dog problems

Dog problems, why

I get this question hundreds of times, and rather than just throw out an answer in the moment, I decided to put some real thought into it, and like it or not, here is what I think we are seeing so many dog problems.

Twenty plus years ago, our family dogs played a different role than they do today, they mostly lived outside, we had a lot less contact with them and we seemed to have little time for their needs.

Sure, many of them were walked, a bit of fetch maybe but they were essentially a dog and that was that.

Many people fed their dogs predominantly on table scraps and leftovers and knew very little about dog training or their dog’s feelings.

The benefit to owning a dog was that you liked spending time with him or her sometimes.

Dogs made us happy by fulfilling a small part of our lives.

Today, we love our dogs deeply, many people openly say they prefer dogs over people.

Many people strive to make their dogs happy, some say “if my dog is happy, I am happy”.

As someone who has loved dogs my whole life, I think this is great, but it has created dog problems because people who find happiness by making their dogs happy, often will avoid doing anything that may make their dog (read themselves) unhappy.

dog problems

Now, think of one of the most common events that happens very often to most of us.

You are walking along with our dog and an off-leash dog is heading toward you.

For whatever reason you do not want this dog to come up to you and your dog.

You signal to the dog’s owner but are met with “it’s ok! He is friendly

You don’t care

You don’t want this dog near yours

It stresses you out

Maybe it stresses your dog out.

But the other dogs owner doesn’t care right?

Why because his dog WANTS to say hello to yours.

It will make HIS dog happy and therefor make HIM happy.

So, he is going to do this over and over again regardless of what other dog owners want.

Taking his dog away would make his dog unhappy, thus making him unhappy.

The problem here, well one of the problems is that this owner is making his dog and himself happy by letting the dog rehearse a behaviour that is not ideal and reinforcing it.

dog problems

Now think about the above “happiness model”.

People come and see me, and their dog is displaying a behaviour, perhaps aggression and the owner is seeking help to resolve their dog problems.

We look at the root cause of the behaviour, then I may choose to teach the dog a behaviour that is going to be more desirable than aggression.

Sounds great so then we go about teaching this.

In all dog training, it is about pressure and reward, punishment and reinforcement.


The pressure (punishment) may come in the form of removing a reward or it may come in the form of leash pressure, but it is an integral part of learning for every dog, no matter what your belief.

Anyway, the dog in question is well loved, well fed and really doesn’t have a high priority for food.

Therefore, removing food or adding food to the new behaviour will not be effective if the dog has no value for it.

The dog sees another dog and is going to display the aggressive behaviour.

I pull out a piece of food and we have this conversation.

Steve: “hey would you like this piece of food

Dog: “no thanks I would rather bark at that dog

Steve: “yeah but then you will lose this food

Dog: “bark bark bark

So many people have been there, and their dog is not happy and neither are they.

So someone suggests that they look at adding some leash pressure to their dog because negative punishment, the loss of the food, is not providing any or at least enough pressure to motivate the dog to change his behaviour.

Now let’s remember the happiness model.

“If my dog is happy – I am happy”

dog problems

So these people do not want to apply leash pressure as it may make their dog unhappy, hence them unhappy.

So they search far and wide for some magic system that pretends to use no pressure.

Somewhere they find what they are looking for, a trainer that promises all with just rewards.

Off they go and training begins, of course during training there are no dogs or distractions around and the food is new, exciting and tasty food and it is coming thick and fast.

So their dog is responding really well.

Their dog is happy, they are happy.

Sounds great right?

Let’s leave the story there and look at a few facts we know from our own lives.

Remember the first tine you tasted a really nice food? It was exciting and tasty and wow so good.

But after eating 5 or 10 pieces, did you notice the excitement fading?

The next time you ate it was good too and the next but at some stage, the “new” sensation is gone.

The excitement may have gone too or only lasts for one or two bites.

So if we first put a value on that food, let’s say it was an 8/10

But when it seems to be turning up often the value falls, now maybe it is a conservative 4/10

Now ask what is the value of the next dog your dog sees? 10/10?

