What Lessons Can We Learn From Our Dog’s Problem Behaviors?

If your dog runs away from home, cries when you leave the house, or barks like a mad creature every time a stranger comes to the door, you look for a management tool or training method. Right?

I’m not going to argue you out of that. After all, roaming the streets is dangerous. No dog deserves to feel bad when he’s left alone. And a crazy barking dog can get you kicked out of your condo.

But how much easier would it be to cope with your frustration if you could learn something from your dog’s problem behaviors?

Golden Retriever digging

Why do you call me a problem child whenever I start digging?

She’s Not Bad; She’s Just a Dog

First off, many things we call problem behaviors are just dogs being dogs. Roaming, staying close to the family, and alert barking are perfectly normal dog behaviors. As are butt sniffing, wrestling with teeth flashing, humping, and digging holes.

They may not be our idea of fun. Well, some of them might. But they’re perfectly normal behaviors for a dog.

Then why “fix” them? Because we’ve brought dogs into our worlds. And part of getting along in that world is modifying their behavior so they stay safe and don’t get in trouble with other people. And we want them to feel comfortable in our world, not terrified.

Are we all on the same page? Then let’s learn from our dog’s problem behaviors.

Hard To See Good At The Time

When my first dogs, Agatha and Christie, shredded not one but two expensive couches, it was hard to see the lesson.

Actually, the only lesson was probably to clean the upholstery on a used couch before bringing it into the house and to do a better job cleaning up spills on the new couch.

But as I look back at the problem behaviors of my dogs over the years, I see many things I need to learn. Here’s a list of behaviors my dogs have had that I could learn from:

Shadow the mixed breed dog.

How could such a sweet dog be such a terror when she met another dog on leash?

Leash Reactivity

When we walked by another dog on leash, my last dog, Shadow, went insane. She’d pull and lunge and bark.

It was embarrassing. And hard to manage. But I need to learn Shadow’s lesson to make a big fuss when someone or something threatens me.

Years ago I lost a small amount of money when someone threatened to push me on the elevated train tracks if I didn’t hand over my cash. It was rush hour. There were plenty of people standing around. But I was more afraid of causing a fuss than I was of being pushed onto the tracks with trains coming every few minutes.

I would have done better to act like Shadow. At least she was smart enough to let the world know when she felt threatened.

Separation Anxiety

When I left Agatha and Christie alone in the house, they howled. And they destroyed my stuff. But the neighbors on the other side of our party wall were probably more upset by the howling.

I’m thinking those neighbors weren’t so stupid to start using crack. If I had to listen to that every morning, I might have done the same thing.

While there’s nothing good about a dog feeling anxious when her people leave, it is a good reminder to stay grounded in what means “home” to us.

Learning this lesson is one reason I want to move aboard a sailboat with Mike and Honey. Because home isn’t a building or a place. It’s having time to enjoy being with the ones you love.

I’m not going to start howling when Mike goes to work every morning. But I’m glad I haven’t waited too long to come up with a scheme that allows my little family to spend more time at “home” together.


When I was a girl, I had a German shepherd named Duke.

He was an athletic dog. And he loved to roam. He’d clear our 4 foot tall fence in a leap and roam around the countryside having adventures.

We’d go out in the car looking for Duke and find him miles from home.

Everyone needs to have an adventure. For some people, adventure means visiting all 196 countries or climbing a mountain. Other people feel adventurous going to the farmer’s market in the next town over.

I don’t have to jump over a fence and I don’t have nearly as many adventures as Duke did. Maybe it’s time for that to change.

Killing Critters

I don’t think my husband ever forgave Christie for killing a baby raccoon that was living in a pile of lumber on our porch.

He would have hated my childhood dog, Duchess. He was a killing machine.

Moles, groundhogs, mice. Burrowing under the ground within a foot of Duchess was to risk your tiny, fuzzy life. But that bloody part of Duchess connected him to his wildness.

I have no doubt that Duchess could have survived quite well without kibble or other niceties of civilization.

I have fewer luxuries than the average American. But I can take a hot shower every day. I have electric light for when it gets dark. And I’m writing this post on a big old iMac that cost more than some people make in a year.

Most of us in developed countries don’t face our wild side until we’re confronted with a tragedy. But when a tornado or a hurricane hits, we recover the ability to care for ourselves that lies dormant when everything we need is at our fingertips.

I don’t think I’ll start hunting groundhogs in my backyard. But I do feel a need to recover some basic skills. And maybe just a little bit of wildness. Like Duchess.

Honey the golden retriever plays with her stuffed lamb.

I’m showing my wild side.

Learning While Your Fixing

I read blogs by people coping with their dog’s chronic illnesses, extreme fear, and behavioral issues.

I’m lucky with Honey. She’s healthy and easily adapts to life in the human world.

My own dogs as well as some foster dogs have taught me that some dogs fit more easily in our world than others.But maybe our dog’s issues have something to say to us.

For my part, I wonder if the dogs with separation anxiety are the sane ones. And people commuting miles from their homes to do work they don’t find meaningful to earn money to buy stuff that doesn’t make them happy might be nuts.

