It’s Not a Moral Issue; It’s Just What Dogs Do

For those of us who tend to be overly polite, having dogs is one more excuse to beat up on ourselves.

Not only do we strictly police our own behavior so we don’t irritate or offend someone else. We also feel intense guilt any time our dogs act “rude.”
 

Honey the Golden Retriever needs to be groomed.

If want something you SHOULD be embarrassed about, take a look at my muppet toes. I sure could use a good grooming.


 
Here’s the short list of dog behaviors that have mortified me in public:

  • aroma sampling someone’s private parts
  • girl-on-girl humping in the middle of a dinner party
  • a dog bark alarm that doesn’t shut off no matter what
  • puppy high jump competitions
  • channeling her inner Cujo any time another dog walks by on leash
  • howling at fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, and just because

When my dogs did these, or any number of other behaviors, I wanted to sink through the floor.

Luckily, I’ve gained some perspective over the years.

These aren’t moral issues. They’re just what dogs do.

Dogs jump. They bark. They sniff. They howl. They hump.

Sometimes they even pick fights with other dogs.
 

Honey the Golden Retriever chews on a stick.

And you should be embarrassed for not buying me better chew toys. What did this stick cost you? Oh, nothing?


 
Now for those of you already planning your response in the comments telling me how important it is to teach my dog good manners, I’m not saying these things don’t matter. They do.

They just don’t matter so much that our embarrassment over them prevents us from teaching our dogs good behavior. Because that’s what happens when we get embarrassed, doesn’t it?

Our dog lunges at another one, we get a dirty look from their person, and in mortification, we start yelling and pulling our dog away from the scene.

Or he jumps on your husband’s grandmother and you pull him down and hold him in place.

Or he barks at the mailman and we yell, “shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!”

Here’s what’s true about those reactions:

  • they’re a natural, human response to feeling embarrassed and out of control
  • and they do nothing to correct the behavior that’s embarrassing you

 

Honey the Golden Retrieve in close up.

And what you should be most embarrassed by is that I’m posing so pretty and you didn’t even give me a cookie.


 
I remember when my last dog, Shadow, would bark and lunge at dogs walking by. I was so embarrassed I kept apologizing to the other person.

In the meantime, Shadow’s behavior was reinforced by the dog walking away from her as quickly as possible, making it more likely to continue.

It wasn’t easy to ignore the looks of disapproval when Shadow acted up. But I had something more important to worry about—teaching her how to behave appropriately around other dogs.

If I was doing it right, I didn’t have time or attention to spend on feeling embarrassed. I was busy spotting situations before they occurred, taking action, and reinforcing good behavior for however few seconds it lasted.

After a few more years of experience and practice, I’m able to avoid the worst situations, even with dogs I’m just getting to know. Like our various foster dogs.

And if I mess up, I’m even able to choke out a quick, “Sorry,” while redirecting a dog’s focus back to me (and my turkey hot dogs).

I don’t feel bad about barking, sniffing, jumping, etc. anymore (well, not too bad; old habits die hard). After all, it’s not a moral issue. It’s just what dogs do.

And embarrassment is a rotten state of mind for dog training.

Your Turn: Does your dog embarrass you? Or have you learned to be more relaxed about normal dog behaviors (even when humans consider them rude)?

 

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Comments

  1. I had a nasty bladder infection as a puppy, so I licked myself a lot which kind of became a habit. Now that I am a big girl, I still like to do that when I am nervous or unsure of something. Mom doesn’t like that at all, but I have mastered the no lick command and usually stop as soon as I hear that. It is most fun to do when lots of people are around admiring me which totally embarrasses my mom!

  2. Really great points, Pamela! I’ve often felt embarrassed by Pyrrha’s behavior (lately, the leash reactivity, which we are vigilantly working on), but I feel less embarrassed when I’m with other dog-savvy people, who understand that it’s not a “parenting” failure on my part (necessarily) or that I have a “bad dog” — rather that she just has some issues that we need to work on. Thanks for sharing this; it’s a much-needed encouragement!

  3. The only thing that really embarrasses me is that Toby gets overly and visibly excited around kids… :-( He likes kids and all, so I don’t know why this is, but believe me, it is beyond mortifying!

