This dog is driving me crazy!

Great expectations run amok


Mary Jane bought the cutest Yorkie-poo puppy at the pet store, but she cannot housetrain Monkey or keep the little rascal from stealing cookies from the baby or chewing everything he gets his teeth on — including ankles.

Steven researched breeds and bought a Labrador Retriever from a reputable breeder. But Toby has far more energy than Steven ever imagined, and he cannot keep up with the pup. Last week, Toby destroyed a door in his attempt to get outside to play with the kids, and the week before he slipped out the back gate and was picked up by the dog warden. That experience cost Steven a $75 fine and $10 for board at the shelter, but at least Toby was wearing his license tag and could be identified.

The Drews like to jog before work and hike or bike on the weekends. Sarah always liked the droopy look of a Basset Hound, so Mark bought her a pup for her birthday. Snoopy couldn't keep up with Sarah and Mark on the trail, so he stays home alone while they enjoy their outings. Last month, year-old Snoopy soiled the new kitchen tile, so now he's tied in the yard while they are gone.

The stories go on. The Hortons' Dalmatian is nothing like Pongo; the Hammonds' Newfoundland drools and sheds on the new furniture; the Cummings are getting a divorce and neither one wants the dog; Sue Jackson bought a pup at a charity auction and doesn't like its personality; the Smiths bought a German Shepherd that is timid instead of bold; and the Stassens bought a Golden Retriever mix pup that is dysplastic. They all had great expectations, but something went wrong.

The contract

Bringing a pet into the home from any source implies a contract with that animal to provide it with food, water, shelter, training, and companionship. The dog is more than willing to fulfill his side of the bargain because he knows from whence his kibble comes. Dogs have been human companions for thousands of years; along with the instincts and behaviors that make him canine, each and every puppy is born with an affinity for domestic life in a human family.

The contract is strained when human expectations of the dog differ from reality. To prevent breech of contract, the dog owner's best bet is to consider that his pup or adult dog has the potential to become the perfect companion under the right circumstances — and then to begin to orchestrate those circumstances.

At this point, it does not matter if the pet came from a puppy mill or a reputable breeder, from a retail store or the boss's sister or the female dog allowed to have just one litter — owners must build the human-animal bond with the dog they have, not the dog they wish they had. So forget the past. Use the dog's origin to explain its behavior, not as an excuse to ignore the problems until they become insurmountable. A pet store puppy may be hard to housetrain or hyperactive, but once he enters your home, it's up to you to figure out how to deal with the behavior. A field-bred Golden Retriever or Springer Spaniel might have a working drive that makes you crazy, but if the dog is yours, so is the responsibility to deal with the behavior.

Recognizing potential

Each dog behaves according to its genetic makeup. That genetic tendency can be surmised from its ancestry — purebred or mixed — and accommodated through training and opportunities to behave as nature intended. In other words, a Basset Hound or Dachshund may not be a good jogging companion, but either can be a delightful house dog, great for walks in the park, fine for tracking critters, and fun for a child to show in 4-H or AKC junior showmanship. On the other hand, a rowdy Labrador Retriever or Dalmatian may be too much for the children to handle and difficult to keep in the yard, but both are responsive to daily exercise, consistent obedience training and firm discipline. The trick is to be alert to the possibilities even if you are appalled that Toby is a tornado of energy (and almost as destructive) and Snoopy would rather lie on the couch than join you in practice for a cross-country bike tour.

Genetic potential is only part of the formula. Each dog has a behavioral potential as well, potential that can be shaped with firm and consistent training. Fortunately, dogs are resilient; they can adjust to firmness and consistency beginning today even if they haven't experienced either in the past. The adjustment period may be rough, but the results are worth the effort.

What to do

So how does all this translate into well-behaved-dog that meets family expectations? First, you may have to adjust those expectations a bit to accommodate the individual dog's personality and character. Then you have to seriously tackle each problem, perhaps going so far as to make a list of what to deal with first and the alternatives for doing so.

For example, if Monkey isn't housetrained and bites ankles, both serious problems, try for a solution that can help with both behaviors. A crate can help. Feed her in the crate, then take her outside to a bathroom spot. Use a word or phrase that she will learn to associate with doing her duty at that spot, such as “Go potty” or “Do your business.” When she's successful, praise her and give her a special treat such as bits of chicken or cheese, Cheerios, or popped corn.

If she doesn't do her business in five minutes, bring her back inside and put her in the crate for 10-15 minutes, then try again. No playtime until she's successful. Do not allow her the run of the house until she is housetrained. If she's confined to the room you are in, you are unlikely to get any rude surprises and can pick up on her cues when she needs to relive herself.

When she nips at ankles, say a stern “No!,” pick her up, and put her in the crate for 10 minutes. If she persists in the behavior upon release, repeat the discipline.

