Behavioral Problems

A number of behavioral problems were addressed in the 1997 FCRSA Health Survey. Pica, aggression, and separation anxiety will be discussed in this section.


Pica is the eating of non-food articles. These are as diverse as socks, pantyhose, rocks, rope, etc. These are often swallowed whole. One Labrador Retriever was found to have swallowed an entire sweatshirt! The exact cause of pica is unknown, but it can be related to over or under-attention to the dog on the part of the owner. Dogs tending toward hyperactivity may have pica. It is important to note that by nature, retrievers are orally-fixated. This is a result of efforts to produce dogs willing to pick up and carry game. We now have retrievers that love to pick up and carry about all manner of objects in their mouths. A tendency toward pica may also be encouraged through excessive stimulation such as tug of war games with people or other dogs. Of the nearly 2000 dogs reported on in the survey, 92 males and 70 females had pica.

Depending on the size and type of object swallowed, serious health disorders and even death can occur. If an object is too large to pass through the gastrointestinal tract, it will cause an obstruction necessitating surgical or endoscopic intervention. Likewise, objects with sharp edges can cause perforations of the gut. Symptoms of obstruction include vomiting or unsuccessful attempts to vomit, lethargy, discomfort and loss of appetite. Perforation may cause symptoms of shock due to internal bleeding or to widespread infection as bacteria from the gut are released into the abdominal cavity. Immediate veterinary attention should be sought if you suspect your dog has swallowed something.

Ideas for Change: Pica should be dealt with in a matter of fact manner. All petting should be stopped and some degree of command response be taught and established. If the dog nudges for affection, it must first obey a command such as a simple down or sit. Crate the dog when it is left alone. Remove potential pica objects from the dog’s reach (pick up socks, etc.). Allow access only to toys that are hard, functional and chewable. Keep a close watch over the toys and dispose of them if any signs of wear develop.


This is a fear of being left alone. It is usually accompanied by nervousness, anxiety and destructive behavior. Dogs with this problem are usually extremely bonded to their owners and cannot bear to be apart from them. In the company of their owner, they are loving, gentle and sweet. When left alone they become distraught and destructive. Usually they will destroy that which is closest to the exit the owner has left through. Carpets, drapes and woodwork may fall under their attack. These dogs may have a history of isolation during their puppy-hood or of multiple homes. The end result will be an insecure dog. When introduced to owners who give adequate time and attention, the dogs become clinging. The more indulgent the owners become, the more the insecurity tends to escalate.

Ideas for Change:

  1. Plan an agenda of reconditioning and desensitization. Start with short periods of time that the dog is left alone. Make sure the dog is confined to a crate or an area where destructive behavior would be minimized.
  2. Start an obedience program, focusing on independent exercises.
  3. A toy such as a Buster Cube or a Kong filled with peanut butter might focus the dog on getting a released treat during the time it is alone.
  4. Quietly ignore the dog for 20-30 minutes before leaving.
  5. On return, minimize greetings.
  6. Dogs with severe separation anxiety may benefit from veterinarian-prescribed anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications.


The health survey found that 60 males and 40 females had exhibited aggression toward other dogs. Aggression toward people was much rarer with only 9 males and 3 females reported. By nature, the Flat-Coated Retriever is very bonded to people. It should be considered very abnormal for a Flat-Coated retriever to growl at or bite a person. While aggressive behavior has many complex causes, only three situations will be examined in this section. They are: relationships with dogs of the same sex, introduction of a new puppy into a household, and the relationship between dog and owner.

A common thread for potential aggressive behavior in Flat-Coated Retrievers (as well as many other breeds) is the purchase of same-sex littermates. The owners usually lack an understanding of the dominance issues the puppies have worked out. Unknowingly purchasing the dominant male and the second most dominant male can lead to a lifetime of conflict. The most practical solution to this potential problem is to purchase only one puppy at a time from a reputable breeder who has striven to socialize the pup from near-birth.