Maybe our dog’s problem behaviors really do have something to teach us.

Your Turn: When you look deeper at your dog’s “issues” do you find any wisdom there? Or am I just a lunatic? 

This post was inspired by my favorite trainer, Suzanne Clothier. Read her 10 Tips for Problem Behaviors.

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  1. We wrote about a big one just last week – our dog’s attitude of just going for it and not letting mental limitations prevent you from doing something that’s a challenge. All of our dogs have been athletic and never let a physical challenge hold them back. They’ve even mastered swimming!

    • Yes, I want to make a poster of your swimming dogs to encourage Honey.

      And yes, we can learn so much from our dogs about not letting limits hold us back.

  2. Now that Harley is the only dog int he house, he has started crying again when I leave. Doodle Dad said he lays by the door and whines and whimpers for a while, but will not leave the doorway. This is primarily the reason why we brought Leo home, so I’m trying to work through it. This was a most appropriate post for me – thank you so much!

    • Separation anxiety is so hard. Isn’t it terrible to see our fuzzies feeling sad? Especially since we could easily solve the problem if we could take them with us everywhere we go.

      Hope you’re able to work through this with Harley so you don’t have to learn too many life lessons from his behavior.

  3. One of my favorite dog books is “Through a Dog’s Eyes” by Jennifer Arnold, and her next book “In a Dog’s Heart.” It’s not really a training book, but it helps us to understand what a dog feels, thinks, and needs. And that is the key to understanding how to handle their “issues.” Now, if only I could understand cats.

    • I brought Through a Dog’s Eyes home from the library but I don’t think I got to read it.

      I’ll take your recommendation to look it up again.

      As for cats… If we understood them, we might find they’re not nearly as interesting as we thought. Some mysteries are good.

  4. I can’t believe you went through the incident on the train tracks! I’m so sorry you had to experience something like that. I tried to take a similar approach with our first dog, Kaeto. He had many of the issues you mentioned above. This will probably sound silly, but adjusting to a male dog lifting his leg is new to me. I’ve either had females or males that always squat. A lot of people look at marking as a problem behavior, but it’s part of a dog’s life!

    • My past four dogs have all been female. And while I know that leg lifting is part of the bargain with most male dogs, I’ve gotten used to dogs in the “once and done” school of peeing.

      I hate to think I’d only adopt female dogs for such a shallow reason. But maybe I really am that shallow. :)

  5. Mom has learned the fun of wabbit chasing from me. She did it again twice this morning. Bailie and I go off our rockers when a wabbit is in the front yard, that sends Mom out to chase it away. I can tell she enjoys it no matter what the neighbors think. Other than that, we aren’t sure what to learn about Bailie’s destructive habits that come and go, but she is still young.

    • A year or two from now, you’ll be amazed at what a nice lady Bailie turns into. How could she not with you as her example?

      As for rabbits, they make my mother as crazy as they make you and your sister. My mom has enclosed her yard in 12 foot high deer fencing which she has dug underground about 2 feet deep. The one time a bunny got inside the fence, he managed to scramble up the 12 foot fence once he saw my mom coming.

      Apparently she’s as scary as a GBGV. :)

  6. Blueberry taught me to stop mid-hike and scan the horizon and listen. When she first began doing that I was like, “Hey, I’m getting my heart rate up, don’t stop now!”. Now, she or I will choose to stop at a certain point just to enjoy the quiet or listen or look around for critters. While I haven’t gotten on-board with the joy of rolling in horse droppings, I can appreciate stopping to really have a good look around. 😉

    • A hike becomes a whole different experience when we watch our dogs to see what else there is to notice.

      I’m so glad you weren’t so worried about keeping your heart rate up that you missed out on Blueberry’s heart-expanding experiences.

      But if you start rolling in horse droppings, we will start to worry about you. :)

  7. My only question is why was a male dog named Duchess ? 😉

    • I was wondering if someone was going to call me on that. Smarty pants! :)

      A male dog gets the name Duchess when a five year old (me) gets to name him. And she’s just see the Disney movie The Aristocats (do you remember Duchess was the name of the mama cat?).

      He didn’t seem to mind having a girl’s name.

      • Edie Chase says:

        I was going to ask the same thing, but my internet is spotty. I had a tomcat named Cutie Pie, yes I was about 5 when he was named and he walked me to school everyday. By the time he was around 11 though his name didn’t exactly fit 😉

  8. Isn’t it a given that all of us dog obsessed humans are lunatics? But yes, I can relate to all of those dog (mis)behaviors and I can only envy that dogs can do them without guilt. Isn’t that one reason we share our lives with them?

    (Actually I can’t relate to butt sniffing but that’s just me)

    • Ooh, that’s probably the best lesson of all. Learning to do our thing without guilt. I didn’t even think of that one.

  9. I think I can learn so much from my two, currently I am working very hard on the ‘live in the moment’ thing that they both do. Also I am learning to treasure the little things with them, as I only have them both for such a short time now! I am also working on not worrying about what other people think – another life lesson learnt from watching my two!