Good dog – bad dog. These are labels we often throw out to describe our dogs with little thought for their meaning or their accuracy. These descriptions are often precipitated largely by our own emotional response to our dog’s behaviour.
The term “good dog” is fairly benign although the criteria to be a good dog seems to vary widely from owner to owner . For those ‘other’ dogs however, being labeled a bad dog could have serious ramifications. There are way too many so called bad dogs now residing in shelters and rescues.
The term bad dog often seems to imply deliberate intention on the dog’s part. People tell me, “he looked so guilty when I caught him in the act,” or “he knows how angry that behaviour makes me.” They seem to think that the dog knew his behaviour was wrong but went ahead with it anyway.
As a dog trainer I meet many dogs. I have met dogs that are nervous, shy, anxious, fearful, frustrated, upset, confused, cranky, aggressive etc. I have yet to meet a dog that I would label as a bad dog.
Oh wait, I am forgetting – I own a “bad” dog. Maddie, my three year old Australian Shepherd will lunge and bark at other dogs when on leash. She has attacked her two housemates. She now wears a muzzle whenever she is with them; otherwise she is separated from them at all times in the house
Many people have asked why we would keep such a dog in our home. In public other dog owners who have ventured too close and witnessed her displays have suggested that she should be punished or put down.
In reality Maddie is a sweet loving extremely sensitive dog. She likes people, is great with kids and works with some of our clients in our therapeutic programs. She is well trained, has excellent manners and loves to please. She is very afraid of all other dogs and so barks and lunges to keep them away.
I work to reduce Maddie’s anxieties and reactions for her own sake but I don’t stress about her behaviours. I know that they are far more common and acceptable to dogs than people realize. If you watch a group of puppies play you will see barking, biting, grabbing, guarding, chasing, snarling, humping, and destruction of objects. These puppies are practicing behaviours that kept their canine ancestors alive for thousands of years. They come pre-installed in every dog. Unfortunately almost all of these behaviours are irritating and unacceptable to dog owners.
As frustrated as we are with what we see as less than desirable dog behaviours we should stop for a moment and think about human-dog interactions from our dogs’ perspective. How much more frustrating must it be to live in a world where almost all of your natural instincts are discouraged, or even worse, punished?
There’s no doubt that dogs need to learn what we consider socially acceptable behaviours so that we can all co-exist. But since we seem to be the ones dictating the rules maybe we can also summon up more empathy, patience and support for our best friend. Instead of calling our dogs out for just being dogs we can stop, take a deep breath and then patiently teach them what it takes to be our version of a good dog. As my friend Grace says, they are all trying to be good dogs. We just need to show them what that looks like.