Rehabilitating the “Problem Dog”

Dog behaviourist Cesar Millan sums up his training goals as rehabilitating dogs and training people; in that order. It is often said that the only thing two dog trainers will completely agree on is that a third trainer is doing something wrong, but whether or not you personally embrace the Dog Whisperer’s philosophy or methods, it’s hard to argue with his priorities.

In our work, clients tend to fall into a few basic categories: there’s a new puppy in the house and its owners want to start out right; a new baby is on the way and the boisterous behaviour of the one year old boxer is suddenly worrisome in the face of a new reality, a dog has a “bad habit” or two that its owners would rather it didn’t have such as pulling on the leash, ignoring the recall, jumping on people, counter surfing, etc.; and last but not least, the “problem dog“. In this latter case, the people the dog is living with are convinced that they have tried everything and are now at their wit’s end.

Of all the cases we deal with, this is the most challenging because the unlivable “problem dog” is made, not born. At the same time, it is the most gratifying, both because of the way it permits a beautiful relationship to blossom where once was nothing more than a chaos of despair and confusion, and because we are acutely aware that for every such case we get an opportunity to address, an unknown number of other dogs have been euthanized, abandoned, or condemned to spend their lives chained to trees.

Every dog is subject to two absolutes:

  1. It’s a dog; and
  2. It is subject to breed specific behaviours that have been “built in” by its ancestry.

It is safe to say that every “problem dog” consultation we get called in on had its genesis in that the people in the dog’s life have failed to grasp one or both of these absolutes, and the relationship is now in desperate trouble because of it.

So let’s examine what these absolutes really mean. All dogs, regardless of breed, can trace their lineage back to a common ancestor that was domesticated from the wild by humans for very practical reasons. But a nomadic hunter gatherer society would value different characteristics in its dogs than would a herding or agrarian society, and so over time, humans successfully improved the utility of their dogs by selectively breeding only those dogs that possessed desirable physical and behavioural traits, and by so doing, creating what we now call breeds, each tailored and fine tuned to fill a particular niche in the human world. While it grows from the contemptible practice of dog fighting, it was selective breeding practice that created the so called Pit Bull Terrier that, even in the heat of a fight and having sustained terrible wounds, will still passively submit to human handling. This is an illustration of just how powerfully selective breeding can influence the basic characteristics of a dog breed, and therefore its response to specific training methods, or absence thereof.

Many so called problem behaviours are really normal breed specific traits that are seen as problems by owners who don’t understand what they have living in their house with them. For example, a hunting breed that belongs to someone who doesn’t hunt still has a drive to work the field all day and will not be fulfilled by being ordered to lie down and be quiet, simply chasing a ball, or a walk to the park for a spell of unstructured off-lead, self directed free play. There are times for all of the above, but beyond that what this dog needs is structured activity time with its owner that requires use of its inbred skills. Anything less can result in obsessive, destructive, noisy, or otherwise undesirable behaviours in some dogs that seem to defy any amount of unstructured exercise to eradicate.

At its very heart though, and all breed specific behaviours aside, a dog is a predator that lives in packs. For this to work, Nature has provided the canine mind with an ability to grasp the importance of functioning smoothly as part of a hierarchically structured group. This is at the heart of the animal that is a dog.

Humans can learn a great deal about communication from dogs. Many of our clients start out talking far too much as though they can make their dog understand how they feel by using words. In the end their manner and tone of voice may be effective in conveying to the dog that they are, for example, upset about something the dog has just done, but the reason is lost as their frustrated eloquence becomes nothing more than background noise. Most communication between dogs occurs without a sound being uttered. Position of the head, tail, and ears speaks volumes about a dog’s intentions, as can making eye contact or even simply looking at an object. A yawn doesn’t necessarily mean a dog is sleepy. Climbing into your lap and staring into your eyes may mean something far different from, “I love you,” and fixedly watching every fork of food that goes into your mouth can have a much deeper meaning than, “I’m hungry, may I please have some?”

