Monday, January 16, 2012

Behavioral Problems: Is it the Dog or the Owner?

By Langley Cornwell

When we adopted our dog, she was shy and insecure. She wouldn’t even stand up straight. Her tail was tucked, her head hung low and she cowered any time a person or dog approached her. We knew we had our work cut out for us, but were ready and entirely willing. We immediately enrolled in puppy kindergarten, and it helped her tremendously. One thing that’s abundantly clear, however, is that the class was more about training the humans than training the puppies.  

So here we are, 3 years later, and I’ve fallen short. I have not held up my end of the bargain. To be specific, our dog now walks tall, is well socialized and she’s gaining confidence every day. Where I got off track was with the basic dog training skills. Additionally, we’re inconsistent with correcting behavioral problems, and we’ve allowed a few bad manners to continue. Regarding the basics, she’s pretty good at ‘come’ but I’d like her to be better. In an emergency, I’m not sure she would drop everything and come running under all circumstances. She will ‘sit’ but only for high-value treats like CANIDAE TidNips™.

Thankfully, she seems to have outgrown her destructive chewing habit. Her ‘leave it’ is okay, she doesn’t bark excessively and she’s never been one to jump up on people. But forget about ‘down,’ ‘wait,’ ‘stay,’ ‘heel,’ or ‘look.’ Even though we learned these commands in puppy kindergarten, nothing stuck (and yeah, I know that’s my fault). Additionally, she’s an excessive digger and a leash puller. She begs from my husband but not from me. I think we all know why, although he denies it… but that’s a different topic altogether. The point is – we need to get back to work.

Professional dog trainer Adam Katz at has an online newsletter I subscribe to. His recent message caught my attention. He asserts that 98% of a dog's bad behavior is a direct result of what dog owners do, and that when it comes to behavior problems, dogs only respond to the conditions and stimulus they receive from the outside world. Many of us already know this, but knowing it and doing something about it are two different things.

I’ve heard dog trainers give various examples that follow a similar theme. For instance, your family enjoys congregating in the backyard around a bonfire in the evenings. Your dog thinks the fire looks interesting and goes for a closer look. When he gets close enough to feel the heat, he backs off. The next time you’re around the fire, he may go in for another inspection but backs off quickly. If your dog is a slow learner there may be a third attempt but probably no more than that. The dog is receiving consistent corrections in the form of heat when he gets too close to the fire. 

So when our dog starts digging, it’s our responsibility to give her a proper correction (gentle negative association) in every case, whether we feel like it or not. If she doesn’t get the correction at the time of the infraction, she’ll likely think the behavior is okay.

Another point to consider: if she is getting good corrections consistently when we see her do it, but continues to dig when we’re not around, then we must ensure that she can’t get to a ‘diggable’ area when we’re away. That may mean keeping her inside when we run errands, blocking her access to the grassy area or whatever. The goal is to give her a correction every time she digs, with no exceptions. To reinforce the point, I may have to let our dog into the yard and then watch her from a position where she can’t see me. If/when she starts digging, I’ll be ready to run in and perform a correction so she gets the point. Once she stops digging completely and doesn’t relapse, then we’ll be able to give her more freedom in the backyard when we’re away from the house.  

I know our dog wants to do the right thing. She is a great pet and wants to please us. It’s our job to learn how to communicate with her in a clear and consistent manner. We need to get better at giving motivational praise and meaningful corrections at the right time, every time.

So the next time our dog does something that is completely natural to her but doesn’t fit with our lifestyle, we should face the fact that the issue is with the owner—us—and not the dog.

Photo by Tracey R.

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. Those are some good points for sure. We loved the puppy school and it really does help the dog. But it is true, that most problems with dogs are the fault of the human. My Border Collie has some bad habits and it is because I am not consistant with her training. It is a full time job. Great post

  2. Great post. Mom says she has some work to do on the digging issues too.

    Woos - Phantom, Thunder, Ciara, and Lightning


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