“My Prissy is such a bad girl! She always jumps on visitors as soon as they come in, even if her paws are muddy.”
“Buster drags me down the street every time we go for a walk! He obviously thinks he’s in charge.”
“My puppy won’t stop chewing on things – she destroyed my favorite pair of shoes last week! I think she does it on purpose.”
“Charlie insists on barking at everyone who walks by the house, even though I tell him to stop! We can’t get a moment’s peace. If he keeps it up, we’re going to have to get rid of him.”
If you’re a dog owner, chances are good that you can relate to at least one (or more!) of these frustrations – even if you’ve never actually said such a thing out loud. And if you have, that’s okay too! No judgment, I promise.
Believe me – as a veterinarian and dog trainer, these are things that I hear from my clients every single day. As much as we love them, our dogs sometimes get on our nerves! Perhaps they track muddy paw prints all over the new bedspread, snatch unattended sandwiches from the coffee table, bark so much that we can’t hear ourselves think, or even poop on the carpet from time to time.
Dog owners everywhere can rest assured that all of us – without exception – have felt frustrated and upset with our canine companions at one time or another. This is normal, and part of being human!
Trust me, we’ve all been there.
My goal in today’s post is not to make you feel guilty, or to give any specific advice on how to train away any of these problems – although I’m happy to discuss some practical solutions for changing these behaviors some other time! For today, I want to talk about something more philosophical.
I want to talk about how we view our dogs, and what we expect from them.
I don’t think this topic gets as much attention as it deserves, which is a shame. There is a plethora of information on the internet about how to “fix” excessive barking, or leash pulling, or counter surfing – but precious little self-reflection on the labels and framing devices that we use when we talk about dogs, and whether or not we’re being fair.
So if you’re up for it, let’s talk a bit about that today.
All of the statements at the start of this post have something in common. They express frustration about “problem behaviors” that are completely normal and expected, and they contain an implicit (and unwarranted) assumption about the dog’s motives.
Because truly, all too often – this is what we think. Isn’t it?
The dog is being stubborn, or headstrong, or naughty, or disrespectful.
She won’t listen, she thinks she’s the boss.
She does it on purpose to get back at me.
In reality, the actual explanation behind most of these behaviors is much simpler. Your dog is not a human, and does not come with a built-in understanding of our rules and expectations. She also does not speak English – so unless she has been clearly and carefully taught to respond to your cues, she has no idea what you want. There is no Machiavellian plot to climb the social ladder, and no malicious desire to ruin your day.
She is a dog, and she does dog things. That’s it.
She steals food from the counter because it’s there, and it smells delicious. She jumps up to say hello because she is excited and happy, and wants to be nearer to your face to greet you. She pulls on the leash because you are a slow and plodding human, and she has lots of energy and wants to run.
Other “problem behaviors” are more breed-specific, and have been carefully selected for over many generations. Herding dogs may chase and nip running children. Guarding breeds bark at visitors. Beagles and bloodhounds become engrossed in interesting smells, and forget to come when you call. Retrievers carry your shoes all over the house, or insist on picking up sticks and other objects on walks.
These tendencies are inborn, and closely tied to genetics. They may well be inconvenient at times, from our perspective – but they are normal, and not indicative of some sort of moral fault or deficiency on the part of your dog.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that we should simply leave these issues unaddressed, and allow our dogs to run amok in the name of natural behavior. Rules and boundaries are important!
What I am saying, however, is this.
The burden is on us, as humans, to teach our dogs how to get along in our world. It’s tremendously unfair to bring a member of another species into your home, and then become angry when she shows normal species-specific behavior. Remember that you chose this relationship – your dog did not.
This means that you have an obligation to teach her kindly, and with patience. If you’re not sure how, ask for help! Find a good reward-based trainer in your area who can get you started. Take a moment to look at things from your dog’s perspective, and don’t be angry with her for not knowing the rules.
Just as it does with other humans, a little understanding goes a long way.