Archive Post: Just bad owners...?

changing people reactivity May 13, 2012

“I know it must be my fault”.  Joan’s voice wavers as she struggles to keep control. The anguish in her voice is evident as she waits for the censure she is certain will come. I wonder at how an obviously caring owner, who is doing the best she knows how, should feel so wretched and responsible for what was going on with her dog.

Yet it is a response I see every day as I work with people and their challenging dogs. So is there truth in what she says? Is it her fault? How much is our dog’s behaviour a reflection on us?

There is a saying that is often repeated in dog training circles – “There are no bad dogs, just bad owners” – and it makes me cringe every time I hear it, as I see the guilt it heaps on people like Joan. Sometimes it is thrown as a barb by those out on walks who have never had the experience of walking a challenging dog. But often it is used by trainers and dog professionals. I know in those cases it is well meant – intended to protect threatened dogs from blame and judgement. And I recognize that there are out there many bad owners – those who don’t care, who are cruel, who abuse or neglect and think nothing of the suffering or consequences.

But sadly they are not the ones who hear this message – or if they hear it they don’t care that much. The ones who hear it, and take it to heart, and are tortured by it are the ones like Joan. The ones who are living with canine behaviours that make each day a struggle.  The ones who can’t understand why their dog is not “normal”. The ones who are trying – however  stumblingly – to help their dog. Of course they may be making mistakes – they may be listening to bad advice – and those mistakes may inadvertently be making the problem worse.  But does that make them bad owners? I think not.

Dog behaviour is not as simple as “good” and “bad”. What leads a dog to feel the need to rage at the end of its lead when it sees another dog – or to  use its teeth to ward off a perceived threat is a complex mix of prior experience, learned response, physical, emotional and hormonal state, environment and genetics.  And these are the result of interactions with and interventions by many people, from the breeder, to (possibly) several owners, to vets, trainers, visitors and strangers in the park.

For me, the act of picking up the phone and asking for help is enough to demonstrate this is not a bad owner, no matter how misguided previous attempts to resolve the problem may be. My role is not to judge but to coach and to guide, to offer ways of changing how the dog feels about those challenging situations, but just as much to change how the owner feels about them.

Because, if there is one sense in which Joan is right, it is that her feelings of guilt and fear and hopelessness, playing out as they do in tension and frustration in those challenging moments, are blocks to the change she wants to see in her dog’s behaviour.  Removing those blocks in her is the most effective starting point for helping her dog.

“It’s noone’s fault. It’s just behaviour that works for him right now – let’s help him find a better way.” I reply.

(Joan is not her real name).


ARCHIVE POST: The original Canine Confidence blog was active from 2011-2014. In April 2016 I resurrected it here but there were posts in the original blog that are still relevant. Rather than repost as new material, I am including them here as Archive Posts, along with the original publication date. This avoids the need to edit to remove references to time for instance. Each archived post will include a PDF of the original comments, where appropriate, as in some cases these include additional clarification of the post.

This post was first published on Canine Confidence on 13.5.2012.

Archive of comments from original posting.

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