Begin obedience training right away, and insist that the entire family participate. Although it is helpful to go to a training class, it is not always necessary if you are determined and have a good book to help. Carol Lea Benjamin has two books written for rescued dogs, but they are appropriate for training any dog and cost less than $10. Titles are "The Chosen Puppy" and "Second Hand Dog". Job Michael Evans book "The Evans Guide to Housetraining Your Dog" also helps build the bond with a dog and thereby solve other behavior problems. Karen Pryor's "Don't Shoot the Dog" puts a new slant on positive motivational training by shaping desirable behavior rather than punishing undesirable behavior. Dozens of other books can be found at libraries and bookstores, so you are likely to find one that meets your pocketbook and your training philosophy.

Obedience training has a settling effect on the dog and gives you the opportunity to redirect its focus. If Monkey will respond to “sit” and “down,” you can use those commands to calm her down and avoid the ankle-biting that occurs when she gets excited. If Toby will obey “sit-stay” before you open the door, he is less likely to bolt out after the neighbor's cat or the children's ball.

Dealing with hyperactivity

Breeds and mixes with high energy levels can be destructive as well as pesty. Pointers, retrievers, herding dogs, terriers, coonhounds, and many other breeds have a strong work ethic and a psychological need to stay busy. If you don't give them a job to do, they'll find one — and it's highly probable you won't be pleased.

Vigorous dogs need toys, daily walks, playtime, and other opportunities to burn off their energy. Frisbees, tennis balls, Buster cubes, Kong toys, etc. all help, as does playtime with other dogs. Making the dog part of daily family life helps, too; instead of closing him in a crate or basement when you head out the door, take him along. You can teach him to sit or lie quietly while you watch Paul or Mary play soccer or walk him in the park while the kids attend a craft workshop or nature program. If you stop for a burger or ice cream cone, give him a taste. Being part of family activities gives him something to do and to look forward to and will make him more amenable to good behavior.

When you can't take him along, make sure he's had some exercise before you leave him alone and that he has some fun things to keep him busy while you're gone. A Buster cube filled with a half-cup of kibble saved from his breakfast and a Kong toy stuffed with kibble or cookies moistened with peanut butter or honey are great favorites. By the time he ferrets the food out of the toys, he'll be tired enough to sleep. You'll come home to intact furniture, and your dog won't be afraid to see you come in the door.

If your pet is destructive, see how many ways you can devise to keep your household safe. Crate the dog, pick up the wastebaskets, put mousetraps under a layer of newspaper on the counters or sofas, spray surfaces with bitter apple or a vanilla and water mixture, or put baby gates in the doorways. If he's pesty, see how many ways you can devise to maintain your sanity and begin to appreciate his affectionate nature. Teach him to lie down on his own rug and stay put, play with him in short spurts several times a day, get involved in obedience classes and competitions to take advantage of his tight bond with a member of the family, or play “hide the treat” and “find the toy” games to keep him occupied.

More on obedience training

It isn't easy

Changing inappropriate pet behavior requires patience, persistence, consistency, a sense of humor, patience, and a sense of humor. And patience.

First thing to throw out the window is the idea that a dog will automatically learn what you want it to learn. Close behind that myth is the notion that the dog understands intuitively what you mean by “no,” ”sit,” “stay,” “come,” and other commands. The dog may be an expert at reading body language and at communicating his mood to humans and other dogs, but he is not bilingual. Canine, he knows; English, he doesn't.

First thing to do is connect an action with the word. “Sit” to a person generally means “make a lap and park your backside in a chair,” but “sit” to a dog means nothing until you connect it with a behavior. Whether you teach the behavior first as with clicker training and then add the cue word or teach the word while you guide the dog into the position, you still have to teach and reinforce that “sit” always means “lower your hindquarters to the floor.” It means the same thing in the car as in the living room, the same thing in the back yard as in front of the door, the same thing when you are alone at home as it does when guests come for a party.

Changing expectations

Studies have shown that a dog's failure to meet owner expectations puts the animal at high risk for surrender to a shelter. If the dog you got turns out to be a dog you don't particularly want, change your expectations so you can enjoy his good traits and fix or ignore the bad. If he's a couch potato and you wanted a hiking companion, get a second dog that fits that need and enjoy them both. If he's a boisterous, energetic character who tries your patience, play with him, dog-proof your home, and teach him some manners. If he's too bold or very shy or barks too much or dominates some family members, buy a book or contact a trainer for help. Stick with it — you'll be glad you did.

Norma Bennett Woolf

This page is a part of the Dog Owner's Guide internet website and is copyright 2021 by Canis Major Publications. You may print or download this material for non-commercial personal or school educational use. All other rights reserved. If you, your organization or business would like to reprint our articles in a newsletter or distribute them free of charge as an educational handout please see our reprint policy.

We will be modifying the Dog Owner's Guide site with new and updated articles in 2021 as well as new booklists so check back often to see what's new!

Contact us