“Needs Training”

The phrase is everywhere. It’s in adoptable pet bios on Petfinder: “Great with kids but doesn’t like to share his food, so he needs an owner who will take him to training classes.” It’s in newspaper ads: “10-month-old purebred needs new home with room to run. I don’t have the time to train him.” It’s in my email inbox: “What training class should we take to make our dog stop growling at our toddler?”

We see the phrase “needs training” everywhere, and you may be surprised to learn that it makes my skin crawl. There seems to be a widely-held belief that with a little obedience training, most behavioral issues will cease to exist. Sadly, this is not the case.

This dog doesn't need training. He needs quality management and behavior modification ASAP. Photo by claradon on flickr.

This dog doesn’t need training. He needs quality management and behavior modification ASAP. Photo by claradon on flickr.

Trying to solve behavioral concerns with basic training misses a very important point: behavior modification and obedience training are not the same thing. While it’s true that basic manners training can help to manage and control some behavioral problems, it often doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Basic obedience training is important for all dogs, including those with behavior problems, but it’s not a magic cure-all, and treating it as such does a disservice to the dogs and people who are left dealing with a larger issue that hasn’t been addressed.

So, what’s the difference? Training teaches behaviors. Training will solve problems that result from a lack of understanding. If your friendly dog jumps up on people in greeting, teaching her to sit when people approach will solve that problem. In that case, your dog just didn’t understand that putting her butt on the ground was the best way to meet people. In the same vein, if your dog pulls on the leash, teaching him to walk nicely by your side will solve your leash pulling issues. Your dog just needs to learn that walking next to you is the fastest way of getting where he wants to go. In both cases, training solves the problem by explaining to your dog which behaviors are the most effective at getting what he or she wants.

Sometimes, however, problem behaviors are not simply caused by a lack of understanding. If your dog’s behavior problem is driven by emotions, then behavior modification is needed. Behavior modification changes the emotional response your dog has to a trigger. If, for example, your dog jumps up on people in a forceful way, then squirrels to the side when they try to pet her, simple training will not fix her jumping problem. Because the jumping is driven by an underlying discomfort with people in her space, the jumping is simply a symptom of her anxiety. Until the anxiety is addressed, the jumping (which in this case is a distance-increasing behavior) will continue, because your dog is very worried about the people. Similarly, if your dog lunges and barks at other dogs on leash due to fear, aggression, or overarousal, focusing on teaching loose-leash walking is putting the cart before the horse. Until your dog’s reactivity is addressed, he may be unable to walk nicely on leash in the presence of other dogs – not due to a lack of understanding, but simply because he’s too worked up to function.

Of course, obedience training is an important part of any good behavior modification plan. It’s easier to work with a reactive dog who had good leash manners in the absence of triggers than to work with one who pulls like a freight train 100% of the time. It’s easier to work with an anxious greeter who has a good sit-stay when there are no strangers present than to work with one who doesn’t know what sit means. But focusing purely on training basic manners when your dog needs behavior modification will be inadequate at best. At worst, it may make the problem behavior worse if your dog is forced to cope with scary or upsetting situations (such as the close proximity of new people or dogs for a dog who has social anxiety) in a training class.

If your dog’s problem behavior is driven by emotions, we need to address those emotions in order to permanently change the behavior. Failing to do so is likely to cause other behavior problems to develop. If we teach the anxious greeter to hold a sit-stay so that people can pet her but do not address her anxiety about strangers, for example, that anxiety will still manifest somehow. She may show conflicted body language such as lip licks and whale eyes. She may tap out and urinate on herself. She may growl or bite. All of these behaviors are symptoms of the underlying problem, just as the original jumping and squirrelly behavior were.

If, however, we address her anxiety from the start, teaching her that she does not need to interact with people who worry her and that her owner will protect her, we will likely see the jumping and squirreling around disappear over time. In this case, jumping and acting silly were simply symptoms of a bigger issue, and when the bigger issue is addressed the symptoms disappear on their own. Once the dog understands that her owner won’t let people touch her if she’s not comfortable, we can then switch to obedience training in order to show her ways to interact with strangers that don’t cause her discomfort, such as targeting their hands or shoes, or perhaps playing the “look at that” game.

