The Myth of the Spoiled Dog

Why is it that if a dog barks for a treat, we say he’s demanding; but, if the dog sits for a treat, we say he’s asking? The differences in value judgments here are purely human. Both behaviors are equally appropriate and doable from the dog’s perspective.

Behaviorally speaking, right and wrong are simply divided by that which gets you the result you want and that which doesn’t. It has nothing to do with that which embarrasses your owner in front of his boss, or that which impresses the neighbors. Those are concepts beyond the scope of canine understanding. A dog who barks for a treat and gets it is just as well trained as the dog who sits for a treat and gets it. They’ve just been trained to do very different things.

And what about the dog who “refuses” to sit as his owner (or the trainer on TV) repeatedly tells him exactly what he’s supposed to do. Is the dog spoiled, or is the dog absolutely clueless as to what the heck these people are screaming about?

To have a derogatory attitude toward a dog for brilliantly learning everything her owners have taught her just seems a major injustice to me. To blame a dog for being misguided, or unguided, by the people in charge of teaching her how to live in the human world seems irresponsible.

I’m adamant about this point for a couple of reasons. One is that training goes much, much faster when owners can clearly see how they need to change their own behavior in order to change the dog’s behavior. This doesn’t require blaming anyone or setting up some phony battle of wills. I know it’s popular these days to create the drama of a dog trying to take over your life as you become the dragon slayer who must tame the wild beast. But I would argue that your very domesticated dog has been following your lead all along!

(This dog who is trying to take over your life can’t go outside or eat a meal without you. How much more subservient can one get?)

What it does require is enough humility to accept and admit that we, the humans, have had a hand in teaching the dog (or not) that certain behaviors work. If you’ve ever let your dog out of a crate because he was barking, you have indeed taught the dog that barking works. The dog isn’t spoiled. He’s just doing what works. You’re not an idiot, you just love your dog and hated to have him "suffer". Let’s accept where we are and move ahead!

The other reason I feel this is so important to grasp is because of what it can do to the relationship between a dog and owner. Setting up the dog as the evil enemy who must be conquered puts us in an adversarial relationship that has little to do with why we got a dog in the first place. Would it really be such a terrible thing to marvel at the dog who is so bright that he figured out barking will get him out of his crate? If it works, what a smart dog! If he figured that out, he can learn something different!

In the end, the actual training is no different with or without the labels. A “spoiled” dog who barks to get out of a crate would be trained the same way that a “dominant” or “stubborn” dog would be. In fact, you could label your dog a genius and the training would remain the same! Regardless of what you believe your dog IS, it doesn’t change what your dog DOES.

Your _______ dog barks when put in a crate. We teach your ______ dog to be comfortable in a crate and that barking will not result in being let out, but sitting quietly will. We teach your ________ dog that sitting quietly is the key to making all good things happen.

You can fill in the blanks with whatever you like. All it will change is your human view of your dog’s behavior. Try reading the previous paragraph with the following words in the blank spaces. How does that change the way you feel about the dog? (Please notice, nothing else changes.)

Stubborn, brilliant, dominant, very good, bratty, polite, obstinate, sweet, insane

My hope is that we can start talking about dog behavior without filling in those blanks at all. Your dog barks when put in a crate. Let’s change that.