Glinda: Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
Dorothy: Who, me? Why, I’m not a witch at all. I’m Dorothy Gale from Kansas.
Every day I get emails or phone calls from people who tell me they have a “bad” dog. The dog does “bad” things. But, it also does “good” things which is why the owner still has the dog. The owner just wishes the “bad” things would not happen.
Meanwhile if the dog could speak a verbal language, I imagine he would be just as confused as Dorothy and say, “I’m not good or bad. I’m a dog.”
When we say a dog is bad or good, what do we mean?
Here are some Merriam-Webster definitions for bad:
- 1a: failing to reach an acceptable standard : POOR
- b: UNFAVORABLE
- 2a: morally objectionable : EVIL
- b: MISCHIEVOUS, DISOBEDIENT — ex: a bad dog
Seriously even the dictionary uses dog as an example of “bad.” I need to talk to someone about that!
How does the dictionary define “good?” First, there were 15 pages of definitions for “good” so I pulled out the ones most likely meant by people who have pets when they use this word. Although my guess is most people are thinking of the last definition: “well behaved.”
- 1a(1): of a favorable character or tendency
- b(1): SUITABLE, FIT
- (5): that can be relied on
- c(1): AGREEABLE, PLEASANT
- (3): AMUSING, CLEVER
- (2): conforming to a standard
- 2a(1): VIRTUOUS, RIGHT, COMMENDABLE
- 2): KIND, BENEVOLENT
- d(1): LOYAL
- 2: well-behaved
So, look at these definitions and tell me what your dog is thinking when he wakes up in the morning. Is he thinking “today I am going to be a good dog?” Or is he thinking “today I am going to be a bad dog?”
Or does he wake up and say, “what’s for breakfast?”
I want to propose that the words “good” and “bad” mean nothing to your dog. Those are words you define. He does not have a verbal language so you can’t have a conversation that sounds like this, “It is bad to poop in the house. It is good to poop outside.” Or it is “bad to nip at the children, but it is good to not jump on them.”
If we go into a relationship with the dog already thinking he is “bad” then it will be difficult to help him learn a new behavior.
Instead, when you say in your head “this is a bad dog” ask yourself what exactly the dog is doing that is bad. Is there something he could be doing that you consider good? If so, can you train him to do that behavior or can you manage the situation so he can’t do the bad behavior?
For example, if you consider it bad for your dog to get in the trash, can you buy a trash can with a clip lid that latches shut? Can you put the trash can in a place the dog can’t get it? Can you truly believe your dog understands getting in the trash is bad when he has thousands of years of scavenging in his evolution?
Now, let’s think about stubborn. Does your dog wake up in the morning and say, “today I am going to be stubborn?” If you think about that, this requires a great deal of higher brain function. I would have to be aware first of what is good and bad and then I would have to deliberately chose to do what is bad. There is lots of amazing work going on in understanding animal brains right now and we are learning all kinds of amazing things. But, I don’t think we will learn that dogs can be willfully disobedient.
Instead, what I see when my clients say their dog is “stubborn” is a dog that does not fully understand what is asked or a dog that has not generalized the behavior. For example, a client says, “My dog knows sit, but he is stubborn.” When I ask for examples, I find out the dog has a great sit in the living room when no one but the owner is home, but the dog can’t sit when someone comes through the door. That dog isn’t stubborn. He doesn’t know sit works there. He has not generalized the behavior. You actually need to train him to sit at the door with someone coming through the door.
I see this in working dog examples as well. I overheard a person at a seminar say, “when I take the electric collar off my dog, she loses her mind and is so stubborn.” What that tells me is the handler didn’t actually teach the dog it could do the behavior without the e-collar. Instead the e-collar is part of the learned behavior. When you train a dog using punishment and the punishment isn’t there, then the dog wouldn’t necessarily generalize that the same game is going on. For example, if you taught the dog to sit by shocking it when it does not sit, then if the e-collar isn’t there, and you ask for a sit, the dog could think that the e-collar has to be part of the cue to sit.
People say the same thing about using treats. “My dog knows how to sit, but only when I have a treat in my hand.” Exactly, the treat in your hand is part of the cue to sit. Without your hand holding the treat, and the hand then being held in a certain position, your dog does not understand this is the same behavior. You need to train the dog that he can sit without seeing the treat or by using other forms of praise as well.
I had my dog Batman for six years and did competitive obedience with him. He had several titles. Then I learned one day he did not know the word “sit.” I was asked to say “sit” with my hands behind my back and with my eyes closed. Batman just stood there wagging his tail and staring at me.
It turns out he knew the word “sit” only in the context of my right hand being at the level of my stomach. If I said “sit” with my hand in that position, he would sit. If my hand was not in that position he would not sit. He was not bad or stubborn. He had learned a very specific set of things needed to happen for the word “sit” to work.
Words have power. If we use the words “bad,” “aggressive,” “stubborn,” etc. we are already setting ourselves up to have a poor relationship with our dog. Those words mean to us that the dog is behaving in a way we do not want. Instead, ask yourself why is the dog doing this? What does he get out of it? If he is jumping up on you and you are constantly saying “off” “bad” “down” and then pushing him, then he is getting a lot of great feedback. In his mind he is saying “you talked to me, you looked at me, you touched me. When I have four feet on the floor you ignore me completely. I love jumping up and interacting with you.”
If we use the word “aggressive” we have already decided this is a dangerous dog with really bad behavior. But, what if the behavior we called aggressive was based in fear? Would that make you feel better about your dog? If you screamed at a snake and then tried to kill the snake with a hoe, would I call you aggressive? No, you were terrified of the snake and took action to protect yourself (although please don’t kill snakes they are good for the environment). Yet, if our dog growls, lunges, snaps or bites at something that scares him (a stranger for example) then he is “aggressive” and “bad.”
Please don’t get me wrong, a dog that is fear aggressive is an issue that needs to be worked with right away, but I find my clients feel better about helping their dog if they understand the dog is afraid rather than thinking their dog is just a bad dog.
So, is your dog a good dog or a bad dog? Or is she just Dorothy Gale from Kansas who finds herself in a land where all the rules are different?