Dogs do what makes sense to them

I Need My Dog to Behave NOW

certified dog trainer dog behavior leash walking stressanddogs Apr 24, 2024

Time. It’s a valuable resource. There never seems to be enough time in a day to do all the things. We love life hacks that simplify things, giving us more of our valuable time. Sometimes, there are no hacks. Learning something new, say a foreign language, takes time. There are no shortcuts. In dog training, there are no real hacks. When we train our dogs, we’re teaching them the skills they need to be successful in our life. Time spent training develops trust and communication between a person and a pet. While time-consuming, building a bond based on trust and clear communication is a solid investment of your time.

Training is different from suppressing behavior. Suppressing behavior looks like a time saver. It may stop the unwanted behavior your dog is doing, but time spent suppressing behavior can instill fear and mistrust between pet and person. While suppressing behavior sounds like a time saver, the consequences can end up costing you more time and money. Time spent suppressing behavior often costs more time in the long run because suppressing behavior doesn’t solve the problem.

Suppressing behavior may get results quickly. The unwanted behavior stops, at least initially. Suppressing behavior is often done using fear and/or pain. The most common tools used to suppress behavior in dogs are choke chains, prong collars, and electric collars. Each of these devices works by inflicting pain or fear to stop a behavior. Suppressing behavior may seem like a great idea because you get what you want—your dog stops doing something like barking, jumping, or pulling. Success? Not really. The behavior may stop, and you may gain control, but your dog’s well-being decreases. Your dog learns that you are not safe and that you are the source of pain or fear. Trust is broken. Broken trust is difficult, sometimes impossible, to repair. And suppressing behavior doesn’t solve the problem. It simply masks it. Suppressing behavior also leaves your dog with a problem – what is he supposed to do?

Behavior is functional. There is a purpose for your dog barking, jumping, or pulling. Is it fear, arousal, frustration, or lack of training? Have you considered why your dog is doing the thing that you don’t like? Stubbornness or spite is never the answer. Let me repeat – your dog is not being stubborn or spiteful. Your dog is doing what makes sense to them based on their learning history, experiences, genetics, and who they are as an individual. Solving any behavior issue starts with understanding the function of the behavior. Without understanding the purpose of the behavior, there can be no solution for you or your dog.

When your dog doesn’t do what you ask, the problem is not just the dog. It’s much more complicated. Being upset with your dog for acting like a dog is not logical. It’s emotional. I commonly hear people say that their dogs embarrass them or express how frustrated they feel because they can’t control their dogs. Your dog is even less likely to respond to cues when your emotions escalate. And so, the cycle of emotional distress continues. Have you stopped and considered why your dog is doing what he’s doing? Set the emotions aside (it’s hard!) and get curious. Most often, the problem is a combination of factors. These are some of the common factors:

  • Adolescence (7-24 months) - Adolescence is a normal stage of development and, frankly, the most challenging. Your dog is physically adult-size or close to it, but their brain is not fully developed. During adolescence, dogs are easily distracted, and their ability to respond to cues correctly is inconsistent. This is true for human adolescents, too. Expecting your adolescent dog (under 2 years old) to act like an adult (over 2 years old) only leads to frustration for you and your dog.
  • Lack of training – You may believe that your dog knows better, but that may not be true. Teaching a dog to perform, which means responding to your cues in a variety of places while also being excited and distracted, takes time. We call that proofing a behavior. Unless you’ve been through advanced group classes or spent significant time working privately with a trainer plus hours of practice, your dog’s skills are not proofed. If the behavior is not proofed, then performance will not be reliable.
  • Fear – If your dog does not feel safe, they are more concerned with safety than anything else. How do dogs make themselves feel safe? They may bark, lunge, or pull to get away. These behaviors serve the purpose of increasing distance from whatever is causing concern. Forcing your dog to stay in a situation where they don’t feel safe teaches them that you are untrustworthy. It teaches them that you will not keep them safe. And, if you’re forcing the dog to remain in a scary or threatening situation (from your dog’s perspective), then you become part of the problem.  Your dog will take matters into their own paws and do whatever is necessary to feel safe, whether you approve of their choice or not.
  • Arousal - As arousal, or excitement, increases, your dog’s ability to exhibit impulse control decreases. The same is true for humans. Negative and positive feelings drive arousal. Seeing a doggie friend (fun) or seeing children(scary) can cause your dog to exhibit similar behaviors – pulling, jumping, barking, and spinning, but the root cause is different and requires different solutions.   
  • Physical discomfort – It is very difficult to determine if your dog isn’t feeling well until the problem is significant. Dogs hide pain and discomfort, just like people do. A dog with an ear infection, broken tooth, undiagnosed arthritis, or itchy skin doesn’t feel great and is more likely to respond strongly. By the time you notice a change in your dog’s behavior, if it’s related to physical discomfort, your dog has been uncomfortable for an extended period of time…sometimes years.
  • Confusing cues – When you give your dog a cue that doesn’t make sense to them in that moment, they are less likely to conform to your cue. If you tell your dog to sit and stay when they feel scared, sitting and staying doesn’t make any sense, and they are less likely to conform. Unless you have a very strong relationship based on trust. If your dog trusts that you will advocate for them and keep them safe, then they may conform to a confusing cue in spite of their feelings of insecurity.