To live well with dogs requires more than to simply grasp these realities, but to embrace them is part of the sheer joy that comes as an integral part of the human-dog bond. It isn’t rocket science but, like any relationship, it requires commitment. A willingness to understand, observe, listen, and communicate clearly. The responsibility here rests squarely on the humans in the mix. By training the humans in a dog’s life in the right tools and mindset, the results can be dramatic and in some cases nearly instantaneous. At the same time though, it must be understood that the process will take as long as it takes, and the dog is the only part of the equation that will never be at risk of giving up.

Our approach begins with an initial consultation at the premises the dog shares with its family. This is an informal and relaxed affair where we have an opportunity to meet all the people who regularly interact with the dog, view the living space, observe human to human, human to dog, and dog to human interaction, review nutrition and feeding methods, eliminate medical issues as a possible cause for the unwanted behaviour, discuss where exactly things have gone off the rails and what measures have been taken so far to fix things.

Next, we take the dog out of the house for one on one work. Writer J. Allen Boone said, “There’s facts about dogs, and then there’s opinions about them. The dogs have the facts, and the humans have the opinions. If you want the facts about the dog, always get them straight from the dog. If you want opinions, get them from humans.” That’s what this assessment phase is all about. We want to see how the dog behaves in the presence of clear leadership with an experienced handler who knows how and when to apply properly timed corrections and rewards, and who unambiguously projects what is expected. Depending on the dog, this session generally takes two to four hours. This comprehensive assessment of existing behaviours in normal daily tasks can include such issues as entering and exiting a vehicle or building, walking on leash with and without distractions, reactions to common obedience commands, behaviour in the presence of food, riding in the car, meeting strange people and other dogs. In every respect, this phase gives us a clear picture of where the dog ends and the chaos begins.

Armed with all this, we engage the people in a clear set of interlocking supervised steps designed to put the relationship on a sound, and most importantly, self-sustaining footing. How long this takes is dependent on the severity of the problem, but with it comes what many find to be some unanticipated dividends. Learning to get what you want from another creature without frustration, anger, tears, and screaming carries over into other areas of life. Developing the ability to stay focused, calm, and emotionally centered as an anchor for the temporary instability of another, dog or human, is a powerful and valuable life skill that, in the end, you can credit your dog for having taught you.



  1. Being a client of Golden Mountain Dog Solutions I feel comfortable commenting on this blog entry particularly.

    When I called, I really didn't know what to expect. What I got (and am getting) is firstly an understanding of my relationship with my dog. Not only the 'problem' dog Rampage I called about but my so called manageable dog Bliss. What this has provided me with is the knowledge that a) Rampage is not a problem dog. We have been suffering from a series of miscommunications. b) Bliss is not so manageable but is just as much a victim of these miscommunications as Rampage. and c) There is absolutely hope for a stable and happy intermixed dog human family…or 'pack' as I am learning.
    We are also getting support. Every time the humans in our pack tried to talk about the dogs, we each in turn got defensive of our roles, intentions and relationships with the dogs. Randy and Diana have come in and shown us the bottom line. We all want the same things for our pack. We all are capable of providing the dogs what they need, and we all have been doing some things right. They have encouraged us and are teaching us to work together using a clear and consistent language in order to provide the dogs the environment they require to be happy, stable and reliable.
    We are getting the tools we need to correct the situation we have created. These tools are SO simple, and challenging because we humans, lets face it Folks, have a tendency to complicate situations!
    I fancy myself, a pretty intelligent person, with a good basic understanding of dogs. I can teach a dog to do some things, but we are learning to read the dog's body language and create good responses to situations where we were previously allowing (and unconciously encouraging) very poor behaviour from Rampage. It's no accident that most of the initial 'sessions' are spent talking to us rather than working with the dog.

    We are three sessions in and I can't tell you how encouraged and fascinated I am. I called because I thought if I didn't do something my dog was going to have to be put down eventually. I am learning to love him in a way that communicates clearly to him the messages he needs to receive from me in order to be happy and safe. I am relieved to report, he will live a happy, stable and naturally long life just like he was born to do.

    I am so grateful to Randy and Diana for teaching US and my Rampage. I can't wait for the next session!!


  2. Stumbled into this site by chance but I’m sure glad I clicked on that link. You definitely answered all the questions I’ve been dying to answer for some time now. Will definitely come back for more of this. Thank you so much


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