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A Dog Trainer Answers the Question: What Makes a Dog “Good” or “Bad”?

My Border Collies have stellar recall. My other dog does not -- but that doesn't make him "bad."

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  May 14th 2015


I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately: What makes a dog “good”?

The answer, it seems, is this: It depends on the human asking the question.

I’ll take myself as an example. I have a brother-and-sister pair of 10-year-old Border Collies, Echo and Radar. They can be little mind readers, and they read my mind exceptionally well. They are eager to please, and doing so seems to make their world complete. I can point in the direction I want them to go, and they always go in that direction. I can tell them which gate to go wait by on our farm, and they do that perfectly. I can call them from any distance away from me, and they turn on a dime and come galloping back, smiling their happy dog smiles and returning to me even if they seemed to really be enjoying whatever they were doing.

Echo, Radar, and me. (Photo by  Tica Clarke Photography)

Echo, Radar, and me. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

It’s important for my dogs to have excellent recall because off-leash life in the mountains of Colorado where we live presents its own unique challenges, which can include bears, aggressive mule deer, and other off-leash, unfriendly dogs hiking with their owners. Are my dogs good dogs because they do something well that I value? Or are they good dogs in my estimation because I spent a lot of time teaching them what the word “here” means and they willingly comply?

Let’s take my other dog, Monster. I found him long ago as a starving puppy digging in the trash. I am sure he was “country dumped” by someone who lacked both a brain and a heart, or at least lacked the ability to use either. I named him Monster because he growled at people and because when as I was trying to teach him to sit (he was a committed and aggressive jumper-upper on humans), I turned my back to him and ignored his jumping. Many dogs will come around to face your front, and when they sit, I reinforce that with food and praise. Monster didn’t come around. He got quiet behind me. I waited. He finally jumped up and nipped me ever so slightly on my butt. I whipped around and yelled that he was a “monster,” and the name stuck.

Monster.

Monster.

Is he a bad dog? Or he is simply more opinionated than my eager-to-please Border Collies? Monster did eventually comply with my rehab program, and he learned to stop growling and nipping people. He never has been my star obedience pupil, however. Sometimes when he is really involved on a hike, sniffing out something, he will NOT come when I call him. He has his own agenda now and again, whereas whatever my agenda is seems to agree with the Border Collies’ agendas.

However, Monster’s powerful nose makes him my best nose-work competition dog. The very thing that makes him seemingly deaf when I call him is the very tool he uses to ace nose-work trials. Is he a bad dog for not being able to turn off his sniffing skills when we are on a hike, when the odors are fantastic and way more interesting than sniffing out birch oil for a human who likes to win ribbons and titles? Those titles don’t mean squat to him. Finding bear poop deep in the woods, however, rocks his nose and his canine world. Perhaps it is I who does not have my priorities in order?

Monster is also my assistant and an enormous help when working with dog-aggressive dogs, as he has no fight in him. He is mostly oblivious to other dogs, and he doesn’t respond to them. His non-response can help stop a lunging, barking dog in his tracks … often because Monster caught wind of something and had his nose buried in the grass and was ignoring the other dog and thereby sending a message that he meant no harm or threat.

Once an owner of an aggressive little terrier dropped the leash accidentally, and the terror, I mean the terrier, flew at Monster (who didn’t see the dog coming, as he was busy sniffing). That little dog flung himself at Monster and latched onto his beard. Monster swung his head around toward me when I called his name, and the dog on his beard also swung around, still hanging on. Monster stood still and gave me time to run over and remove the terrier. No one was hurt. Monster shrugged it off and got back to his sniffing. The terrier and Monster ended up being good friends after that, at least that’s what the terrier thought. Monster wasn’t thinking at all about her — he was too busy on a nose mission to worry about her, even as she was swinging from his substantial beard.

Monster and Baxter.

Monster and Baxter.

Back to my compliant Border Collies. Years ago I wanted to see how we would do together in agility. Radar hated it. He hated the teeter, or perhaps he saw no real life use for it. The A-frame seemed fun, but only to launch himself off the side of. He REALLY hated the tunnel, refusing to go in it. He has always acted a little claustrophobic. After much chicken-reinforced prompting from me asking him to please try out the tunnel, he jumped on top of it, hopped off it, and then peed on the end of it. We were done as would-be agility competitors.

My ever-perfect female Border Collie, Echo, went with me in the evenings as I helped clients learn about agility. Echo would sit perfectly night after night, un-tethered in the down-stay I asked her for, watching the other dogs trying to learn a human-created sport that can be fun for many dogs but to others — perhaps to my two in particular — seems to be much ado about nothing. My dogs are working farm dogs, and they are serious about working.

One night after watching a Labrador fumble his way through the obstacles, Echo gave me a look of despair. She got up, leaving her lovely down-stay for the first time, and she bolted! She took herself on a fast run through most of the agility equipment. My client, her Labrador, and I watched Echo with our mouths hanging to the ground. Echo ended her run by putting herself back into that perfect down-stay. She then shot a look of disgust at the Lab, as if to say: “How hard is it, moron?”

(And yes, I am wildly and freely putting human emotions on the dogs all throughout this article. Please refrain from lecturing me about anthropomorphizing just this one time, and I will try not to do so in future articles, as it makes some people’s heads explode.)

Was Echo being a bad dog doing what she did? At that moment, I did not give one whit. I thought she was fabulous, funny, and brilliant. Neither she nor I went on to compete in agility.

Radar and Echo.

Radar and Echo.

So, is your dog a good dog or a bad dog?

It depends on the human asking that question and what you expect from your four-legged best friend, doesn’t it? And context is everything. Most importantly, dogs are merely being who they are. It’s up to us to guide them fairly and clearly to bring to the forefront those skills we humans determine are the important ones.

Tell us in the comments about your good dog … or your bad one!

Read more by Annie Phenix:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.