Is your dog intentionally bad?

©Scott Sheaffer, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior

"My dog, Chester, tears things up when I'm away at work. Today it was the drapes! I know he's doing this to get back at me for leaving him alone all day. When I come home he looks guilty and cowers."

Every day I hear some kind of comment about how a dog seemingly planned to use the bathroom in the den, ignore the owner's commands, bark all night, dig up the flower garden, etc.

With some very rare exceptions in behaviorally ill dogs, they just don't have "bad" motives. There's even a term for trying to guess what animals are thinking, "anthropomorphism."

Dogs operate almost purely on stimulus and reward. If something works for them, they'll do more of it. If something doesn't, they'll stop. If a dog owner's presence in the room predicts good things (e.g., food, play, praise), they'll want to be with the owner. If a person's presence predicts bad things (e.g., yelling, owner nervousness, hitting), they'll avoid that person - they may even aggress if things get bad enough.

So what's really happening with Chester who tears up the drapes when the owner is gone all day? Is he really being malevolent? Not really.

Chester is most likely bored and alone. He needs something to do so the drapes seem like a good toy to him. Remember, Chester doesn't know the value of anything. He sees an old worn blanket the same as he sees expensive drapes. He's not selecting things because they are valuable; he’s selecting them because they are nearby.

When the owner comes home, he’s upset that Chester has ruined the drapes. He may yell and scream at the dog. Chester has no idea why his owner is aggressing toward him. He just knows it's very scary so he cowers and looks scared (because he is), which his owner thinks is guilt.

A better response from the owner might be to assess the root cause – probably boredom. The owner could provide things for Chester to do during the day to relieve the boredom. He could provide some mid-day relief for Chester with a lunch-time home visit by either himself or a pet sitter.

As angry as your dog's behaviors may make you at times, look past the behavior itself and identify a root cause. Frequently you'll find that it's simple and relatively easy to address.