Is Your Dog Misbehaving—or Just Misunderstood?
Therapeutic parenting offers a framework for troubleshooting difficult dogs.
Posted November 2, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Like humans, dogs don’t need to be in immediate, physical danger to become worried and stressed.
- Aggression in dogs can be a sign of hidden, unmet needs or pain.
- Finding safe and appropriate ways to meet dogs’ needs can naturally improve behavior.
I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but on the very first night we brought home our delightful mutt, Bernie, I was frantic to get rid of him.
Why? Because he growled when one of our cats ambled into the living room.
That growl made my stomach lurch. Visions of the sweet Miniature Pinscher my husband and I had tried adopting months earlier filled my head. On that dog’s first night home, he escaped supervision for a brief moment and immediately clamped his jaws around our cat’s throat.
No way were we repeating that frightening episode. I spent much of Bernie’s first evening home texting friends to see if they would consider taking him off our hands.
Fortunately, they declined.
In the calm light of morning, I reviewed the facts. At the rescue shelter, we had tested Bernie by walking him near an enclosed cat patio. When a cat sauntered up, Bernie sniffed it calmly. One rescue volunteer said she had never seen a dog respond so well in that situation.
Here in our home, yes, Bernie had growled at a cat—but he also growled at his own reflection in a plate glass door. And there was no lunging, snapping, or attacking. In truth, Bernie spent much of that first evening being shuttled outside to preempt his desperate diarrhea. And heroically, he never soiled the house once.
He deserved another chance. But how?
Borrowing Insights From Therapeutic Parenting
Parenting guides, full of proven strategies for helping difficult children, offered clues. I turned to two I'd helped write — Raising the Challenging Child and The Connected Child — because they had inspired solutions with rescue dogs before.
The beauty of science-based, therapeutic parenting is it combines kind caregiving with clear boundaries. Most importantly, it responds to problem behavior by asking these questions:
- What is the message behind this behavior?
- What core need drives this behavior?
- How can that need be met more safely and appropriately?
Kids and dogs share basic needs for food and shelter. They also share other similar needs, like the need to feel safe.
For Bernie—and for cases such as those presented at the October 2021 Aggression in Dogs Conference hosted by Michael Shikashio—our challenge is to play detective and identify what is driving difficult behavior. Armed with deeper understanding, we are better able to find effective solutions.
The Need to Feel Safe
Fear unleashes a neurochemical cascade that triggers fight, flight, and freeze reactions. Like us, dogs don’t need to be in immediate, physical danger to become worried and stressed. They can feel threatened if their personal boundaries are pushed or when a situation is unfamiliar and unpredictable.
Bernie had good reason to feel afraid. During the past seven days, he had been removed from the only home he’d known, placed in a county shelter, relocated to a rescue shelter, undergone surgery to neuter him, then arrived in a new home full of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells.
Our cat and the apparition of an unfamiliar dog in the plate glass door startled him. His growling was, in fact, polite manners. It sent the message, “Watch it. I’m uncomfortable here. Please don’t push me further.” That’s far different from springing into full attack mode in seconds.
To help all the creatures in our home feel safe, we installed baby gates strategically around the house and separated the dog from the two cats. Bernie seemed nervous when left alone overnight, so I abandoned my strict “no pets in the bedroom” rule and allowed him to sleep at the foot of the bed. We made his new home predictable through regular walks and meals, positive handling, and clear guidelines, such as allowing him his own toys but reclaiming our own missing shoes.
Out of excess caution, we kept the baby gates up for months—probably longer than necessary. Once we consistently found the dog and cats snoozing together on either side of a baby gate, we introduced them directly. That went so well, the gates came off for good.
The Need to Self-Regulate
At the Aggression in Dogs Conference, trainer Allie Bender, co-author of Canine Enrichment for the Real World shared the case of Bucky, a 9-month-old Australian cattle dog mix born during COVID.
His laundry list of diagnoses included anxiety, separation-related problem behaviors, hyper excitability, attention seeking, barking, jumping, and excessive digging. Put on various medications, he also struggled with vomiting, diarrhea, scratching, and licking. Among Bucky’s most difficult behaviors was biting. Said Bender, “What this looked like was Bucky fighting his family, every single day, usually multiple times per day.”
