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The #1 Reason for all Dog Behaviour Problems

From pulling on the leash to complete lack of recall, from barking non-stop at everything that passes the home to howling all day while the humans are away, from aggression to separation anxiety, from stealing food to destroying the home ...

In the last two decades I may not have seen absolutely every possible dog behaviour problem, but I would be very surprised if I haven’t (I once saw a dog fake having a broken leg to get attention).

For over 20 years now, I have been travelling around the world helping people to better understand their dogs and help them solve all kinds of behaviour problems. No matter what country I find myself in - this summer alone I will be in Ireland, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland (so sometimes even the language of the people is not even the same) - the same problems come up over and over again. Every time, the root cause of the issue is the same.

Firstly, let’s dispel a few myths about why a dog could be behaving badly. A common mistake people make is to blame the breed of the dog for bad behaviour, to the extent that some poor folk are convinced that there is no hope for them. Anyone who has ever had or met more than one dog of the same breed knows that they are not clones. My sister and I could not be more different, despite the same upbringing and ancestry.

Btw if anyone knows Barbara Streisand, could they ask her to reply to my tweet about her cloned dogs? I am fascinated to find out if they have different personalities … 

My two English Springers, Kez and Pru, perfectly illustrated this point. Not only were they the same breed, but also father and daughter. Incidentally, far from being the hyperactive balls of energy that English Springer Spaniels are supposed to be (according to breed specific stereotypes), I used to watch them for ages just to see if they were still breathing – they were that relaxed. 

Anyway, despite being family, their personalities were accurately reflected by their birthdays. Kez was born on St. Valentine’s Day and could not have been a more affectionate and loving pooch. His daughter, on the other hand, was born on Halloween…!

It is all too easy (and lazy) to blame certain behaviours on the breed of a dog; once while giving a talk in London, I was asked what to do about a Doberman that pulled on the leash. After giving a full answer (including miming the actions to do) I was immediately asked by the owner of a Yorkshire what she could do about her dog… pulling on the leash! She had heard the word “Doberman” and automatically decided that this was nothing to do with her even though her dog had the exact same problem.

The personality of a dog – regardless of breed or age – will determine the questions that they ask and the behaviour that they will act out. Luckily, the same reason lies behind all of it.

As well as blaming the breed for certain bad behaviour, you will often hear people give human reasons for their naughty pooch

For example, a dog that chews up the house when the humans are away is branded as “bored”. In many cases, the magic solution is to buy a hollow, rubber toy so the dog can have something to play with (and even something to eat if it is stuffed with treats). 

Chewing actually releases a natural endorphin that helps to calm down the nervous system. When I watch England play soccer, I bite my fingernails. I can assure you that I am not bored, but I am not enjoying the experience… Ironically, dogs can use this toy to actually reinforce the notion that they have something to worry about (more on that shortly). 

It is eternally fascinating to me how humans can appreciate all other animals on the planet for what they are (cats can literally get away with murder), yet a dog’s nature is completely denied. In fact, should a dog act like a dog, there is often shock and outrage on the part of the human.

N.B. There is one other animal whose true nature is consistently denied – Homo sapiens. 

Instead of disrespecting a dog’s true nature, it is much more helpful to manage it and use their way of thinking to solve the problem. The #1 reason for all dog behaviour problems comes from how they actually think about us and the world into which we have put them.

So – I hear you ask with baited breath ...

What IS the #1 reason for dog behaviour problems?

To put it quite simply, the reason is that the dog has too much responsibility. Dogs know instinctively that there must be someone in their family who is the one to trust and learn from: that individual is responsible for the wellbeing and education of everyone else. 

The problem arises when a dog does not see any members for their group as being good enough to do this vital (and I mean that in the literal sense) job. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in keeping with this a dog will take the responsibility upon its own shoulders. 

The problem is that they have no understanding of the world in which we have put them (for example, a dog can bark like mad at an animal on television, not knowing that this is just a TV show). Also, they do not get one bit of training or advice on how to do the job that they know must be done by someone.

Given that they are completely out of their depth, it is perfectly understandable that many dogs out there panic. 

Nervous aggression is one of the most common problems I am asked to help with. Others will do their very best but do so in a way that becomes a problem. A dog that pulls like crazy on the leash thinks that is has to get there first to protect and decide. 

Recall issues stem from the dog believing that they will decide when the best time to come back is (and not one of the kids). 

Others shut down completely or seem to cope (although this delicate state of affairs can deteriorate at any moment with sometimes the slightest change in circumstance).

Moving home, losing or gaining a member of the group, even new neighbours can be the catalyst to a dog suddenly going from quiet to riot.

The one thing that a dog has to help it try to do its best is its instinct. After all, their instinct helps wild canines to survive (albeit in a world they understand with help from others with whom they can communicate effectively). Therefore, in order to help them pass the torch of responsibility to us, we need to show them in a way that they actually understand that we are capable of being the one to trust. 

Basically, bad behaviour can be solved by proving ourselves worthy of taking the responsibility away from our dogs. Be prepared for them to ask us questions during this process – if I told you that you could trust me with your life, I think you’d ask a fair few questions before being convinced. 
Giving dogs the right answer is the way to help them to calm down and relax

They will ask questions every day – all we have to do is give them the right answer and they can be reassured and reminded whenever they need it. Depending on their personality, you might need to remind your dog once in a while or every day. The good news is that as long as you give them the right answer, they will calm down much more quickly. After all, this is a matter of 'Life and Death' to them so they will not take it lightly. 

Once you have established to your dog that they can trust you, any other training you wish to do with them is like icing on the cake

If there is no cake underneath however, it doesn’t matter how much time and effort you put into icing, the structure is weak and can collapse under the slightest pressure. 

Maybe you have been to obedience classes and seen some dogs perform all the tricks in the book, only to drag their humans out of the ring back to the car. Lots of icing – no cake!

When we respect a dog’s nature and understand their language, it is much easier (and takes a lot less time and effort) to give them the right signals. I have lived in France for over 12 years now and I can categorically confirm that being able to speak French makes my life a lot easier…

written by Tony Knight Dog Listener - July 2019

Tony Knight is an internationally-renowned dog trainer, lecturer and public speaker. Tony is a firm believer that the right training can create a happy, relaxed bond between dog and owner.

Tony’s time in Australia has seen him take part in a broad range of media activities, across television, print, radio and online. This includes being dubbed the “Celebrity Dog Listener” for an eight part feature on Channel 7’s Morning Show. He is also a regular contributor on radio featuring in segments on stations such as the ABC and Triple M.

Tony has advised dog owners around the globe, through private consultations, courses and talks. 

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