Is it Really the Dog, Or Is the Owner to Blame for Bad Dog Behavior?

The dog training lesson started off much like any other. My new clients had called me to help with their year-old Goldendoodle, who was exhibiting typical behaviors like jumping up on people, counter surfing and “acting wild”. As we talked our way through my pre-lesson questionnaire, I noticed a theme: the so-called bad dog was severely under-exercised. Nearly all of the family’s challenges stemmed from the fact that their young exuberant dog wasn’t getting enough play time, but that fact seemed lost on them. To me, it was an easy fix, so I couldn’t understand why there was so much tension in the air. Yes, the dog had difficulty focusing on me when we started the hands-on work, and yes, he jumped up on me a few times and nearly knocked me over (eliciting a quiet expletive from me when he punched me in the gut), but that’s all in a day’s work.

Being a Bad Dog or a Bad Owner?After 20 minutes of trying to get the couple to crack a smile, I finally called them on it. “Guys, I’m feeling the pressure. What’s going on? The wife answered, her arms crossed and her face stony.  “I’m not sure if we’re going to keep this dog. I just can’t take it anymore. He’s out of control. The fact is, he’s a bad dog.” In an instant, I went from feeling hopeful about the lesson to completely defeated. I realized that I wasn’t there to help with basic obedience, I was there to administer CPR to a dying relationship. I paused to dig deeper into what was going on.

The family had taught the dog how to respond to “Sit” and “Down” but had never done much else, so when they took him for a walk he pulled them with a sled dog’s vigor. That meant fewer walks. Though the husband and wife both tried to exercise the dog, it was obvious that the “trying” wasn’t coming close to actually putting a dent in the dog’s boundless energy. They didn’t want to let him run around in their yard when it was muddy because he got too dirty, so games of fetch were out of the question for much of the wet fall season. Because the dog was so bored and ignored in the house, he resorted to grabbing pillows and dish towels for entertainment. The clever dog knew that stealing something would result in a game of “catch me if you can” every time he did it, so he kept it up. The wife told me that the dog would often grab the same dish towel four times in a row, and I delicately tried to point out the dog training hint, “if you can predict it, you can prevent it.” If she knew that the dog was going to grab the towel, why didn’t she stop it from happening in the first place?

We continued the lesson, but it felt stilted. Neither one of the owners really committed to the work we were doing. I felt terrible for the dog.

I walked out of that lesson disheartened and a little angry. I was upset that yet another rambunctious but totally normal dog might be relinquished because his people didn’t take the time to attend to his very basic needs. I did my best to help the owners understand how they could make life a little easier for everyone in the household – both canine and human – like stepping up their training plan, considering doggie daycare and introducing a variety of busy toys, but I’m not sure if they’re going to take my advice to heart.

The sad fact was that this “bad dog” became that way through no fault of his own, and now he might be the one who pays the price.