This week, I saw a post on Facebook that bugged me. The person posted, "Train the owner, not the dog." This is a commonly used phrase in dog training circles. While I agree that this can be the case with dogs who are unruly — that the owner is a lot of the problem — it most often is NOT the case with puppies and dogs who have serious behavior problems.

In my experience, where serious behavior problems are involved, it is the dog who has the problem, not the owner. Think about it. Most people who come to see me have had dogs before, some all of their adult lives. Yet, their dog is aggressive or has separation anxiety. They haven't raised this dog any differently than they have raised any of their dogs. Why is this dog so different than the dogs that they have had? If the owner was the problem, wouldn't the pattern just repeat itself with every dog? Wouldn't the other dogs in their history or currently in their homes have similar problems, or at least some problem? It doesn't make sense to blame the owner.

I find myself explaining this to owners almost on a daily basis. Someone has told them when discussing their dog's behavior that it was their fault. They were too anxious ... lenient ... fearful ... soft … etc. They feel guilty for being such horrible pet parents when really, it is not about them. It is about the conflict, fear, and anxiety within the dog.

For some dogs, they are simply born that way. For some, they have endured some deep trauma from which it is hard to recover. For some, they were not exposed to life — that ever important socialization — when they were still open to receiving it. Some are in pain or have metabolic illnesses which affect their behavior.

So, what is the owner's part anyway? Well, many owners have done things that make their dog's behavior worse or at least haven't helped. I have seen many a fearful dog turn into an aggressive dog through the use of ill-timed shock collar corrections, for example. Again, the owners may have made it worse, but they didn't cause it.

What can owners do? There is a saying in veterinary medicine: "Recognize and refer." It means be able to recognize what is normal and what is abnormal, treat what you can within the scope of what you know, and then refer out when you are over your head. This is what I would recommend to owners as well.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is my dog's behavior different than any other dog I have owned?
  2. Is my dog hurting himself because of his behavioral illness?
  3. Is my dog unhappy?
  4. Has this dog failed to respond to the typical training methods that I have used with my other dogs?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, your dog may have abnormal behavior. That is when you need to be referred out to an expert. First, speak to your veterinarian about whether or not your dog's behavior is normal for his age, sex, and breed. If your pet's behavior is unruly, your veterinarian can refer you to a positive reinforcement dog trainer.

(You can also find more on dog training at my site, Florida Veterinary Behavior Service. Go to articles and then dog training. )

If your pet's behavior is abnormal, such as aggression or separation anxiety, your vet will need to refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. You can find one at www.dacvb.org.

The take home message...

It is probably not your fault.

Feeling guilty doesn't help your dog.

You are not the problem, but you can be a big part of the solution!

Reach out and get the proper expert help for your dog so that you can both be happier!

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Annette Shaff / via Shutterstock