The Good Dog Myth
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
From time to time you'll come across a dog that just seems to listen to its owner without receiving any rewards. Those dogs are often labeled as "good dogs." But what if I told you that those dogs are actually a bit afraid and that's why they're doing what is asked of them? The owner may not be very harsh but the dog is just "soft."
More often than not dog owners would prefer for their dogs to just listen to them without doling out any consequences. Unfortunately it doesn't work this way. A dog's life is all about consequences. Behaviors that lead to consequences that a dog likes will happen more frequently. When a dog figures out that jumping on the counter equals getting food, this doesn't make him a bad dog, it simply makes him a dog.
A dog doesn't have any desire to be good or bad. All a dog wants is to obtain things it enjoys and to avoid things that it finds aversive. We as humans throw out these labels as if a dog has a moral compass. We also are under the belief that good dogs are eager to please us and bad dogs are not. Humans really just overcomplicate things.
If we want to have a well-behaved dog ("a good dog") then there are things we need to do to make that happen.
1. Reward behaviors you want to see more of
We have treat jars placed strategically throughout our home. This allows us to never miss a moment to reward a behavior that we like. You can wait for the behavior to happen and then reward it or you can ask your dog to do a behavior you like and then reward it. A down-stay on a mat or a bed is a fantastic behavior to reward. If your dog is holding a down-stay then they're not doing any bad behaviors. Our dogs are around eight years old and they still get rewarded with food. Because they've had a lot of training we can deliver our rewards a lot less frequently. With a young impulsive dog you'll have to reward much more frequently. But as mentioned, with strategic training you can spread the rewards out.
2. Manage so that your dog is unable to rehearse behaviors you don't like
It's important to reward the "good" behaviors but it's equally as important to prevent the "bad" behaviors from happening. Gates, keeping counters clear, leashes and securing your garbage are all examples of managing the environment so that your dog can't rehearse the unwanted behavior. Two of our dogs don't really care much about the things on the counters or the garbage but V is an opportunist. His mission of finding every ounce of food in the house begins the moment we leave. We can't train him not to do it when we aren't there, but we manage by putting up gates and baby-locking the garbage in the cupboard.
It's no secret that a tired dog is a "good dog." Exercise is a way for the dog to get rid of excess energy. You can do walks or hire a dog walker, find a dog daycare or do 10-15 minutes of training. Another great way is a "work to eat" toy. Instead of giving your dog its entire meal from the dog bowl put it into a toy that makes your dog have to work to get the kibble out. There are a lot of different options out there. The right difficulty level will take your dog 10-20 minutes to consume its meal. During this time your dog is working its brain and its body (mental and physical exercise).
In closing, there is no such thing as a dog that is just "good." They're either a bit on the soft side, or they receive training and have their environments managed to assure they're staying out of trouble. Soft dogs are responding because they're a bit afraid and dogs that aren't soft aren't responding because they need training and their environments managed.