For a leash-reactive dog, the same sort of emotion-driven approach works. The lunging and barking is a symptom that tells us that the dog is experiencing strong emotions of some sort. Reactive dogs may act this way due to a variety of emotions (frustration, excitement, fear, etc.). That’s okay – we don’t necessarily need to know exactly why the dog is acting this way, as long as we can acknowledge that the presence of other dogs causes a problem. Knowing that, we can play the Watch the World game. Over time, this game will change the dog’s emotional response to other dogs to one of happy anticipation, which will result in him turning towards his owner when he spies another dog. The lunging and barking will go away on their own as the emotions that used to drive them are replaced.

If your dog is experiencing a behavior problem, it’s important to understand that obedience training alone may not be enough. Training your dog in basic manners is important, but it’s even more important to address the root cause of any behavior problem: the emotions that drive it. A skilled trainer can help you figure out why your dog is acting the way that he is. Even more importantly, we can help you put together a plan to change the core emotions that are driving your dog’s behavior. When we change the way your dog feels about things, he will change the way he behaves accordingly.

Some (many!) dogs legitimately need obedience training. However, many more dogs also need something more. They need behavior modification to help them deal with the very real emotions of fear, insecurity, excitement, frustration, or anger. Giving these dogs the help they need to cope with the world they find themselves in is the kindest and most effective thing we can do as their guardians and caretakers.

How do you think we can address the common misperception that obedience training can solve all behavioral problems? Please help me brainstorm… I’d love to hear your ideas!

49 responses to ““Needs Training”

  1. That photograph almost made me lose my lunch…yikes, it’s actually hard to look at.

  2. What a great article. I try to explain this to people who contact me at least several times a week. Well written.

  3. thank you so much for writing this…. with my reactive little chi mix I was missing something BIG in training class – I dropped out because it only made him worse the rest of the week – and this was it!

    the distinction that in some (or many) cases emotion is behind behaviour and not lack-of-manners is a huge one and being able to put that into words makes my day!

  4. I think a big issue in general is people still don’t always consider that dogs have emotions or feelings. I seems to me that a lot of people still consider dogs to be little ‘pods’ and that training will make them good dogs and not training will make them bad dogs. People don’t think that dogs get worried, angry, etc. They know they are happy, scared or stressed but even then a lot of people don’t get that (just look at the picture above *shudders*).
    I think the term ‘behavior modification’ will become as common as the term ‘training’ when people realize that dogs have actual emotions that are the root of their behavior and actions (also I think talking about mental health in dogs would be a good step forward, I don’t see why dogs couldn’t have mental health issues just like they have physical health issues). I don’t really know how to start advocating for behavior modification or just behaviors in general. But I think having this knowledge become common in the dog world would keep a lot of the dogs that say ‘need training’ on their shelter profile out of the shelter in the first place.
    Maybe a step forward with this would be to have information like this more advertised? Maybe a book or an article in a popular dog magazine? It would be awesome if right next to “An Idiot’s Guide to Obedience Training” in Petsmart is a book that reads, “Why More Manners Won’t Help: a Book on Behavior Modification”. It would also be much more productive if all trainers recognized the need for behavior mod in their obedience classes.

  5. Reblogged this on Payfer Pack and commented:
    Excellent write up on Basic Obedience versus Behavior Modification. Many people do not understand the difference between the two. However, this article hits the nail on the head. It is easy to read and makes great sense.

  6. A very well written article describing the difference between training and BAT. As far as the photo is concerned,I have studied it intensly and have come to the following conclusion.This Shep has been taught to “smile” and is in no way showing aggression towards the child.All behaviour should be read in conjunction with other indicators. Do I think that photographs like this are a good idea,well ,the answer is definitely NO.

  7. Great article. I was so bothered by the photo, I looked up the original to see if there was an explanation for it. There was a caption, but not one that made me feel any better. Like Graham above, I hope that dog was taught to “smile”, but I have a hard time believing it’s so. Here’s the original photo – with many comments about how lovely the image is!
    We Asked Our Grandson MJ To Smile For Our Camera

  8. That picture made me shudder. That child is in danger.

  9. I think many people are not familiar with the term Behavior Modification even if they may be familiar with some or even many of the techniques. I think people (myself included) generally use the term “training” to encompass obedience training, behavior modification, operant conditioning, socializing, and all of the other things one does (or at least can do) to help a dog become a happy and safe community member. To me the term training is synonymous with teaching and I think of behavior mod as teaching my dog about the world… when I am working with her reactivity I am teaching her that other dogs come with good things (rewards from mom) so I think of that as training in a general sense.