The desire for dogs to behave is why most people choose to suppress their dog’s behavior.  However, the concept of behaving is a vague concept. Can you explain what “behaving” means?  When clients describe what they mean by “behaving, " they often mean that they want their dog to not act like a dog. This might mean they don’t want their dog to bark, pull on the leash, or jump. Ironically, “behaving” means not performing behavior. So, perhaps “behaving” from a human perspective is the absence of normal dog behavior.

If “behaving” means conforming to human standards, we need to step back a moment and think about what it means to be a dog. The reality is that dogs are not humans. Dogs are a different species. They behave in a manner consistent with their species. And that’s really the heart of the problem – humans and dogs are different species with different perspectives on what appropriate behavior means. When we ask them to behave in a manner that is inconsistent with what their genetics compel them to do, then we have tension between person and pet. Is it possible to teach dogs to conform to human standards? Yes, but…

Teaching a dog to conform to human standards is time-consuming. A well-mannered dog that has a trusting relationship with their owner is the outcome of clear training goals, consistent teaching/training, and an understanding that learning is a process that includes making mistakes, feeling frustrated, and being persistent. It takes months of work. A six-week group class is not sufficient. It's not just training, either. Genetics, early development, and environment play critical roles in our dog’s behavior. An honest trainer will tell you that learning the skills is straightforward but takes time to develop consistency. And, if we’re talking about a puppy, we must consider that consistency will not be fully achieved until the puppy is an adult (2-3 years old). That takes time. Simply put, there are no shortcuts or quick fixes.

But maybe your neighbor, hairstylist, realtor, mechanic, Facebook friend, TikTok guru, or family member recommended using a choke chain, prong collar, or electric collars (e-collars, stem collars, tone collars, vibration collars) to control dogs. They say these tools work for barking, jumping, pulling, and coming when called. Yes, but…what is your dog learning when they hear a tone, feel a vibration, or are shocked? I’ll start with what your dog is not learning. Your dog is not learning what to do but responds according to her natural drive. Your dog’s behavior is being suppressed, which is not training. Does it matter as long as you get the results you want? Yes, it does.

Suppressing behavior doesn’t change the function of the behavior. When your dog is barking, there is a reason. When you suppress the behavior, the reason for barking doesn’t go away. So, your dog will find different ways to express the need. For example, if your dog barks at people coming into your home and receives a punisher (being choked when the collar is held, getting a collar correction, hearing a beep, feeling a vibration, or getting shocked), your dog may stop barking. If the dog is barking out of fear, you may find your dog growling at people, snapping at people, or worse, biting people. Why? If the barking is communicating, “I’m afraid, I don’t feel safe, or people are scary,” then the addition of the pain or discomfort confirms for your dog that they should be afraid. Bad things happen when people show up at the front door. If the barking doesn’t make the people go away, then the dog must choose something else to relieve the fear – run away (impossible if he’s on a leash or the person is holding him in place by the collar so he can’t flee), freeze (not move, make himself smaller, avoid eye contact – impossible is he’s held in place by collar or leash), or he can fight (growl, bark, lung, air snap, or bite – possible even when being held by the collar or leash). Is suppressing easier than teaching your dog what to do? In the short term, yes. In the long term, no.

When behavior is suppressed, your dog’s stress increases. Symptoms of stress manifest as behaviors that include lip licking, whale eye, avoidance (head turn, turning the body), lowering the head, lowering or raising the tail, crouching, contracting the body (making themselves smaller), dilated pupils, and increased respiration, to name a few. Those are the responses we can identify visually.  But what’s going on internally? Your dog’s internal fight-or-flight system is triggered. Emotions kick in. Norepinephrine & epinephrine are released from the subcortical part of the brain, triggering the physiological responses of increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate. Epinephrine also increases the release of glucose for the body to use as fuel. Cortisol is released from the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is needed to trigger an immediate response to danger. Ongoing stress, also known as toxic stress, decreases well-being, can affect your dog’s health, create other behavior problems, and may even shorten life span.  Intentionally inflicting fear or pain does have consequences, even if you can’t see it. While I have met many, many people who have been seduced by the idea of quick fixes, I have never met a person who wanted to cause harm to their beloved dog intentionally.  

Yes, it is annoying when dogs bark, jump, and pull on their leash. As their owner, you are the one who chooses how to address these undesirable behaviors. Your dog doesn’t get to choose how or what they are taught. Your dog is at your mercy for everything – food, water, shelter, and medical care.  Your dog can’t even pee without you granting them access to the yard. Your dog has very few choices in their life. They are, in every sense, captive animals. Without learning what to do, your dog can only do what they are genetically designed to do unless you teach them alternative skills. This is what training does. The other option is suppressing behavior, which increases stress and discomfort for your dog.  Do you want to teach (i.e., train) your dog, or do you want to suppress your dog’s behavior? It’s your choice.

Delores Carter, CDBC, KPA-CTP, FDM 



Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W. , Ackerman, L. Behavior problems of the dog & cat. 3rd ed. Great Britain: Saunders Elsevier 2013.

Spaulding, Kristina. The stress factor in dogs: unlocking resiliency and enhancing well-being. Dogwise: 2022

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I Need My Dog to Behave NOW

Apr 24, 2024