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Bad Dog Behavior is Not Charming
Let’s celebrate dogs like Lassie instead of like Marley

There’s no doubt that a certain amount of impishness can be delightful, and it’s easy to be amused by it. For example, many people have understandably laughed at Marley’s escapades in the book or the movie he inspired. Yet, I think it is really important to keep in mind that what we are laughing at—destructiveness, pulling on the leash, eating jewelry, greeting people by putting paws on their shoulders and running away—is actually straight-up undesirable behavior.

It has become increasingly common in the dog world to excuse ill-mannered dogs who lack any kind of training skills by saying they are just like Marley. It’s as though that validates the behavior, making it not just acceptable, but enchanting. Often, guardians who use this excuse could improve the dog’s behavior with some effort and education, but they don’t bother. Instead, they seem to find any obnoxious (or even dangerous) behavior hysterical. It’s an unfortunate cultural development to value behavior stemming from bad manners and a lack of training. Regrettably, it is has become some kind of competition about whose dog is the worst and most incorrigible, to the point that many people aspire to having a dog who acts “like Marley”.

It’s not that I expect dogs to be perfect or that I expect guardians to act as professional trainers in all their free time or raise a model dog. I’ve seen plenty of dogs do things that I wish they wouldn’t and understand all too well how hard it is to teach dogs to be polite canine citizens. I also get that although many dogs are generally good and can learn to be reasonably calm and well-behaved with even a little training, it is much harder for some dogs. There are plenty of dogs who have impulse control issues, and whose natural behavior doesn’t lend itself to high praise. That doesn’t bother me, and I enjoy dogs who struggle to be their very best selves as well as dogs who are naturally easy keepers. Marley was the most rambunctious puppy in the litter and suffered an extreme fear of thunderstorms, so it’s unfair for anyone to claim that Marley’s issues could have been resolved with simple training. It’s also true that more training would have helped.

Although absurd situations based on dreadful behavior are bound to happen, we shouldn’t accept such incidents as the best and most fun part of life with dogs. The occasional story of generally nice dog having an “oops” moment can certainly provide a good laugh. It’s normal to tell tales that begin, “Well, there was this one time. . .” What’s not normal is having all the stories about a dog be about something horrible. Such stories should be the exception rather than the descriptions of a dog’s day-to-day actions.

Sure, if a dog runs into the clothesline one time and races through the neighborhood in a panic dragging towels across everyone’s gardens, that can become a good story. However, if there are a dozen stories from the last month or so about similar incidents, that’s a problem. If your neighbors all think, “Oh, no! What now?” when they see your dog—once again—off leash, out of control and being destructive, it should be more alarming than funny to all of us.. There is a high risk of harm to dogs who bolt out the front door, ingest inedible items or destroy household objects, among other “bad” behaviors.

I object to the glorification of impolite, out-of-control behavior, and celebrating the most devilish aspects of our canine friends. It can be tiresome to have people find it endlessly charming when dogs are not trained and have bad manners, especially when the humor aspect is used as an excuse not to teach their dog how to behave in an acceptable manner. The Bark Magazine co-founder and editor-in-chief Claudia Kawczynska receives many submissions about “dogs who are worse than Marley” and detailing situations the people invariably call hilarious. It’s common for people to describe the incidents as being scenarios much like those Marley got himself into, but point out that the dog in this story is “even worse” than Marley. Many of these pitches reveal guardians who are uninterested in training and have no knowledge of how to teach their dogs anything, including basic manners. The result is a lot of untrained and ill-mannered dogs doing things that aren’t funny at all. In part because of the success of Marley and Me—both the book and the movie—dreadful behavior has not just been excused, but celebrated.

I wish good canine manners were more interesting to people than bad canine manners, the occasional story of mischief by a generally well-behaved dog notwithstanding. I’d like to see more people brag about their dog’s stay, their new trick, how they greet visitors, or any other example of training and good social skills rather than about problem behavior. It may very well be the dog trainer in me, but I remain hopeful that there are a lot of us out there who are more charmed by good behavior and good manners than by bad behavior and bad manners.

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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