Why Good Dogs Develop Bad Behavior

Originally published March 31, 2016

The dogtor is in

Jasper has been with us for a week now. He came to us from the local animal shelter because he had been returned to them from a rescue because his bad behavior was deemed “unmanageable”. I was told this meant that he is extremely energetic, jumps on people and cannot be dissuaded from this. This is bad behavior in a small dog.  In one that is around 70 pounds it can prove terrifying to an unsuspecting recipient of such affection. And he does mean it as affection or play.

Jasper exhibiting good behavior not bad behavior
Jasper doesn’t look like a terrorist does he?

This description immediately popped a couple of presupposition flags in my mind:

1) It seems this behavior is often the result of a family adopting a puppy but making no attempt to train it. While it’s an adorable ball of fluff, jumping up on your legs eager for attention is cute. When it becomes a 30 pound dog, it’s less endearing. When it’s 50 or more pounds, the poor dog ends up at the local shelter because it’s a major nuisance and “they can’t do anything with it”. So of course this bad behavior is the dog’s fault. The truth is that no one took the effort to teach it good behavior.

2) Energetic dogs are all the more prone to what I call Shelter Psychosis. Any dog will get anxious if confined for long periods. Add in 100 other dogs all protesting their lot in life and it will make anyone a bit nuts. Quiet dogs tend to get depressed, energetic dogs act out.

The best cure for this second point is to get them away from that stressful environment. A wooded acreage in the mountains is ideal for this. We have a 1/3 acre fenced play yard for the dogs to run in. We have secure 8′ x 10′ x 6′ kennels with a dog house and Kuranda dog bed in each, a proper roof over the kennels, and concrete floors. We do our best to keep them safe and comfy all the time. And we have mentor dogs to help them along their journey to being Good Dogs.

The cure for the first point is more difficult. They will need to unlearn their bad behavior and replace it with good behavior. Doing this with an adult dog who has never received any training means first teaching the dog that he is not in charge. Some dogs are more difficult than others to teach this. Some people do this with brutality – I am firmly against this. Fear may earn some obedience, but getting the dog to respect you leaves the door open to love. A dog whose motivation is to please you is easier to train than one whose motivation is to avoid being beaten.

Don’t Reward Bad Behavior

The first step is to establish pack leadership. It’s best for one person to take this role at first. Do that by having this person do the feeding. Dogs instinctively recognize the one who provides for them as a leader. But it’s more than just bringing them a dish of food. For Jasper (and others like him) I will not open the door to give him the bowl until he stops jumping on the door. When he obeys the “get down” command he gets his bowl and a little scratching on the neck, just behind the ears.

During training (aka Play Time) when the dog starts jumping on me, I tell him to “get down”. If he does, he gets a reward and we continue. If he does not, he goes immediately back in his pen and I go away. I don’t talk to him and he gets no treat. It’s important to give him nothing that he might construe as having wheedled attention out of me.

Rewards and Mentors

Food rewards can be tricky, especially with a dog that is food assertive. Many that come to us have been starved. Once they know I have food in a pocket or pouch, they go nuts trying to get that away from me. Earning it is the farthest thing from their minds. Early on, ear scritchies and a heartfelt “good boy” works better. Save the food treats for the end of the session and make it a high-value treat.

Once some basic control is established, small food treats help tremendously in motivating a dog to earn your favor by complying with your instructions.

Remember: dogs do not understand your language. Imagine being given instructions by someone speaking Russian or Greek or Polynesian … could you comply? If you have no clue what is being said, how can you? To you it’s gibberish.

At first, you’re just making noises. You have to get the dog to associate a simple term with an action. You will have to show him what action you want. Say, “sit” (clearly, exaggerating the T) while placing a hand on the dog’s chest to prevent movement and gently push the dog’s butt to the floor. Give the reward. Repeat. Eventually he will “get it” and be eager to comply with your command to get the reward. Be consistent in your commands, do not confuse the poor thing with variable terms.  If he resists the guidance, use the hand’s-off approach to “sit”.

A mentor dog can be a wonderful helper. Not only can they model the behavior you want, but they speak the native language! Having an interpreter makes it so much easier!

When I was training Cochise and we’d be out in the yard with me trying to get him to go back in the house and him wanting to head off into the woods, Dolly would amble over and look him in the eyes, then both would turn and head toward the house. Don’t tell me she wasn’t explaining the situation to him!

When To Train

Never try to train a dog while you are frustrated or angry about ANYTHING — they’ll know. Even if you are upset about something unrelated, she will sense your agitation and it will confuse her.

I find an active play session before training lets them blow off steam so they can be more alert for training. And, don’t train too close to meal time. Just before, and the dog is hungry. That may induce desperation for the food treats. Just after, and the dog may not be hungry enough for the treats to provide motivation. That’s rare, but it does happen.


The best way to avoid bad behavior is to start early and teach the dog good behavior. If that has not been done, it takes patience to replace the bad behavior with good behavior. But once done, that dog will be a devoted companion for his or her whole life.

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