1. Problematic Behaviour Instead Of «Problem Dog»

Approximately 70% of dogs show problematic behaviour on a walk, mainly aggression.
Why, what are the needs of the dog and what is the role of the owner?

If you are interested in dog behaviour, dog education and training, have a dog that shows unwanted behaviour, or want to build a better relationship with your dog, this is for you.

1.1 Introduction

In hindsight, I realise that my journey with dogs started with my mother telling me that I was bitten in the face by a German Shepherd at the age of 2 when the owner of the dog played with me. The dog, which belonged to a friend of the family, was subsequently euthanized.

I also learned that we had an Afghan Hound «Simson» from my birth and for a few years. When I was born, he saw me as a rival and was not prepared to accept the reduced attention from my parents. As I got a bit older, I became his best friend and he protected me against everyone and everything. Increasingly Simson started not only to challenge my grandmother – which my father did not seem too upset about – but also to grossly snub other people and dogs. Simson’s behaviour escalated and he became a serious threat. Simson was also euthanized.

Growing up in northern Sweden with wolves in proximity, I soaked up everything that had to do with wolves like a sponge. I was completely fascinated by their calm nature, their social structure and behaviour. At the age of 15 I had the possibility to join an expedition from the local University – as a trainee photographer – that set out to observe a pack of wolves that supposedly had come from Russia via Finland. I became completely convinced that wolves are the ancestors of dogs, even if not everyone thought so at that point of time.

Therefore, I also believed that if I understand how wolves tick, I may find the answers to why I was bitten by the German Shepherd, why Simson turned into a serious threat and why both dogs were euthanized.

Over the past 50 years I have spent a considerable effort on understanding the nature and behaviour of wolves and dogs. The more I learned, the more I realised how different the opinions were about their nature and behaviour. I realised how important it was to remain open to the different schools of thought, to identify the common denominators and contradictions, take nothing for granted, but just accept the different thoughts as possibilities.

Scientific literature and research, dog training, lectures, seminars, tuition, books etc. belonged to my everyday life. I had several dogs of different natures and energy levels – Leonberger, Great Dane and the last 30 years with German Shepherds. All of them were very well behaved and well trained, by all standards. The work with my German Shepherds went far beyond the traditional family dog training «sit, drop, stay, heel» and resulted in dogs capable of handling most situations.

Unix vom Hochmoor, 04.05.2002 - 30.08.2015, son of Kevin vom Murrtal

1.2 A relationship at a different level than my dog just being «obedient»

More and more I realised that I was looking for a relationship at a different level than my dog just being «obedient». During the years, I had a lot of excellent training and picked up bits and pieces with many trainers. In the early 90’s I spent considerable time with two highly qualified trainers in Sydney who had trained air force, military, border and police dogs internationally. It certainly was impressive to see how they worked with the dogs and how happy the dogs were to co-operate.

One of the comments by one of the dog trainers really got my attention: «Just because you have a German Shepherd, don’t for a moment think he is automatically going to protect you – he wants you to protect him».

We simulated a few authentic situations and he was correct. This particular statement confirmed to me that there must be so much more to the relationship with dogs and was probably the starting point of the next step on my journey I was about to embark on.

As with so many other things in life I realised that the more I learned, the more I became aware of what I did not know. The above statement told me that I must learn more about wolves and dogs. It became clear to me that I probably had only scratched on the surface so far.

1.3 A true friend- and partnership based on mutual respect, trust, love and understanding

Although I could train dogs to become «good citizens» and probably do so in a respectable way, I was continuously looking for that missing link between my dog and myself. The missing link was not about how to make my dog do more, or less, about love to the dog or about the dog not being obedient.

It was about moving beyond training and conditioning of certain behaviours. I did not want us to be «a man and a dog», but a team, a unit, a true partnership – a pack.

My knowledge and skills grew over the years, but I still missed the link I was looking for – and I knew it was there. I joined Agility Clubs, German Shepherd Clubs and both observed and participated the local training. I visited a number of independent trainers, trained with some and observed others from the outside, had different discussions with other dog trainers, of different calibres, in different countries.

There are some very good trainers around that have an exceptional command of canine knowledge, skills and experience. They are marvellous dog handlers that pick up all impulses from the dogs and know how to address these. They can lead the dog owners through the process of learning, they support in changing the behaviour and you can observe how the dogs transform «within a heartbeat».

Some of the best trainers are sometimes perceived to be tough toward the dog owners. They primarily work in the interest of the dog, which is correct, and therefore may bruise some people resisting change.

