Can You Imagine? Those Barking and Snarling Dogs are Upset, Not Misbehaving

A dog trainer ponders the question, somewhat retrospectively: what would it be like to be seen, or to have our dogs seen, as struggling, instead of misbehaving? 

Kristi Benson in a canoe on the snow with her dog Grace and another dog
Kristi holding Wilma, who was a puppy, with Grace in an abandoned boat on the shores of Boot Lake in Inuvik, NWT. Photo: Yoenne Ewald

By Kristi Benson PCBC-A, CTC, Special Correspondent

One of the greatest regrets I carry is how deeply I misunderstood some of my first dog’s behaviours. She was, by and large, a happy and well-adjusted thing, with a big black blocky head and tiny black ballerina twinkle toes; a pointer-adjacent mutt who managed to glide quite delightedly through all the random things I threw at her: leaving her comfy life in the mediterranean climate of Victoria (on the southern tip of Vancouver Island here in British Columbia) for a rather lengthy stretch in the western Canadian sub-arctic where she ran—without much conviction but with a lot of joy—with a bunch of actual real-life sled dogs. Then, even more upheaval: off we went to a farm in the middle of the wheat-filled prairies, with cows and chickens and acres of green freedom. I read dog books voraciously, but didn’t develop the critical skills needed to adequately digest popular dog books until years after her sudden and awful passing at the tender age of nine, of presumed brain cancer. 

Grace was perfect for me, but she wasn’t perfectly behaved. And I, misled as I was, didn’t do the best job I could have in responding, reacting, and setting her up for success. 

A black Labrador-type dog with a white patch on their chest walks along a trail in summer
Grace. Photo: Kristi Benson

A few years ago, and a decade after Grace’s passing, I saw, as I scrolled lazily through my canine-infested social media feed, a dog trainer say something along the lines of “imagine a world where, when we saw our dogs barking and snarling and lunging, we knew they were struggling, not misbehaving”. Although it didn’t bowl me over at the time, it planted a tiny, unforgiving, painful seed deep in my brain, a cognitive awn that, like its real-world equivalent, kept worming and worming along. I kept considering how wise and useful that was, as a way to frame dog “misbehaviour”. Eventually, a new and somewhat revolutionary thought also wormed its way through my psyche. Well, I could write about me, I thought. I could write about me as a teen

Imagine, I thought to myself, sliding pieces of my history into a wholly different box; tilting my perception oddly. Imagine if I had been seen as struggling, then, instead of misbehaving

When Grace was a young adult, I used to hang out with friends of mine on the front porch of their home. She did fine for a while, but then her behaviour degraded. In retrospect, I can see it for exactly what it was: she aged out of puppyhood and into social maturity, and started to react to strangers by barking at them. We would be out in front of my friend’s home on the steps of their porch, socialising and imbibing, gossiping and sharing; stooping, as we called it. If someone approached on the sidewalk, Grace would bark at them. Now, as a dog trainer, I know exactly what I would do. I would use both operant and classical conditioning: I would train her to recall to me and sit by my side, and I would give her treats to condition her to enjoy the sight of a person approaching on the sidewalk. At the time, however, I just got flustered and embarrassed and annoyed and ashamed: my perfect, friendly young dog had become a bit of a monster. She was misbehaving

Kristi Benson skiing with her dog Grace against a backdrop of snow and trees
Photo: Yoenne Ewald

Life can throw you some somewhat odd curveballs, can’t it? A novel tidbit of self-knowledge can break through at any time, like the first breath of cold air when leaving for a mid-winter dog walk. A simple reflection on one’s life, coming from a new angle, can be a bit eye-opening. I had some troubles as a young person, which culminated in me being evicted, somewhat summarily, from my family; a time when I had no job and then no home, when I used all kinds and sorts of unpleasant crutches. I tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to rely on the kindness of strangers, but like the proverbial Blanche, and the actual Grace, I found strangers absolutely wanting. I did find myself back on the family Christmas card list after a time, although any comfortable rhythm established in childhood and based on comfort and longevity and trust had been, of course, altered; a new tune, slightly discordant. 

After she had barked at one or ten too many strangers, I ended up leaving Grace at home instead of bringing her to stoop with us. This solved the immediate problem of her being a somewhat scary beastie, but decreased her access to stooping, which she mostly loved. I’m sure everyone we stooped with will remember with at least some fondness how Grace would ‘accidentally’ walk too close to a bottle of beer left on the wooden stairs, and when it inevitably tipped over, race to lap it up. Oh, Grace and I shared many a love, we did. 

Imagine, I thought to myself. Imagine if the dog books I had read—and the dog classes I had signed me and Grace up for—had been honest and clear about what happens when a dog hits social maturity and begins to struggle with, and be upset by, strangers. Imagine if I had known that my dog wasn’t misbehaving but was struggling. Imagine how much easier I could have made things for her, and for me. 

Recently, I met someone who asked me what I would say to myself, what I would say to the version of myself who was a struggling young person. What would I say, she asked, to the version of me that was sleeping on friends’ couches, anaesthetized and angry. I would rather, all things considered, try to come up with something to say to Grace, who came to me a decade after my own personal struggles. I think what I would say to Grace would be…I loved you so much, sweet friend. I’m so glad you were gregarious and charismatic and silly and gorgeous. I’m glad I happened into giving you a life filled with novelty and adventure and…remember that one time you ate a gallon of fermented whale fat in Inuvik? You were so happy with that meal, until even your iron canine belly rebelled and you started bringing it all back up, on that carpet we had to throw out. And I am so sorry I misunderstood you, those times when you were barking and upset. If I could do it all again, I would give you even more love. 

And so many more cookies. 

You’d get all the cookies.

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