  4. I’m constantly apologising for Del’s behaviour, mainly to people who aren’t used to being around dogs. Especially when he lunges at other dogs on our walks. You’re right- it doesn’t mean that the dog isn’t trained well enough, it means they’re being what they are- dogs! Great post as usual :)

  5. Great piece. I’m so happy dachshunds can’t reach a standing person’s privates. Doesn’t stop them from humping ankles, tho. Yes, dogs do what dogs do. And what they do is a lot less ugly than some of the things people do in public. What comes to mind? Let’s see…..Miley Cyrus impersonating a pole dancer….my female dogs in a hump train aren’t as embarrassing as that. What else? Sandy Hook School shooting. Mike Tyson biting off a guys’s ear during a boxing match. Dictators torturing people. The list is endless. There is no dog behavior that quite comes up to bad people behavior…and we’re supposed to know better. Long live Dog Nation. They can teach us a lot.

  6. Wilson, who is completely harmless, will occasionally run after people who walk through my dead-end court to get to a trail. He runs at them at the same time he is doing some loud, fast barking. While I know he won’t do anything but sniff them if that, a dog-phobic person doesn’t. It embarrasses me that he feels the need to tell people that they are trespassing in “his” court.

  7. Then there was this time I’m at a pet walk and visiting at an information booth on pet therapy. I show the pet therapy folk my sweet little rescue dog. “He would be perfect,” I brag with a combination of pride and obnoxiousness. “Jager just loves people, especially kids. He would bring joy to so . . . Augh! Holy $#@* Jager! Leave it!”

    Because you know, Jager does love people. But intact Boxers with their dangling goods seems to set him off. Who knew? I disengage my little dog from the hulking beast, make sincere apologies without direct eye contact, and wanted very much to fade into a mist along with my mini-old-yeller-gone-rapid.

    We never did make a therapy dog out of Jager. It’s probably for the best.

  8. My greatest embarassment is a Lab who thinks small dogs are squirrels. It’s absolutely mortifying. He chased after (and almost caught!) a chihuahua at the dog park. I just wanted to sink into the ground.

  9. I used to get SO embarrassed at Lucas’ reactivity. Then I took a reactive dog class where everyone was dealing with the same situation. By the end of the 8 weeks, I felt so reassured. I guess my embarrassment came from thinking that NO ONE had EVER had a dog as bad as mine! When I saw that there were others – some whose dogs were even worse! – I felt better. Silly, I know. But at least I learned from it!

  10. Great insight. I used to be embarrassed, react, and apologize profusely rather than try to handle the situation appropriately. When I realized I was doing things wrong, I worked with my dogs to correct it. Now the dogs sit nicely in the hallway when someone comes to the door. I am, however, still working with Maya’s exuberant behavior in public. It is very difficult to get her to sit nicely and not jump when someone is close enough to pet her.

  11. My dogs embarrass me daily. I’ve learned to live with it and just shrug it off. Getting all worked up only ever made it worse. Now that I don’t care about being embarrassed, we’ve made significant progress on the reactivity issues that used to get me red in the face. I still feel a bit embarrassed but I focus on what my dogs need and not what that person is thinking. Luckily most of our neighbors have witnessed our journey so there’s lots of encouraging smiles nowadays! Especially since Hurley is generally known as “Trouble” to my immediate neighbors.

  12. Thanks for a great post…reminding us that our dogs are….dogs. Their behavior is normal and just need some modification to be acceptable in polite company. When Dakota the Corgi barks when the doorbell rings, I know she’s just doing her job. She’s also learned to SHHH! when I tell her to.

  13. It doesn’t take much for me to get embarrassed. And reactive dogs crossed with my husband’s lack of discipline is mortifying! So I’ve been trying to help hubby out with subtle ideas when we come across people or dogs. While I have been working on the dogs being reactive with me alone on a leash and we are making great headway. And it has taken the embarrassment off with hubby walking dogs. He is very a first time dog owner with 6 challenging dogs, so it doesn’t bother me so much. We are both still learning.

    When Brut was about 8 months old I was walking him and ran into a lady with two dogs. We got talking for a few minutes and I didn’t realize it but Brut started humping one of the dogs. That’s when the lady casually said, “She’s in heat.” I immediately pulled Brut off and we quickly left. I don’t know if the lady realized Brut was intact, but I was so embarrassed as that could have been a huge disaster in a matter of minutes! That was a bit close!!

    • That was a close one. But aren’t dogs also able to have puppies with litters from more than one mate? Are you sure Brut didn’t leave a little DNA behind? :)

  14. I get really embarrassed and feel guilty when BJ goes up to a dog, wags his tail, sniffs them, and growls or goes after them. He used to be very friendly until a dog in the dog park wanted his ball and bit him. It happened again with another dog in the same run. We never went to that run again; however from that point BJ became dog aggressive. I’ve worked with him and have been unsuccessful.

  15. Yeah, Hawk hiking his leg on a few tents and store displays was pretty mortifying, and Kuster has pulled that trick a time or two as well!

