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Do Dogs Learn 'Bad Habits' When They're Allowed to Be Dogs?

Does your dog bring home what they do when they're elsewhere?

Key points

  • How, when, and where might dogs learn what we call "bad habits?"
  • What's appropriate and what's not depends on context and you, including where a dog is and who's involved.
  • It's up to us to be sure our dog behaves appropriately. Calling a dog a "bad dog" might be the easy way out and unfair to them.

Co-authored by Marc Bekoff and Mary Angilly.

Many dog guardians worry about whether going to a dog park teaches bad habits they bring home with them if playing tug with their dogs causes aggression, if letting their dogs sniff to their nose's content makes their dogs think they’re in charge, or if eating “people food” causes dogs to beg. These four concerns commonly come our way.

Every dog is an individual, and dog-dog and dog-human relationships are unique. Their and your desires and needs may change from moment to moment, so it's not a good idea to make species-wide generalizations such as dogs do this or don't do that.

Here are a few instructive examples and what “reasonable” outcomes—with which you and your dog agree—might look like.

Going to a Dog Park

It's a misleading myth that all dog parks are bad. Research shows that rough-and-tumble play rarely escalates into real fighting, and "bad habits" don't necessarily become common behavior patterns.

Consider Henry. When he's at a dog park with his human, Erica, he tries to jump on dogs and some people, and Erica is only mildly successful at putting this annoying behavior to an end. But she says that when he tries to do this at other locations, she successfully stops him "in his tracks." So, while jumping on people and dogs might spill over, it doesn't because Erica is a responsible guardian.

Juniper is a terrier mix, very high energy, social, and the only dog in her household. Her human takes her to the dog park every day, as well. While there, Juniper regularly barks and lunges at passing humans because she is worried about them. She also sometimes “nips” people at the dog park and has even torn someone’s jeans. It turns out Juniper has many dog friends and is comfortable with their people. Several times a week, Juniper and her person do dog trades with the neighbors and their yards. Juniper still gets to play with dogs but in a controlled setting, a win-win for all.

Playing tug, sniffing "forever," and eating "people" food.

Playing tug is perfectly okay as long as some "rules" are put into effect by a dog's human. Dogs create their own rules, often on the go.

Tug is not all about a dog dominating or competing with their human or other dogs, though on some occasions, a dog might like they're doing so. Marc looked at 50 random tugs out of the many he'd observed during different visits to dog parks, and while these are preliminary data, they show clearly that competition is but one explanation, but surely not the only one for what's happening when dogs play tug.

Marc Bekoff
Molly and Charlotte playing tug.
Source: Marc Bekoff

When dogs play tug, it's much more complex and interesting than saying they're always "competing." Sometimes they may be, but most of the time, they're not.

Mary noted, "as long as I play tug with my dog with certain boundaries (e.g., no teeth on skin, we only play tug with 'approved' toys), he will actually be more enriched, and he won’t suddenly start trying to play tug with my clothes." Marc agreed.

Dogs are very good contextual learners and are able to discern different circumstances and situations. So, feel free to get down and dirty and tug away as long as your dog also thinks it's okay.

Sniffing "forever." What seems to be endless sniffing usually doesn't last for more than around 30 seconds. Take their perspective when walking your dog or letting them run free. You wouldn't want to be yanked, scolded, or told, "there's nothing there." There might be nothing for you, but more than likely, there's tons of information for a dog when their nose is pinned to the ground, a tree, or a bush, and they're assessing pee-mail or trying to locate a sound and what another dog might be telling them. Research shows allowing dogs to exercise their noses helps them think positively, and people often say their dog is better behaved when they're not yanked away from smells that attract them.

A dog's exercise should be fun, enriching, and exciting. Letting them sniff is not all about them dominating you. All they want to do is get a full "picture" of who's been there and possibly where they're heading and what they're feeling. Let them lead the way, choose where to go (putting safety first), and how slow or fast to move (not faster than you can comfortably walk or run when they're attached to you).

Letting your dog be a dog when they're out and about might slow you down and have you learn more about your dog as the individual they truly are and what they want and need when they're supposed to be having fun.

Eating "people" food. Some people worry about dogs eating “people food” and learning that begging pays off. Of course, there is nothing wrong with dogs eating some "people food," and your dog will only learn to beg if you feed them after they do so.

How your dog behaves is up to you.

It's up to you to be sure your dog acts appropriately in the different situations in which they and you find yourselves. Companion dogs are captive animals and live highly constrained lives.

Certainly, suppressing natural behaviors may be a necessity in certain contexts (for example, you have to keep your dog on a leash in a busy, leash-only city area to be considerate of others and for safety’s sake), but appropriate enrichment is essential for a dog’s welfare and wellbeing. It's important to reward the behaviors you like that your dog does if you want to see more of those behaviors. After all, “no” isn’t a behavior.

Letting a dog be a dog and be able to live with you, too.

There are pros and cons in many situations where you and your dog find yourselves. It’s up to you to be dog literate, know your dog, and make the best decisions possible while choosing where and when to give your dog the freedoms they need to express their dogness.1 Context is key.2 Tough love doesn't work.

Living with a dog can bring on a lot of pressure, so it’s important to think about whether having a companion animal in your home is the right decision for you and the dog. Calling a dog a "bad dog" might be the easy way out and unfair to them.

Mary Angilly is a positive force-free dog trainer.


1) If you have a dog in your home, it’s essential to prevent a cycle of unmet needs, which leads to perpetual problems for both dog and guardian. If a dog’s needs aren’t being met, they will often find other outlets, many of which are a problem for their human (e.g. urinating in the house due to an untreated medical issue or chewing on the furniture due to lack of enrichment). This then leads to the human being unhappy and distressed and therefore disconnected from the dog, resulting in the cycle beginning again. Stresses can build up, a process called "trigger stacking."

2) As Badger and Nessie's human aptly puts it:: "I try hard to let my dogs be dogs. I consider the specific situation and determine if their behavior is appropriate at that moment in that place or if I should redirect it. My dogs are intelligent. They work it out. And I do my best to be consistent yet not underestimate them."

Let Your Dog Tell You If They Want to Go to a Dog Park.

What's Happening When Dogs Play Tug-of-War? Dog Park Chatter.

Get Down and Dirty With Your Dog: Bow, Hug, and Tug.

Allowing Dogs to Sniff Helps Them Think Positively.

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

When Dogs Play, They Follow the Golden Rules of Fairness.

Why Our Dogs Don't Need Tough Love.

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