Whose “Fault” Is It That My Dog (or Child) Behaved Badly?



Just when I thought we were in for a drama-free baseball season this year, I hear this story about a recent game I missed…

Eight year old boy gets mad and throws a bat in a tantrum over losing a baseball game.  His dad then has words with the coach over the coach’s decision to rotate the players around instead of leaving the more experienced players in the key positions. 

It’s easy to say this is just another example of crazy sports parents.  Believe me, that’s the first place I went to.  So quick and easy to point fingers at what’s crazy about other people, isn’t it?

But then I had a flashback to dinner the other night and getting annoyed at my own eight-year-old son when our young dog stole his napkin, “Well, why is your napkin on your lap?”  (Did those words really come out of my mouth?  Where else should he have his napkin!)

In both situations the issue is that the dog or child just doesn’t have the coping/training skills necessary to manage that situation the way we wanted and we both first looked to blame someone else in the heat of the moment. 

That got me thinking about some parenting advice I read years ago in How to Really Love Your Children where the author says point-blank that children are supposed to be annoying.  What a relief it was at the time to hear that!  His logic was that children, by definition, behave in childish ways.  And, since you are an adult, childish behavior can be a bit irksome at times.

So, it’s not that your child is “bad” or that you are a “bad parent;” it’s just a fact.   Same with dogs, too.  So, knowing this, we can be prepared to more objectively (and effectively) address behavior we don’t like and not just react in the moment as if it’s a surprise.

Now we’re getting somewhere because skills are things that can be improved!  You can’t always control what other people do, but you can certainly prep your dog (or child) to be able to handle it in a way that makes you proud.

[box] What’s the difference between training skills and coping skills?  I don’t know that it matters, really, but I think of coping skills as learning to feel differently about something and training skills as learning to do something differently.  When a dog (or child) is overwhelmed or frightened or angry, it’s a kindness to help them learn to be in that situation without distress in the future (coping skill), rather than just act differently on the outside (training skill).  There’s a lot of overlap and I’m not really trying to make much of a distinction for this post.  [/box]


What Are Your Options?

I’m sure my parent friends try hard not to roll their eyes when a parenting discussion prompts me to say, “Hey, this is just like with dogs…” but I can’t help but see so many parallels.  In both cases, we have a number of avenues to try to affect behavior choices.

For example, we have a fair amount of control over the environment we put them in.  Neither dogs nor children have much true social freedom to just go off on their own.

What I want to focus on today is how we can step back from the emotion in a situation that went bad and see what reality is telling us.  Sure, someone shouldn’t have done this or shouldn’t have done that, but the reality is that they did so let’s work with what we’ve got.

The first step is a step back — away from the in-the-moment frustration and embarrassment — and be clear on what we are choosing to do and why.  Seems to me there are four options:

  1. Lash Out at Dog/Child
  2. Influence Others to Adjust
  3. Make Accommodations
  4. Build Coping/Training Skills

[box] I started with fairly innocuous examples, but we’re also talking about the growl or the snap or the chasing or any other situation that causes you real distress.[/box]


Lash Out at Dog/Child?

This is NOT a good thing in my book, but our society explicitly allows for people to get angry and lash out at both dogs and children and call it “discipline” or “correcting.”  When we are frustrated and embarrassed, it’s very tempting to slip into the “I’ll give you something to cry about…” or “Don’t you dare!” reactions when we take it as a personal affront that another creature is not behaving the way we want them to.

Beware the social pressure to “do something” to show you are a capable parent or dog owner, regardless of how your reaction may affect future behavior or your relationship.

Remember, if you are responding to a flash of anger, you are not “disciplining” anyone – you are giving up your self control to lash out at a weaker creature.  Happens to all of us, yes, but let’s not pretend this is a viable strategy and neglect other, more effective options.


