Most people arrive at puppy class with a list of behaviours they want to prevent – biting, chewing, “running off” being amongst the most common. There is a tendency to phrase concerns in negative terms and pups are called all sorts of names including “naughty”; implying a deliberate choice and a conscious decision.

Zip at 5.30 am playing tug with my pjs!

Dogs do what is rewarding, instinctive activity aside. They don’t have morals or ethics, they don’t know right from wrong.

Zip plotting mischief.

They don’t lie awake in the small hours plotting their wilful disobedience and most people are fully aware of that fact. Unfortunately the way in which someone mentally categorises their dog’s behaviour often sets the tone for their attitude and response to their pup’s behaviour.

My puppy bit me! The little <insert insult>. 

The normal response to this type of description is punitive, studying to reduce behaviour by pairing it with something unpleasant, effectively teaching puppies that people aren’t fun to play with, or indeed be around. If you’ve ever watched puppies play you’ll see they use their mouths on everything; on each other, on their dam, on anything and everything they come into contact with! 

What if instead we say “my puppy was trying to interact with me”? Or better still, “my puppy was trying to play with me”.

Zip playing

Now we’ll consider teaching a more appropriate form of play, swapping hands and trouser legs for toys and actively engaging and rewarding the pup for his attempts to play with us. At the same time we work on hand touches, which build that lovely association with our hands and we start initiating games with appropriate toys. This teaches our pup to play with us in one way and to continue playing with the rest of the dogs in the household in another. Even there you’ll see the pup start to play in one way with one dog and in another with a more sensitive dog. Poor Darcey has been objecting to Zip’s more energetic approaches! Shady doesn’t mind and in fact actively encourages him to play.

Darcey has little or no coat and very thin skin; she doesn’t appreciate puppy teeth!
Shady with puppy teeth in his scruff!

Behaviour that is rewarded will increase and the easiest way to get rid of behaviour that we don’t want with a puppy is to divert and distract them. Later we can train incompatible behaviour 

“My dog waited until I had gone out and then decided to empty the bin. He knows it’s wrong!”

This statement implies confrontation and a deliberate decision. The usual scenario here is the the owner comes home and is furious with their pup, who used to be pleased to see them. The pup has no ability to connect anger directed at them with what happened hours ago. They simply learn that people are not fun to be around.


“My dog was bored and the bin smelt enticing. He enjoyed emptying it and sorting through the rubbish for something good to eat.”

This shows awareness of a pup’s natural inclinations and this is where we move into management solutions. Each and every time your pup rehearses unwanted behaviour it gets stronger, especially something as rewarding as emptying the bin. It’s far better to restrict the pup to a crate or pen where his only choices are good ones than it is to teach him to find enjoyment in ways that you find irritating.

Is your dog stubborn or tenacious and what’s the difference? 

Working Beardies are valued for their tenacity, they keep going, they don’t give up. In terms of dog training this does mean that the usual advice of ignoring, or shutting them away – a time out – is ineffective. Zip can always find something interesting to do and I would never encourage him to seek his own entertainment. 

Zip happily exploring.

What if we say he’s stubborn? Stubborn implies confrontation and deliberate choice once again and often leads directly to confrontation along the lines of “you’re not going to get away with that!”. I would never willingly go head to head with a beardie, I always look for another way to approach the problem, a different way to explain what’s wanted, to make what I want my dog to do rewarding for him. 

During a series of seminars in California, I ran a problem solving day and I was shocked at the confrontational language used by some of the handlers. Obviously I understand that they’re having problems and I sympathise. Adding emotion to a training situation rarely helps, in a lot of cases that emotion turns to anger and angry trainers rarely achieve a satisfactory solution.

“My dog decides to take her own line and just blows me off.”


“I have systematically taught my dog that an agility field is a place where she can grab obstacles as and when she wants to, irrespective of my presence. I shouldn’t be too surprised when she makes her own decisions when we’re working together.”

The first description is without doubt of a BAD dog. By implication the dog doesn’t listen and makes a conscious choice to ignore their handler.

The second shows that the trainer is aware of the associations that she has allowed to build and is aware that her dog finds agility rewarding, with or without her.

What these words do is to put a handler in a place where they can either make a plan to move forward, or simply react to their dog on an emotional level.   

Do words matter? Yes they do! 


Jo Sermon, KISS Agility.

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