Professional dog and dog owner training is not «a walk in the park», neither for the trainer nor for the dog owner, but hard and demanding work. Yet at the same time extremely rewarding when you see that both dog and owner are happy.

With exception of the above few, I unfortunately found that during the last 15 years most trainers focus on «task training» of the dogs and their owners to perform certain functions, i.e. how to make your dog come-heel-sit-drop-stay-wait, often before a solid relationship between the owner and the dog has been built and before the dog has been sufficiently socialised.


Is this the right sequence?

Can and does a dog really want to co-operate with the dog owner before he feels secure and protected? Of course, one can always claim that the training leads to a stronger relationship.

But with what type of training and philosophy?

I also observe that today’s dog training has turned very «what» orientated, e.g.:

  • «… if your dog does this, do that …»
  • «… now we do XX and then you immediately should do YY …»

The rationale and sense making «why?» often remains in the air and related to the knowledge, skills and experience of the respective dog trainers. The «how», as a logical consequence of the «why» is often missing.

Therefore, I would here like to address the “why?” and “how?”, so that the reader can validate his own opinion and actions and perhaps gradually adjust these.

What is often lost in dog training is differentiated thinking and acting. What suits one dog is not right for the other dog. It is the same with the dog owners, they all bring different physical, psychological and emotional pre-requisites. There is no one-size-fits-all.

1.4 Diverging training philosophies

With this, we are already at the core of today’s dog training. Over the years, I saw the whole spectrum of training philosophies, from the «modern» trainers, working exclusively with food and toys, via the old-fashioned drill, where the dog’s character and zest for life was broken, to resuscitation of a dog that was «corrected» for bad behaviour. None of these, however, with a better relationship between dog and owner as a result.

The «modern» trainers who exclusively worked with food, praise and artificial voices were often successful with calm, submissive dogs that showed no real problematic behaviour, at least for the moment. Nevertheless, the training was a welcome relief in the hectic daily grind as they saw quick, but not always sustainable and robust results. But they were lost as soon as the dog showed unwanted behaviour. The dog was labelled «a problem dog», although there is never a problem dog as a judgement, just problematic behaviour.

1.5 70% of all dogs show problematic behaviour on a normal walk

When approx. 70% of the dogs show aggression on the walk in a pre-stage, early stage or escalated, one wonders why this is the case. What went wrong?

Until the end of 2016, the Swiss legislation demanded a compulsory dog owner training which led to the number of dog trainers sky-rocketing. Sadly, the compulsory training showed little results with no visible improvements in the statistics of bites and other forms of aggression – and therefore was cancelled.

This doesn’t surprise me very much – I even claim that the dog training was designed for the 30% of the dogs, which show no problematic behaviour on the walk anyway. They avoid confrontations, ignore them, like to play with their peers, show a balanced social behaviour and contribute to harmony. It is also not a big challenge to train the mentioned 30% of the dogs, they are mostly calm, friendly, submissive dogs and take on task training with food very well.

Most of the dog owners who come to me, however, have been with their dog in the compulsory trainings etc. Gradually aggression developed, however, and became a problem. The early phase of aggression, which was already present at a young age, was overlooked by the dog trainer and owner and they therefore missed the opportunity to get the dog and owner on the right path in time via learning processes. The make-believes «he just wants to play…» or «she doesn’t do anything…» were no longer credible.

The fact that dogs are domesticated predators, have a complex psychology, a pronounced social behavior and are not just «sweet animals that only have to learn sit! and come!» is often forgotten. You only have to watch dogs when the hunting instinct kicks in, or how a couple of dogs attack a strange fellow dog to convince yourself of it.

Here is an example of a 2 cm deep dog bite from a Spaniel cross, where things had gone incredibly wrong. On the one hand, with the organisation that imported the dog to Switzerland and its veterinarian, who did not recognize the seriousness of the aggression, but recommended «lots of love and time». On the other hand, with the dog trainer, who unfortunately did not realise that this was a very aggressive and unpredictable dog. The dog bit almost without warning if it did not suit him. The dog trainer had recommended to «throw food on the ground, because the food distracts him and gets his attention». It was also the way the dog trainer greeted the growling dog when the owners came to the private lessons.

The dog grew up in a «challenging» environment abroad and had learned that aggression was the only way to get food and survive. He had also bitten the new owners several times before and after they came to me. The dog challenged his owner during the training, ripped off the muzzle, bit both the owner and me within a second.


Just because many dogs are «obedient» and can be distracted with goodies, are they really happy?

Have their needs been met?
Do they feel safe and protected?

