Articles and information on dog behavior

Why is Your Dog “Bad” if He Acts Like a Human?

A minpin being held by one woman while another approaches with Gonna Get You hands. The dog's ears are pinned back, face is tight, and dog is snarling or barking.

The stock image website’s photo description said, “dog protecting owner.” In reality, this is a dog feeling trapped (restrained) while someone that makes them uncomfortable approaches. The dog is reacting accordingly.

While we would all love to have the “perfect” dog who is obedient, loving of all humans and other animals, and suitable to bring everywhere we go… the reality is that, like humans, dogs aren’t perfect. And when we hold them to “perfect dog” standards, we are expecting them to act better than we do.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some scenarios:

The Tasty Treat

Scenario A:  Your friend steals a bite of your dessert.

You and a friend go out to dinner. You get a piece of cheesecake for dessert and it is literally the best cheesecake you’ve had in your entire life. You are really enjoying it… until your friend grabs their fork and tries to steal a bite. “What the heck!?!?” you exclaim, giving them a nasty face.

Totally acceptable, normal human behavior, right? You were enjoying the cheesecake. Your friend did not ask for a bite. Totally reasonable reaction on your part.

Scenario B: Your child tries to steal your dog’s chew treat.

Your dog has a bully stick and is happily chewing it on the floor in the family room. It is, like most bully sticks, the best thing your dog has eaten in their entire life. They are really enjoying it… until your 6-year-old runs into the room and makes a grab for it. Your dog growls loudly.

Bad dog? Nope. The dog was enjoying the bully stick. The child did not give the dog any sort of heads-up (or have anything to trade for the bully stick). A growl is a totally reasonable reaction on the part of your dog. It is the equivalent of your “What the heck!?!?” nasty face. If humans treat a growl as a punishable offense, they teach a dog to skip over the growl to the next steps — a snarl, air snap, or bite.

The Affectionate Partner

Scenario A: Your partner wants some lovin’… you do not.

You have had a rough day at work. All you want to do is curl up on the couch with your favorite blanket, eat half a pizza, binge-watch your favorite show, and then crawl into bed. Your partner is watching Netflix with you but they start getting touchy-feely and kissy and you know they want to move to the “and chill” part of the equation. You push them away and say, “Not tonight, honey, I’m exhausted.” You move to the recliner so you can have some space.

Totally acceptable, normal human behavior, right? You were not in the mood for affection. Your partner initiated and you politely declined and moved somewhere you could have more personal space. Totally reasonable reaction on your part.

Scenario B: Your dog wants to sleep near you, not on you.

Your dog has had quite a day. There was a visit to the vet or the groomer or maybe just an extra-active afternoon at doggie daycare. You want your dog to snuggle on your lap, which they usually do, but today they keep wiggling and thrashing until they break free, only to curl up next to your leg. You try a few times and finally your dog hops off the couch and walks across the room the flop down in a dog bed.

Bad/rude dog? Nope. Like you, your dog sometimes has days when they just don’t want to cuddle. When you didn’t allow them to curl up next to you, insisting on lap time, your dog moved further away.

The Friendly Stranger

Scenario A: “I’m a hugger!”

Your friend convinces you to come to an event at her church. You haven’t even been in the building five minutes when a person you don’t know runs up to you and wraps you in a huge hug.

You are not a hugger. You are especially not a hugger when the other person is a stranger. You feel yourself tighten up. You do not hug back. When the person lets go and sees your startled face, they brush it off with, “I’m sorry, I’m a hugger! I just can’t help it!” You want to leave — now.

Totally acceptable, normal human behavior, right? While there are friendly people who will hug — and receive hugs — from strangers, they are in the minority. Most of us appreciate our personal space and getting to know someone before any physical contact beyond a handshake.

Scenario B: “Don’t worry! My dog is friendly!”

You and your dog are walking down the street when an off-leash dog appears, running straight for you. Your dog freezes. The new dog keeps running toward you. Your dog barks and lunges at the end of their leash. The new dog keeps running toward you. “Don’t worry,” the dog’s human yells from several houses away. “MY DOG IS FRIENDLY!” When the “friendly” dog gets to your dog, your dog is snarling and snapping the air. Only at this point, does the new dog back off.

