Looking for the Good Side of Your Bad Dog

The notorious Agatha and Christie, as sweet little old ladies.

The notorious Agatha and Christie, as sweet little old ladies.

I’m guilty.

Over the years I’ve said about my dogs, “Why can’t she just…” Fill in the blank—stop pulling, be comfortable alone in the house, push open a door.”

But lately, I’ve looked at the benefits of my dogs’ “bad behavior.” And it’s pretty amazing.

Benefits of Pulling on Leash

My first dog, Christie, was a champion puller.

She pulled so hard she would choke herself. People thought I was torturing my dog.

We couldn’t let it continue.

We talked to a behaviorist who suggested we try a new head collar called the Gentle Leader. We had to buy it at the University of Pennsylvania vet school because pet supply stores didn’t carry them yet.

It worked and Christie never gagged on a walk again.

Some people argue about the Gentle Leader today. But for me, it was a revelation to realize that behaviors could be managed even if I didn’t yet understand the role of training.

By the time we adopted the pully Shadow, 17 years later, I had learned that I can teach my dog to pay attention to me on a walk. And Shadow’s walk style that often resulted in bloodshed (mine, not hers) forced me to build a relationship with her that I would not have had to if she was as calm and mellow outdoors as she was inside.

Benefits of Separation Anxiety

Christie’s sister, Agatha, panicked every time I left the house. And her upset affected the normally mellow Christie.

To this day, I semi-seriously blame my neighbor’s crack addiction on living beside a dog who howled every time I went to work.

Once again, I didn’t know much 22 years ago when I brought Agatha and Christie home. So I never dealt effectively with the problem. But I benefited from Agatha’s pathological attachment just the same.

A few months after Christie died, my husband accidentally left the basement door open. We went shopping and returned to see a dog sitting on the front porch.

I said to Mike, “Who is that strange dog sitting on our porch? She looks a little like Agatha.”

It was Agatha. She found her way outside through the open basement door. And, unlike Christie who would have wandered off following her nose, she settled on the front porch to await our return.

If 16 years of crying and destruction was the price to pay for her staying safe on the porch while we were gone, so be it.

Shadow in a canoe.

My favorite picture of Shadow.

Benefits of Reactivity

More than anything, I wanted a dog who could be calm around other dogs.

Managing Agatha’s reactivity in Philadelphia had been easy. Most of the neighborhood dogs were pitties kept for protection (or the appearance of protection; you never saw such a bunch of marshmallows on prong collars and heavy chain leashes).

But things were tougher in Ithaca. Everyone wanted to be social with their dogs. And Agatha just couldn’t handle it.

So when Agatha passed and I found Shadow at the SPCA, I hoped her mellow attitude in the shelter would continue on a walk at home.

No way.

She’d pull and lunge and bark at every dog that went by.

By now, I had learned a bit more about dogs. I took Shadow to a training class at the SPCA where I first saw a clicker. And I was invited to bring her to a supervised play group to see if we could increase her calmness with other dogs.

Clicker training was a big breakthrough for me. It gave me a tool to help me get Shadow’s attention, even in the presence of other dogs.

If I hadn’t been so challenged by Shadow’s reactivity, I would never have learned about positive training methods. And I probably wouldn’t be part of this blogging community today.

Honey the Golden Retriever boards a boat.

I’m not sure about this ramp. But I know you wouldn’t take me anywhere bad.

Benefits of Fearfulness

Although I worked hard at socializing Honey as a puppy, she’s still hesitant around some things.

Perhaps I missed some things in her socializing. But I also think Honey’s personality leans more toward the timid side than the brave. And that’s okay. My personality leans the same way.

Honey’s fear led me to contact a trainer to help us work with her. Working with a trainer in our home taught me things I will use the rest of my life.

But the other benefit to Honey’s fears is that she looks to me for support and guidance. If Honey was as brave and independent as Christie or Shadow, I could never trust her off leash in any circumstance.

It wouldn’t be safe.

