Fix My Dog NOW, Please
Maybe Your Dog Isn't Broken
Our pet dogs live in our homes, sleep in our beds, and share every aspect of our lives, but Homo sapiens (modern humans) and Canis lupus familiaris (domestic dogs) are entirely different species. Dogs became domesticated about 15,000 years ago, and until relatively recently, the majority of dogs did not spend their lives shut inside houses or confined to backyards. Even today, with an estimated 900 million dogs on the planet, nearly 83% of these are free-ranging. Our Western, modern lives often include busy work schedules, nice couches and carpets, and many hours away from home. Human culture has changed, but dogs are still dogs.
Much of my job as a canine behavior consultant is educating dog owners about species-appropriate behavior. Dog trainers frequently get requests to “fix” behaviors that are, in fact, normal dog behaviors. Setting realistic expectations for dog training and behavior modification requires us to not only assess the individual dog’s history, needs, wants, and environment but also fully accept that some annoying dog behaviors are completely normal (and enjoyable) to most dogs.
Depending on the individual dog and their breed, your dog will likely engage in sniffing, chewing, barking, digging, playing, running, scavenging, rolling in nasty smells, guarding, hunting, or herding. These are all normal dog behaviors. If you expect your dog to be quiet all the time, never get aroused or excited, stay clean, and be content cooped up in your house for eight-plus hours a day, a cat might be a better fit. Turtles are nice, too.
Of course, just because a behavior is species-appropriate doesn’t mean it’s desirable or safe. You can and should manage your dog’s environment to help them make good behavioral choices. For example, leaving your nine-month-old puppy alone with a $2,000 couch is just asking for trouble for both the sofa and the dog. Of course, we can and should shape, focus, and redirect some instinctual dog behaviors into appropriate channels, especially if they are exhibited in dangerous or unhealthy ways. If a dog’s behavior is caused by fear, anxiety, or stress, or if you are concerned about your dog’s safety or a bite to a human or another dog, then it is time to reach out to a qualified and force-free behavior consultant or trainer.
Each dog I train is a study of one, and a good trainer always works with the individual dog in front of them. But humans have bred and selected dogs for specific behavioral traits for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Expecting a herding dog to cease herding entirely or a guardian dog to never bark is an exercise in futility. Whether a dog exhibits characteristics specific to their breed depends on various factors; genetics, environment, training, and individual personality all come into play. Not all Border Collies need multiple hours of exercise and mental stimulation every day, but most will. St. Bernards are typically chill, but some are excitable and active. Purebred puppies from the same litter, raised in the same environment, will have different temperaments and personalities. Even so, finding a dog that suits your lifestyle is more important than picking a dog because it’s cute, or looks cool, or because the breed is in fashion.
Unfortunately, too many people choose their dogs based on appearance alone. Adopting or buying a dog simply because you like the way it looks is like looking for the perfect spouse from a mail-order catalog. You might get lucky, but it’s very possible it will be a bad match. Game of Thrones ushered in a Husky fad, and soon the shelters were full of abandoned Huskies as families discovered how much work is required for this active breed. Everyone wants a Doodle mix for their hypoallergenic qualities, not realizing that pairing a remarkably intelligent breed like a Poodle with an energetic herding dog like an Australian Shepherd means you have a smart and tireless dog that can’t be shut inside most of the day.
A bad match between dog and human is a quality of life issue for both and not something that hiring a trainer can magically fix. Re-homing may be in the dog’s best interest if you really cannot meet your dog’s needs. New dog owners often vastly underestimate how much exercise, attention, and training a dog requires. Your dog is not broken if they need more than two leashed walks a day, a comfy dog bed, and some snuggles. Too many pet dogs are living desperately dull and restricted indoor lives. Owners wonder what’s wrong when their dog barks or digs or chews or starts bouncing off the walls - when the dog is just being a dog.
Even if your dog has all its physical and emotional needs met, they may still develop behavior problems that require professional help. Expectations and reality often collide at this juncture. Dogs are sentient and complex beings - helping a dog overcome fear or aggression or over-arousal isn’t like upgrading a piece of software. We have come to expect instant gratification in our quick-fix culture, but training and behavior modification can be protracted and expensive. Some dog owners choose to send their dog away to costly doggy boot-camp programs with the promise of an obedient and well-trained pet, but many behavior problems are frequently caused or exacerbated by the dog’s everyday environment. Addressing a dog’s behavior problem usually requires the human to change, too.
We love our dogs, and they unconditionally love us back. We develop deep and enduring bonds with them. And with that love comes responsibility. Modern pet dogs are entirely dependent on us for all their needs and wants. Welcoming another species into your home requires time, dedication, and a willingness to embrace the wildness of Canis lupus familiaris. Let your dog be a dog.