Owners introducing a new puppy into a family that already has a dog or dogs must have self-control and patience. Remembering to pay more attention to the adult dogs and keeping their schedule on track is one of the more important aspects of this introduction. At the first sign of lip curling or low growling on the part of the adult dog, the family should distract the adult as well as the puppy with laughter and a quick command such as “come” or “let’s get a cookie!”. If an aggressive encounter should occur, do not grab the puppy up and scream and yell at the adult. This will only add to the resentment of the adult dog toward the puppy. The adult dog’s “feelings” about the new pup will be determined by how the owners react when they must discipline the newcomer. Quite frequently, the puppy will be vigorously yelping or crying and on close inspection not so much as a scratch will be found. The puppy must figure out its rank with its new dog family. It will do this quickly and without fuss with minimal interference on the part of the humans in the family. Exercise is one of the best tools for dealing with our retrievers and it can relieve the stress brought on by a new puppy’s arrival. A game of fetch will allow the pup to move with the senior dogs and at the same time give them their proper spot in the family hierarchy. It’s also important to keep in mind that Flat-Coats are fairly vocal and may sound really menacing and have absolutely no bite in their bark. The Flat-Coats’ relationship with its owners and the way they react to a new dog will set the tone for the way the dogs respond to one another. The most common errors are over-reaction or downright hysteria when an older dog attempts to discipline or set up dominance over a youngster. Owners should never add to the hostility by screaming, shouting, scolding, hitting or kicking. It is important to avoid any emotional display if a dog fight should occur. This is not easy to do. But, it is crucial, since it can cause the dogs involved to become frenzied and escalate the attack. Try to remain passive. Usually the dogs will work out the issue of dominance bloodlessly with one dog becoming dominant and the other adopting a submissive role. Try to recognize the posturing between dogs that occurs before they become aggressive. This can include bumping shoulders or actually rolling a dog onto the ground. This is the time to distract them with a jolly attitude and an “up-beat” tone of voice. You know your “jolly routine” is working when they begin to wag their tails. Flat-Coats are not noted for territorial marking, but if two dogs are exhibiting this problem you should attempt to curtail it by having them urinate in only one designated area. Obedience training is a must. It gives our dogs a sense of balance and gives owners a means of communication. A quick response to the sit, down and come commands give owners much needed time to avoid aggression. It is difficult for a posturing dog to be aggressive when it must lie down (a position of submission). Reinforce commands with lead and collar until the dog has forgotten about its aggression. When using this technique remember that the dogs should be turned away from one another and that a quick response to the down command followed by quiet praise will help calm things down. Petting should be minimized as we transmit our nervousness through touch and this could only add to the tension.

The relationship between owner and dog can be the most crucial determinant in the development of aggression. Owners who fail to properly establish leadership are in jeopardy. It is very easy to bring a new puppy into a household and over-indulge it. This can set the stage for the dog to see its owner as subservient and able to be dominated. The dog that is dominant over its humans is a dog that can eventually become aggressive. There are many wonderful books (see suggested readings below) available to help you in the process of establishing a correct, healthy relationship with your puppy. Please study them before you bring a new puppy into your home. Plan early to socialize the puppy to other people, pets and environments. Start obedience training at a young age. With gentle guidance, make your expectations known and praise all efforts to meet them. Be prepared to reinforce these expectations as the dogs begins to mature and they may feel a need to test their rank in the family. The breed standard for the Flat-Coated Retriever penalizes any dog which displays aggressive behaviors. Before labeling any dog as aggressive, carefully examine the relationship between dog and owner. Most often the root cause will be in the relationship and not from within the dog alone. Having a strong understanding of our breed’s inherent temperament and our role as owners will help curtail aggressive behavior within our breed.

Suggested Readings:

Art of Raising A Puppy, Monks of New Skete
Culture Clash: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding The Relationship Between Humans and Domestic Dogs, Jean Donaldson
Dog Problems, Carol Benjamin
Don’t Shoot the Dog, Karen Pryor
Help! My Dog Has An Attitude, Gwen Bohnenkamp
Help! My Puppy is Driving Me Crazy, Delmar
How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend, Monks of New Skete
How to Housebreak Your Dog in 7 Days, Kalstone
How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With, Rutherford
Mother Knows Best, Carol Benjamin
Playtraining your Dog, Gail Burnham
Surviving Your Dog’s Adolescence, Benjamin


Campbell, W.E., Behavior problems in dogs. Santa Barbara, CA: American Veterinary Publications, Inc., 1985.

Dodman, N., The dog who loved too much: tales , treatments and the psychology of dogs. Bantam Books, 1996.