Bad dog? Despite what the “friendly” dog’s human might say to you, your dog was not in the wrong. Your dog was having a perfectly lovely walk until the “friendly” dog ignored doggy social norms and came barreling directly at your dog’s face. Then the “friendly” dog ignored your dog’s body language – the freezing, the barking, the lunging – and kept coming. The only option your dog had left to get the other dog to go away was to escalate to snarling and snapping.

Bottom Line: Your Dog has the Right to Say No

Get to know your dog and what they like and dislike. Then make your dog’s life what will make them happy — not what will make you happy. (These will overlap quite a bit, though!)

Are there situations where your dog will have to suck it up and deal? Sure! Vet visits. Nail trims. Baths. But we can do what Colleen Pelar advised us in one of her workshops:

“If your dog is uncomfortable, ask yourself these questions: 1) Can I make the situation better? or 2) Can I make it shorter?”

Making situations shorter is easy! Making it better takes some time and the help of an experienced force-free trainer, but can be life-changing for many families. One of the core beliefs at Your Dog’s Friend is that if humans are educated about dogs and dog behavior, fewer dogs will be surrendered to shelters for behavior problems. A big part of living successfully with dogs is understanding that they have the right to say no. And when they do say no, we should listen.

Why Is My Dog’s Recall Perfect for “Treats!” but not for “Come!”?

A mixed breed, curly-haired dog is running toward the camera with a big goofy smile on his face.

“Treats? Heck yes, I want treats!”

Your dog is in your backyard being a typical dog: running around, chasing squirrels, sniffing the fence line, rolling in “good” scents, all that fun stuff that dogs love to do. But you have to leave for work and Fido needs to come inside.

“Fido, come!”

(Nothing happens.)

“Fido, COME!”

(Nothing happens.)


(Fido glances at you and then continues sniffing. Maybe he starts meandering toward the house, maybe not.)


(Fido drops everything, books it for the door at top speed, and skids into the house like Kramer from Seinfeld.)

What gives??

Turns out, you give. Or you don’t. And that is what has changed your recall word from “Come” to “Treats.”

When You Say “Treats!”…

Your dog can predict with near 100% certainty that when you say, “treats,” you are going to give them a delicious treat. (You can substitute whatever other word gets used to cue food, like “breakfast!” or “cookie!”)

With odds like that, who wouldn’t come running?

When You Say “Come!”…

When you first start training a recall, your dog gets rewarded every single time. It’s often high-value food (chicken, cheese, liver) and so your dog is PSYCHED to run to you. At first, you practice with your dog only feet away. Then you increase the distance to all the way across the training center. Then maybe you hide behind something so your dog has to find you. In Advanced Manners class, your dog learns to recall and ignore distractions like toys and food on the ground between them and you.

But once you and your dog get out in the real world, things change.

And the biggest thing is that “Come” stops paying and at times, starts being a punishment.

In your house, does “Come” mean any of these things?

  • stop chasing a squirrel
  • stop sniffing fun things in the yard
  • stop playing
  • it’s time to get in the bathtub
  • it’s time to get in your crate while I go to work

If the word “Come” is attached to all of these things and it’s not paying like it used to in class, why would our dogs come running to us as enthusiastically as they do when we say, “Treats”?

Treats pays out at near 100%. Come… doesn’t.

Dogs are great at predicting what you will do based on your previous actions. This is both the greatest and worst thing about dogs! As trainers, it’s our job to use a dog’s predictive nature to our advantage.

If you’ve ruined “come,” don’t fret. You are not the first dog parent to do it and you won’t be the last. You just need to “reload” the recall word so it predicts reward EVERY time, just like the word “treats” does. We recommend that if “Come” is already ineffective that you switch to a different word. Any word will work: Here, C’mere, To Me, Front, Banana! Dogs learn the words we teach them, so be creative if you want!

“Will I need treats forever?”

No, but the more often you have them, the stronger your recall will be. If you make your recall pay out more/better than any other behavior, it will be your dog’s favorite “trick.” We recommend keeping a container of tasty treats near the door if you have a fenced yard.

If you don’t have treats with you, reward the dog in a different way:

  • Tug on a toy together (braided fleece leashes can double as tug toys)
  • Toss a ball or disc for the dog to retrieve (if they will bring it back!)
  • Pet the dog, praise them, and then let them go back to what they were doing (“Go play!”)
  • Make a big deal of running together to the nearest treats (“What a good dog! Let’s get treats! Treats, treats, treats! Whee!”)

