This article discusses reasons why owners may think that their dog is being ‘naughty’ when, in fact, a better understanding of the dog’s emotional state, breed instincts, and motivation is required
By Anna Bradley
I’m sure there are lots of dog training professionals have heard the phrase ‘Naughty Dog Syndrome’ many times, only to take a deep breath before calmly explaining the inaccuracies of such a statement.
The word ‘naughty’ suggests that behavior is negative, inappropriate, willfully disobedient, bad, certainly undesirable, or noncompliant. It’s a label that is very easily stamped onto dogs as we see fit because what they are doing does not align with our expectations.
For example, we might take our dogs into a class environment and hope they are tolerant of the situation, meet and greet everybody calmly, and perform the cues taught just as they do at home.
But what if they are exceptionally boisterous, lunge or bark all night, and are incapable of responding as we’d hoped? These are the dogs that risk becoming labeled as ‘naughty,’ when in fact their behavior is indicating that they are having difficulty handling the situation.
And it often seems to be the case that more sympathy is poured onto the more reserved dogs, or those dogs that may not be so keen to interact on the first night. Somehow there is more understanding of ‘shyness’ and ‘anxiety.’ Such dogs are rarely labeled ‘naughty’.
Take another example of dogs that struggle with social interactions, i.e. so-called reactive dogs.
Symptoms of reactivity can occur for many different reasons but once again, dogs who appear reticent, hesitant, or anxious, in other words, those dogs with an identifiable reason for their symptoms (maybe inadequate early socialization, aversive experiences, abuse etc.) often seem to receive more leniency and empathy than dogs that display symptoms such as wild lunging, spinning, or vocalization, or who may nip due to sheer excitement, leash frustration, etc.
In many situations then, problematic behaviors such as jumping up, running, and lunging at other dogs and people, not coming back when called, excessive barking, inappropriate or incomplete house training, poor leash walking skills etc. may all be frequent manifestations of so-called naughty dog syndrome.
I think in many situations also, these types of behaviors seem worse because they can be embarrassing. It’s highly visible when your dog’s kicking off in public and other people’s responses are not always helpful.
Plus, there can be an expectation that we should be doing something to curb this ‘naughty’ and ‘inappropriate’ behavior, rather like a child having a meltdown in the supermarket (which, of course, can also happen for many different reasons).
Common Responses to ‘Naughty Dog Syndrome’
Frequently I hear that being of a certain breed is the reason for ‘naughty’ behavior and I have to say this has to be one of the most frustrating things for a professional to hear.
While there are, of course, innate breed instincts, e.g. coming back with distractions can be a little more tricky in breeds such as beagles because of their amazing scenting capability, or collies requiring a tremendous amount of mental stimulation with innate tendencies to herd, stare, and stalk being common, if we have a skillful professional to help, we can almost always work with innate traits and use them to our advantage.
Another common response is to visit the pet shop and slap on the latest piece of equipment on the dog to ‘cure’ the problem. But this approach simply masks the issue and doesn’t fix it. For example, it might seem like a new headcollar has fixed the issue but when we take it off, the dog will still pull like crazy.
There are also many no-pull harnesses and devices available which are painful for the dog, which is obviously an aversive experience for them and, again, does not fix the underlying issue.
Correctly fitting headcollars and harnesses (not including devices designed to work through causing pain and fear) can certainly be great tools as an adjunct to remedial training but not in place of.
Sadly, of course, punishment is still quite common, but jerking on the leash, smacking, yanking, and other dominance-type tactics will do absolutely nothing but make the dog fearful – and potentially aggressive.
Reasons for ‘Naughtiness’
So if the dog isn’t actually being ‘naughty,’ what is the issue?
First off, think of a lack of understanding. This is very much the case with younger dogs, say under a year of age. Young dogs are bouncy, they are distracted and they do need our help when it comes to their positive guidance.
Too often this is not understood, especially when the dog hits adolescence and receives another surge of hormones and confidence and some of those early training skills go out of the window.
It is completely normal and natural for dogs at this age to be socially distracted. It takes time to build a great recall with other exciting doggie distractions around. And dogs will jump up. It is up to us to spend time teaching appropriate greetings and socially appropriate behavior.
I’ll use the example of ‘my’ breed here, the Labrador retriever. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve explained to owners that the breed is slow to mature and is bouncy and super sociable through adolescence, and that is why we have to put extra hard work into helping them be the dogs we want them to be.
Overarousal is a massive player in ‘naughty dog syndrome’ and is not always well understood by owners. In a class environment, this is often indicated because a lot of dogs are simply not suited to such a claustrophobic, stimulating environment and do struggle with it.
Behavioral, physiological, and even physical symptoms of overarousal are not evidence of the dog being ‘naughty,’ but rather a symptom of a stimulating environment that is too overwhelming.
As I touched on earlier, breed instincts are not always fully appreciated. Dogs do what they do because it’s literally in them and they were bred to do it!
Border collies are a typical example. They may find themselves being chastised for staring, nipping, chasing other dogs or people (herding), or dropping flat to the floor, but their instinctive behavior is not always well understood.
Likewise, their ability to become very quickly overstimulated is hard for some owners to understand and work with.
Think about the environment. A dog simply cannot concentrate if we flood him with overly exciting stimuli and we will not achieve the response we hoped for. If we battle on with an imbalance of competing distractions, no wonder our dogs run off to the nearest dog, checks out a passerby, or takes a while to return!
What we need to do is work on increasing your reward factor and train in progressively more distracting environments in order to get the response we want.
How often do we actually think about how our dogs feel? Do we take into account our dogs’ emotions? Too often the emotional factor is ignored.
Take for instance the dog who jumps up repetitively. While this may be extremely annoying and irritating and we may shout at him to try to stop him, why does he actually do it?
It may very well be because he is anxious and seeking reassurance. Constantly shouting at him will only make the issue worse. In such cases, desensitization and teaching calm substitution responses would be a more appropriate course of action.
As humans, we can be naturally too quick to blame. We become overwhelmed about other peoples’ perceptions of us, about how we are managing our dogs, and how our dogs should behave in comparison to others.
In truth, we need to ‘think dog’ a bit more. This means concentrating on what our dogs are actually doing. If their output is not as we would hope and expect, we need to ask ourselves why.
When we scrutinize their behavior without placing blame and put proactive steps in place to help them, they absolutely can achieve our expectations.