You say "The dog is wild" like it's a BAD thing...

Nicole S. Silvers

Reading canine body language is often one of the most difficult skills to teach humans.  "Wild" is one of the adjectives that can be used for anything from euphemizing aggression to describing a dog's athleticism.  So, what IS the difference between "wild", what I call "high-octane", and "wild", a dog with a genuine social problem?

A common mistake is to assume that speed of movement, or number of movements within a time period (we could call this the "rate" of movements) have a single meaning.   No (or slow) movement is often mistakenly interpreted as good or calm.  Rapid or lots of movement is deemed undesirable, but it may not be.  Determining the difference between "good" wildness and "bad" (indicating a social issue) wild behavior is context and sequence of events.  When, where, and with whom is this wild behavior demonstrated?  Are all  physical, mental, emotional, and social needs being met on a daily basis?  How does the dog respond to a human's clearly communicated (read: something other than yelling) attempt to set boundaries?  How does the dog respond to play?  How does the dog respond to exercise?  Is there any Jekyll/Hyde behavior, or does the behavior slowly rise to a peak and then taper? 

"Good Wild"

Wild dogs who rapidly learn and respect the rules of a game like tug, fetch, or any others you invent are a trainer's dream.  These dogs typically respond rapidly to appropriate, consistent, emotionally neutral training of almost any variety.  High-energy (also called "high-drive" or "drivey") dogs can be a handful to the average pet owner, they have the interest and energy to engage in much more intense work than the average pet, not only tolerating, but enjoying long sessions with lots of running, and/or selective criteria for reward, which can cause loss of interest or even create detrimental levels of frustration for milder dogs. (Among people who know me, these "handful" dogs are known as "Nicole dogs", because of my extreme fondness for them.  I vicariously enjoy all that energy I wish I had!)  

The physical and mental needs of these high-octane dogs are greater than those of milder souls.  Often, because the average pet owner simply doesn't know how or have the time or energy themselves to devote, such dogs can develop emotional problems based in frustration or anxiety.  If these problems occur during a dog's socialization period or even into adolescence, they have a strong likelihood of becoming habitual behavior, which can be extremely difficult to address.  But, given suitable jobs, ample exercise, consistent boundaries, and exposure to challenge, these dogs flourish. 

"Uh-oh Wild"

Insistent, repeated behaviors, like barking, pawing, jumping up, and others can indicate a true problem in dogs who are not tempermentally "good wild".   These dogs have difficulty respecting another's boundaries, often regardless of whether the other is human or canine!  They often have a "scatterbrained" feel during training sessions, highly distractable, and lacking in patience or impulse control. 

Dogs in this state generally can't help themselves.  These dogs are being overwhelmed by stress, frustration, and anxiety.   The unfortunate reality of today's dog world is that the commonality of such behavior leads many pet owners to believe such behavior is "normal".  Some people, sadly, go so far as to identify this as the dog's "personality"!  Tragically, dogs in a state of stress, frustration, and anxiety are dogs who bite.  (Although, oddly, when you train, say, a "good wild" dog in protection bitework, you STILL don't want the dog feeling stress, frustration, or anxiety!  These states can produce weak, sloppy bitework.)  "Uh-oh wild" stuff  is a very early warning sign that worse is very likely to happen. 

In the worst case scenarios, these deterimental states of mind are even encouraged by some dog sports competitors, who mistakenly call such behavior "drive".  A dog with "drive" is a way of describing the "good wild" mental and emotional consitution.  "Drivey" dogs will perform from a dead sleep.  There is no need to tolerate the barking, lunging, and other unsavory behavior one can encounter at dog sports gatherings.  (Too often, the activity has recommended to owners of problem dogs, the "uh-oh" group as a solution, without providing the details of HOW to make the experience part of an overall solution.  Participation alone will not help, and may even worsen things!  Another article...)  A dog who has been intentionally overstimulated is being trained via emotional manipulation, which is no more acceptable to me when the emotion is overexcitement than when the emotion is fear.  This extreme emotional state is rarely, if ever, encountered in dogs who live as strays or within a feral pack, and never displayed for long periods of time. 

So what should I do?  Get those "wild" dogs looking good!

  • Resolving the behaviors generated by these states of mind is as "simple" as consistently providing for all of the dog's physical, social, emotional, and mental needs. 
  • Ask your favorite trainer for help in determining if you have a "good wild" or an "uh-oh wild" dog.  No reputable trainer will be able to do this without seeing the dog in person. 
  • Ask for specific recommendations of exercise, training, socialization, leadership: what kind, how long, how frequently, etc.  Typically, "wild" dogs need a "rehab" phase, where more of everything is needed, followed by a tapering period, and then a maintence level, which are the levels needed for the majority of the dog's adult life.  (See why the "Train Your Dog In 12 Days!" programs are simply a scam?)
  • Follow through!  Consistency is key.