  10. Great piece and great point. I think just getting a person to take gheir dog to basic training is a struggle, add in a whole new concept (i.e., behavior modification) and you might just lose your audience. Well maybe not, but it does make me wonder if that’s why some people give up and just dump their dog at a shelter or place an ad in a newspaper. Sadly, there seem to be more and more dogs needing the latter just as much as the former. Glad to see someone define the difference for people. Now if only they will recognize it and seek a good trainer to help them address it.
    BTW-a friend sent me here because of the photo (she knows how I feel about kids and dog photos). Totally threw me to find out it wasn’t about kids and dogs, but the differences between training and behavior modification. :)

  11. At first, I too thought the dog was showing his teeth (out of discomfort/fear). But something wasn’t right. Then I realized it was the eyes and the ears. That dog is not upset.

  12. Is he actually being aggressive though? I mean unless you know the person or dog in this matter, how do you know what’s actually going on by a photo? I’m not taking up for the dog or whatever and understand the purpose of its use, but my pitty will smile like that when I tell her to but the entire time she’s wagging her tail and in no way being aggressive. I actually have a picture of her doing it and she looks downright terrifying but to people that know her know that she’s the sweetest dog that you’d ever meet and love to tell her to “Smile Sally!” Now if I can actually get her to smile in a picture with my kids but instead she’d rather lick them to death.

  13. Why not mention CAAB’s and CABC’s? These animals behaviorist are often already dog trainers but so many of my clients have no idea what an applied animal behaviorist is yet alone that many work all types of behavior problems in dogs.

  14. That little boy’s parents need to learn how to read their dog’s emotions and teach their son how to interact with his dog before something bad happens!!! That dog is NOT happy and the little boy is oblivious! Apparently the parents are too or they would not allow their son to “cuddle” up to him like that. Yikes!!!

  15. I also agree with previous comment about the dog is showing no aggression there is no tension anywhere on that dogs mouth or nose, and do you think anyone would actually sit there and take a photo if the dog was growling, so its obvious people cant read dogs from a photo, never mind in real life.

    • Well said Mel.It is very important to understand canine behaviour before having a knee jerk reaction to photo,s like this.But I will say again ,I do not agree with pictures like this being shared around the internet .They confuse people.

  16. Perhaps it’s not that good of an idea to teach dogs to “smile”. How is anyone, the owner included, ever going to be 100% sure whether the dog is giving a warning or not? Confusing for children or others less well versed in canine behavior, who may not recognize the subtleties and may think the dog is smiling when the dog is actually giving a warning. It just seems like a bad idea, to me. I agree that regardless of the dog’s actual behavioral state, photos like this confuse people. I would never want my toddler in that situation no matter how much I trusted the dog.

    • You make a very good point there Ali,and I cant argue with it. We cant always assume that everyone can read canine behaviour. What I will add is,all behaviour has to be read in conjunction with other subtle signs and the situation the dog is in.

  17. Here’s the thing that bugs me….I have seen it time and time again. Parents need to teach toddlers as well as dogs. People think that dogs should be perfect all the time. Are we teaching our children to respect the animal as well? When kids get frustrated with each other, they can speak up, animals can’t. Kids shouldn’t get a free pass to continually bother an animal. (I’m not saying that’s what going on in this picture at all. This is just an observation) I have taught my grandkids that they are to not continually try to pet the dogs if the dogs have walked away from them. They need a little space too. We need to be responsible parents and pet owners so bad things don’t happen.