How to Train (or Retrain) Your Recall

We have a page on Coming When Called that has step-by-step advice for training a recall, including fun games that can include the whole family.

Is Your Dog Like the One from the Movie Up? (SQUIRREL!)


We all got a kick out of the “talking” dog in the Pixar movie, Up. He’d be doing one thing and suddenly…


…he’d be distracted and totally focused on the potential squirrel.

If this sounds a bit like your dog, we have a class that is perfect for you. Formerly known as “Control & Focus,” the class is now entitled Distracted Dog Class.

Read more

a black and white cocker spaniel relaxing on a brown couch

How Do I Get My Dog to Stop…?

We often get emails and phone calls with questions that start: “How do I get my dog to stop __________?”

Insert unwanted behavior:  Jumping. Nipping. Counter surfing. Pulling on leash.

The Golden Rule of Behavior

Here’s what you need to know:  A dog will only do things that they find reinforcing.

When your dog is engaging in a behavior, ask yourself:

“What is my dog getting out of this behavior?”

If you can identify the reinforcement and remove it, you have removed your dog’s reason to do that behavior.

A Real World Example

Meet Titania. She’s an 8(ish) year old cocker spaniel I adopted from OBG Cocker Spaniel Rescue in 2011.

a black and white cocker spaniel relaxing on a brown couch

Her favorite spot in the world is on the back cushion of the sofa.

Black and white cocker spaniel perched on the back cushion of a couch, looking out a window


This was fine with our old sofa. However, our new sofa has a much higher back, which makes it unsafe for her to be jumping up and down to get to her favorite spot. Titania has some slightly herniated discs in her back and her physical therapist confirmed at her last appointment that we needed to prevent her from jumping up to the back of the couch from now on.

Where’s the reinforcement?

Question: Why did Titania like to perch on the back of the sofa? What is rewarding to her for the behavior?

Answer: It was because she could watch the world go by through the window. (The clings are semi-see-thru.)

Remove the reinforcement

I bought two science fair style pieces of cardboard from the local craft store and put them up in the window.

the author sitting on the couch pointing up at the window which is covered with a posterboard

Now, it ain’t pretty. We’re not going to be on HGTV anytime soon with this setup. (I had considered curtains but Titania is the type who would just nose her way under or around them.)

Reinforcement (the view outside) has been removed.

Witness: the new behavior!

Black and white cocker spaniel asleep in a gray and beige tufted dog bed on the floor

Suddenly — as if by magic! — the dog bed on the floor is her new favorite place to chill out. I can make the dog bed even more reinforcing by giving her treats there. (But it’s already really comfortable, so that’s a good start!)

Now you try!

Think of a behavior you’d like your dog to stop doing.

Identify what the dog gets out of the behavior. (Food? Attention? Entertainment?)

Remove the reinforcement. (Put the food out of his reach. Ignore him when he jumps on you. Cover the window.)

…and step 2: REWARD the behavior you like. (Treats for good behavior. Pay, pay, pay your dog!)

Let us know what happens!

Help! My Dog is Afraid of our Christmas Guests!


Rex chills out in a covered crate with a bully stick.

You have holiday guests coming, but your dog is either going to be terrified and hide or bark his head off at them, trying to scare them away. What can you do to make the day stress-free for everyone? We have tips… and a GIVEAWAY!

Talk to Your Vet

If your dog has a serious fear problem, there are medications that can help, including daily pills or pills just for those tough days.

If you’re using a situational medication, be sure to “test drive” a dose on a normal day so you can monitor your dog’s reaction. Ask your vet about when you should administer the medication so it will be at its most effective when your guests arrive.

If the fear is only in very specific situations that you can avoid most of the time, medication is likely not necessary.

Build a Bunker

Your number one priority is to keep your dog feeling safe. If your dog enjoys being in his crate, you’ve already got this in the bag! You may consider tossing a sheet over the crate to eliminate visual stimulation. Rex in the photo above is all cozy in his bed in a covered crate while guests are on the other side of the house.

Does your dog hate crates? Check out these other ideas for bunkers from Eileen Anderson.

