Last updated September 25, 2019 (Originally published October 2012)
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, or you probably wouldn’t be reading this.
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. Give him a break.
Don’t blame yourself, either.
Almost every email I 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 a major canine behavior problem, 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 pet owner message boards.
Is it true? Is it really your fault that Sparky is pooping in his crate or trying to kill your visitors? Yeah, you might be doing something wrong; I know I 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 – sometimes dogs are just nuts.
It doesn’t matter whose fault it is.
Focus on fixing the problem.
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 band-aids.
If you want a long-term cure for your dog’s behavior problems, you need 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.
Management tools physically prevent your dog from getting into trouble. They put an immediate, if temporary, stop to bad behavior.
To stop Sparky from pulling on leash, get a front-clip harness The Ruffwear Front Range harness is one of the most well-designed front-clip harnesses out there. #notsponsored. For ease of use, effectiveness and humaneness, a front-clip harness is the best no-pull tool available.
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 jumps on your visitors, chews on the furniture and bolts out the door every chance he gets. You can break this into bite-size chunks. Here’s a start:
Goal 1: Get some management tools to keep Sparky where I can see him.
Goal 2: Provide some mental and physical exercise: Take Sparky on an extra walk every week and feed him out of puzzle toys.
Goal 3: Teach Sparky to sit when greeting visitors.
Goal 3 can be broken down into even smaller goals:
- Teach Sparky the sit command
- Teach Sparky to sit when there are distractions around
- Have Sparky sit when someone familiar and “boring” comes over
- Have Sparky sit when someone new and exciting comes over
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, peeing on the table leg, 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?
That’s literally what they were designed for.
Harness your husky up for kicksledding or urban mushing. Take a tracking class with your beagle. Build a sand box for your Jack Russell.
Call in the cavalry.
You know who are really good at making dogs less obnoxious?
Dog trainers. Like, actual, in-person dog trainers who come to your house and whip your dog into shape.
If you’re harboring murderous feelings toward Sparky or dealing with serious issues like fear or aggression, it might be time to call a pro.
Visit the APDT’s website to learn how to pick a good trainer and find one in your area.
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, head over to the behavior problems page for specific solutions to Sparky’s problems.
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