  18. People should learn more about the language of dogs, before they get one. It`s not that hard to learn basic language of the dog, they talk a lot whith eyes, ears and tail. If you understand the dog, and respekt it`s bounderies, there would be less acsidens. Like that piture whith the kid. I am shure the dog have tried to say a lot more before he show his teeth.!!!.. If you understand, its easyer to respect him and avoyd problems. Like whith food, noone like if somebody is messing whith their food. i don`t! You get what you are asking for, if you give the dog food and take it away just to show him that you are the “boss”, it is stupid.. Than you are creating a problem that is not necessarily there. if somebody is giving me food, and taking it away before i am finnish, and it happens often, i am going to start protekting my food to! Ofcourse… it`s common sense.. I have had that discussion many times whith some people, ofcourse some dogs are maby worse than other, but its like that whith people to.. I get enoyd only thinking about it ;)

    So education before, you have to take a licens before you drive car, so a LITLE bit of reading before you get a dog, just to understand the basic.

    • I dont know if THIS dog is angry, i don`t know him, it was just an example.. But if my dog is showing his teeth to me ore another person, than i know sombody has pushed him to far. it has happend once in 12 years, and it was my fault, i forgot he had pain in his hip, and stoped him from running away from me.. So i asked for it. Hi did not bite thoug, just a warning, and i think the dog should be aloud so speak up sometimes.

  19. doggydialouge

    Although thoughts about the photo are up for debate, this is a fantastic blog article topic. I agree with the comment that “Training” is often used by the general public as a catch all for all of the above, though that can be very misleading in ads for adoptive dogs – downplaying the actual issues the dog may have.

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  22. I too was happy to see this article making distinction between behavior modification and “training.” I am a special education teacher, who also recently finished a graduate program in applied behavior analysis (previously called ” behavior modification”. People or animals–good behavioral programs are based on principles of ABA). I own a pit bull- boxer mix that we adopted from a nearby shelter. This dog’s history includes abuse and although she is not aggressive, she is “unpredictable.’ I equate owning her with having a family member with special needs .Just having obedience training is not going to solve all of her issues. She is a work in progress and we work on various behavior programs every day. Making a distinction between just obedience classes vs need for behavior programming might be something for shelter and rescue programs to educate potential adopters about.

    • Yes, many nervous fearful dogs, should be classed as special needs dogs. Those dogs dont need training ,they need DS/CC, (conditioning). Emotions drive behaviour. Training will only suppress a dogs behaviour, conditioning will, change their reaction to the emotion. Imagine training a dog to like children, and display an incompatible behaviour. Nothing at all in the dogs brain has changed, s/he still dosnt like children. So, therefore ,if the dog is cornered by children and cant get away, what do you think the outcome will be?

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  24. I feel that most people feel that a reactive dog is a bad dog or a dog with a problem. I think it would help to remove that kinda of thinking for a dog that may need behavior modification. We need to remember we are asking dogs to function in our world with no instruction manual.If this was a person who had issues with crowds we would put them on meds to deal with their anxiety and/or teach them coping skills. These are the skills we are trying to teach these dogs without the help of any meds so they can function in the world we want them to function in. It’s ok if your dog isnt a social butterfly, dosent play well with others or dosent like kids thats called a personality. All that matters is that the dog behaves when found in this situation, if all that means is that the dog tries to remove himself if he can. We as responsible owners have to help our dogs know that we will protect them when they find themselves in uncomfortable situations (the world will not end) and try our best to not let them get into situations they can not handle yet. I have a fear dog reactive dog who may never be able to be in the environment i kept her for she is a wonderful loving dog which is part of her fear. I just wish people would look at her with the same no concerned way they look at a golden or a lab who may display the same behavior as she does. I do feel alot of people avoid taking their dog to a professional training place due to the embarrassment from the openly displayed judgement of other people. Isn’t that what these places for

  25. Loved the distinction here. I have a redidulously well trained, obedient Cane Corso (two languages and hand signals). That said, he is also small dog reactive. I know the day the issue manifested. No amount of obedience training helps him to control his immediate and explosive reaction or helps me to redirect him. I have been working with a behaviorist to help me help him using positive reinforcement techniques. It is still a work in progress. We have gotten to the point that he and I can walk through crowded areas with lots of humans with small dogs with no incident…even when the small dogs yell at him. The trick was in knowing it frustrates him and learning the extremely subtle “tells” in his body language so I could redirect him before it got to the point that his frustration overrode his training.