But Honey will always look to me whether we’re attached by a leash or not. And while I never want her to be paralyzed by her fear, I’m glad she sees me as a source of safety in her world.

Benefits of Illness

Shortly after we adopted Shadow, the vet discovered she had bone cancer in her jaw. She was given a few months to live.

We took Shadow with us everywhere. We wanted to give her as many moments of pleasure as we could.

Shadow surprised everyone. She lived for two years with the cancer invading her mouth.

Near the end of her time with us, I explored palliative care, including acupuncture. Because the vet was so far away, he taught me to apply the needles.

After the needles were placed, I would have to sit calmly with Shadow for up to half an hour.

Those quiet moments alone with my beautiful girl, stroking her fur, are among the most precious moments of my life.

I hated that horrible bleeding growth in her mouth. But I loved having an excuse just to be with her, with no distractions.

It was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

Turning Bad Things Into Blessings

We all get frustrated with or dogs. And our husbands. And our kids. And our friends.

And they get frustrated with us. It’s the price we pay for a relationship.

But do you think any of the behaviors or circumstances that bother us could be blessing us at the same time?

Mixed breed dog sitting in the sun.

Even with the nasty cancer in her jaw, Shadow continued to smile.

Have you ever seen any of the “bad” things about your dog as blessings? Were you able to see the blessing at the time? Or did you need some distance to gain perspective? Please share.

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  1. Torrey is my challenge dog right now. She is so attached to me, but she would never run away. She was a bad puller, but we have learned to master that one, mostly. She reacts at other dogs. We sit and wait for them to walk past us. So, adaption and learning together has helped us both not be frustrated.

  2. Oh, Pamela, what a good column. It brought tears to my eyes. The only uncontrollably challenging dog I ever had was a fostered golden retriever who also had bone cancer. He was a shelter dog and long story short–I feel a post of my own coming on LOL–he was excessively aggressive to other dogs…we only had him for a month when the cancer got so bad we had to put him to sleep. Thanks for sharing. I think I’ll go pet Y-Bo for a few minutes…nothing like a little puppy love (or kitty) to cheer me up!

  3. My biggest thing was reactivity with my BC mix, Geo. He became reactive after an incident at a training demo. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to deal with it with him and it got worse, but it did get me started on the road to learning how to live and work with a reactive dog so when I adopted Ricochet. He is my first Jack Russell who showed his reactivity right away at the shelter. I adopted him despite knowing he was reactive and because of what I learned he has been able to do so much around other dogs and be around other dogs comfortably.

    I do feel I let Geo down due to my lack of knowledge, but I’m glad I experienced it because it made me a better dog owner.

  4. You always have such wonderful perspective.

    As for us, I think we’re still a little too much in the midst of things to think about them philosophically.

    The one thing I can say off the top of my head is that having Silas has forced me into getting to know our very large city. We were new here when he came, and it’s intimidating to drive here. Looking for the specialty dog food stores all over town forced me to get out and about, instead of staying in our little neighborhood cubby, and now I can go anywhere.

  5. I must say that is one of the best examples of turning lemons into lemonade I’ve ever read…You’ve opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing what are normally just labeled as “problems” and being able to see them as learning experiences…Thank you.

  6. I simply love this post. If it hadn’t been for the “bad” behaviour of my current dog, I would not have studied animal behaviourism and become as involved in animal rescue and shelters as I have done. I would also not have started my blog and met so many fabulous people and animals. I will always thank her for the hard start we had together. Like you, it forced me to learn so many amazing new things.

  7. Pamela – I love that you try to find the benefit in each challenge presented by your dogs. Zora (our four-legged house guest) is a sweet girl, who was never properly trained or socialized and also separation anxiety. In addition, she has terrible allergies, which cause her to scratch constantly, and consequently her belly and backside look like raw meat. None of these things are her fault, and I try to keep that in mind when I get frustrated with amount of time and attention she requires.