Bucky lived in a single-family suburban home with little opportunity to exercise his natural need to run, chase, or nip at sheep’s ankles to herd them. At the same time, he was over-stimulated by the busy household.
“He had a lot of energy to burn and needed help with that,” said Bender. She also suggested to the family that when Bucky began to get agitated, they invite him to lie down by himself in a bedroom. This proved so helpful that soon the dog went to lie in the bedroom on his own.
“Giving Bucky special alone time was hands down the best thing that we could have done for him,” said Bender. “We were now going several days without incidents.”
A degree of control over his environment allowed the dog to calm and recharge as needed, and helped him feel safer, improving his behavior.
The Need to Be Pain-Free
When a dog suddenly stops cooperating, Dr. Debbie Gross Torraca, founder of Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation for Animals, advises looking for pain. At the conference, she offered the example of dogs put in obedience training from an early age, who constantly practice “heeling.”
“If they're always looking up, we can actually get chronic pain in the back of the neck and the shoulder area,” she said. “We could change that easily with stretching and reversing that position before and after their heeling.”
Sometimes a dog won’t sit on command because it hurts too much. Chronic conditions such as hip or elbow dysplasia also can make dogs get aggressive and snap. Dr. Torraca compared their situation to a bad headache that makes us cranky and overreact to ordinary challenges. Training collars and harnesses that snap or yank the head and neck may also lead to chronic pain that provokes aggression.
She has treated police dogs whose training stalled, and on closer inspection, pain was the culprit. Even random stubbornness, such as when a dog won’t walk on a particular type of floor, eat a favorite food, or get in or out of a car, is often due to pain.
Recently, she treated a 1-year-old Lab who started biting its family anytime they got near a surgical site. “They were just chalking it up to that she was young, she was annoyed she had knee surgery, she didn't want to be in a cone, that sort of stuff,” said Dr. Torraca. “It turned out she had the start of an infection in her knee. So her knee was pretty painful.”
The right medical care and change in training practices can sometimes dramatically improve behavior.
The Need to Be Themselves
Dogs can be especially difficult when there is a mismatch between their home environment and their innate talent or “superpower”—that unique combination of aptitude, instinct, and skill set, which often has deep genetic roots.
Selective breeding, for example, has equipped some dogs with the superpower to perform amazing athletic feats and tolerate extremes of physical endurance. Others are equipped to be highly independent thinkers or to travel long distances.
Expecting or forcing dogs to suppress their superpower is the recipe for stress and strain on both sides. Their innate talents and skills will bubble to the surface, often in unwelcome ways, such as by nipping and chasing small children instead of sheep.
The beautiful toy Pinscher who menaced our cats had his own superpower: a warrior’s ability to attack without warning and bring down an opponent. This skill made him ideal for ridding a barn of rats, but not for living peaceably in close quarters with our cats.
In her book, Meet Your Dog, applied ethologist Kim Brophey reminds us that misunderstandings arise if we assume all dogs are interchangeable. “The truth is, it’s not nature or nurture. It’s the interaction between nature and nurture. It’s about the daily choices we make in handling and managing our dogs once we understand the instincts, capabilities, and limitations they bring to the table.”
The benefit of therapeutic parenting is it helps shift our focus from misbehavior to legitimate need. It helps us dig deeper and find more enduring solutions. Sometimes a simple change is all it takes to set up your dog—and you—for greater harmony and success.
Buckwalter, K. D., Reed, D., & Sunshine, W. L. (2021). Raising the Challenging Child: How to Minimize Meltdowns, Reduce Conflict, and Increase Cooperation. Revell.
Purvis, K. B., Cross, D. R., & Sunshine, W. L. (2007). The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family. McGraw-Hill Education.
Aggression in Dog Conference 2021. (n.d.). The Loose Leash Academy. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://thelooseleashacademy.com/conference
Bender, A. (2019). Canine enrichment for the real world: Making it a part of your dog’s daily life. Dogwise Publishing.
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Brophey, K., Coppinger, R., & Hewitt, J. (2018). Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior (Illustrated edition). Chronicle Books LLC.