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Karen B. London
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Blaming People For Behavior Problems
It’s counterproductive and unfair

When I tell people that I work with dogs with serious behavior problems including aggression, the response is often something like, “Isn’t it the people’s fault? I mean, don’t you find that the dogs are acting that way because the people haven’t trained or raised them right?”

I always disagree, saying as gently as I can, “No, most of the dogs I see are really challenging dogs who would have problematic behavior in any situation. And most of the families I work with have had other dogs with perfectly lovely behavior.” It’s true—the dogs are the ones with the problem in my experience, not the guardians.

Many clients blame themselves, too, probably because the idea that anyone can make any dog behave in any way they desire is so prevalent in our culture. This can lead to guilt and shame that prevents people from seeking help as well as making them feel terrible. Most of the clients I see have dogs with aggression, and the vast majority of the people have had many dogs over the years without such problems. It makes no sense to assume that the dog has gone bad because of mistakes by the people or their inadequacies when they have raised other dogs who did not turn out the same way. People are seeking help and accusing them of being at fault is both unfair and counterproductive.

Many dogs who are aggressive or have other equally serious behavioral problems are naturally wired to struggle with social issues. Some are ill or in pain, while others have a past that is unknown but may involve limited exposure to the world (inadequate socialization) or some ordeal in the past that affected them and their behavior profoundly.

I find myself explaining over and over to clients and people I meet socially that I object to blaming guardians for the serious behavior problems of their dogs. Sure, the behavior of some rowdy dogs may be a result of inadequate training or inconsistencies by the guardians, but slightly rude or out of control dogs are very different than dogs with much deeper issues. When it comes to dogs whose behavior problems represent abnormal (as opposed to just boisterous) behavior, it’s important to realize that the people didn’t cause the problem.

Do you find that people are being blamed for dogs’ serious behavior problems? What’s your take on this?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

Photo by Jan Tik/Flickr

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Submitted by Shirley Zindler | August 6 2013 |

What a great article. I used to judge people with difficult dogs. Then I got Tess. She had a wonderful start with lots of positive socialization and training but was high strung and snappy her whole life. Having her made it clear to me that there are numerous factors, including genetics that make up a dogs behavior. As an animal control officer, I do wish people would manage their dogs better. I see so many people allowing their dogs to run loose and cause problems. It wouldn't matter what their temperament is if they were safely confined, trained, and kept in such a way that they cannot be a problem to others. DINOS recently posted an excellent article about management being more important than "how you raise them".

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Shirley, I absolutely agree that better management would be so helpful in many cases. Just because it's not fair to blame the people for their dog's idiosyncrasies doesn't mean that guardians are not responsible for keeping their dogs out of trouble as best they can. Thanks so much for pointing this out! Whenever anyone has a dog who struggles to be their very best self in certain situations, it's up to the people to prevent having their dog in those particular circumstances. Leashes, fences, and crates can work wonders!

Submitted by Kate | August 6 2013 |

You have NO idea how much your article means to me. I've been living with guilt for months now. We have reached the point, now, where we MUST find our dog a new home by 8/23!!

https://post.craigslist.org/manage/3982484692

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Kate, I hope that you can shed the guilt, which so many dog guardians are suffering with to my chagrin and that you are able to resolve your situation soon. Best of luck to you!

Submitted by AdoptARescueDog | August 6 2013 |

Yes! This is heard all the time. I've been guilty of it myself (thinking it, not out loud blaming the person). Our local shelter's head of kennel operations now requires rescues to keep/place a dog no matter what its behavior issues. If we take a shy dog from the shelter and it's still totally feral in 2 months, the shelter says we (the volunteers from another agency) aren't doing our JOB and refuses to take the dog back or help in any way. So yes, I understand completely that some dogs are wired wrong and the bottom line is that not every person can manage every behavior. A dog that's in a bad situation or is disdained at home creates a horrible atmosphere for both the dog and the home. Ugh I'm babbling, but yes, it's first instinct to blame the people. Thanks for a great article.

