The vast majority of households that I go to help are already in a habit of telling their dog off. At the very least saying “No” or “Aa ah”, in some case much more lengthy and forcefully. One of my jobs is to let them know that this isn’t a great idea to do, and I’d like to share why not in this article. I must say before you read on that I am aware that (if you are telling them off) it’s often a heat of the moment thing, rather than something you have set out to do. I have no judgement on that, we’re all humans. All I would like to do is to provide a new understanding that hopefully will start to inform your action in those heated moments.
Why telling a dog off isn’t great…
Let’s keep it simple. I’m going to list the reasons, then elaborate on each one:
- They are doing what they are doing for a reason or innocently
- They do not understand English
- They may be doing it to get a reaction from you to test your leadership
- Telling them off can make them fearful of you
- They can learn to be more confrontational
- It adds more energy into the situation and can keep it going for longer – what you need to bring is calmness.
1. For a reason/innocently.
Can you remember being told off as a child? Did it ever feel justified? Or did you feel that you were justified in your actions…? Personally I can remember that either I didn’t know that what I was doing was wrong, and therefore calm guidance would have sufficied – or there was (what felt to me) an important reason that I was doing what I was doing – so I couldn’t have choosen a different behaviour at that time, so I wouldn’t necessarily behave differently next time without a good reason not to do it.
Our dogs are no different. They are either exploring curiously, feeling anxious so doing something stress relieving, or simply doing what they are doing to test you and see if you’ll give them attention. If it’s innocent or anxious, calmly guide them away. If it’s to get a reaction, calmly isolate them.
2. Dogs don’t speak English
I have seen some people tell their dogs off in elaborate ways. A sentence or more. Dogs do not understand the explanation and therefore your words mean nothing to them, except to create confusion. Even the word “No” doesn’t mean anything. All they hear is a tone – the tone is firm/threatening… We want to build a clear relationship of trust. Not one of fear or confusion.
3. To get a reaction
As touched on in point 1, sometimes the reason is to get you to react. Why would they do this? Well they understand that a leader gets attention on their terms, so they are trying to get your attention on their terms to see whether or not they are the leader. Checking the leadership is a top priority for a dog (it’s something that’s on their minds in pretty much all of their behaviour) so that means sometimes they will pull out all the stops just to make sure. If you are working hard on your leadership, don’t let this be the thing that pulls the rug out from underneath you. A calm isolation will do. Yes you might have to repeat it, but aren’t the best leaders always consistent?
I’ve touched on this already. It’s pretty obvious, but in our frustration and haste to have things the way we want them, it can be easy to forget that our dogs don’t know that we mean them no harm. When we are telling them off, they don’t know where we are going with this. Often they will do the “look of appeasement” (you may consider this the guilty look, see pic higher in the post) as a way of asking you not to hurt them. To be a good leader we want to be a Nelson Mandela type leader, not a Sadam Hussain.
You telling them off (bear in mind that they feel justified in their actions) isn’t necessarily going to lead to less of that behaviour. Depending on the personality of the dog, e.g. if yours is naturally quite dominant, you can actually make the behaviour worse, because they feel like they need to step it up and start asserting themselves further. To be honest, I think this is absolutely fair enough! If we don’t want a confrontational dog, we need to lead by example. You can be a leader to a dominant dog, and help them to understand that they don’t need to behave this way.
6. Adding energy
To have a happy dog, it’s quite important to keep things calm. If your dog is acting up, chances are he or she is feeling a bit agitated or adrenalin fuelled. Telling them off is not going to bring them down from that state. If anything it will cause it to escalate. They need you to show them that it’s okay to be calm, by being calm yourself. If you can’t be calm, gently send them out of the room, or leave the room yourself.
So that’s it. Six reasons why telling a dog off isn’t a good idea. If you have any questions or comments I would be happy to hear them.