Are There Really Any ‘Bad’ Behaviors? - Instinct Dog Behavior & Training

Are There Really Any ‘Bad’ Behaviors?

Welcome to the blog! This week, we’re revealing some common “bad” behaviors that we, as dog trainers, regularly allow and sometimes even encourage—with our own dogs, and with clients’ dogs (with their approval, of course!).

And, we discuss key considerations when deciding whether you should do the same with your dog.

Happy Reading,

‘Bad’ Behaviors that Dog Trainers Sometimes Allow or Encourage

When you think of “bad” dog behaviors, what immediately comes to mind? If you’re like many dog owners, behaviors like jumping up, digging, and being out in front on walks probably pop to the forefront as things that we as dog owners should actively discourage our dogs from doing.

As dog owners, we’ve generally been taught that these behaviors are bad, naughty, harmful, and perhaps even pose a risk of undermining our leadership position with our dogs.

The reality? There are very few (if any) behaviors that are categorically, unequivocally ‘bad’. Heck, even biting has it’s place as a desirable behavior, whether it’s being done as part of bite sports or as a safety-preserving defense mechanism (say, if being attacked by another dog).

Further, some behaviors that we consider naughty or nuisance-type behaviors are actually very important natural, species-typical behaviors that can enrich our dogs’ lives, reduce frustration, and improve their welfare.

As trainers and behavior consultants, we regularly help folks let go of black-and-white views about ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ behaviors and instead consider the individual factors and broader context that influences whether they should opt to prevent/discourage, allow, or even *actively encourage* certain ‘bad’ behaviors with their dogs.

Instinct Behavior Professionals Weigh In

In prepping for this newsletter, I posted a quick, informal poll in our internal Instinct Workplace, asking which common ‘bad’ behaviors our trainers, behavior consultants, and veterinary behaviorists sometimes allowed or encouraged with their dogs and/or with client dogs.

About 20 or so of our lovely team members from different Instinct locations across the country weighed in. Here are the results:

Below, we take a closer look at several of these common ‘bad’ behaviors. (We didn’t have space to cover all of them in one newsletter, so perhaps we’ll do a second installment in the future.)

Bad Behavior or Bad Situation?

Context Matters.

Depending the context—the individual dog’s Nature and current circumstances, the environment, the other Humans and Dogs present, and more—we as trainers may determine that a given behavior will be helpful, harmful, or neutral for a given dog to engage in.

Below, we present some (not all!) of the primary factors we often consider when deciding whether to actively encourage, passively allow, or avoid/discourage the behaviors of Jumping Up to Greet, Leading the Walk, Getting on Furniture, and Playing Tug with a given dog.

Next, we present general guidelines that can be applied to almost any behavior, when deciding whether it’s something you might want to encourage, allow, or avoid with your own dog.

I. Jumping Up to Greet

In comparison with the other “bad” behaviors, jumping up was one that many of our trainers and behavior consultants were less likely to allow or encourage. But a few of us (myself included) did call it out, and in my opinion, there are some really valid reasons to allow or encourage this behavior—and on the flip side, some really valid reasons to avoid the it—with certain dogs.

Jumping is a behavior you may opt to allow with nearly any dog who is friendly/social…IF you as an owner (and others in your household) are totally fine with them doing it, knowing that your dog will not differentiate between times when you’re wearing pajamas or fancy evening attire, or times when they’re perfectly clean vs when they have muddy paws from a romp in the yard.

Ciera Moberg, behavior consultant and co-owner of Instinct D.C., notes, “I’m neutral about jumping up to greet, depending on how the guardian feels about it and the size/strength of the dog.”

Allowing jumping up is truly a personal choice, BUT, if you opt to go that route as a kind and responsible dog owner, you should then be prepared to physically manage/separate your dog (with a leash, gates, etc.) when spending time with people for whom jumping up is inappropriate, unwanted, unsafe, etc. (young children, older adults, folks who are fearful of dogs, and so on).