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Ooh, I don't agree with the way blame is being assigned here. Hopefully that will change eventually. Thanks for writing and good luck to you and all the staff!

Submitted by Jennifer Wall | August 6 2013 |

Thank you for writing this.I've heard so often that it's the fault of the owner for all behaviour issues that I started to think I shouldn't own dogs any more as it was clearly me causing all the problems.It gets incredibly disheartening to be told constantly that you as the owner are the root of it all. One of my dogs is extremely dog reactive and was from the day I collected her from the rescue shelter. It is possible that this issue was caused by previous owners or she was simply born that way. My other dog who I raised from a puppy is not at all so I'm slowly realising that although I as their owner am responsible for most of their behaviour and helping them cope with difficult situations, there is only so much that is my fault.

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Jennifer, I hope thinking about this in a new way will allow you to let go of the guilt and accept that not every dog grows up to be a laid back, go-with-the-flow non-reactive easy keeper. Good for you for focusing on helping them cope with whatever challenges they face!

Submitted by Debbie Gilbert | August 6 2013 |

True, owners don't necessarily cause the dog to have behavior problems. But I do feel that once people are aware that their dog's behavior is potentially dangerous, they are morally obligated to do whatever they can to protect the public. England is proposing a new law that would harshly penalize any owner whose death mauls someone to death. I'm in favor of such a law and I'd like to see stricter punishments here in the U.S. I believe anyone who knowingly allows an aggressive dog to run loose is at risk of committing negligent homicide.

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Debbie, you are so right that not being to blame for a dog's behavior problems does not relieve people of the responsibility to prevent trouble, especially in the case of dogs who are aggressive. Thanks for writing!

Submitted by Brenda Treece | August 6 2013 |

For the last 4 years i have officially fostered dogs. During this time I acquired two totally unadoptable dogs. They are 60 lb hound mixes. They came to me with their Mom and siblings when they were only one day old. These dogs have never had a bad day in their lives. I have had them through obedience training and they are awesome at home. One is extremely other dog aggressive and the other is simply afraid of her own shadow. I do the best I can with these girls. I used to blame owners for aggressive behavior and was sure that my terrified rescues had been through horrible ordeals - sometimes the dog is just not wired right.

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Brenda, your experience with these dogs has given you so much understanding and depth of knowledge. Although it is no doubt challenging at times, I hope you find that what you have learned from them is a real gift. I'm glad to hear they do well at home, and I hoe you enjoy them in that context especially. They are lucky to have you!

Submitted by Kat | August 6 2013 |

We refer to my two dogs as St. Ranger the Good and the Psycho Bitch from Hell. From that alone it should be obvious that we are not irresponsible people who didn't raise our dogs right. Ranger, the male, started life with every advantage; good temperament, good socialization, loving home, good health, etc. The female had none of those advantages. We adopted both of them from the local Humane Society when they were about a year old. The male wound up there when his person died, the female when the animal hoarders that raised her began to acknowledge that they had a problem. It's very frustrating when people judge me because she is a dog with a lot of issues. I know how far she has come since we adopted her and what huge deficits she began with. She received no socialization and no handling before she came to live with us. I know her. She was never going to be a social butterfly that loved people and other dogs but if she'd been given the right tools as a puppy she could be an awesome dog today. Dogs are wired how they are wired, she's always going to be more flighty, nervous, and suspicious than the male is. But it's also true that as responsible guardians it's our job to equip the dog with the best possible tools and to do everything we can to keep them safe and other's safe from them.

Submitted by Nubi | August 8 2013 |

But if you acknowledge that the female is difficult because she lacked socialization and she came from hoarders, then you should acknowledge that she isn't 'wired wrong', she's just had a difficult start in life - which puts the blame straight back on her previous owner.