The once magic food is brought out and your dog turns it down because he prefers the 10/10.

You hold the food up (adding pressure/negative punishment) and your dog still turns you down.

Well of course he does, because there is more punishment losing the engagement with the other dog (10/10) than losing your magic food (now 4/10).

Maybe you start shoving food in your dogs face or even throwing the food at the dig or on the ground, I would ask you to explain what you think you are reinforcing with this food.

Now you can go back to the drawing board and practice more, building more reinforcement, adding more distance, making sure you see the dog before your dog does, always having food, dancing around in front of your dog to try and distract or engage your dog, and you know, a small percentage of dogs that do not have serious behaviour problems or have lower drive will perhaps succeed.

But the rest will never change.

Perhaps the blame will fall on you as you forgot food one time, you didn’t see the other dog in time, you didn’t get your dance right or your timing was off…

But, I feel that the reason is the your dog never was given responsibility to make better choices, and hence is not taking responsibility.

dog problems

I feel you need to come to the realisation that it is not which one the dog wants more that will win, it is the one the dog doesn’t want to lose the most that will.

Most of the dogs that come see me have been given all these chances and repeatedly failed.

In fact the dogs learn from all of these rehearsals to ignore the owners and block them out when around another dog.

I see owners waving food in dogs faces, calling the dog and literally BEGGING for some behaviour they can reward.

Some even scrap the idea of a good behaviour to reward and just plain throw food at the dog to distract him or her.

I would like to show many of these people a video of themselves doing this and ask “how do you expect your dog to respect you when you act like this

Begging, cooing, coddling and throwing free rewards at a dog that RIGHT NOW is behaving badly

Again what do you think is being reinforced here?


The meaning of consequence is something that rises out of an event.

Somehow we have come to believe that consequences are only things the dog does not like.

This is not true in dog psychology.

To increase the likeliness of a behaviour you reinforce that behaviour. So if your dog sits, the consequence may be that he or she will get a food reward. (positive reinforcement)

If your dog doesn’t sit the consequence may be that he or she will lose a food reward. (negative punishment)

A dog that understands that the consequence of his or her behaviour can be something they like or something they don’t will make choices to attract the consequences they like.

This is giving the dog RESPONSIBILITY for their own behaviour and the consequences of the behaviour.

Dogs that are plied with food are not given food as a consequence, it’s an event.

They then will not act or work to attract a consequence they like because they get lots of what they like no matter what they do.

Rewards stop becoming a consequence and become a given.

So, you decide that being unhappy isn’t for you and seek help for your dog.

You accept that I am going to have to punish your dog within an inch of its life to get him to behave.

I start working the dog and the dog moves away towards a minor distraction, I give a small, well timed leash pop.

The dog walks with me, this happens a few times and after a few moments the leash pops stop because the dog understands that he or she can control this consequence.

The dog is now strengthening this behaviour, walking next to me through the use of negative reinforcement, the removal of something the dog doesn’t like.

Food rewards are delivered now and the dog is also experiencing positive reinforcement so the behaviour is strengthening at two times the rate of one reinforcer alone.

People have to understand that applying pressure does not mean pain, suffering, cruelty, fear or intimidation just as we have learned that using food does not have to mean bribery, spoiling or giving into a dog.

You will punish your dog

Regardless of how you like to think about it, you will be using punishment, either negative punishment – removal of a reward, or positive punishment – the addition of something the dog doesn’t like.

There is actually no way to avoid it and no reason you should, when someone tells you different they are either wrong or lying.

This article can help explain further (

Now you may agree with me but choose to only use negative punishment (removal of reward) to add pressure.

It really is not about making the choice between positive punishment and negative punishment it is about what will work for the dog in front of you.

Making the choice for your dog may see you emotively make a choice that feels good but is ineffective.

When the true goal is successfully modifying the behaviour, I use what will work best for each dog.

Your dog will be happy and then you will too, so how about this model

Training that works > happy dog > happy owner.

Always love to hear your comments and thoughts and feel free to share.

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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One comment

  1. Another awesome article! Thank you so very much for taking the time to share your expert advice!

    Have a great day!

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