If a dog or puppy is fearful-but-curious with people, we will often encourage any pro-social behavior. If this means a cautious dog or puppy approaches and tentatively (or not so tentatively) puts their paws up on a new person to say hello, the last thing we want to do is send mixed messages and discourage that act of bravery by saying “Off!” and shooing the dog away. Indeed, we’ll often actively encourage and reinforce that paws-up approach. Over time, as the dog gains confidence, it’s easy to then shape four-on-the-floor greetings if that’s the owner’s preference.

Trainer Emily Rulla from Instinct Portland shares a cool example* of encouraging jumping up with her own dog, Pete:

“Pete can get snappy when people reach for him unexpectedly, so he’s been taught (by his prior owners, but I’m encouraging it) to put his front paws on someone when he’s ready for them to pet him. I don’t usually encourage jumping on greetings, but I found that an interesting use case!”

*In general, if a dog is displaying signs of aggressive behavior like growling or snapping with people, we tend to avoid jumping up entirely, but the example above beautifully illustrates why it is so important to assess every dog and situation on an individual basis to determine what’s going to work for them.

There are certain physical and behavioral characteristics, as well as certain environmental factors, that will lead many of us to advice against allowing or encouraging a dog to jump to greet. These include:

  • dogs who ramp up into mouthing/nipping when permitted to jump
  • dogs who are uncomfortable and sometimes aggressive with people, and who jump up as a way to try to manage/control the person’s movements
  • dogs who are conflicted about close contact—these dogs may show excitement on approach, but then become stiff/freeze and perhaps even growl with paws up on the person (like they’ve gotten too close for comfort and aren’t sure how to get themselves out of the situation)
  • dogs whose greetings are over-the-top frantic (ultra excited in an anxious way instead of a joyful way)—in these cases, encouraging jumping often adds to the frantic-ness of the situation. It’s usually best for the dog encourage calm, low-key greetings instead
  • dogs who live with young children, older adults, or individuals who are unsteady/less stable on their feet

II. “Leading” the Walk

Most of us have been lead (!) to believe that it’s critical for us to “lead” the walk when out with our dogs—that is, to ensure our dogs are always following close at our side as we dictate everything from pace to direction to duration of the walk.

But almost every trainer, regardless of the methods they use, will allow or actively encourage dogs to lead the way on-leash, at least some of the time. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that allowing your dog to lead the walk is really a question of when to do it, rather than if you should.

Giving dogs more freedom and autonomy on walks, in the right circumstances, offers them incredibly valuable opportunities to engage in important species-typical behaviors, like sniffing, foraging, and just quietly observing the environment at their own pace—things that are far less likely to occur when we’re asking them to walk at our side on a loose leash.

Here are factors we consider in deciding when to allow or encourage dogs to lead, and when to ask them to follow:

If your dog is feeling relaxed and comfortable, if you’re not in a super populated area, and if you have the ability to ask your dog to dial in their attention and follow your lead when needed, it is perfectly appropriate—and often preferable—to allow them to lead majority of the walk, choosing what to sniff, whether to speed up or slow down (within reason), and which direction to go.

Doing so often provides your dog with a far more enriching (and tiring!) walk than one in which you are trying to cover some predetermined distance along a specific route.

Trainers will often encourage a dog to lead the way when we’re trying to build a dog’s confidence in their own abilities to navigate the environment (as in the case of fearful or nervous dogs), or when we want to help a dog “decompress” (relax and let go of extra stress they may be holding onto).

To accomplish these goals, it’s important to practice in environments in which:

  • the dog feels mostly comfortable or perhaps only mildly stressed
  • you have the space to allow them to safely lead you along their chosen route (a field, park, etc.), without constantly running into stressful stimuli.
    • Modified versions of this can be done on the sidewalk, where you might allow your dog the freedom to choose whether to turn right or left, and whether to approach and sniff a tree or fire hydrant, but not whether to pull into the street or veer into another dog or person’s path uninvited.

Another important situation in which we encourage allowing a dog to lead the way—one that is often inadvertently discouraged by many owners—is when a dog’s attempt to “lead” is due to them trying to engage in a natural avoidance behavior.

This can look like a dog trying to turn around and go the other way, or veer off to sniff, or cross behind you, to gain distance from something they find concerning in the environment, such as an approaching dog or person. (It’s perfectly okay that you ask that they do this in a measured way vs. frantically pulling your arm out of your socket as they dive toward the nearest tree.)

