We Can Learn Good Things Even from “Difficult” Dogs

I've struggled with my dog's training and behavior issues, but here's why all the effort is worth it.


I have spent the past 10 years of my life with a happy, vigorous, well-meaning and extremely difficult, destructive, and demanding dog. On one level you could call him my greatest failure as a behaviorist, because beyond being safe and agreeable, he is negligibly trained. He will sit but not stay. He will walk at heel, but not stop scratching the carpet. He will never play fetch, and I am not the only person who has tried to teach him. But on the other hand, he made me a better person and a better trainer. Here are some of the lessons he taught me about training and behavior:

Find the funny

I leaned that when your dog does something completely outrageous, you may not be able to keep completely calm, but you have a lot of control over how you react. One thing I learned is to “find the funny,” rather than get angry or frustrated.

When my dog runs off and I search for him for hours in the freezing rain, only to find him running around in a ditch two miles away, completely covered in stinking mud and deliriously happy as if he did not even notice I wasn’t there, I have to laugh. I mean really, it beats the alternative. And if you are mindful of that first surprise and slide into your emotional reaction, you do have that choice.

I have to remind myself that this is a dog that enjoys himself with such wholehearted, over-the-top commitment that it would be a tragedy if he had stayed at the shelter and been euthanized. It really would.

The dog is always right

All those standard training methods with work with a good 90 percent (or more) of dogs. They will work great, until — well, until they don’t. But any dog, any dog at all, is doing what makes sense based on their understanding of the situation. We get in the habit of making assumptions about how dogs see things when actually every dog is an individual, and we know about their inner worlds only to the extent that they “tell” us and we listen. Avon’s contrary ways constantly reminded me to always listen to the animal in front of me, not some species stereotype I had in my head.

So when I come home and find my dog has turned the bottom half of the bathroom door into confetti, he had a reason. He had a reason that made perfect sense to him. After some thought, I decided he was probably shut in and decided to chew his way out. Then he found the bargain basement door (made from a kind of hollow chipboard only one step up from painted cardboard) was a lot of fun to rip up. The reason for thinking this through is that if I buy a solid wooden door, put in a bumper to stop it from fully closing, and make sure he has more appropriate stuff to chew, this particular problem will probably not occur again. (Plenty of others will, but at least I can cross this one off the list.)

Replace “perfection” with “persistence” and “we’ll get there in the end”

A dog with issues can be a long-term project, and I mean years. And you can’t teach them everything at once without overwhelming them. Once you deal with basic health, containment, and safety, it is okay for a dog to be a long-term project.

On one hand, I wanted to be some kind of dog whisperer who could snap my fingers and instantly “cure” my rescue dog. But on the other hand, once I started telling people about Avon, many of them seemed to find it a great relief to be able to talk to me about their difficult dogs. It was like my slow progress made it okay for them to “confess” their own struggles.

There is a perception that difficult dogs are always the result of incompetent or indifferent owners. And to a certain extent that is true. I mean, dogs don’t want to have maladaptive behavior. But on the other hand, dogs are variable and some get a better start in life than others. There is no reason to feel guilty about taking a bit of time to resolve a persistent problem when it comes to your dog’s behavior. Guilt and concealment are not conducive to the inventiveness and positivity needed to get your dog, and your relationship with your dog, to a healthy place.

People are nicer than you might think

At various points in time, my dog was a bother to others despite my best attempts to avoid it. He escaped; he barked; heck, sometimes he just stank (he never met a stinky mess he did not want to roll in). But the moment I perceived Avon was a problem for a neighbor or a friend, I apologized, briefly explained Avon’s issues, and described what I was doing to resolve the problem. And in every single case, this resolved the conflict very quickly. Normally, I ended up on better terms with that person than I had been before.

There was a particular moment when I really accepted the journey Avon and I were on together. For the first few years after I had Avon, we often walked down a long country road outside my house. I worked very patiently to get Avon to walk well on a leash. It took a long time; over a year in fact, and only after trying a bunch of different methods, but we got there. One day a guy in a van pulled up. I thought he was going to ask for directions, but it seems that while I had never noticed him before, he had noticed me. He said: “I have seen you walking along here with that crazy dog and I thought: man, that dog is never going to behave. But look at that, you did it. Good on you.” And then he drove off.

And that’s when I realized that people, for the most part, are not as judgmental as I had thought. So maybe I should stop being so hard on myself.

Conclusion? It’s all worthwhile

When you make a commitment — I mean really make a commitment — to a dog, it isn’t always easy. Some dogs come with baggage, and it can take a lot of time, effort, inventiveness, and downright stubbornness to get it all unpacked.

But it’s worth it in the end. It really is. Not just because you end up with a better dog, but I think you also end up being a better person.

About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).

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