  26. Good article. The answer to your question could be in your first paragraph, “pet bios”. Shelters and rescues could band together and come up with clear, universal definitions that separate “obedience training” and “behavior modification”. I have a reactive dog so I know about behavior modification, but unless you’ve ever had to deal with it its pretty hard to comprehend. Even my good friends understand they don’t understand but see it works. Articles like this help spread the word.

    • SO agree! Unless you address the underlying cause of the behavior, you are only putting a bandaid on it, so to speak. One day the stressors will be too much and the “training” won’t hold That’s why you hear so many cases of ” But he’s never bitten anyone before!”

    • Well said Donna, there is a huge difference between training and conditioning.It is very important to find out why your dog is reacting, what is the cause of that behaviour. Then you can either chose a DIR or DS/CC. http://www.careforreactivedogs.com

  27. SO agree! Unless you address the underlying cause of the behavior, you are only putting a bandaid on it, so to speak. One day the stressors will be too much and the “training” won’t hold That’s why you hear so many cases of ” But he’s never bitten anyone before!”

  28. That picture is just trouble waiting to happen. It looks like something already may have nipped the boys left cheek. I hope its just a trained smile…

  29. Part of this too is owner training. I’m often surprised at how many pet owners don’t understand how to read basic animal body language, and how animals think and react to things (as a general rule, of course each animal also has their own personality)

    Training and modification with animals is vital, absolutely. But we also need more human training.

  30. I have a very excitable dog. She follows me everywhere when we’re in the house. If I go into the kitchen, she’s right behind me. If I go into the bathroom, she’s right behind me. She won’t leave my sight. When I take her to the beach, she’s the official greeter, even going up to other dogs that aren’t dog friendly, but she always gets them to like her. Any ideas how to calm her down?

  31. Thank you for the excellent post. I try to explain it with an analogy to children. Training is like teaching reading and math. If a child is bullying, hitting and throwing things, teaching him
    arithmetic will not solve the problem. He needs to know how to do math, but it does not solve the behavior problems.
    I too wince when a client calls and asks for training for a dog who is now biting people. Related rant: can the rescues and veterinarians refer the shy timid puppies to early behavior intervention where we can prevent aggression? Some do, but so many do not, or at least do not make an impression on the owner that time is of the essence.

  32. I think an article outlining the difference between a trainer, a behaviourist, a veterinary and a veterinary behaviourist would be helpful. Also include some information about the requirements for each designation. I recently had a customer who adopted a lab mix assuming that all labs are good with kids. When crated the dog reacted aggressively towards the child that he had never met. I strongly suggested that they start off with a Veterinary Behaviourist and go from there. The customer had no idea the difference between trainer, veterinary (concerning behaviour modification and training). Didn’t know what a behviourist was and had never heard of a Veterinary behaviourist. This gentleman was in a big box pet supply store asking advice of employees. Luckily I was working, I am a former trainer and behviour modification worker with dogs.

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  34. Great article!My pomeranian was attacked when he was about 6 weeks old by another dog. Now hes aggressive towards small kids. Any suggestions on how to modify this behavior

  35. Can you recommend an article that deals with interdog aggression and how to address it? My GSD’s have to be kept separate or else the one attacks the other. The other one is a very anxious dog. Thanks.

  36. Heather, I would advise that you get the help of a force free professional to help you and your dogs.

  37. I have a large mixed lab rescued dog, approximately 5 yrs old. Calm in house, house trained and good watch dog. Problem is when anyone comes to my house he jumps on them forcefully and gets too excited. Even after they are seated he will try to get up on them and gets too excited. Very hard to control at this point. Tried treats and end up putting him outside but as soon as he comes in again he does it again. My husband wants to get rid of him but I just can’t. What can I do?


      Lynda, your dog maybe displaying obnoxious submission. It is an over the top behavioural display by your dog to be wanted and liked. The dog is trying to display that he is a good harmless dog that means no harm but, is OTT and to most unsuspecting humans, obnoxious. Of course this behaviour may be seen as unwanted or even unsociable. You should consult a force free certified trainer / behaviourist to help you and your dog move forward.

      • Thank you for your response and I think he does need a trainer. Not sure where to start but checking with Petco store, hopefully they can recommend one.

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