The trouble with “should”


Lately, I’ve been noticing the word “should” appear in conversations and literature on dog training.

  • “Fido should now how to do this right now.”
  • “Fido should know better.”
  • “Fido should feel safe in this environment.”

It’s easy for humans to dictate how a dog “should “behave or feel. The problem with this type of thinking, and this type of verbiage, is that it sets up dogs and their humans for frustration and failure.

Every dog is an individual. For training to be truly force-free, every dog needs the autonomy to decide what makes him feel safe, what he finds reinforcing, and what he needs to thrive. I believe there’s a reluctance in society to give dogs this autonomy, partly because of the dominance fallacy that’s still pervasive in training circles, and partly because it means giving up some of the control we invariably exert over our dogs.

By placing behavior in terms of  “the dog ‘should’ do or feel xyz,” it relieves humans of the burden of understanding behavior in terms of antecedents and consequences, as well as understanding how classical conditioning affects a dog’s feeling of safety in the environment. This isn’t fair to the dog. After all, the only thing a dog “should” do is what all living species do, every day: behave and communicate according to the laws of behavior.

Dogs don’t choose their families, where they live, or their daily environment. We choose that for our dogs. This doesn’t mean dogs can’t thrive. But it does mean we have an overwhelming responsibility to listen to our dogs’ communication, understand their behavior, and adjust the environment to help them feel as safe and healthy as possible. And stop imposing the word “should,” and all its implications, on their daily lives.

–  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  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.