Most trainers are quick to allow and encourage a dog to veer off and ‘break’ loose leash walking rules if they’re doing so as a way to avoid conflict and reduce feelings of discomfort. It can be a really simple, effective way to prevent or reduce instances of reactivity by empowering the dog to choose non-confrontational methods of stress- and conflict-management.

  • If your dog is feeling overwhelmed or anxious out in public, it is generally best for you to take the lead, giving them calm, clear direction and limiting their options. You leading the way, kindly and confidently, removes the need for your dog to make decisions while in an anxious state; it reduces their already heavy cognitive load and provides comfort that their human will take care of whatever comes their way.
  • If your dog struggles with reactivity, be sure to take the lead in any situation in which they might be over threshold OR within contact distance around a trigger.
  • And, for sheer practicality’s sake, plan to lead the way if you are on a “Point A-to-Point B” outing and don’t have time in your schedule to allow a dog-led walk.

If you’re new to allowing or encouraging your dog to lead the walk some of the time, it’s helpful to introduce clear cues that tell them when they’re in the lead role vs. when you’re asking them to follow. This can be done pretty easily with things like changing your leash length (giving the full length of the leash vs. gathering the leash up so there’s less slack) or giving a clear verbal cue for each condition, like “with me” (human leads) vs “go sniff” (dog leads).

III. Getting Up on Furniture

Who doesn’t love to cuddle up with their dogs in a comfy, cozy spot? I know it’s one of my favorite activities…assuming it’s something that is safe and doesn’t negatively impact that dog’s behavioral health.

Here are some factors to consider when deciding on your rules about furniture access:

It’s perfectly harmless for most dogs to have access to the furniture, so long as all family members in the home WANT/are comfortable with the situation.

Keep in mind that allowing your dog on the furniture doesn’t mean you have to give them total, free access at all times (though, that’s perfectly okay too, if that’s your preference).

  • Some folks opt to allow their dogs up only when invited. Going the ‘invite only’ route can be helpful if you have an overly enthusiastic dog who launches themselves up right next to or on top of whoever is sitting on the couch. This can be annoying or even downright dangerous if you’re holding a hot drink, or if you have small kids in the home.
  • Others opt to only allow their dog on specific pieces of furniture—like a specific armchair or one end of the couch that’s covered in a blanket.

No pressing examples pop to mind as situations in which we may want to actively encourage a dog to get up on the furniture—at least, I can’t think of a time I’ve done so in my many years working with clients.

If getting up on the furniture is not something a dog naturally wants to do, there’s little reason to put extra effort into having them up there.

That said, if any readers out there can share a personal experience in which it was helpful to actively encourage their own dog to be up on furniture instead of resting on the floor/on doggy beds, please share!!

Edited to Add: Reader Bridgette shared this great example of a situation in which she actively encourages her dogs to choose furniture over the floor: “Thanks for your great newsletters. Following up on the above situation. We have large dogs, but this might apply to smaller dogs: when using our travel trailer we actively encourage our dogs to hang out on the coach/bed or table benches as the floor area is small and it is hard to move around with them laying on the floor. 

There are a number of situations in which many trainers and behavior consultants will recommend against allowing a dog access to the furniture.

Here are a few of the most common:

  • Dogs for whom being up on the furniture creates feelings on conflict. These are dogs who become tense and perhaps even growl or snap if someone approaches while they’re up on the furniture, or if someone asks them to get off the furniture. In these cases, allowing the dog on the furniture creates an unhealthy, unpleasant, and potentially unsafe situation for both the dog and the people in the home
  • Dogs who are brand new to the home, . It’s often best to hold off on furniture access as you get to know your new dog better, and as they are learning where they fit within your household.
  • Dogs for whom jumping on/off the furniture presents a significant risk to their physical safety, such as dogs with back issues or other physical limitations. In such cases, you might opt to use a ramp or stairs. Just keep in mind that there’s still a risk they’ll skip that route and leap off instead.
  • Owners who just don’t want dogs on the furniture, for whatever reason (keeping things clean, wanting your own non-dog space to sit, etc.). Trainer Claire Giesige from Instinct Portland says, “My dog isn’t allowed on furniture because my husband wants to keep it clean/nice. It is a compromise.” And that’s perfectly okay! Just make sure your dog has access to their own comfy resting spots.

