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Problem Owners

written by Carol Kufner of Winwood Shepherds
submitted by Judy Bohnert, Equinox, Canada

We felt this subject was a necessary addition to our website. As so many people worry about breeders, so too do many breeders worry about owners. This page is an attempt to help those who have purchased a puppy or will purchase a puppy one day to avoid becoming a “Problem Owner”.

The idea that a dog owner should learn what his or her dog’s postures and movements mean in order to understand how to establish effective communication and avoid or solve a behaviour problem is a departure from the concept that the dog should be “trained”. Furthermore, to suggest that an owner can and should learn to move in certain ways or assume particular poses in order to express behavioural ideas to the dog seems incomprehensible in a world where words dominate our thoughts. However, these skills or their absence can and do play a vital role in problem behaviours. We’re going to list some problem owners and their typical behaviours.


First lets take the owner whose dog barks and barks either from frustration brought on by  boredom or at something that it interprets as a threat. In other words, the dog is a barker. The owner shouts at the dog in an effort to “calm” the dog down. This doesn’t work so the owner tries every form of punishment he/she can think of. This too doesn’t work. Few dog owners realize that shouting at a barking dog is, in fact, responding to the barking with a human version of the same behaviour. Many dogs will become silent because they associate the owner’s tone of voice with disapproval and impending pain from punishment. However, certain temperaments will often get worse. In the non-verbal world of the dog silence signifies silence, stillness begets stillness, action stimulates action, etc. For example: “Did baby hurt it’s itty toezy?” A puppy just yipped when it stubbed its toe. The owner, a mature woman who had raised 3 children, was displaying signs of becoming a problem dog owner, one of which is a mistaken belief that puppies or even older dogs possess the ability to understand words as humans do.

Spoken language is just noise to dogs. It is a tribute to their intelligence that they actually learn the meaning of certain “key” sounds. This usually comes about through the dog’s deliberate concentration and the owner’s almost accidental consistency when referring to certain events or objects. For example: regularly using the word “out” in such phrases as “D’ya wanna go out?”. In these cases, the sound of the word “out” is meaningful to the dog. The upward inflection used with the entire sentence often indicates that it is time to get excited about something, the nature of which is revealed by the key word involved.

The single, most glaring feature of problem owners is ignorance, not stupidity, but an almost perfect vacuum of knowledge about what makes their dogs behave as they do. This vacuum of knowledge is not empty. Rather, it is filled with myths and assumptions about the behavioural nature of the dog.


An owner had a dog with highly active defence reflexes. The puppy responded to harsh punishment during the housetraining period with snarls and actual attacks. The owner, puppy and counsellor attended a behavioural session. During that time the dog kept going to the door to look out. Each time this happened the owner rushed over, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, slapped his nose and pulled him back to a forced sitting position by his chair.

After about ten episodes of this behaviour the counsellor asked the client what he though he was teaching his puppy. He responded by saying that he was teaching him to stay with him in a sitting position rather than wander away. The counsellor then asked why a pup should want to stay with a person who grabs, slaps and pulls at him. The answer was typical: “Because I am supposed to be his master.”

Highly physical owners are usually amazed at how quickly and willingly their dogs respond to non-physical show-and-tell methods. This phenomenon then provides the motivation for them to listen to advice and change their general attitude about the dog. When the dog perceives its owner’s changed behaviour the problem often improves immediately.


The “drill sergeant syndrome” may have originated during the first World War (which is from which most obedience work actually stems). Except in military dogs it is time that such training was stopped before a large percentage of pet dog owners acquire chronic laryngitis. Most dogs can hear sounds at 75 feet that cannot be detected at 18 feet by humans and it is well known that loudness triggers defence reflex responses, usually of the avoidance type. When trying to gain obedience, it is difficult to equate avoidance conditioning with effective learning of words like Come, Sit or Heel.

Seductive-Physical and/or Vocal

The owner who tries to gain loyalty and obedience through constant petting, baby-talking and coaxing the problem dog is usually practicing a form of what this counsellor calls “pet-oriented emotional masturbation.” Which is to say, it is the owner, NOT the dog, who gains emotional satisfaction from the behaviour. This sort of owner usually ends of with a dog who is immature and may be anything from sadistically vicious to masochistically self-mutilating.


Through no fault of their own, many problem dog owners have never been taught any of the basics of leadership. When these people are faced with a dog which displays independence it is perceived often as a blow to their own personal worth. The reaction is usually an overreaction, either giving in to the dog’s desires or becoming irate and withdrawing from the dog’s company or even worse, ignoring it.


A good example of ambivalence is an owner who buys a St. Bernard and bans it to the back yard because of its unruliness and constant slobbering. The owner states that she wanted the dog so her children might grow up with it. She felt responsible for the unfortunate animal but, on the other hand, the dog was not fulfilling its planned role in the family.

The ambivalent owner perceives the dog in terms of satisfying personal needs. When this standard is not reached, usually through no fault of the pet, the owner experiences ambivalence – the contest of simultaneous attraction to the dog regarding affection and responsibility for its welfare and revulsion due to the animal’s behavioural and/or physiological shortcomings.


The owner who uses common sense in the face of an undesirable response from the dog soon becomes convinced that something is wrong with the dog rather than with his approach. It can be most difficult to deal with this type of owner. On a purely logical basis the owner thinks something must be done to change the dog to fit the treatment rather than vice versa. Most often the emotional relationship between such owners and their dogs is either absent or shallow. From then on it is usually up to a behaviourist to discover the threads of some emotional bond and then stimulate the owner to develop that relationship and gain the motivation necessary to salvage what is usually a worthwhile dog from a difficult situation.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Did the dog have any choice in selecting its owner?
  2. If those who chose the puppy now find its behaviour unacceptable how could any new owner learn to love the same dog who is lacking the value of an early relationship in its life?
  3. Who is best equipped, when the proper tools for rehabilitation are provided, to help the dog; its lifelong owners or some stranger?
  4. In the event the owners are also parents and are thinking of euthanasia as a solution the following analogy often
    helps: “How will you cope if your children fail to live up to your expectations?”

There are of course, many more different type of owner/pet related problems. These are but a few.

From a breeder’s point of view, we are neither Gods, fortune tellers nor whipping posts. Good breeders sell what they believe to be good, solid, well tempered puppies. Things can go wrong but many extremely knowledgeable dog behaviourists have stated that most problem dogs are created through ignorance and environment than are ever born. If you have a problem with a puppy or older dog, instead of looking to lay blame look for a solution before irreparable damage is done. Before anyone starts screaming “blame it on the breeder, they did it”, honestly sit and evaluate your relationship with your pet.