If your guests will be on the other side of the wall from your fearful dog, try a white noise machine near the crate or a radio tuned in to NPR.

Important: Guests should not enter the room where the dog has his bunker.

Prepare Ye The Kongs!

Stuff some Kongs the day before with all sorts of goodies: wet food, leftovers from your dinner, cheese, peanut butter, fat-free plain yogurt… then put them in the freezer so they will take even longer for your dog to unpack the day of the party.

Tire Your Dog Out Early

Break out the treat balls and puzzles for breakfast. If you have time, do a quick training session to work that doggy brain even harder. If your fearful dog can take walks in your neighborhood, take a nice long walk and let him sniff everything. (Sniffing gets those neurons firing!)

It’s Party Time!

Before your guests arrive, move your dog to his bunker and provide him with a Kong and/or bully stick to enjoy. During the party, check in on him from time to time, bringing a fresh Kong or a few treats to nibble.

If you have to take your dog outside for a break during the party, move your guests out of sight so you can slip out for a quick walk and back in to the bunker without your dog seeing the strangers.

You Can Do This…. and We Can Help

At Your Dog’s Friend, we understand how stressful it can be living with a fearful dog. We offer several classes that can help your dog build confidence. Here they are:

  • Agility Games / Nose Work 1:  These are good for the dog that gets just a little spooked at new things, but is otherwise fine with being around strangers.
  • Confidence Building: A good option for dogs that are a little spooked around strangers and/or new situations.
  • Fearful Dog Class: For dogs that would rather stay far away from strangers and/or anything new.

All classes are offered at our training center in Rockville, Maryland.

Giveaway for Local Friends!

YourDogsFriend.orgGo to our Facebook page to enter the giveaway for two wonderful books by trainer Debbie Jacobs, CPDT-KA, CAP.

These books are truly the gold standard in fearful dog rehabilitation and training.

The winner must pick up their books at our training center in Rockville, Maryland.



How to Find a Qualified Dog Behaviorist

Your dog has a problem. A BIG PROBLEM.

It’s the kind of problem that may lead to him being left at a shelter/rescue or worse, put to sleep. Where do you turn for help? How do you know whether the person will treat your dog humanely and provide an effective treatment and training plan?

Dog Training Has No Official Certification

Someone with an M.D. graduated from medical school.

Someone with an LCSW completed the state’s requirements to be a social worker.

Someone with a J.D. graduated from law school.

Anyone can claim to be a dog trainer. Absolutely anyone, regardless of education or ethics. It is up to you as the dog’s guardian to research the options and select the best one for your dog. (We will get into dog training certifications in another article.)

Today, we’re going to teach you how to know if someone is a dog behaviorist.

Follow the Flowchart!

(Click the image to make it larger.)

Flowchart showing you how to determine if someone is a behaviorist

What’s the Difference?

A Vet Behaviorist (DACVB or Dip. ACVB) is a veterinarian who has received extra training in animal behavior. Your regular vet did not have to study much about animal behavior to get their DVM; that program focuses more on physical medicine than mental and behavioral health. A vet behaviorist can prescribe medication if your dog requires it and they can help you devise a management and training plan. We have a list of recommended DACVBs in the DC metro area.

A Behaviorist is someone with a Masters degree (ACAAB) or PhD (CAAB) in animal behavior. They have extensive knowledge of animal behavior and how animals (and humans!) learn. While they cannot prescribe medication like a Vet Behaviorist, they often have close relationships with local vets and can advocate on your dog’s behalf if medication would be helpful. We have a list of recommended CAABs & ACAABs in the DC metro area.

People may use terms like “behavior specialist,” “behavior consultant,” “dog therapist,” or even “behaviorist,” but unless they have a DACVB, ACAAB, or CAAB, you cannot be certain how much they really know about dog behavior.

Not all dog trainers are created equal! Be sure to ask a lot of questions and ask for testimonials from previous clients. This person may be an expert and a miracle worker or they may be the exact opposite. We have a recommended list of dog trainers in the DC metro area.

Need Some Guidance?

Even if you’ve never taken a class with us, you are welcome to call or email our main office for more information about positive trainers and behaviorists in the Maryland, DC, and Northern Virginia area. We are here for you and your dog!