    • Every so often, I ask myself why I’ve always had female dogs. I think the answer lies in your Hawk and Kuster stories. It all comes down to pee, doesn’t it? :)

  16. The only time I got seriously embarrassed was… actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been more than a little bashful with her behavior. She doesn’t jump, she isn’t reactive, she’s not an excessive barker or humper, she’s not a licker. She’s pretty much the prefect dog.

    • Okay, just rub it in there. :)

      Just remember that for every perfect dog we have in our lives, we get two or three that make us humble. :)

  17. Denise Smith says:

    I have two springer spaniels the younger we rescued and he had no “manners” at all the way forward was patient repetition and reward of the desired behaviour and trying to ignore the times he got it wrong. It got me a lot of raised eyebrows and tuts but we now have a dog who we can take for walks and be proud to own. I view dogs a bit like my kids most of the time they get it right but my job is to be there when they stuff up a bit and give them the love sand support to get back on the right track.

    • my job is to be there when they stuff up a bit and give them the love and support to get back on the right track.

      That is so nicely said, Denise. You took one sentence to say what I’ve started an entire blog to put out there. :)

  18. I think you did much to put the minds of many of us at ease. I think many don’t admit it, but I am willing to venture that most of our dogs don’t behave perfectly and you are right, “that’s what dogs do”
    My most embarrassing Dakota behavior is he OFTEN tries to lunge at other dogs when we are outside (he is on leash always). It could be the nicest dog in the world and he could already KNOW the dog and he will do it. I ALWAYS am apologizing profusely and often feel like a total loser when the dog on the receiving end looks at him like he is a crazy lunatic (he is, but that’s another story lol….kidding!)
    Thankfully Dakota does all of his barking INSIDE……
    I would say his lunging is our biggest embarrassment (he doesn’t attempt to bite though, thank goodness!)

  19. My dogs embarrass me regularly. My girl will act like she is all friendly, and wanting to meet another dog. As soon as said dog gets close, she goes into full bitch mode, doing her bratty bark, complete with a stare.

    My big boy is completely socially unacceptable.

    My little boy LOVES people. He also loves to jump on them. He also loves dogs, but has a rude greeting-ears and tail up, head on.

    I am constantly apologizing for my dogs.

  20. Every single one of my dogs has embarrassed me in multiple ways! And, I know exactly what you’re talking about. When I’m super embarrassed, I cannot do the right things to train my dog to behave differently. Like you, I’ve improved… but I still sometimes am hampered by my embarrassment!

    Great post!

  21. That’s me. I go above and beyond with Rumpy. Of course, I gotta be honest. Most of my apologetic behavior is to ensure Rumpy’s safety. I don’t want anyone to label my dog as bad.

  22. Frankie embarrasses me too often, lol. Not only with hurling abuse at cyclists wearing dark clothing but he does the same to dogs as we drive to the beach and on the beach. Small, lighter coloured dogs don’t seem to worry him at all but anything about his size or bigger and it’s open slather. Then there are the 3 Boxers we often see being exercised on the beach. He hates Boxers with a passion. He really struggles if there is a cyclist on one side of the road and a dog he wants to abuse on the other, lol!

  23. I’m not so much embarrassed by what the dogs do, I’m more concerned the other owner doesn’t understand that it’s normal dog behavior. Especially if they are the kind that feel their dog is not doing anything wrong. And are just looking at my dog like she’s nuts.

    I try my best just to avoid most situations where I’m not sure how my dogs will react.

  24. I don’t often embarrass my bipeds. But I did when I was a puppy – lots of people didn’t realise I was still a pup because I was big.
    By the way, my nose is at the perfect height to do the first one on your list, but I’m usually quite discreet about it!

  25. Thank you for helping me feel not so alone. On our walk last night, we had to cross the street about six times to avoid passing pedestrians too closely. Then, oddly, we passed a tricked-out bus where a K9 search team was training. A German shepherd barked at ours from a car window, and my kids did not bark back. You never know when they’re going to surprise you with good manners.

  26. MysticsMama says:

    Oh my dogness, this reminded me of a dog I met when I was a young, but dog-savvy-ish, woman. He was a big, ol’ friendly Malamute whose human was a very shy young man. I first met Mick the Malamute when he quietly came up behind me, stuffed his nose up my skirt and sneezed. Loudly. As he tried to repeat his greeting, I squealed in surprise, his person fell off his seat red-faced and dying of embarrassment and the nearby men roared with laughter, and probably at least a little admiration for that dog’s boldness. It was funny at the time, but I still remember that red-faced young man and his obnoxious but lovely Malamute just doin’ what dogs do.