SO YOU’VE TAKEN YOUR DOG TO TASK for a behavior problem that’s gotten out of hand. You’ve tried several different approaches, but they only seem to help temporarily and Buster is back to his old mischievous ways. Before you do something irrational about the problem, perhaps it is time to examine what your demeanor is really saying to the dog.

A DOG’S BEHAVIOR (both acceptable and unacceptable) is often shaped by the subconscious messages you send, rather than the training procedures you follow. Successful problem solving occurs when subconscious messages and training messages are compatible. Conversely, frustration and confusion result on the part of both dog and trainer if your aura says one thing, but your reaction to problem behavior says the opposite.

WHY IS MY DOG STUBBORN? Before a trainer can live harmoniously with a disruptive canine, the trainer has to establish himself as an authority figure. Otherwise it is like telling two tough-minded, bickering children, that one is going to give orders and the other will quietly obey. Do you think the child told to obey would accept that arrangement? After all, how would you feel if a citizen, rather than a police officer, attempted to issue you a parking ticket? Would you pay it? Certainly not. Likewise, before your dog will take you seriously, you have to earn your badge.

WHY DOES MY DOG TRY TO FIGHT? Let’s say my dog, King, likes to fight with other dogs. I take King for a walk once a day and I allow him to pull on the leash and stop to sniff when he wants to. When King sees another dog, he starts growling and lunging and then I correct him. Sometimes that stops his aggressive behavior for the moment, but when he sees the next dog, the pattern is always repeated. King thinks he is the boss from the onset of every walk because he leads the way by pulling me out the door and dictating when to stop for sniffing and when to resume walking again. Therefore, to curb King’s confrontations, I must first assume a leadership position by never allowing King to pull on lead during walks. Now if King still tries to pick fights, as an authority figure, I can tell King to stop and he’ll have a reason to listen to me.

WHY ISN’T MY DOG HOUSEBROKEN? Suppose Pebbles suddenly starts to use your house as a toilet (and you’ve confirmed with your veterinarian that there is no medical excuse for the behavior). To reestablish good housebreaking habits, you follow a good program like the one outlined in this post, and Pebbles’ house soiling ceases…temporarily. No matter how carefully you follow housebreaking guidelines, Pebbles won’t shape up permanently until you demonstrate that the house is yours – not hers.

TIPS FOR SOLVING AND PREVENTATIVE PROBLEMS: To establish an authoritative persona, rethink past situations which have given the dog the impression he is keeping you in line, and turn the tables. Consider the following examples:

  1. Walks should be taken on a slack lead with the dog walking at your side. If the dog pulls on the leash, you are following and he is leading. Thus, you reaffirm his superior position every time you take him out. If you teach him never to pull on the lead (not because you told him to heel, but just because that’s the way it is), you can reaffirm your authority and exercise him simultaneously.
  2. Make the dog move out of the way instead of walking over him or around him when he’s in your path. He knows where a quiet place to lay is, but by lying in your path and watching you tip-toe around him, he is confirming that it really is his house, just like he thought.
  3. Stop giving “free” affection. Instead of becoming an “automatic petting machine” for your dog’s convenience, make him earn your attention. When he nudges your arm, command him to sit before petting.

ENFORCE EVERY COMMAND. When you say, “Stay” repeatedly as your dog is bopping around the vet’s office, your dog actually is being taught that “stay” means he is free to do anything he chooses. If you doubt your ability to enforce a command, it is better left unspoken than disobeyed.

WHY WON’T MY DOG LISTEN? Although dogs can easily be taught commands, they don’t understand a verbal language. Instead, they pay keen attention to body language, facial expression and tone of voice. So, let’s forget about what you say with your mouth and let’s concentrate on your paralanguage. Trainers commonly get their signals mixed when teaching “Come”.


The following TIPS will convey what “Come” really means:

  1. Make your voice inviting and friendly. Formalize your command (“Buster, Come!” – instead of “Come on Buster, let’s go!”) so the dog learns a specific word for a specific action.
  2. If the dog hesitates, don’t move toward him. That will tell him you want to chase him like his littermates did and thus you would teach him that “come” means run away. Instead, back up and clap or actually run around a corner out of sight. If the dog is quite independent, you may have to wait a minute or two for the dog to find you.
  3. Give lots of verbal praise when the dog comes, but never reach out for him. He is supposed to come to you. Keep your hands next to your body and continue giving verbal praise as you inch away or turn away from the dog if he is reluctant to come within reach.

RECENTLY, I had a Dachshund in training who always danced several feet out of hand’s reach when called to come. From the time Candy was a pup, the owner reached out to pet her and grabbed her to bring her in close. This procedure inadvertently taught Candy to stay further away and run fast when the owner did try to grab. Within two days of following the suggestions I just outlined, Candy learned that come really means to happily run to the owner to snuggle.

TOO OFTEN, DOGS ARE LABELED spiteful, stubborn or stupid because of behavior problems. Actually, dog behavior is quite predictable and dogs are incredibly willing learners when their teachers’ actions and attitudes complement one another.

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