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Gail Fisher’s Dog Tracks: If a dog is misbehaving, owners need to look at themselves

August 17. 2018 8:48PM

We’re in the process of redesigning and updating the website at All Dogs Gym & Inn. Our current website contains many articles I’ve written on various subjects, including past columns. On the new site, this section will likely be termed “Blogs,” but for now, I’m just going through them removing those that are no longer relevant or about which I’ve written something more recent. In the process, I came across this column from four years ago. It’s a topic that bears repeating:

I’ve been thinking about alliteration – a series of words that start with the same letter, such as Peter Piper’s peck of pickled peppers. Alliterations are helpful for memorization, but that isn’t what I’ve been thinking about. I’ve been thinking about the words that many dog owners use when they have a dog whose behaviors they don’t like, and the fact that many of them are “S” words: stupid, stubborn, sneaky, spiteful and scheming.

I can understand circumstances in which dog owners could believe their dog is (pick an “S” word). Yet these terms are not just inaccurate, they’re just plain wrong. Let’s start with “stupid.”

A few years ago, I was presenting a weekend training seminar in England. One of the participants had a lovely mixed-breed dog named “Stupid.” That wasn’t really the dog’s name, but the family called her Stupid because she didn’t learn anything they were teaching her. The problem wasn’t the dog’s mental capacity; it was that the family didn’t know how to teach her in a way she understood.

The family members were inconsistent in both their training methods and the words they used as commands or cues. One person would say “sit,” another would say “siddown.” One family member might pet her when she jumped on them, while another would yell “get down!” (a similar sound to “sit down.”), and then tell her to “lie down” when they wanted her to do so. In her confusion, this poor dog had just plain “shut down.” Once the owner learned how to communicate what behavior she wanted, her dog was one of the brightest at that seminar.

What about “stubborn?” A dog is considered stubborn when it doesn’t do what the owner wants it to do. When a dog ignores a cue such as “Come!” most often it’s because the dog is unmotivated to respond. A dog is motivated by what it thinks it will get for responding (think of it as the dog’s “paycheck”). For example, if something is more interesting to sniff, chase, explore, etc., than whatever the dog has historically gotten for coming when called, then it won’t be motivated to respond, but not because it’s being stubborn.

Owners believe their dog is being “sneaky” when the dog does something when they’re not around that it wouldn’t think about doing if they are.

I experience this very thing myself. Kochi, our Okinawa rescue dog, would never think of going in the trash when we’re home. But if we fail to put the trash out of reach and leave the house, we will come home to a trashy mess to clean up. Is Kochi being “sneaky?” No. He has simply learned that we object to him going in the trash when we’re home, but when we’re not home, we don’t object. Of course we don’t – we’re not there to tell him not to do it.

“Spiteful” and “scheming” as well are not concepts that fit how a dog thinks. Dogs don’t do things purposefully to punish us (spite), nor do they lie awake at night trying to think of ways to do what we don’t want them to do (scheme).

Which brings me to the bottom line about why a dog doesn’t respond as we want and expect it to: It simply is not sufficiently trained. It doesn’t make sense to think that a trained dog would purposely choose to misbehave if it understands what we want. When a dog is really trained, it responds correctly. This makes it our responsibility to make sure that the dog is well-trained. We can’t “blame” the dog. When there’s misbehavior, the fault lies with us.

Gail Fisher, author of “The Thinking Dog” and a dog behavior consultant, runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, which appears every other Sunday, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You’ll find past columns on her website.



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