How do I stop my dog behaving badly?

In this blog we’re looking at impulse control. When your dog is too boisterous, too noisy or just can’t resist chasing cats, carefully managed impulse control training can really help stop your dog behaving badly.

Common problems that may be helped by impulse control training include:

  • Barking too much or too often
  • Chasing cats/bikes/wildlife
  • Jumping up to say hello
  • Stealing food from plates/hands/work surfaces
  • Barking in the car
  • Barging through doors
  • Humping
  • Being rude to other dogs or people

Why is my dog behaving badly?

There are dozens of reasons that dogs do the things they do. Some doggie behaviours are instinctive. They are perfectly acceptable in doggy society, they might also be welcomed in working dogs. But for pet dogs living alongside humans, those behaviours are inappropriate.

Some unwanted behaviours stem from fear or anxiety. Adolescent dogs often go through periods of behaving badly; sometimes an experience earlier in the dog’s life has actually taught it to behave in a certain way.

What I can tell you, is that it’s never too late to start re-training your dog. All you need is a good understanding of why he is behaving badly, and a consistent but kind approach to resolving the problem.

So what could be triggering that unwanted behaviour?


Your dog’s breed is no excuse for bad behaviour but it may be the reason why he does the things he does. Throughout the centuries, man has been selectively breeding dogs that can help us in certain ways.

The border collie for example was bred to help herd farm animals, a working collie is required to run fast, work long days and have lots of energy. It’s natural for him to weave around behind you and maybe nip at your heels if he thinks you’re going in the wrong direction. He might also be a high energy dog that needs to be busy all day long.

Sight hounds such as greyhounds and wolfhounds were developed for hunting down rabbits. If they see something rabbit-like moving, their instinct is to chase and kill it. Unfortunately in their eyes, there’s little difference between a pet cat and a wild rabbit. Chasing cats comes naturally to these guys.

Terriers were bred to be ratters. They’re bold and fearless, will fight back if they are cornered and just love to chase, dig and destroy. That’s what they are hardwired to do and it’s what makes them such courageous little characters.

For some breeds, impulse control involves helping them find a suitable outlet for their natural behaviour so that they are less likely to get into trouble.

Could your dog’s lifestyle be contributing to his bad behaviour?

Many of us think of dogs as family members and very often the dog is a bit like the child of the family. Somebody prepares his food, shops for him, organises his day and provides entertainment. What do children do when they are bored? They ignore the rules and behave impulsively.

So if humans who have lack of either physical exercise or mental stimulation (or both) are more likely to act on impulse, it’s possible that dogs are too.  Dogs are intelligent creatures – that’s why we generally build stronger relationships with our canine companions that we do with goldfish. They NEED to use their bodies and their brains – and if their people don’t create an outlet for their energy, they’ll do it themselves.


Not all unwanted doggy behaviours stem from boredom. Some is caused by anxiety. It’s important to be able to distinguish between the two because the remedial training for anxious dogs is very different to the training for a confident but bored dog. Get it wrong and you can make the situation much worse and possibly put the dog (or yourself) in danger.

That’s where working with a qualified dog behaviourist is important. Dog behaviourists understand canine body language. We are trained can tell the difference between a dog who is barking for the sheer joy of making a noise, and a nervous dog who barking to protect himself.

Physical health

My first piece of advice to anyone who is worried about their dog’s behaviour is to take him to the vet for a very thorough examination. Check that the dog is not in pain, doesn’t have a neurological condition that might affect behaviour and that his endocrine system is in balance. It’s worth asking about diet too, sometimes a small nutritional tweak can make a big difference to energy and anxiety levels.

How to stop your dog behaving badly

Understand the underlying cause:

Try to work out what the root cause of the bad behaviour might be. Visit the vet and have a consultation with a dog behaviourist. Study your dog carefully. What triggers the behaviour? What do you think the dog is trying to achieve by it?

Set your objectives

Think about what you would prefer your dog to do instead of the unwanted behaviour? For example, maybe instead of barging through the door in front of you, you’d like him to sit down and wait until you invite him through the door?

We dog trainers have a technical term that we use a lot in impulse control. “Mutually exclusive behaviour”. For example, a dog can’t barge through a door if he is sitting down.

Work with the dog’s instincts

It’s hard to override a dog’s natural instincts, so if there is a way to work with them, not against them, life will be easier for everyone. How you satisfy your dog’s need to hunt or chase without allowing him to terrorise the neighbourhood cats? Is there another activity that will stimulate his brain, relieve frustration and give him the feelgood factor? Agility perhaps? Scentwork? Gundog training?

Find a way to encourage better behaviour

Think about how you will train your dog to abandon his bad behaviour and adopt good habits instead?. For this it is a good idea to gain a really good understanding of how dogs learn. By working with an expert, you can modify your dog’s behaviour for the long term.

If he’s acting on impulse, that behaviour is self-rewarding. eg chasing cats makes him feel good. It’s a fun treat for him. He’s not going to want to stop it.

Think for a moment about what would make sure you resisted your favourite treat for the rest of your life. Would punishment work best or would you rather swap it for what you perceive to be a much better treat?

If the original activity will earn you a telling off – you’ll probably either

  • go ahead and do it in secret or
  • you’ll become afraid of whoever dishes out the punishment,
  • or, if the thrill is strong enough, you’ll keep misbehaving and just take the punishment.

It’s the same for your dog. If sacrificing one treat actually earned you something even better – wouldn’t it be easier to resist temptation?

Ask for help and support

It can take a long time, quite a few tactical changes and a lot of patience to teach a dog impulse control. After all, you can’t enter into a verbal agreement with him. You have to demonstrate many many times that there’s more to gain by NOT stealing food than there is by doing it. Having a mentor on board will be more helpful that you could ever imagine.

Contact a dog behaviourist and get help to stop your dog behaving badly

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