Influence Others to Adjust

When we get embarrassed or annoyed by what our dogs or children do, if we are not going to lash out at them, the next impulse is to look to what “provoked” that behavior.  Whose fault is it that my dog or child is doing this?  If only the coach didn’t rotate the players, if only my son didn’t have his napkin where the dog could reach it, we’d not be having this frustrating moment, would we?

I admit that I get stuck at this step too often.  If only those darn “other people” in the world would just do things my way!!

There’s a balance here and you’ve got to know where things stand.   The trick is to know when you’ve drifted over the line into expecting other people to walk on eggshells around your dog  (or child), particularly when someone might get hurt.  Essentially, you are in denial about your dog’s lack of coping/training skills (like I was about how my dog doesn’t really stay on his mat during dinner).

Two serious considerations:

  • Does your dog react out of proportion to the incursion?  We should all let sleeping dogs lie and, yes, your dog should be allowed to eat in peace and, no, kids shouldn’t run around dogs and my own brother should not come to my house and bark at my dog (!), but no one should come away with a bite to make that point.  (Even though I did tell my brother if my dog bit him, I would swear in court that he showed up at my door already bloody, really that’s not a way to protect anyone.)
  • Does your dog react to very minor, almost unavoidable, “provocation?”  For example, a dog that growls over someone grabbing for a fresh bone in his mouth is a different story than a dog that growls when you reach to pick up a dropped tissue.  You know you are drifting into unreasonable expectations when you have a list of things people can and can’t do around your dog.  There’s no way everyone is going to remember all of them, all of the time.

[box] But what about when the other people really ARE the problem? Like my brother barking at my dog. Changing what other people do is definitely a piece of the puzzle and certainly doable to a large extent (see this delightful example about The Mean Boss and Karen Pryor’s classic book Don’t Shoot the Dog), but that requires a whole other post. Just be clear with yourself about whether what you expect from other people is truly reasonable AND truly in your sphere of influence to change. That’s often not the case so, luckily, we have two other options.[/box]


Make Accommodations

Now we are getting into ways you can set up for success by working around the coping/training skill gaps and/or, if reasonable, avoiding the situations that prompt the unwanted behavior.

In the baseball example, the dad can find a competitive team where the focus is on winning and the child will fit right in.  Or, maybe this kid should not be playing sports at this age.  (Or maybe just not sports with bats available as projectiles?)

I suppose I could keep my dog on a leash with me during meals or have him work on a stuffed Kong or other chewie in his crate so we don’t have to be so vigilant about the napkins.

Or, you may just decide to get over it and not get so upset yourself if it’s not that big of a deal in the big picture.

With a more serious situation, though, you’ve got to get over being embarrassed and step up to protect your dog and protect anyone who might be frightened or harmed by your dog’s reaction.

I just talked about this with a couple in Dogs and Babies class the other night.  They have neighborhood children who rush up to pet their dog every time they go out for a walk, but the dog is terrified and hides behind their legs.  Unless and until they can change the children’s behavior and build the dog’s coping skills, their accommodation will be to stop letting the kids pet the dog.  (See National Say No You Can’t Pet My Dog Day.)

Accommodations can take many forms and are entirely appropriate.  This is not cheating!  Give yourself the time and space to address the coping/training gap without the dog continuing to rehearse the unwanted behavior.  Some accommodations will be temporary; others for the life of the dog.  Each family determines what is reasonable for their given circumstances.


Build Coping/Training Skills

Honestly, sometimes you analyze your situation and make some accommodations and find that’s enough.  Once you release the angst that your dog (or child) “should” be behaving differently and, instead, look at what reality is telling you, you may find that the behavior doesn’t bother you that much anymore.  If that’s the case and no one is in any distress or danger, you’re done!

Other times, or when you find it’s a repeating issue, it’s a greater kindness to stop and teach the skills the dog (or child) needs to make different choices.

Building skills for a child or a dog is prospective in nature — what responses can we help them rehearse and then reinforce so they are more likely to make a different/better choice next time?  There is so much power in making a plan and building from what the dog/child is capable of today to what you think is a reasonable end goal.

