We’ve all been there. Those days when your dog is making you want to gouge your own eyes out while everyone else’s are promenading serenely along the pavement. There they are, smugly trotting along on a loose lead. Not a flinch at the screeching kids on electric scooters, the buses, the squirrels scuttling over their paws, or indeed your own rabid wolf of a dog barking like a maniac while simultaneously garroting themselves and spinning through a series of 360 degree rotations.
Resentment bubbles. You feel stupid, angry, out of control and foolish. You shout even though you don’t want to and start to drag the dog away, muttering and fighting back tears.
You’ve been betrayed. Why are they doing this when you’re so kind to them and work so hard? You took them to puppy classes. You’ve actively socialized and trained them. You continue to read reams about canine behaviour and have put everything you have into it. And yet still they do it. They misbehave. They’re naughty. They make you look incompetent.
The good news and something to hold onto when this happens again (which is probably will), is this:
Dogs can’t be purposefully or knowingly naughty. They just don’t have the cognitive ability.
Dogs’ brains are the size of lemons and much like every other animal, they do what works to survive. They can’t premeditate. They don’t lie in their doggy bed at night hatching plans to take over your life or make you look like an idiot. Their thinking is actually beautifully simple: If I do THIS, then THIS happens. Behaviour = consequence.
So taking a really common example: your dog counter-surfs and happily nicks every bit of food he can find. In fact, he does it every time food is left unattended. He learns to scan the counter for bits of food until it becomes a ritual.
One day we’re there when he does it and we tell him off. ‘How cheeky!!’ we exclaim. ‘I can’t believe he had the nerve to do that!’ We ascribe human deviousness to his actions whereas actually he’s just hard-wired to find food. If it’s there he’ll take it – no moral imperative.
Same principle if our dogs go crazy on a lead. There can be a whole host of reasons; frustration, fear, breed-specific genetics (such as GSDs guarding their humans). And those behaviours have either knowingly or not been reinforced. THEY WORK. Often they will make ‘the thing’ go away, and so guess what? Next time the same thing comes along they go crazy again, and said thing goes away. Again. One thing I can absolutely guarantee you is that no part of that dog is thinking ‘I’m actually pretty cool about this whole thing, but she’s really getting on my nerves today so I’m going to act like a complete prat just to upset her’.
I don’t mean to minimise the embarrassment, the shame, the upset this stuff causes. I’ve been there. But the biggest turning point for me was understanding that there was no malice or intent. My dogs actually really, really needed my help. They were sometimes literally crying out for it. Once I understood that I turned a real corner, and became an ambassador for my dog. It’s been a revelation.