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Can Dogs Really Be “Behaving Badly”?

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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?

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