I believe that some dogs have a more important disposition to turn aggressive or fearful than others, but at the end of the day, it's all in the hands of the owner to choose a dog who suits them and their training abilities, and to treat their dog right. Some dogs will inherently be more difficult to socialise and train, and in that case it's a pet parent's responsibility to put time and effort into rehabilitation, and seek help if needed.

It's awesome that you've adopted a dog who would have had trouble finding a home otherwise, and I hope that through your love and time and patience, she relaxes and becomes a happier dog in time. :)

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

You make some excellent points, and thanks for writing. Sometimes early experiences are to blame, but some dogs with rough beginnings still turn out quite well, which is why I think it's important never to assume we know if people could have done something differently or are to blame for a dog's serious behavior problems. I appreciate your logical and kind approach to this conversation!

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Kat, you are so right, and I love your dogs' nicknames! It's absolutely maddening to be blamed when you are being so responsible. I hope you can come up with some good retorts to anyone who gives you a hard time.

Submitted by Anonymous | August 6 2013 |

I thought this article was coincidentally timed with the article above. http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/08/06/19890942-owners-of-killer-...

Submitted by Tak Nakamoto | August 6 2013 |

Having had a dog adopted as an adult with serious aggression issues, I've received these disapproving comments and have reflected about it a lot.

One thing that I noticed is that this sort of blame placing parallels the blaming of the parents of seriously mentally ill people when they act out. We know that our ability to cure or even control mental illness is limited and not by any means perfect.

I suspect that this sort of blame placing is driven by our need to believe that our lives are controllable. It is motivated by fear. Placing blame serves to displace our discomfort.

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Tak, you are so right. It does make us feel better to think that a person is to blame for the trouble they are facing whether it's with a human or with a dog because then it makes us feel confident that we will never face such troubles. it's a false sense of comfort and one that we should abandon. Thanks for the insight!

Submitted by Christine Pearcey | August 6 2013 |

The most difficult barrier I face as a trainer is the, "I know, it's me," feeling of the owner. It has almost become the scapegoat for all dog problems. The shoulder shrug, and the "I give up," look--it makes me so sad. I try to explain that, no, it isn't just you. You and your dog are functioning in a system with multiple inputs that affect each behavior. Our work is to tease out these inputs and eliminate/reorganized them so that functionality is increased. And yes, that means some work and some hard decisions.

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Christine, I face the same issue sometimes, and I agree that it's so critical to explain to people that they don't need to hold onto all that guilt and that they must not blame themselves. Luckily, many people who I have worked with know that they are not to blame and just seem to be worried that I will blame them (which I won't.) These are the people who say to me, "I've had so many dogs throughout my life and none have EVER had this problem with any of them until this one." It's always great to be able to reassure them that I understand that every dog is different and that if it were their fault, all of their dogs would have had the same struggles. Best of luck as you help each family get out from under the feeling that it is all their fault.

Submitted by Kristi | August 8 2013 |

I have a dog who is very territorial and not fond of strangers. As a puppy, I got him at 8 weeks old. He was scared and timid of anyone new. Strangers couldn't pick him up, or he'd yelp. As he grew older that "Fear" seemed to turn into a suspicion of strangers along with aggression. I did the best I could to socialize him but it caused him stress. He is the sweetest dog to our immediate family, and does well with individuals outside the home who visit and have visited frequently. Is it our fault? Maybe I should of gotten training sooner. But he is my 4th dog and the first with issues such as this.

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Kristi, it sounds like you acquired a naturally shy little guy who loves you and your family and can adjust only slowly to new people. His behavior as a puppy was not typical, suggesting he came into this world prone to high levels of fear. This is exactly what I'm talking about--it's not your fault. Your job is not to take the blame, but to protect him from fearful situations, help him overcome his fears as best you can, and manage situations so he does no harm to anyone else. I'm glad he is so sweet with the family--enjoy him when you can and protect him from trouble!

