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Is a "Bad Dog" Really a "Bad Dog?"

A blend of science, psychology, and patience go a long way in dog training.

Dogs are individuals with complex emotional lives.1 We often hear: "My dog knows what I want them to do but they won't listen." Or, "I tried training, but it didn't work." Dog training isn’t a panacea and dogs don’t live in a vacuum; what works for one dog may not work for another and this may vary on any given day depending on their pre-training environment.

Here are some general suggestions for maximizing your training that blend science, psychology, patience, positive force-free interactions, mutual respect, tolerance, and words of affirmation. Training is a two-way street.

A good place to begin is Linda Michaels’ Hierarchy of Dog Needs in which "Abraham Maslow meets the mutts" and the Ten Freedoms to guide your interactions with your dog. As Michaels notes, "The HDN is supported by scientific evidence and makes no apologies for embracing protective ethics concerning our beloved dogs. The No Shock, No Prong, No Choke logo is loud and clear."

A dog’s basic biological, social, and emotional needs must be met to augment their receptiveness to training and for their overall quality of life. If they're met, many “problem behaviors” drastically decrease and sometimes are resolved. Specific needs in these frameworks vary from dog to dog. If high-energy Spot’s only exercise is one 15-minute walk per day, can we really expect him to walk on a loose leash at that time? If Lucy is suffering from chronic GI upset, can we expect her to focus on training and quickly learn that unfamiliar people aren’t scary?

“Why is my training taking so long?”

In general, the only quick fix that exists in dog training is management, controlling a dog’s environment to prevent them from being reinforced for undesirable behaviors. The better a person is at management, the easier it is to modify their dog’s behavior and ultimately for both human and dog to succeed. Management should be an essential part of any training plan. If your dog pulls, try a front-clip harness. If your dog gets into the trash when you leave the house, keep your trash in a closed closet or get a locking trash lid.

Regardless, dog training is a commitment and despite the misinformation from the media showing a dog being “cured” of all bad behaviors in the span of an hour-long TV show, long-term behavior change requires a consistent investment on the human’s part.

Four basic stages of learning

Consider the four basic stages of learning: acquisition (learning what to do), proficiency-fluency (speed and accuracy with the behavior), generalization (applying the behavior to different contexts), and maintenance (use it or lose it). Individuals with different personalities learn at different rates. Facile one-size-fits-all solutions ignore the complexities of what's happening. You might also consider how long your dog has been practicing the behavior you’re hoping to change and whether it has become a well-versed habit.

“He knows what I want, but he won’t listen”

A dog's emotional state plays an enormous role in training, especially with respect to their reactivity, fear, anxiety, and aggression. How can a dog efficiently learn and pay attention and problem-solve when they are fearful or upset? If the distraction is alternatively exciting and your dog is frustrated, this can similarly make it difficult for learning to occur. Determining whether or not your dog is upset and then addressing their underlying emotion and helping them feel safe is the first consideration if your dog “won’t listen.”

Giving Your Dog Information on What You Want

It's important to ask, "Do you know what you want from your dog?" Instead of thinking about what you don’t like (for example, “I hate that my dog jumps on visitors”), consider the behaviors you’d like from your dog (“I’d like my dog to sit to greet visitors") and make an effort to clearly teach those behaviors and reward them. Behaviors that get rewarded get repeated. A bonus is that your dog will not only enjoy training, but it will strengthen their relationship with you.

Finding the Right Motivator

This is another situation in which the individual dog matters. Your dog chooses what is most rewarding and motivating and this may change from moment to moment. It’s up to you to know your dog and their preferences.

Your dog might have great recall, but perhaps on a day when you're out on the trails he was feeling full because he just ate his entire breakfast and your treats were boring because he had been eating them for the past week. Can you really compete with the exciting smell of coyote poop he stumbles upon if you're not motivating him properly?

Calling a dog a "bad dog" says a lot about the human as it does about the dog

Time, effort, and consistency have to be put into teaching a dog a new behavior. The dog needs to learn what their human wants them to do, be given the time and practice to get better at the behavior, and have the ability to work in environments that gradually build up in distraction and difficulty as they’re ready and the opportunity to continue practicing the behavior (and getting rewarded for it. A surefire way to slow down the learning process or regress is to push the learner too quickly. A qualified trainer will help a dog guardian look at these factors and help set everyone up for success. Learning and training are lifelong and require patience from the teacher. An overall better understanding of dogs and their complex lives will be beneficial for all.

A balanced blend of science, psychology, patience, and love will go a long way in dog training. While compromises have to be made in any relationship, good dog training should be pro-dog and pro-human. We put unrealistic social expectations and demands on dogs; calling a dog a "bad dog" says a lot about the human as it does about the dog and very often displays a lack of knowledge about dog behavior. It's also important not to be swayed by breed expectations.

Very often, a so-called "bad dog" is trying hard to adapt to their human-dominated world and simply "being a dog." It's worthwhile asking, 'Who's really being a 'bad dog'?" "Who's really being a 'good dog'?"

"Bad" and "good" are in the eyes of the beholder, humans who value different behavior patterns, and we must be careful when using these anthropocentric labels to refer to our canine companions and other dogs.

This essay was co-authored with force-free dog trainer, Mary Angilly.


Bekoff, Marc. A Hierarchy of Dog Needs: Abraham Maslow Meets the Mutts.

Dog Training: Blending Science With Individual Personalities.

Are Pampered Pet Dogs Better Off Than Village Dogs?

Derr, Mark. Debunking the Myth That Dog Behavior Follows Breed.

We Don't Deserve Dogs

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