Why does my dog… [insert naughty behavior here]? Trainers get asked this question all the time.
I sometimes ruminate on this question, mostly as an indulgence. At the end of the day, why dogs do certain things is at best a guess. As trainers, we typically track their behavior—what they actually do—to see whether it’s happening more and more, or less and less. That information tells us if our training plan is working.
But I still often get lost in thoughts about why. And deep down I secretly whisper to myself that sometimes dogs are naughty simply because we love it when dogs do unexpected things, such as roll around like silly creatures with their paws in the air, or bounce around with a pine cone in their mouths, or stand still, dumbstruck by a butterfly. Sometimes we respond to our dogs’ antics with delighted laughter and a little sweet talk. “Aren’t you a cutie?” These antics border on (or cross the line into) misbehavior, depending on the degree of inconvenience that behavior causes us.
So, for example, a dog who has a blast with a paper towel roll that was destined for the recycling bin anyway, might be a dog easily forgiven. But instant exoneration isn’t always what happens.
I recently learned of a gorgeous 16-month-old English Setter named Brother who regularly surfs the counters at home for things to eat. One day he pilfered a fifty-dollar bill. His humans said, “I think he ate the middle of it because we couldn’t find the other half of Ulysses S. Grant’s face anywhere! He’s actually just EATING money now. You can see how this is a problem!”
Here is an example of when helping oneself to something that isn’t a dog toy is no longer cute and crosses the line into a behavior problem. And yet one can easily see how the dog might not understand that shredding money isn’t as funny to the humans as shredding other things. “Dogs do what works” is a phrase famously attributed to Jean Donaldson, founder of the Academy for Dog Trainers. Part of the reason that we love dogs is because they do do what works, often in ways that surprise us and enchant us, and they can tease us with their magnificent creativity. Who knows exactly why Brother ate the money? Perhaps there was leftover syrup on it or perhaps he just loves the physical sensation of chewing on paper. Sometimes when dogs are naughty, they remind us to laugh, to love, and to live.
Dogs can be wonderfully and refreshingly transparent in their intentions and desires.
A trainer working with a client can enjoy these trespasses with them, and then find out what the client’s real goal is and why they are seeking help.
When I read the indictment of Brother’s criminal enterprises, I can’t help but hear a tone of endearment in his humans’ recollection of the misdeed. Their vivid description of hunting for the face of an historical figure ends with a tongue-in-cheek quip about eating money. Underneath the hint of exasperation is simple love and affection for him because he is a DOG.
Dog trainers are aware that all of us (ourselves included) reinforce naughtiness in dogs, despite our best intentions. Yes, that’s right. We encourage it, enable it, and heck, we revel in it. The beauty here is being able to see our own role in the grand scheme of things, and have compassion for ourselves and for the dogs who live with us. It’s easy to see why there is a problem, why we have naughtiness, and it’s okay to find joy as we navigate this.
It’s not about blame, it’s about choices and picking one’s battles.
When it comes to the naughty things dogs do around the house, a trainer can easily come in, train the dog to “Leave It”, and get a stellar, rock-solid behavior. They can even transfer this training so that the humans who live in that house can get that same behavior. Perhaps the training plan adds the final polishing step of generalizing this to an “automatic” Leave It when it comes to Anything and Everything on Countertops. However, one thing the trainer can’t always do is change the human habits that support and enable the dog’s counter-surfing addiction. This is particularly true if the humans secretly enjoy it.
One of the best things a professional dog trainer can do is be compassionate and understanding when the human client seems to either not realize they may be reinforcing the behavior or—perhaps more frustrating for the trainer—when the human does know this, but doesn’t seem to want to change. Changing behavior is expensive not just for the dog, but also for the human. When I say expensive, I’m referring to the time, physical effort, and mental willpower the client has to exert to change the habits that support the dog’s behavior.
It really comes down to whether the client is motivated, and sometimes the role of the trainer is simply to unpack how badly the client wants it. If the client wants it badly enough, then the trainer’s role will be to help them to stay on track.
Chances are, since the clients are paying us, often in $50 bills, they do want help. What we sometimes forget is that before we were hired, the client did not have a full picture of how much actual change would be required. So, sometimes our initial counseling involves detailing a realistic picture of this effort and letting them make an informed decision about whether they really want to make the changes that we recommend. We can then offer support accordingly.
A good question for a trainer to ask the client is, “How important is this to you?” If after hearing what’s involved the client agrees that it really is important, then we might move on to brainstorming ways to integrate the habit-changing bits into their lifestyle, preferences and tendencies so that these habit-changing bits resonate with the human end of the equation, and have a greater chance of sticking around for the long-term. Sometimes after we get far enough into the details of the plan for the client to visualize what would be required to see the change they want to see in their dog, they might then decide it isn’t really worth it. And this is OK.
Of course, behaviors that result in injuries to other people or dogs might require some hard reality checks, and dogs with compromised welfare do need our help. But that said, many, many behaviors that trainers are hired to solve do have a grey area where the human might decide that they prefer to live with the “problem.” And herein lies the key; a good dog trainer knows when to let the client decide when they are happy. It’s really up to the human who lives with this dog to decide how much change they are dedicated to. After all, it’s their money the dog is eating.