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Can Dogs Really Be "Behaving Badly"?

Holly Leake
Can dogs really behave badly?
Many dog guardians will likely claim they do and sadly even TV trainers may agree. 
Interestingly, we readily accept that there are thousands of websites, social media pages and articles that promote false information or "fake news", however we seem to perceive anything on TV as authentic, which sadly is not always the case. Granted, there are dog behaviours that are perceived as negative, such as destructive behaviour or behaviour that results in injury to the dog and/or others, however are these dogs really being bad?

Many guardians claim that their dog knows when they have done something wrong, therefore the dog is being wilfully bad. Their reasoning? The dog has been punished for this behaviour before but despite this, the dog has repeated the negative behaviour. Nevertheless, dogs rarely associate their behaviour with the punishment and will continue to repeat it, if the source of the problem is not addressed. In order for a dog to behave badly, they would have to have a conscience. Not only would they need to know the difference between right and wrong, but they would also need to understand how their actions impact the feelings of others and so far extensive scientific research has revealed that dogs just don't have that capability.

Labelling Dog Behaviour

Sadly, a lot of dog behaviour is labelled as bad because it is simply inconvenient to the guardian. Such labels are detrimental to the dog’s welfare because it often influences the guardian’s treatment of the dog. Believing their motives are based on "being dominant" "trying to be in charge" or "being a diva", causes guardians to respond to behaviour with a lack of compassion or empathy.
For example, a dog’s behaviour may change as they reach their senior years. They may struggle with toileting, become confused or anxious and may develop new fears due to pain from common conditions, such as arthritis or hip dysplasia. Obviously toileting in the house is not desirable, a regression in training may be incredibly frustrating and an unwillingness to walk or exercise on certain surfaces may make life difficult. Nevertheless, is this really bad behaviour? Is the dog really trying to be difficult and demanding or are these symptoms of a deeper issue? 
Think of it this way. Would you believe that an elderly person refusing to use stairs, due to chronic arthritis and mobility problems, was behaving negatively or disrespectfully? Or would you happily direct them to the nearest elevator because you acknowledge their needs? Labelling a dog as behaving badly because their behaviour has regressed, due to a change in their needs, is the same as badly treating an elderly person with arthritis because they want to use the lift, for fear of falling down the stairs. Behaviour we deem as bad, is not really the dog behaving badly, it's a symptom of the dog’s needs going unmet.

Sudden behaviour changes can be due to undiagnosed pain and disease, which can occur in dogs at any age. A regression in engagement and training may be indicative of anxiety, illness, or canine cognitive dysfunction. Destructive behaviour may be due to extreme separation anxiety, boredom, or chronic stress. Every behaviour, regardless of how it is perceived, has a function but it is never displayed to be manipulative or difficult and if you are told this by a trainer, you are being misled.

Why must we always assume the worst of dogs? Don't we owe them the benefit of the doubt? Using labels is not helpful, in fact it influences the way in which we respond to the behaviour. If you believe a dog is being stubborn, you are automatically going to feel impatient and will blame a lack of progress on the dog, rather than considering the dogs emotional state, the environment, and your own training approach. As dog professionals it's imperative that we determine the true reason behind the behaviour and prevent ourselves from being influenced by trainers that have no formal education in Canine behaviour.

That said, does it really matter what the motive behind the behaviour is?

Health and Dog Behaviour

Consider the example of a doctor trying to treat a patient. They need to know what the ailment or illness is before treating it. Why? If they don't know what the cause is, they won't know how to adequately treat it. They would have to blindly prescribe random medications, which could make the symptoms worse, have serious side effects and even endanger your life. No doctor tries to treat symptoms until they are certain of the cause.

Likewise, trainers need to determine the true cause of behavioural issues in order to address the behaviour appropriately. Doctors spend many years acquiring knowledge about health conditions, learning how to conduct consultations, what questions to ask and how to recognise symptoms. They would never base their treatment plan on personal assumptions.

Similarly, dog trainers need to dedicate time and energy to studying canine behaviour, so that we can recognise behaviour that is indicative of pain or stress and understand how dogs learn and behave. We should always have a holistic approach and consider the potential influence of health, diet, and routine before coming to any conclusions.
We have a duty of care towards all dogs and we can be the difference between a beloved dog in a forever home and a dog surrendered to a shelter to be rehomed or euthanised. While that sounds like immense pressure, that is the reality and if we take it seriously we will endeavour to do our utmost to educate ourselves and our clients.

Training that centres on the convenience of the clients, rather than the needs of the dog, will likely be detrimental to the dogs welfare. That is something as professionals we have to remember. While it's important to understand a client’s concerns and do our utmost to provide them with support, we cannot and should not do this at the dog’s expense.

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