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Is Your Dog’s Behavior All Your Fault?

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

woman feeling guilty with dog

I recently had a phone conversation with a potential client that nearly caused me to explode. Fair warning, if you don’t want to read the rantings of a disgruntled dog trainer, save yourself and click on by. 

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve been conducting virtual (Zoom) training sessions. In my opinion, this type of consult works well for some things and is not as appropriate for others. If I feel that an issue requires an in-person trainer, I will refer the person to one of my local colleagues who are still seeing clients. And so, after receiving an email from a woman who recently adopted a 5-year-old pit bull that is reactive toward other dogs and is now beginning to be reactive toward her partner, I called to find out more. She sounded like a lovely woman who truly loves the dog and wants to do what’s best for him. But she was very distraught after having read articles online from a self-proclaimed celebrity dog trainer who had plenty of advice. The gist of it was that the dog’s behavior was entirely the owner’s fault. In this case, the dog-dog aggression, the aggression toward people, all of it could be laid at the new owner’s feet because she was “babying the dog”. 

The owner described the dog, who she’d had for only a month, as being anxious and insecure. He was afraid of men, uncertain in a variety of situations, clingy with her, and actually afraid of other dogs, hence the fear-based reactivity. The advice on the website (again, this was not a personal consult, but general advice meant for anyone reading) had been to ignore the dog completely. Ignore the dog! This poor dog, who had been given up to the shelter after the two other dogs in the home had been beating up on him, who had luckily found his way into a loving home, now seemed, as she said, “very sad” that he was suddenly being ignored by the one person he had bonded with and trusted. I listened silently, feeling more and more angry on behalf of the dog. How would you feel if your significant other suddenly started ignoring you for no reason you could fathom? Would it make you feel less anxious? Would it take away your unwanted behaviors, or would it make them worse due to increased distress? And do you have any idea how hard it is to bite your tongue while steam is coming out of your ears? 

Combined with the role of genetics, this dog is five years old and has had five years’ worth of experiences that have contributed to shaping his behavior. Unless the woman was seriously mistreating him, I don’t see how his current behavior is her fault. And let’s say she is “babying” the dog a bit. So what? This poor woman felt so guilty that she had allegedly caused the behavior issues that she was nearly in tears when I explained that it was not her fault. Hell, I “baby” my dogs in some ways and they surely aren’t threatening people because of it. What is with these trainers whose entire philosophy is to blame the owner? I’m not saying that owners can’t contribute to a dog’s problems. Of course they can. An owner can certainly make a behavior problem worse, and yes, in some cases even cause one. But to say that every dog’s behavior issue is caused by the owner, that the person simply needs to be a stronger leader, teach the dog his place, or the like brings to mind Abraham Maslow’s quote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” If, as a trainer, you come up with the same reason for every dog’s issues and give the same advice to all owners to solve it, it’s time to get yourself some new tools.

As for the woman, she was incredibly relieved to hear that she didn’t have to ignore her dog, and in fact, she gave him some affection while we were talking. She said he seemed extremely happy for it, and I could hear the change in her voice as well. I referred her to a local trainer, and am hoping this kind woman and her dog can get on track and have a long and happy life together.  __________________________________________________________________________________ Subscribe to the blog to be notified of new postings.

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