Submitted by Robin | August 10 2013 |

It's nice to see someone who better understands all the issues. I cannot afford at this time to change my living arrangements which means living with two elder parents. We have had pups in our lives for decades. My little one came from a rescue group at 8 weeks of age and aside from puppy biting/chewing issues was not problematic. She got along well with everyone at the vet's office, including the vet...though she saw him infrequently. We have gone to classes and the instructor did not feel she was aggressive. At our last vet visit the vet came into the exam room boisterously, extended his hand to shake mine, over my little one's head, and she jumped up in an attempt to grab/bite his hand. There was no damage; they placed a soft muzzle very briefly.
We were a short time later at the reception desk and another male vet in the practice came out. My little one reacted inappropriately, what would appear to be showing a little protectiveness or aggression...she was completely within my control on her lead. The vet made a minimal comment and went about his business. He returned a short time later and the reaction was a bit stronger. He then made comments about how that wasn't good, and "we" didn't want her to get a reputation in the community or hurt someone etc. He knew of an excellent behaviorist and went to get the card, while I tucked my pup into the car.
I felt dreadful and responsible. But what he didn't take the time to learn was that my 96 year old father is of the hitting/smacking/yelling disciplinary training school. No, it doesn't work. While he and my mother DO love our pup, sit on the sofa with her, pet her etc, they have also yelled at her. On one occasion (did she think my father was threatened?) as my mother was kissing my father who was sitting on the sofa, my little one ran down and attempted to jump on them. My father (who is deaf) felt his beloved was under attack, and proceeded to protect my mother by yelling, hitting, and kicking my little one. I was there in seconds attempting to protect HER. She was clearly frightened and confused. She was so frightened she slipped out of her collar. She still shows him affection. And I try to protect all involved as best I can, which for the time being means sometimes when we are all in the same room, I do keep her on a leash. There is some thought she might be protective of ME.
In any case, more out of guilt, I did research the behavioral expert the vet suggested. This person is on the other side of town and charges large fees to travel to someone's home. Don't get me wrong, yes people should be paid for their time...but tack that on to the $175 per hour rate (and a 2 hour appt to start), when people are struggling to make ends meet, it becomes a greater challenge. Her entire website spends a good deal of effort in explaining the multi-tiered level of staff who will do follow-ups, training etc. and all the fees.
My trainer of choice that we took classes with knows how my family is because I did pay her for a home session. My father was non-participatory and only commented "it looked like she (our pup) was getting LOTS of treats." and my mother never did anything the trainer or I suggested.
In spite of all this I have been able to travel with my pup. To error on the side of caution I always wait for an empty elevator, and am always on guard.
I guess all I can say is circumstances aren't always what they seem and some of us are doing the best we can.

Submitted by Karen London | August 15 2013 |

Robin, your comment is the perfect example of how we never know what someone is going through, and you obviously have more on your plate than anyone could imagine. It's easy to see that you care deeply about everyone involved, and I urge you to do all you can to protect your fearful dog from any poor treatment, even if it's from your own parents. Best of luck to you--clearly you are dealing with a lot.

Submitted by Robin | August 17 2013 |

Dear Karen:
Always admired your work and writing, and I have tears in my eyes as I write this in response to your comment...understanding people are a rarity, and I find myself especially grateful. I must also put in a good word for my vet office staff...they are often more understanding and "get" it...one knowing how upset I was assured me these episodes were typically not as bad as they seem, and sort of gave me a look when the elder vet ran to get the expensive behaviorist's brochure. Today I had to call about something else, and spoke to one of the other desk people I am fond of...she has a pup with issues herself and was very casual about it...understanding the expense most of us can't afford, and saying her pup only was that way in the office, so they just use a soft muzzle.
What I also didn't share is that my career as a social worker has resulted in my working with older adults...who knew (LOL) I as well as my parents would age during the 2o+ years at the same position! I spend my days drowing in these issues and my little one is the joy in my life to counteract it all. I would do anything in the world for her, and so I am just going to do the best I can with what I have to work with. I often see my life, especially my home life as a piece of choreography, and being on alert and cautious to make sure it all works.
I also spoke to our original positive approach trainer who gave me some tips and also her blessings on using the leash even in the house. I so wish it could be otherwise, especially since so much of the time all is well...but as sturdy as the elders are, my father's skin is much thinner and I can't risk any breaks...we have had damage enough that it required an ER visit...though the staff was very understanding.
Thanks for YOUR understanding and all the work you do. I wish somebody could move in with us and work toward it being better!