Maybe the child has a gap in perspective and can learn to value other good things about team sports besides winning every game so he doesn’t feel so mad next time.  Certainly, he can learn alternative ways to manage anger.  In fact, at last week’s game, I overheard the coach complimenting the little boy for keeping his cool and just last night, my son told me about how he and his friend with the bat were both consoling a teammate over a mistake, telling him it was okay and that they’ve done plenty of things wrong, too.  (Awww!)  Whatever you notice and reinforce is a behavior you are likely to see more of.  Good work, Coach and parents!

With my dog, I can reinforce more relaxing on his mat during dinner or I can practice having him ignore napkins.  (See Kikopup Channel on You Tube for lots of ideas to teach a default leave it.)  It’s within my power to build new responses in my dog to take the place of habits I don’t like.  Now, I might choose to be too lazy to follow through, but then any continued mistakes are not worth getting worked up over.  Why?  Because I made that choice to put up with occasional napkin stealing rather than work on training and I shouldn’t be surprised if a napkin ends up in his mouth – that is the price I chose to pay for having time to write this post instead of train my dog.


What is it That YOUR DOG Doesn’t Cope Well With?

When I write more specifically about this for my Dogs and Babies book, I’m talking about situations where dogs don’t like what’s going on and don’t know how to handle it without resorting to behaviors we don’t like.

For example, dogs that are frightened around visitors or new people or dogs that are not comfortable with people reaching for them.  Typical advice is usually presented in terms of doing those things anyway to “get the dog used to it.”  (Or, with children, the very importance of the skill is presented as the solution:  “He needs to learn how to manage his anger!!”)

I’d like to draw a little bit of a line between the traditional idea of training meaning, “make the dog do it even if he doesn’t want to” and opening the possibility that we can help our dogs cope better with the life we are asking them to lead – often in pretty simple ways.  It’s empowering and can bring a good measure of peace to your family.

What do you think is important for dogs (or children) to learn to cope with?  How might we go about filling those gaps?

You’re not thinking of snatching my napkin, are you?


Similar Posts


  1. This is brilliant Madeline! I so appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking writing.

    1. I guess it’s my procrastinating on writing book chapters. I must be hoping I can write blog posts that will just grow up on their own into perfect little chapters.

  2. OMG…..I get the same reaction……I’m always stating “hey that’s just like dogs” when my parent friends are chatting too! In fact one friend actually took great offence…..especially since I don’t have children, yet seem to be able to recognise how to deal with them

  3. I have just spent a long time writing a blog on this subject, only for the computer to crash and I lost it all. This is so much better – all I have to do now is post a link! Thank you for putting the matter so well

  4. I LOVED this post. I have a 3 year old dog and a 4 year old boy who are both very sensitive to environmental stimuli. Me coming home from work would overload both. The dog would careen around like a maniac and the boy would stress up by yelling non stop for 20 minutes or stress down by hiding in his room for half an hour.

    I couldn’t find much literature on how to help my son except to be told wait until he’s five and test him for learning disorders. Because we had experience with Reyna we implemented the same tactic for both…patterns. I would call and tell my husband I was on my way home, he would put Reyna outside with a toy and he would tell David ” mommy will be home in five minutes where would you like to be when she gets here” and David would go to whatever spot he decided. When I pulled up Reyna came running to the gate with toy ready to play. We would have a short game of tug or fetch as I walked from the back gate to the back door and then we would walk in together. I would ignore David until he chose to approach me and then we would have a quiet greeting even if it was 30 minutes after I got home.

    We no longer need those patterns and I come home to a dog who greets me sanely at the gate and a boy who comes running arms wide open the second I walk in the door!!!

    Also if anybody has a child sensitive to social pressure we find shaking hands is a GREAT alternative to ” say hi/bye to mr/ms. So-n-so” which was an idea we got from Leslie McDevitt when she has dogs do hand and foot targets to increase confidence around people, we just translated it to kids.

Comments are closed.