“It’s not a problem for the dog; it’s a problem for the human,” is among the first mottos regarding so-called dog “behavior problems” I learned as a novice dog trainer. The famed behaviorist, Dr. Ian Dunbar, would often begin a lecture on behavior modification with some version of this pronouncement. But even though he acknowledged the negative implication of the term, he would continue to use it because it’s such a common language phrase. Experts do this all of the time, assuming that their audience will always remember that the technical definition of the term differs from the implications of its words. But word choice is powerful and it’s past time to find an alternative to this one. The biggest problem with describing dogs as “having behavior problems,” is the strong implication that the dog is somehow defective or exhibits some sort of pathology. This is very rarely the case among the behaviors that we tend to capture under the umbrella of “behavior problems.” We would do well to remember that a dog’s own behavior is almost never a problem for them. A concept that is discussed thoroughly in the newly published study Saving Normal.
My Greyhound Tommy and I are spending our first winter in a place with lots of snow and icy roads and sidewalks and the like, which has meant less outdoor fun time. Tommy has taken to filling some of the empty time by pulling towels off shelves and tossing them around or removing papers from my desk and shredding them or hunting down my shoes to dissect. Is this a clinical issue? Does Tommy “have” a “behavior problem”? Of course not. He does have a problem. He’s bored out of his mind, and he’s come up with at least a partial solution to the dearth of fun in his current situation. His solution to his new circumstances is something of a problem for me, since following him around to pick up the towels and envelopes and snow boots with their furry linings soggy with dog spit is incompatible with my idea of an orderly household and a peaceful day, and I must also struggle not to laugh, which he consistently and rightly interprets as a sign of encouragement. So, what we have is a behavioral incompatibility, albeit probably a temporary one, at least if I put my dog trainer hat on, assuming he hasn’t eaten it.
Such incompatibilities are very subjective, personal even, and we have no credible research regarding the extent of agreement among pet owners about which behaviors they consider irksome or even how those behaviors are defined. We most certainly do not know—unless the specific owner has told us—which behaviors rise to the level of irreconcilable differences and put the relationship itself at risk. Dogs in shelters are particularly vulnerable to being labeled as having “behavior problems,” or even worse, to being assumed to be “damaged goods” simply because they are living in a shelter. In any case, one person’s “behavioral incompatibility” may well be the next person’s “too cute for words.” I’m kind of on the fence about Tommy’s antics.
For more context see the latest research: Saving Normal: A new look at behavioral incompatibilities and dog relinquishment to shelters