IV. Playing Tug

For many years, dog owners were pretty widely discouraged from playing tug with their dogs, with warnings that playing tug could make their dog aggressive, teach their dog to enjoy biting, and—if the dog was allowed to ‘win’ the game (get the toy)—cause their dog to view them as a lowly, submissive underling in the partnership.

The advice to avoid tug is less common than it once was, but it’s still not unusual for owners to express concerns about engaging in the game with their dogs.

As a whole, trainers and behavior consultants LOVE tug—as a fun game, as a reinforcer, and as a powerful conduit for helping a dog develop skills like impulse control and emotional regulation.

But, with a high intensity game like tug, which involves gripping and biting, it is important that it’s played with a few simple rules in place. And, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not right for every dog.

Tug is a fun and perfectly appropriate game for most dogs, provided there are a few basic rules in place, including:

1. Wait for an Invitation

One important boundary to set when playing tug with your dog is that you are the one that decides if and when to play the game.

It’s totally okay for your dog to approach with a toy and express their desire to play. It is not okay for them to leap up uninvited and grab at your glove, your sleeve, your backpack, or even a toy of their’s that you’ve picked up to put away.

Here’s a short video tutorial on how to teach your dog to wait for an invitation around toys.

2. Mind Your Teeth

Games of tug can get pretty intense. But even though your dog may be excited and focused on winning that tug toy, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask them to be careful and thoughtful about where they’re putting their teeth. If you have a dog who is careless about teeth on skin around toys, be sure to quickly and quietly end the game when this happens. And, try playing at a lower intensity as they get the hang of staying thoughtful about teeth placement, even when excited.

Here’s a short video tutorial on how to teach your dog to ‘mind their teeth’ around toys.

3. Let Go When Asked

While I’m generally a fan of letting the dog ‘win’ the game of tug about 80% of the time, I still find it important to teach them to let go of the toy when asked. There are a variety of ways to do this successfully, and the best method to use varies a bit based on the dog. You can check out this short video tutorial for one simple, low-risk way to teach your dog to drop a toy on cue.

We will often encourage playing tug with:

  • Dogs who crave high intensity activities and who enjoy gripping-style bites
  • Dogs who enjoy the game and whose owners are seeking non-food reinforcers (tug can be a great way to reward certain behaviors, like coming when called)
  • Dogs who, during behavior modification, benefit from having a temporary “legal” outlet at which to direct their frustration (instead of, say, barking or lunging at another dog), while parallel efforts at building frustration tolerance and reducing overall frustration levels are also in progress

As a dog owner, you may want to avoid playing tug if your dog:

  • quickly ramps up into mouthy, jumpy, bitey behavior when invited to tug
  • is prone to impulsively jump and bite at hands, loose clothing, scarves, packages/things being carried, etc.
  • becomes aggressive when invited to play tug
  • becomes fearful or avoidant when you try to play tug—perhaps they are a little uncomfortable with people in general, or perhaps they find the body language involved in tug to be confrontational, etc.

It’s important to note that tug can actually serve as a really helpful way to work through some of the issues noted above—I’d argue that its ability to do so explains much of the reason why trainers and behavior consultants love the game so much! But, using tug in this way is often best done under the supervision of an experienced behavior consultant.

A few notes on tug:

We could devote an entire newsletter (or multiple newsletters) to the art of playing tug with your dog. For now, just keep in mind that we want tug to be a fun, cooperative game, and follow these tips:

  • It’s often best to start with light tugging and to let go and allow your dog to “win” after just a few seconds.
  • Cheer for them and invite them back for another round.
  • For dogs with softer, more hesitant temperaments, this makes it less likely that a dog will get overwhelmed/intimidated at when starting out.
  • For more gregarious/enthusiastic types, it makes it more likely that they’ll come to view tug as a fun, cooperative activity as opposed to a showdown in which they’re trying desperately to rip the toy from your hand and then run away with it to keep it all to themselves.
  • As your dog gains confidence and enthusiasm, you can increase the intensity and duration of each tugging match, but it’s always a good idea to mix in some easy “wins”.

