Celebrating the mischievous dog

IMG_0048.jpgAs a dog trainer, it may seem strange when I say I celebrate when my human clients tell me their dogs are exhibiting mischievous behaviors. But, considering a majority of the dogs on my caseload are fearful and anxious, getting behavior – any behavior – is a cause for celebration. Because whether naughty or nice, exhibiting behavior is a key indicator of a dog’s emotional well-being.

Behavior is an essential part of life. In the words of Kathy Sdao, “Consequences drive behavior.” In fact, consequences are the reason behavior evolved, not just for dogs but for all species, including our own.

You may have heard someone describe a fearful dog as “shut down.” Typically, “shut down” is a metaphor for lack of behavior. Healthy, well-adjusted dogs explore their environment, interact with stimuli, and perform a variety of behaviors to produce consequences. These consequences can range from gaining access to reinforcers like playtime and food, to exploring outlets for basic needs like chewing, and exercising, to expressing when they are uncomfortable by growling or barking.

Fearful dogs possess a limited range of behaviors. They may appear “frozen” and lack the ability to use growling, snarling, or barking to express discomfort. If presented with a food toy, they may not investigate it. They may eschew contact with other dogs and humans. While these dogs may appear to be beautifully behaved, the fact is, they aren’t behaving. And that’s a problem.

Lack of behavior is not a goal in any training plan. Lack of behavior means something is seriously wrong. A good example is the dog who appears “completely fine” at the veterinary office, but is frozen out of fear instead. The illusion of “completely fine” is in actuality an absence of behavior.

Recently, a long-term human client of mine excitedly emailed me with the news that her dog had jumped on the bed, taken a library book, and shredded it to bits. We were both ecstatic at the news because for the longest time, this dog was too scared to do any behaviors, let alone behaviors humans typically classify as “mischief.” In addition to being too afraid to go outside, she was hesitant to step on different surfaces, hesitant to engage in normal dog behaviors like chewing, and didn’t express an interest in toys or games.

Through training, her humans and I have helped this dog come out of her shell and, above all, start offering behavior as a means of interacting with her world.

Still confused as to why a dog trainer would celebrate library book destruction? Here’s just a small list of all the behaviors this fearful dog performed to achieve this “mischievous” trick:

  • Leaving her “safe” space in her house, the bathroom
  • Placing her paws on a new surface
  • Performing a “paws up” behavior, where she places her front paws on an elevated surface
  • Actively engaging with her environment
  • Seeking an object to chew

All of these things are indicators of a healthy, well-adjusted dog – something to celebrate. After all, teaching dogs to stay off furniture and refrain from chewing illegal items is the easy stuff compared to dealing with fear and anxiety.

So if you have a fearful dog, celebrate mischief. Your dog is behaving. And behavior is a healthy thing.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.