How knowledge of dog behavior can drive sales at your pet retail store!

Customers will feel much more confident and comfortable with purchasing products from you if you demonstrate a level of expertise and show that you care about solving their problems.

It’s fairly common for customers to ask employees of pet supply stores for advice regarding their dog’s problem behaviors. Being able to offer good advice that yields positive results helps strengthen customer loyalty and trust.

While behavior issues are best addressed by a professional dog trainer, there are some things you can add to your dog’s daily routine that will help promote a sense of overall well-being for your dog and eliminate or decrease certain problem behaviors.

Common Problems That Your Employees Will Probably Be Asked About

“My dog chews everything! Shoes, furniture, other inanimate objects… ”

Chewing is a necessary outlet for the majority of dogs. The act of chewing is calming and helps lower stress. Most dogs feel the NEED to chew, so applying punishment to a dog who is chewing inappropriate objects will not take the desire away. Your dog may just learn how to do it in private when you’re not around to observe them.

Offer your dog an appropriate item for chewing that is even more desirable than what is available to them. For example, dogs love to chew shoes because they smell like their owner, and it shreds easily.

The Fix: offer a long lasting chew to your dog, one that your dog will be able to work on and make some progress with breaking it down. It may take a few tries to find a chew that works really well for an individual dog. Some chews, like pig ears, are universally desired by nearly all dogs, but other chews, like an odorless whole elk antler, may not be as attractive to more finicky dogs.

“My dog is really destructive and won’t stop digging holes in my yard. I bought many toys for her, but she’s not interested!”

A destructive dog is a bored dog! Learn as much as you can about the individual dog (breed, age, personality) as well as their lifestyle (where do they spend most of their time, how much exercise do they get on a daily basis, etc).

Most bored dogs are actually very intelligent. They need a job to do and a daily routine that they can look forward to! Walks around the block are nice, but they are not very stimulating to a smart dog who is aching for a purpose and a job to do.

Playing tug with a Labrador mixed breed puppy

Some fun activities for bored dogs:

  • Play tug with them and introduce obedience commands as a form of self-control during the game.
  • Scent work - such as hiding treats around the room and asking your dog to find them, or hiding a toy and asking your dog to find it, and playing a game of tug as a reward
  • Fetching a ball or tossing a Frisbee - make sure that your dog is fit enough for this type of intense activity. ALWAYS give your dog a 10-minute warm up walk and a 10-minute cool down walk, to minimize the risk of injuries.
  • Train your dog to pull you while you’re riding a bike
  • Build some DIY jumps for backyard agility

For customers that insist that their dog “doesn’t like toys”, find out what kind of toys are being provided. It’s possible that their dog doesn’t like the toys that are being provided!

Is the customer giving their dog an empty Kong? There’s no reason for a dog to chew an empty Kong… it doesn’t smell like you, there’s no food in it, and they can’t easily shred it.

The Fix: stuff your dog’s Kongs with actual food! Freeze it to make it even more difficult to extract.

Sometimes dogs “don’t like toys” because of the way that their owner is presenting it. Frontal pressure (when you are facing your dog head on) can be intimidating to most dogs. For a dog, grabbing a toy and playing with it requires a lot of confidence. Pushing a toy into a dog’s face is also mildly threatening, and most dogs won’t like that. There’s no such thing as a “suicidal rabbit”!

The Fix: Instead pushing the toy towards the dog, have the toy move away from them erratically, as if it were a prey object!

  • Some dogs don’t want to grab a toy that’s too close to their owner's hand. In this case, use a long toy that can drag on the ground
  • The sight of the toy “running away” from the dog will often light up their prey drive, and entice the dog to pounce on it!

When picking a toy for a dog who is learning how to play, look for these characteristics:

  • Long length, so that there is a larger surface area for the dog to grab
  • Soft material, ideally made of fleece or fur (“durable” toys like those made of firehose material are best for dogs that are already very motivated by toys)

Find out if your customer is feeding their dog out of a bowl - if so - show them some kibble dispensing toys! The sustained mental effort of figuring out how to maneuver the toy so that it dispenses food will be exhausting for most dogs. Eating out of a bowl is a mindless endeavor. Encourage your dog to work for their food!

This Australian Koolie never eats kibble out of a bowl, only out of puzzle toys

Banksy, a 2-year old Australian Koolie, interacts with a Kong Wobbler in order to get it to dispense kibble

“My dog barks at everything! How do I get them to stop barking?”

Importantly, figure out why the dog is barking in the first place. The dog may be barking out of fear or even boredom.

While electronic collars are very effective at eliminating barking, there is peer-reviewed evidence (1) that suggests that dogs that are subjected to training with an electronic collar exhibit more behavioral signs of distress

Barking to warn / alert

When your dog alarm barks at cars, or unfamiliar people or dogs, it’s most likely because they are afraid of the stimulus and are using the barking as a tool to drive the “threat” away.

For example, why is it that some dogs bark at large trucks or delivery people?

When the dog sees the delivery man, the dog starts barking at him. The delivery man, minding his own business, drops the package off and leaves. The dog sees that they leave and becomes convinced that it was their barking that drove them off. Similar with strangers walking by the window, or large semi-trucks passing by - it was going on its way anyway, however, the dog has made the association that barking at the threat will make it go away.

