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By J Green, Feb 22 2017 07:11PM

There are a great many words and phrases that I steer clear of in the dog training and behaviour world. Many have to do with outdated techniques that create welfare problems for our beloved pets, but one seems to be used by a great many people regardless of training ethos. There are no bad dogs, only bad owners.

On the surface, this seems like a sensible standpoint; dog welfare issues and behaviour problems, can undoubtedly be caused by owners doing some fairly horrific things to their dogs. However, if we pick it apart a little further there is a problem with this message.

The oxford english dictionary defines 'bad' (in the context of behaviour) as "failing to conform to standards of moral virtue or acceptable conduct". So can dogs be 'bad'? I hope we can all agree that getting our dogs to conduct themselves in an acceptable manner is something we aim for with training and manage with equipment such as leads or baby gates. No one really expects dogs to come pre-programmed with a set of morals matching our own. So no, I don't think a dog can be 'bad'. Even the most aggressive dog is reacting to a threat (perceived or real) that they feel in that moment is best dealt with by using aggression.

So far, this matches the idea that owners are at fault when their dog behaves in a way we deem inappropriate. I'm sure we all know of someone who we feel fits into the above definition in their interactions with either dogs or people. Bad owners exist, I'm not saying they don't, but what we perceive as immoral or unacceptable conduct is subjective. Where do we draw the line? If you do something out of ignorance of a particular dog behaviour, are you a bad owner for not knowing about the training technique you should have used? There is so much conflicting advice available from the internet, family and friends, the more experienced dog owner at the park, how is the average dog owner meant to know how to react? I frequently meet people who are wracked with guilt because something they did caused a problem, are these people really 'bad owners' is no one ever allowed to make a mistake and then learn from it?

Another problem with the 'bad owners' idea, is that it suggests that if the dog is doing something 'bad', the owner must have done or not done something to cause that behaviour. This doesn't take into account anything to do with the genetic makeup of the dog, early rearing environment or experiences that were outside the owners control. Some dogs are naturally more prone to anxiety; these dogs need more careful socialisation during puppyhood and better protection from unpleasant experiences. The trouble is, this isn't always very easy to see; you can be amazing at reading dog body language and still not know the outcome of every interaction they are ever going to have. An experience that 99% of dogs could get through with barely a flicker of anxiety could cause 1% of dogs to develop a serious fear issue. Can we really label owners as 'bad' because they weren't psychic?

Knowing what you are doing with socialisation of a young puppy, understanding the importance of kind, effective training methods and how to implement these, would mean less behaviour problems developing. However, it doesn't mean that no behaviour problems would ever develop. Understanding how to kindly and calmly change a behaviour that has already developed also means we'll see fewer unwanted behaviours, but mistakes happen, and those mistakes are not always in our control.

I see a lot of dogs for behaviour issues and the most common time I see the 'wracked with guilt' dog owners, are those with dogs that are showing some kind of aggressive behaviour; most often directed at other dogs. Owning a reactive dog can get pretty lonely when you can't get within chatting distance of another dog owner (part of changing this behaviour involves avoiding situtions that put them too close to other dogs). As well as the (often undeserved) guilt that they have done something wrong, these owners also suffer a lot of embarrassment when their dogs react badly. They can end up feeling really judged by the the general public - after all, their dog is being 'bad' so they must be 'bad owners' right?

By all means, continue to be annoyed at the owners that seem to be making no attempt to control their out of control dog, or worse are egging them on. When you see someone trying though, even if you think they are failing, at least give them credit for trying.

Written by Jenny Green MSc CABC of Bells and Whistles Behaviour

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