Originally published: October 2012 Last updated: April 2022
Sometimes, I don’t like my dogs very much.
They have issues. Jonas was a fearful, under-socialized mess when I met him, and some residual effects of that remain to this day. Merlin is a recovering fear-aggressive border collie. You don’t always notice the “recovering” part.
Don’t get me wrong, I love these guys. I really do. I wouldn’t trade them for the most well-adjusted, well-behaved dogs on the planet.
But sometimes, I’m tempted.
Sometimes, they drive me insane and I wonder why I even bother with dogs at all. Surely, a goldfish would be easier. I hear they don’t shed much, either.
I’m guessing you sometimes feel this way about your dog, too.
Dog ownership ain’t always rainbows and unconditional love and cute little doggie sweaters. Sometimes it’s hard work and frustration and a pile of dog crap on your expensive white carpet.
The question is: when you’re overwhelmed by Sparky’s behavior problems, when your family is threatening to send the damn dog back to the pound, when you‘re too exhausted to even think about some complicated dog training plan…
What the hell are you supposed to do?
Here’s what I suggest.
First, don’t blame the dog. He’s probably as irritated as you
Imagine you’ve been abducted by aliens. You’re dumped into an alien family where you don’t speak the language, don’t know the rules and don’t have the right body parts to work the can opener.
This is what dogs deal with their whole lives.
How they don’t all go batshit insane is beyond me.
Your dog is doing the best he can with what he has. Instead of getting resentful and angry at him, it might help to stand in solidarity with him: I know this sucks, Sparky, but we’re gonna figure it out together!
Don’t blame yourself, either
Almost every message we get from dog owners at their wits’ end starts like this:
I know this is my fault, but…
I’m sure I’m doing something wrong…
I got myself into a huge mess…
They’re dealing with an incredibly frustrating issue, and they’re apologizing.
For the record, you don’t have to apologize.
For better or for worse, this is part of dog ownership culture: if your dog has a behavior problem, you did something to cause it. This idea is reinforced everywhere you look, from dog training reality shows to social media.
Is it true? Is it really your fault that Sparky growls over his food bowl or lunges at strangers? Sure, you might be doing something wrong; I know I’ve made plenty of stupid mistakes with my dogs. It helps ease the gnawing guilt to remember that I was doing what I thought was best with the knowledge I had at the time.
Or maybe you’re not doing anything wrong – there is a genetic component to behavior, after all.
It doesn’t matter whose fault it is.
Go for a walk. Without your dog
It can be hard to see a way out of the mess when you’re sitting in it. Get away from the dog for a while and go outside. Get some fresh air and get some nice exercise-induced brain chemicals flowing. Take a walk. Ride a bike. Swim. Work out. Run. Whatever. Pick your poison.
I feel you raising an eyebrow skeptically. But trust me, fellow internet people. It’s SCIENCE. There’s nothing like exercise to melt away stress and help you think clearly.
And really, don’t take your dog. Even if he’s sitting at the door with his sad-puppy face.
You need a break from this dog. Leave him home.
Get some bandaids
If you want a long-term solution for your dog’s behavior problems, you’ll probably have to actually train him. But that takes time and patience. You don’t always see results right away.
This is where band-aids come in. And by bandaids I mean management tools. These are things that physically prevent your dog from getting into trouble. They put an immediate, if temporary, stop to unpleasant behavior.
To stop Sparky from pulling on leash, get a front-clip harness. For ease of use, effectiveness and humaneness, a front-clip harness is the best pulling management tool available. The Ruffwear Front Range harness is one of our favorites. #notsponsored.
Restrict Sparky’s ability to cause mayhem with baby gates and exercise pens. If you don’t have a crate yet, get one and spend a couple days teaching Sparky to use it.
Do something fun with your dog. Remember why you adopted him in the first place
Your mileage may vary depending on the type and severity of Sparky’s issues. But the idea is to spend some quality, no-pressure time just hanging out with your dog.
This will help you remember that you actually do kinda like this dog, and you don’t actually want to put him up for sale on Craigslist.
Pick one teeny tiny training goal
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of taking on a behavior modification program. Even the phrase “behavior modification program” sounds ominous.
Where do you start? Which of Sparky’s many issues do you start with?
Good dog training goals have three characteristics:
- Focus on exactly what you want, not what you don’t
An example of a bad goal: I want my dog to not be so obnoxious.
That is way too vague and way too big. It also doesn’t say anything about what you actually want Sparky to do instead.
First, define “obnoxious.” Figure out exactly what Sparky does that drives you crazy. Let’s say he chews on the furniture, pulls on leash like a maniac, and ignores your calls at the dog park. Okay, good. Now we’re gettin’ somewhere. You can break these down into bite-size chunks.
Here’s a start:
Goal 1: Get some management tools to keep Sparky away from the furniture when you can’t supervise.
Goal 3: Teach Sparky a strong come-when-called (aka “recall”) cue.
Goal 3 can be broken down into even smaller goals. In our online course Super Recall, we split it into about eight levels to make it easier to achieve. Here are the first three levels/goals:
- Condition the recall cue to elicit a “hell yes!” response from Sparky.
- Teach Sparky to come when called in a low-distraction environment, like your backyard or living room.
- Teach Sparky to come away from a distraction.
Baby steps, grasshopper.
Consider that maybe your dog is just being a dog. Figure out a less annoying way for him to express his dogness
This doesn’t apply to all problems. But things like barking, chewing, digging, jumping up, etc. are all perfectly normal in polite canine society.
Does your Siberian husky drag you down the street on walks? Does your beagle tune you out to follow his nose? Does your Jack Russell
terrorist terrier dig up the lawn?
Yup, that’s pretty much what they were bred for!
Harness your husky up for kicksledding or urban mushing. Play some scentwork games with your beagle. Build a sand box for your Jack Russell.
Feeling better? Maybe? A little?
I’m hoping that at this point you can breathe a little easier and don’t feel quite as overwhelmed. While you’re in this optimistic mood, here are all the more specific ways we can help with your dog training issues:
Practical Leash Manners – Finally get your dog to stop pulling and happily walk WITH you.
Super Recall – Get your dog to reliably come when called and pay attention to you in public.
Puppy Survival School – Raise a happy, well-behaved puppy without losing your mind.
Head over to our behavior problems page for advice on a wide variety of subjects.