General Guidelines

when Allowing or Avoiding “Bad” Behaviors

If you find yourself wondering about if and when to allow other ‘bad’ behaviors with your dog, here are a few key questions you can ask yourself, regardless of the behavior in question:

  • Does the behavior, in the current environment and at the present time:
    • present a notable safety risk (physical or emotional) to your dog?
    • pose a notable risk of negatively impacting, in any way, you/others in the family, or the people and other dogs around you?
    • have a positive, negative, or neutral effect on your dog’s behavioral health?
  • Will engaging in the behavior in ANY context/at ANY time make it more difficult for your dog to behave in desirable/healthy/safe ways IN GENERAL (e.g., playing tug with a dog who impulsively loves to grab and bite any and every piece of loose fabric, hanging object, or appendage within their reach; or, allowing your couch-guarding dog to lay on the couch when you are home alone with them, but then trying to shoo them off when your partner and kids are home, too)
  • Is the behavior one that YOU/members of your household feel comfortable and confident about managing on an ongoing basis?

Every dog and every situation is different.Instinct Portland Co-Owner and Director of Behavior of Training, Dr Caroline Spark, says it best:

A Note for Multi-Dog Households

It’s really common for dog owners to want to treat all of their dogs the same. It’s done with the best of intentions, in the name of ‘fairness’.

But each dog in your home is an individual. It is kindest to all of them to treat them as such. It is perfectly okay—indeed, far preferable—to have different sets of rules for the different dogs in your home, based on their individual needs and characteristics.

In case it’s helpful, here’s an example of how rules vary with our personal dogs at home:

  • Sleep in bed/get up on furniture: Jacky: Avoid; Joey: Allow; Will: Avoid
  • Jump up to Greet: Jacky: Allow; Joey: Allow; Will: Avoid
  • Play Tug: Jacky: Avoid; Joey: Allow; Will: Allow
  • “Leading” the Walk: Jacky: Encourage; Joey: Allow; Will: Allow
  • Eating “Human” Food (i.e., being given some of our food while we’re eating): Jacky: Allow; Joey: Allow; Will: Avoid

Each dog has different rules based on what they need, and based what we feel comfortable with (for example, Will is a perfectly friendly dog, but he’s about 75 pounds so we never wanted to encourage jumping up on people, and worked to teach him four-on-the-floor greeting instead).

Our dogs don’t view one another with jealously or resentment, they just accept the rules that are specific to them, so long as we’re kind, consistent and fair about enforcing them.

Perspective is Everything

It can be very freeing to let go of viewing behaviors as ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’, and instead view them as helpful, harmful, or neutral—or perhaps, desirable and undesirable. Doing so allows us to make decisions based on our dogs’ unique needs and our individual situations. And, it can enable us to identify new opportunities for teamwork, cooperation, and a better relationship with our with our dogs.

Kathy O’Malli, behavior consultant at Instinct Nashville, sums it up nicely: “[For me], the furniture is “ours”, tug can teach teamwork with rules and can teach an “on/off” switch…Shredding is fine as long as they don’t swallow, and being in front [on a walk] is fine, as long as no pulling and they check in. All are opportunities for team work and leadership skills.

Check out the resources below!

Check out Instinct’s award-winning podcast, Dogs Unknown (fka DogLab), hosted by Instinct Co-Founders Sarah Fraser (me!) and Brian Burton.

Join one of our free, live training & behavior seminars via Zoom!

Hosted by Instinct behavior consultants, these seminars include a 1 hr presentation plus live Q&A session. Open to all!

Sign up for the Nature-Driven Nurture Foundations course in our Online School. Learn our groundbreaking canine behavioral health framework that teaches you how to optimize your dog’s training & care based on their unique, individual Nature. This self-paced course includes:

  • Access to private Alumni Facebook group
  • Twice-monthly Zoom Q&As with Instinct co-founders

Or, contact your local Instinct for fully customized training & behavior support with certified, veterinarian-recommended trainers and behavior consultants.

Related Posts