Submitted by Miss Jan | August 21 2013 |

I'd also like to point out that our society is particularly bad about victim blaming no matter whether it's being blamed for our dog's behavior or it's being told we caused our own lung cancer (even if we never smoked) or being informed by a relentless media that if we are unemployed it is because we have "given up looking for work". I've often thought that the great American pastime isn't baseball - it's victim blaming; so much easier to just find a target to point fingers at and arrogantly assign blame to. We have become increasingly an extremely cruel and overtly rude society where those who jump to uneducated conclusions are more likely to be lauded and supported than stood up to (just look at reality tv to see this behavior in action). The only truly effective response to rude, cruel and uninformed "blaming" is a long, cold stare followed by turning and walking away.

Submitted by robin | August 31 2013 |

You make an excellent point. ALthough I must say it's a fine line in my own perception between being blamed, and being held responsible in terms of my pup's behavior. I do feel we are the grownups and responsible...but it would be nice if other's could sometimes realize we're doing the best we can. I sure hope you are not dealing with lung cancer by the way and/or unemployment.

Submitted by Rayne Wolfe | February 21 2014 |

This article is a true blessing. As life-long dog lovers, we have been very lucky to have lovely dogs until our latest. When she began demonstrating severe dog aggression, we were sure we could work it out and cultivate her into another wonder dog. We love our dog, of course. She is lovely and funny and a great companion and we have gone to great lengths in training, time and practice. She will never be a dog park dog. She is very challenging on walks. But she's our dog for life. They don't see her sleeping next to our blind and deaf, 17-year-old dog. They've never "made the bed" with her capering and "laughing" as we fluff the pillows. When strangers give us the stink eye it really hurts. I want to say, "We've always had really, really great dogs and we can't fix her." But, really, I can only hope that people don't judge us by our current dog. Some dogs bring amazing challenges. I hope on reflection they view our commitment to our dog as a positive. It's a character building experience for sure!

Submitted by Catherine | July 16 2014 |

This is very helpful and clear. I've been blamed for the bad behavior of my troubled pound dog, Emma. One day I challenged a passer-by who was criticizing me; "Take her if you think you can do better!" The woman rushed away, afraid I might get more serious and make her take my dog! Nobody would want Emma and that's why I kept her and loved her and gave her the best home I could.

I also appreciate knowing that the difference between a troubled dog with issues and just an unruly and untrained dog is very helpful in my own judgements of both myself and others.

I would always say; "Emma wants to be good, she tries very hard!" I was right. Thanks for such clarity.

(Emma died two years ago of heart failure. She is greatly missed by her whole family.)

Submitted by Brenda Mitchell | July 16 2014 |

I think it's not about blame but how you handle it. To many people are too quick to give up. Also we know for fact that the way the human handles things has a direct connection to the behavior of the dog. It's a mix bag, it takes two to tango. Many people are high strung and then get a high strung dog and it's a recipe for disaster, unless the human is willing to get themselves under control(which is such a blessing). I think this article is true for the most part, BUT let's not let people off the hook so quickly. There's already enough dog dumping going on in the country. People need to grow up and take responsibility for their dogs and their kids. Every changeling situation is a learning opportunity either to give up without trying, work though tough times or to learn when to respectfully concede defeat. But you don't get to walk away feeling no blame, in my opinion. We can all do better!!!

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