How often do you apologize for your dog’s behavior?

I am surprised at how often people, pet owners and trainers alike will beg forgiveness for their dog’s behavior. We apologize for our dogs when they bark, greet someone enthusiastically or stare at someone’s steak and cheese sandwich with unrelenting intensity. I am not taking a stand for allowing rude behaviors in dogs when they are interacting with people, but I do think it warrants consideration that some of those behaviors do not have to be looked on as misdemeanors, let alone felonies.

cocker spaniel looking at woman eatingWhen a friend lost her beloved dog after years of companionship she said to me, “He knew that every last bite of my sandwich would be his.” She didn’t share this to complain about a dog who begged while she ate. She was acknowledging that every meal would be a reminder that her friend was gone, and she would miss him.

Any behavior that our dogs perform in order to get a desired outcome can be tweaked so they can learn how to perform it more effectively. We can teach our dogs that lying down quietly nearby will get them snacks more readily than will staring, whining, or barking- behaviors which have served dogs well for thousands of years. In many places dogs survive by perfecting their methods for separating people from their dinner. In countries with large populations of strays it’s not unusual to find dogs who frequent the same restaurants daily, narrowing in on a tourist who falls for their quiet beseeching stares and tosses them a french fry. I’ve watched dogs go from table to table, knowing when a few more seconds of staring or head tilt will achieve the desired results, and when it’s time to move on.

Many of us living with dogs who are afraid of people would welcome the inconvenience of a dog who greeted house guests as though they were lovers in a past life. If we are less inclined to be proud of this behavior there is no need to change how the dog feels about people through the use of punishment, whether it’s physical or a sharp verbal reprimand, to curb their enthusiasm. We help them learn how to behave so they get the attention and information they’re after without creating dry cleaning bills or knocking granddad over.

It should not come as a surprise that dogs bark. This behavior, like begging, was probably one that helped dogs survive and become useful to humans. They are among the best early warning systems around. Many pet owners want a dog for this purpose, to alert them to intruders. Issues arise when a dog is unable to differentiate between the people or vehicles we want the dog to wake us up for when they are coming up the driveway versus those that can be safely ignored. Add to this the fact that many dogs have little else to do with their time, and you can end up with a dog who is annoying to owners and neighbors alike. Enter the industry of ‘barking solutions’ that range from disturbing sounds, shocks, sprays, and surgery. I am NOT suggesting that we should learn to put up with unending barking, but that we assess the cause of the behavior- anxiety, boredom, arousal, alarm- and address that instead of looking for solutions that scare, hurt or intimidate our dogs.

Our dogs can learn new skills and better manners, but at the end of the day they’ll still be dogs.