavior and an actual behavioral change.

Keikei was eight weeks old when my neighbor gave her to me because she wasn't housebroken. Apparently this neighbor thought puppies came housebroken. Keikei has a very strong yet sweet and loving personality, but as she grew, she developed food aggression. I've never had a dog that was food aggressive until Keikei's behavior changed whenever food was available. Food aggression is a change in behavior; it can be learned by other dogs and it won't go away on its own. It needs to be corrected before it becomes a major issue and leads to other bad behavior.

Barking is another unwanted behavior dogs can pick up from each other. My “yapper” is a Beagle/Terrier mix named Alex. When she's outside and feels lonely, she goes to the far end of the pen and barks as she watches the office window to see if she has my attention. The other dogs have learned that she gets attention when she barks and will join in. They stop barking when I tell them to, but Alex doesn't. The beagle in her just has too much fun barking when she's bored. We are working with her to correct the behavior, using positive reinforcement and CANIDAE TidNips™ treats.

Dogs are just like us and can pick up bad behavior from each other. Even if you only have one dog in the house, they can learn unwanted behavior at dog parks, at a friend's house, or even at a kennel while you're away on vacation. Fortunately, all of the above can be corrected with consistent training and patience to stop unwanted behavior before it becomes a serious problem.

Separation anxiety is a serious behavioral problem that can cause a dog to damage a home or severely injure himself trying to escape through a window or a door. Why some dogs develop separation anxiety and others don't is a question that has no answer. However, most dog experts don't believe dogs can develop separation anxiety from watching another dog that has it. I have dealt with separation anxiety in one of my dogs, and he was the only one who had a problem.

One thing I've learned as a lifelong dog owner is to never underestimate the observation ability of dogs. They can learn unwanted behavior from watching each other, but they can also learn good behavior as well. My dogs are different ages, breeds and personalities, and it's a joy watching them interact with each other. Learning is a trial and error process. By making sure dogs are treated in a positive matter, the bad behavior can be quickly corrected while good behavior is rewarded with positive reinforcement – and that's how dogs learn what we expect from them!

Photo by toomanycats99

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