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What to do with a Bad Dog

One of the most common problems I hear about from clients is that they don’t what to do with a bad dog. The owners shout commands or tug on the leash or shove them in the crate hoping the pup will somehow start to behave. It won’t. Your dog needs help to focus itself and you need to know what to do with a bad dog.

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What is a “bad dog”?

You think you have a bad dog. But what you really have is one who has no understanding of what he needs to do to be a “good dog.” You have not set him up for success as a good dog. A pup people think is not a good boy (or girl) is, 99.99% of the time just a dog that has never been trained how to behave. And he’s usually one who is out of control for the moment or for most of his time.

The most common complaint I get that use the words “bad dog” are about the ones who become fixated on things other than their owners. These animals simply can no longer even hear the commands given. When he is locked on something else he can’t respond to the owner at all. He’s not trying to misbehave. He’s just cannot refocus.

The dog who is considered to be bad is one who has no self-control. He cannot obey commands because he doesn’t know how to be calm and attentive. It’s your job to teach him these things!

Your dog needs your help

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The methods mentioned in the first paragraph are not helpful to the dog or owner. They are confusing and frustrating for the puppy or adult. And they certainly don’t help you understand how to get the calm behavior you want. Imagine a tired toddler being yelled at, pulled by the arm, and even pushed into his room to calm himself down. Do you think he’ll be able to do it or will he just have a tantrum until he falls into an exhausted sleep?

If you want to know what to do with a pet that's over his limit, you have to take several things into consideration. An out of control dog cannot make good choices or perform tasks or the desired behaviors. Out of control dogs are much more likely to injure themselves. Gaining control of the out of control pup is the same if you’re looking for basic obedience or doing some kind of dog sports.

Recognize what may cause an out of control state

Distractions

When you are training, you eventually move to an environment with more distractions. You go from working with him indoors to working with him outdoors. Even if it’s literally just outside your door it’s still different and more distracting for your dog. Move slowly from a distraction-free environment to one with some distractions. But be careful not to add an overwhelming amount of distractions.

Expect a little backsliding in training as you move from a distraction-free environment to ones that offer more and more distractions. Start by generalizing. This means teaching the pup the commands in every part of your home. Practice in different rooms and at different times of the day. Then add distractions inside. When he is consistently performing in every room of the house with distractions inside, move to the driveway or even the backyard with no distractions (or as few as possible).

Build a foundation

Surprisingly, some owners want to push the envelope and see just how far their dog can be tested before failing. Why would someone do that? Failure only frustrates the animal and the owner! It’s far better to set your pal up for success by ensuring each stage of training has been fully understood and your dog is fluent in the commands. Be sure impulse control, checking in with you automatically, and behaviors such as sit, down, stand, and stay are really solid. When you’ve accomplished this, you can begin to add distractions outside.

Although we all seem to have a desire to move as quickly as possible through life our dogs do not. As an owner it’s up to you to lay a very solid foundation before testing your the limits. If you are pushing him to go over his threshold, you’re creating a dog who cannot possibly think straight. Remember, you’re training, not trying to show off for the neighbors. Stretching the limit is one thing but stretching it past the breaking point benefits no one, especially not your dog!

A helpful article on building that foundation is Establishing Leadership and Respect

Rewards are important!

When I train new behaviors, I know it’s important that the dog knows he’ll be rewarded for the correct behavior. I use very high value treats like Happy Howie beef rolls. He knows I have food rewards in my hands. He can smell them. I don’t even care if he sees them. He learns very quickly, at the very start of training, that I will mark the behavior I want with a word and then he’ll get the reward. It’s the agreement we have; he performs the behavior correctly and I give him a tasty treat.

But if the dog is over the threshold, meaning he’s beyond his ability to focus and concentrate, it’s very difficult to get him to focus on what you are doing. An over-excited dog simply cannot learn.

You must use very short focus exercises to bring his mind back to the task at hand. This is why I teach “watch me” as one of the very first commands. Another good focus exercise is “Touch” where the dog is trained to touch your hand (or another object).

Sit on the Dog and other calming exercises

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Another thing you can do with your less-than-perfect pup is teach him to calm himself. One great way to train your dog to settle himself is with the “Sit on the Dog” exercise. This exercise was created by Margot Woods, a wonderful trainer from Maryland. Margot passed away in 2016 but her “Sit on the Dog” exercise will forever be a tool in every good trainer’s toolbox!

Read the way to do the Sit on the Dog exercise from Margot herself.

You can also help your dog learn to be calm by training “Wait.” The dog must stay in position (sit or down) before you release him to eat, get in or out of the car, or go out the door. By consistently requiring your dog to wait he learns to be calmer and attentive to you.

Fewer words, more feeling

I have had many clients over the years who feel the need to talk at their canine companions constantly. I'm not referring to the kind of praise I encourage. Rather it is a non-stop flow of words that undoubtedly confuse and distract the poor mutt from doing what the owner really wants. I’ve mentioned before that dogs are visual far more than verbal. The never-ending flood of words will never help with a bad dog.

Instead of using a lot of words when you’re working with your over-excited dog, try being very quiet. By calming yourself, you will help him calm himself. Being quiet also prevents you from shouting in frustration when he doesn’t do what you want.

When you do praise your dog make it short and sweet and try to use a softer voice. High-pitched, excited voices usually end up exciting the dog you’re trying to keep calm. Your demeanor and energy will be reflected by your pup.

We trainers say that emotions travel down the leash and they definitely do! If you want to know what to do with a bad dog start with getting hold of your own emotions. Take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders and arms. Loosen your grip on the leash. Your dog will instantly know that you are calm and this will help him be calm.

When you are ready, start with some focus exercises to get your dog’s attention on you. Then you and the dog will be able to move on to more formal exercises.

What to do with a bad dog?

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The first thing to do is realize that he’s not a bad dog at all. He’s over-excited and needs you to provide him leadership and a calming energy. Then simply relax yourself and follow the steps to helping your dog achieve the kind of calm, focused attention on you that will set you both up for successful training!

And remember, Joyful Dogs of Michigan is always here to help!

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