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Dog owners who don’t have at least one complaint about their dog’s annoying habits are very rare indeed. And in my job, I meet more than my fair share of humans with lists full of their dog’s problem behaviours. Usually when I am not even working! (So much so that I’ve started telling people that I sell insurance for a living 😉)

I’m sure you’re familiar with some of the more common problem behaviours: incessant barking, digging up the flower beds, sniffing every blade of grass instead of coming when called, chasing next door’s cat/children/mobility scooter, chewing the furniture, shredding toys in seconds, stealing socks….All designed to drive us mad and wonder why we ever got a dog in the first place.

But let’s just back up a second. We call them problem behaviours – but who are they a problem for? Certainly not the dog!

You know the saying that weeds are just plants growing in the wrong place? Many of those ‘weeds’ are beautiful when they come into flower, or when seen growing in the habitat we ‘want’ to see them in. The same is true of canine behaviour. Those ‘bad’ habits I’m describing are often innate behaviours, and are really what make dogs, well, dogs.  It’s not the behaviour itself that’s the problem, but the context or application in which the behaviour occurs.

If we explore where those behaviours come from, a good starting point is to think about the sequence of behaviours necessary for survival for the ancestors of our sofa-dwelling pooches. Being able to hunt, catch, kill and then eat prey was the only way those animals would survive and so those that did were obviously very good at behaviours like sniffing, chasing and dissecting things. And surviving meant they passed those behaviours on to the next generation.

At some point down the evolutionary line, humans got in on the act, and over ‘time’ (a history lesson for another day, I think) started to selectively breed those dogs that seemed to be especially good at one specific behaviour. These ‘specialists’ were the fore-runners to the different breeds we have today.

Back to those ‘problem’ behaviours and our own 21st century dogs. Now, on top of that general layer of innate ‘dogginess’, we also have to take into account the specialist job our particular dog was originally designed (bred) for. Choose a specific breed because you like the look of it, or it’s a good size/colour for your sofa, sure. But remember you are also taking on the pre-disposition to be extremely good at certain things. Stalking, sniffing, digging, swimming, carrying things, biting, barking, pulling, chasing. These are all ‘desirable’ skills for a dog in the right setting – usually when helping a human to achieve something.

We humans surely have to expect that our retrievers need to carry things in their mouth and our herders need to control anything that moves. Yes, your beagle would like to ignore you when sniffing, and be more independent than your previous dogs, because she is designed to track the scent of a hare and have you follow her lead, not the other way round. Why shouldn’t your Pomeranian bark more than the neighbour’s dog – his ancestors pulled sleds and needed to be heard in the massive expanse of the arctic tundra. You can’t possibly be surprised that your terrier likes to dig up the garden – it’s his job to dig out animals from their burrows.

The problem really comes when these behaviours are performed in the wrong place or time. Collies nipping the children when they make sudden movements or trying to control the movement of traffic; gun dogs holding on so tightly to their precious retrieve item that they begin to guard it; terriers hunting out small furry pets. Especially concerning are behaviours that have morphed into something completely non-functional, such as the collie’s laser focus on detail being directed towards trying to control flecks of dust in the sunlight. (Obviously, there is never any dust in my house – but I’ve read about it!)

 So how do we live in harmony with our hounds and these annoying habits?

 My number one piece of advice would be to find an acceptable outlet for those behaviours. Your dog is hardwired to do them, which means he gets a buzz from doing them, and will seek out ways of getting that buzz. You might as well channel that into something worthwhile. Set your collie up playing herding games like Treiball; scent work with a spaniel is a no-brainer; create a sand-pit for your terrier to dig in; train your retriever to retrieve; yes your malinois really does need to bite (although please tell me you knew that, and didn’t buy him because he was a cute puppy!)

And there’s more good news! You have been given a gift for your training. Those things your dog really loves to do can also be a great reward in your training armoury. Getting to chase/catch a small furry (toy) as a reward for coming back when called might just be more reinforcing than a bit of dry biscuit. Being allowed to sniff the grass as a reward for a loose lead? Well, it’s certainly going to improve the likelihood of a loose lead in the future.

If you’re thinking of getting a new dog, think about what you want your dog to be good at, and also the opposite. If having a dog who is permanently charging about in the undergrowth would annoy the hell out of you, a Springer is probably not the dog for you.

Or if you're wondering what you have done to deserve the dog you have - it might just be time to consider where the need for those behaviours is coming from and embrace them in all their glory!

❤️  🐾🐾


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