The problem with viewing behavior as a problem


I rarely, if ever, focus on punishment – even the force-free, humane kind – when working with training clients. But before you quit reading and think this is one of those kooky training articles full of yoga, chakras and kumbaya, hang in there and let me explain why.

When a client contacts me for help, I invariably ask the client to describe the behaviors causing concern. The person usually mentions behaviors like barking, lunging, air snapping, or reluctance (“putting on the brakes”) in certain situations. While these types of behaviors are certainly cause for concern, and certainly cause for contacting a training professional, I hesitate to classify them as “problems.” Instead, I view them – and try to help my clients view them – as expressions of a dog’s needs.

When I meet a dog who is barking and lunging at strangers and other dogs on- and off- leash, these behaviors are critical information about that dog’s internal state. He’s likely saying “Back off, I’m not comfortable!” This dog is expressing his need for space in order to feel safe. And, in this case, I’m glad that the dog is barking and lunging . Animals that display threat signals when uncomfortable are functioning and healthy. After all, I’d much rather a dog say “Back off!” early rather than stay shut down until he has no other option left except to bite.

I also meet with clients whose dogs are chewing up items in the house or barking out of boredom. While both the client and I want to ensure their dog doesn’t continue these behaviors, I again help the client understand how these behaviors provide critical information about their dog’s internal state. In some cases, dogs who excessively chew and bark are severely lacking in enrichment and exercise. Simply put, they need something to do. In other cases, the chewing and barking could indicate a greater underlying problem like separation anxiety or environmental stress.

I’m not saying time-outs are ineffective or inhumane. And, as part of a comprehensive force-free behavior change plan, they can help reduce unwanted behavior while the client also works on rewarding new, more desirable behaviors. But I do think it’s important to shift the paradigm away from viewing behavior as a “problem” and instead view it as an “expression of needs.”

All species – including humans – behave to produce consequences. As a trainer, I want behavior from my clients’ dogs. A lack of behavior indicates an unhealthy, potentially shut down animal. So the next time your dog displays a behavior, instead of asking, “How can I stop this?” ask, “What does my dog need?”
–  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.