Instead of telling your dog “no”, we recommend training a behavior that’s incompatible with barking, such as resting their chin on your knee, or sitting down and making eye contact with you.

For a dog that excessively barks at a certain stimulus, you can use a combination of counter-conditioning, as well as training a new behavior. Click here for some great counter-conditioning tips.

Counter-conditioning takes a considerable amount of time and effort to implement successfully. Why would we spend all that time training when an electronic collar could stop the behavior instantly? It’s because while the e-collar will suppress the behavior, it will not eliminate the underlying fear that was causing the barking in the first place. Counter-conditioning actually changes the dog’s attitude and emotional response to a stimulus. Instead of a dog seeing a stimulus and thinking, “I’m scared and I want it to go away,” the dog will think, “Cool, now I get to eat a delicious treat that I otherwise wouldn’t get!"

Anxious barking

If your dog is barking frantically while you’re away from home, it’s likely due to separation anxiety. Dogs are very social creatures that thrive on routine. When a dog gets separated from the rest of their pack, they will often use vocalizations to attempt to get reunited with the rest of their pack.

Imagine a puppy that got separated from his litter - he’ll probably start crying and whining until his mother comes and finds him. This then reinforces in their mind that the vocalizing is what got him reunited with his pack.

Ever heard of the saying, “The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives”? It’s unnatural for a dog to be left alone, and dogs instinctively know this. Young puppies need to be taught that it’s okay to be left alone, and this should be one of the most important things you’ll teach your dog. This will require some desensitization training, which can take a bit of effort, however, it will pay off in the end. The best time to begin this type of training is as soon as you bring home your new puppy or newly adopted rescue dog.

Click HERE for an excellent resource on preventing and managing separation anxiety.

Overstimulated barking

Some dogs get over aroused in certain situations, such as greeting guests at the door, waiting for you to throw their ball, or watching other dogs run in agility class. Many people may brush this off as, “Oh, he’s just excited!”

The fact is that when a dog is in an overstimulated state of mind, their adrenal glands produce copious amounts of cortisol. Cortisol is a vital part of the immune system, and is involved with helping the body maintain homeostasis. However, too much cortisol can wreak havoc on the body, even suppressing the immune system (2). The extreme “excitement” is actually a form of stress, and dogs who live in a constant state of stress may even have decreased lifespans (3). It can take 72 hours for the excess cortisol to be cleared from the body, so if your dog slips into an adrenalized state every few days, it’s possible that they are experiencing life with a constant elevated amount of stress hormone circulating their body.

You can teach your dog to be calm and in a relaxed state of mind regardless of the situation or environment. It will take time, effort, and a lot of treats, but knowing that your dog has a healthy state of mind, rather than one plagued by neuroticism and stress, will be well worth it. Click on the following two links for some great resources on training your dog how to relax.

“How do I prevent my dog from chasing my cat/chickens/rabbits etc?”

Australian Koolie peacefully co-existing with chickens

Circus, a 4-year old Australian Koolie, initially wanted to chase these chickens. Using a combination of obedience and impulse control training, she has learned to leave them alone.

Your dog - all dogs - are predators, and will commonly display behaviors that fall into the “predator sequence”: Hunt, chase, catch (bite), kill, eat, sleep, repeat. More recently, dogs also have an evolutionary background of scavenging - using their wiles to access food by whatever means possible (which is why it can be so difficult to deter “counter surfing”!)

When your dog engages in these behaviors, it feels good to them. That’s because when you look at a dog’s evolutionary history - the dogs that performed the best at hunting or scavenging were the most successful, and got to pass their genes on to the next generation!

Nowadays, most people live in an urban setting, and do not want their dogs to go around killing small animals. This does not mean that we have to completely quash a dog’s prey drive - rather, we can channel their drive and teach them to do meaningful activities!

Click here for an excellent resource on using clicker training to teach a dog to ignore the household cat.

Dogs who are very prey driven would benefit from having an outlet where they can chase, bite, and tug on an appropriate prey object, like a toy. Dogs that are highly motivated by an opportunity to bite the toy can be trained to do some amazing things! Detection dogs who are trained to sniff out bombs, drugs, or fleeing suspects, are willing to do the work because they know that they’ll get a chance to play with a toy. For high-energy, driven dogs, we recommend enrolling in dog sport classes! Dog sports are a fun way to bond with your dog and the regular training sessions will give your dog a sense of purpose! Your dog will need a foundation in obedience training, but upon completion of the basics, we recommend trying the following dog sports:

  • Agility
  • Disc dog
  • Dock diving
  • Nosework
  • Barnhunt
  • Parkour
  • Flyball
  • Herding
  • Interested in learning more about dog sports? Click here for a more comprehensive list!

When To Refer To a Professional Dog Trainer

  • Do not try to solve or diagnose ANY aggression cases, whether it’s aggression towards other animals or humans.
  • Extremely fearful dogs
  • Separation anxiety often requires the help of a professional behaviorist - treatment often will involve extensive counter-conditioning training, and may even require medication for the most severe cases.
  • A helpful document to keep at the front register is a list of dog trainers, veterinarians, groomers, and day care services that your staff has personal experience with and would recommend. Customers will ask for recommendations for these types of services all the time - you would leave such a positive impression if you had a carefully prepared list that you could share with them, rather than answering with an unhelpful, “Um, I’m not sure? I think there’s a vet clinic down the street.”