  8. Pamela,

    I LOVE your post! It is so heartwarming and so true! There is indeed always a silver lining. Thank you so very much for sharing. You are such a great Mom!

  9. I think that two of of our dogs have probably showed me the good in a lot of their bad behaviors. Hawk was our second Greyhound, and he was a bit of a neurotic. I loved him, and I honestly don’t think he could have lived in too many houses besides ours. He was terrified of anything smaller than him, whether it was toddlers or puppies. We would work to get him over one fear and then he’d develop another, and we were always on our toes as we worked with him. He was also a fear biter, and he got me several times. I learned a lot of patience from him, and also a lot about working at a slow pace.

    Morgan is our other dog. I’m actually not sure what she would be like if we’d had her since puppyhood. When we got her, she was eighteen months old and she’d already lived in four homes. She is the poster child for what not to do with a German Shepherd puppy. She has some really strong instincts that are good, they’re just too intense and she won’t ignore them if we try to call her off. Once she goes into protection mode, she just cannot see any reason, or even hear us when we try to call her or make her see reason. But I learned a lot about what we did want to do with Kuster from the very beginning to make a good dog out of him. I also try hard to remember that Morgan’s bad behavior comes from a good place. I know that she loves us deeply and I suspect her biggest fear is losing us. The video you showed the other day made me think a lot about her. I don’t think she’d stand up too much to someone who broke into our house if we weren’t home unless she felt cornered, but I think if I were at home, she would be very protective. What makes her challenging is what also could make her our hero, but I hope the day never comes when we find out.

  10. We totally lucked out when we adopted Dino from a shelter when he was 6 months old. He is a lovely calm dog (cock-a-poo) who adores people and other dogs. He is great in the car and when we moved from a house in the suburbs to a high rise in Center City Philadelphia, he seamlessly adjusted to waiting for the elevator to go down 16 floors to go out to Rittenhouse Square, a city park. His good qualities far outweigh his bad behaviors: 1) pulling on the leash sometimes when he is “happy” and excited to be on a walk. (If my husband and I both take him for a walk, he is super happy and excited. I think we should try a gentle leader—more because I’m worried about him collapsing his trachea. 2) He has absolutely no fear of traffic and doesn’t come when called unless I’m doing a training exercise with him with food. It doesn’t work outside. He honestly seems not to even see cars and buses. It’s quite amazing. 3) He will eat things he should not eat. Fortunately, he is not the brightest dog and if the kitchen trash is in a covered bin, he won’t go in it—even if he watches me put a turkey carcass in it. (He apparently never reached the stage at which children know about “object permanence”. However, if he can see something, all bets are off and once he has something, there is not getting it out of his mouth. We had to spend $2,500 for a stay at the Univ. of PA Vet Hospital for a “dietary indiscretion” as they called it—and that’s with no surgery!
    Here’s Dino’s story: http://www.boomeresque.com/baby-boomer-dog-daze/

  11. What a fantastic post. If Felix wasn’t so afraid of everything, I never would have bonded with him so much. If Kol wasn’t such a head strong woofing PITA as a puppy, we never would have discovered clicker training. If Felix wasn’t such an allergic mess, I would never have started baking & cooking for dogs and where would we be now?! Everything happens for a reason.

  12. I’ve dealt with many of these same issues with both current and previous dogs, and I’ve always felt each came into my life because they had something to teach me. Love how you managed to put each of their bad issues into a good light. Nicely done.

  13. As I have said with Lexie my Landseer, I wanted a very active, mischievous puppy and that is exactly what I got. Lexie was a little terror, but we learned so much together to survive and come out the other side that I couldn’t even put it on paper. I have had many dogs all different breeds and Lexie taught me more than all put together, especially patience. Lexie has been and still is a blessing on many levels :)

  14. I just wanted to say that patience has also been the hardest thing Lexie has had to learn. If I say wait she will lay down two minutes and that was waiting so she is ready. If I say later this really doesn’t mean much more to her than wait, Lol. She has a long way to go and may never make it! That’s Ok because she is really trying:-)