Or is it rather the needs and wants of the dog owner that have been satisfied? As a matter of fact, the earlier mentioned 70% of the dogs mainly show fear aggression. What does the logic say?

Is the relationship between dog and owner really based on mutual trust and respect? Or do the dogs simply join in until the external stimulus becomes too strong? Are the treats actually stronger than the excitement of running after another dog, deer, cat, bicycle, wheelchair, handicapped people, screaming child?

Unix calm, relaxed and ignores the noise

Dogs with problematic behaviour (aggression, fear, etc.) were often excluded from group training and the owners were told that their dogs caused stress with the other dogs. However, they were not offered an alternative training because the trainers often did not know how to approach problematic behaviour.

1.6 «Why» - a disliked question

If the dog owners asked a trainer the question «Why?» to get a better understanding of «why» the dog behaves in a certain way or «why» one should do it this or that way. Most trainers turned defensive and felt offended that one was questioning their methods, instead of simply explaining the thinking behind the «what» and «how».

The answers were more on the line that one «shouldn’t try to be a psychologist, but work with the behaviour of the dog». In other words, treating the symptom instead of the cause?

1.7 Treating the symptoms, or addressing the cause?

Unfortunately, today’s dog and owner training is mostly based on treating symptoms, even in the cases it is called therapeutic training.

If you get a cortisone prescription against your dermatitis, the cortisone is likely to reduce the symptoms (rash, itching, flaking etc.) for the moment. However, was the cause of the dermatitis cured? Is it possible that the suppression will even cause the symptom to move to another part of the body? Most definitely with the mentioned 70% as well.

I also experience dogs that have been prescribed medication against problematic behaviour, e.g. antidepressants. Often with the result, however, that the dog turns anxious and frightened as it doesn’t know what is happening in its body, with the consequence that the risk of a bite increases instead of decreases. An anxious dog with an early fear aggression, additionally weakened with medication, is more likely to bite.

Another popular recommendation is the castration of a dog with problematic behaviour. A bit further in this document you will read what a dog needs to be stable and happy. Castration may only work if the unwanted behaviour is hormone related – which not even the veterinarian can guarantee it is. Of course, there may be medical reasons for castration, but these have nothing to do with problematic behaviour in this context.

With all due respect for the medical work carried out by veterinarians, the vets are medically trained but are rarely trained in canine behaviour. This also applies to the behavioural veterinarians. Extensive observation of the behaviour of the dog owner and the dog is essential before a «therapy» is prescribed.

1.8 «If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail»

Most dog owners go to dog training because their dogs show problematic behaviour (symptoms), e. g. leash aggression, excessive barking, hunting – i. e. the social behaviour of the dog is out of control.

Improving social behaviour is a question of education (and in rare cases therapy), which can only take place through learning processes. In today’s world, for example, one often tries to neutralise the leash aggression with task training (sit! – drop! – stay! – heel! etc.) and goodies – «try to distract your dog with the food you hold in your right hand so that he does not fixate the other dog!».


What if the reason for the unwanted behaviour is that the dog doesn't feel safe and protected when on the lead, i.e. the dog doesn’t have the confidence the owner can handle possible confrontations, or the relationship between the dog owner and the dog is not stable?

Do goodies improve the relationship, or give the dog sustainable self-confidence, or can one buy a robust relationship with a dog?

No direct eye contact – no confrontation

1.9  Who is the «poor dog» here?

Simultaneously, I observed some of the homeless people spending most of their days in the park, outside the shopping centres and in the streets with their dogs. Sometimes the dogs were playing with each other, but without disturbing anyone else. From time to time one or two of the homeless walked away and their dogs just followed them – off the leash. They manoeuvred through the city with trams, bicycles, pedestrians, dogs, crossing the streets, etc. Their dogs were unimpressed and just followed their respective owner. In the summer evenings, they found a place to sleep and their dogs stayed nearby. They never disturbed anyone, they never created confrontations, they seemed balanced and happy.

Of course, I asked myself why this was the case and why the other dogs who lived with families in a house with garden and had premium food, mattresses, dog school, goodies, collars, clothes and toys etc., often showed unwanted behaviour. The dogs of the homeless people did not.

From a human perspective and way of thinking, the former are «poor dogs» and the latter «have a good life, but are problem dogs».


Is this really true?
Where does the difference in the above described behaviour come from?
How do packs of wolves and dogs live in the nature?

Albert Einstein apparently said, «The solution to a problem cannot be found at the same logical level as the problem itself». This also applies to dog behaviour, dog owner and dog training.