Arts & Culture

When Love is Not Enough

by Valerie Broadway

Most people openly admit they love, or at least have great affection for, their pets. Often while gathering information from a client I hear a comment such as, “I love my dog so much and don’t understand why he acts like this.” It seems like the nicest, most gentle, nurturing, loving people can have dogs with the biggest problems.

Years ago, as a new foster parent for the Chatham County Department of Social Services, I was introduced to a great book. It is about parenting extremely difficult children and is titled, When Love is Not Enough. The author, Nancy Thomas, is a Therapeutic Parenting Specialist. The following is an excerpt from one of the opening pages of her book:

The dog looked at the man and said, “you feed me, you love me, you pet me, you clean up after me, you must be God.”
The cat looked at the man and said
“you feed me, you love me, you pet me, you clean up after me, I must be God.”
unknown author

Nancy goes on to explain that children can develop the same belief as the cat. Over the years I’ve learned that some dogs believe the same. 

The number one factor 99% of my clients have in common is, in some way, their dogs don’t see them as leaders. This is demonstrated by dogs ignoring the owners’ commands, physically pushing their owners around, and challenging the owners by growling at or even biting them. The dogs see themselves as being the one in charge, and the owners as lower ranking individuals. In the dog world, higher ranking dogs don’t feel the need to listen to subordinates.

If a dog (or child) is running your home, there will be dysfunction. Dogs live in a world of hierarchy and are acutely aware of the social order of the group they’re in. If a dog perceives there is no leadership, they worry that the group is vulnerable to threats, real or imagined. This may result in the dog feeling pressure to take on the role of leader. In cases of extremely anxious dogs, who don’t want to be in charge, they can become even more anxious as they feel there is no leadership at all.

During most of my coaching sessions, the first thing focused on is how to communicate to dogs that their humans are in charge. For dogs to believe this, their humans must be able to demonstrate they are not only the leader, but a good leader. Dogs need to know their humans can always keep them safe. Good leaders exude calmness and confidence. Dogs feed off this energy which results in them being less stressed and more willing to listen to the owner.

Dogs must know that there are boundaries their humans will never let them cross. If they get away with being pushy, growling, or nipping people without consequences, dogs will continue to do these things. The level of consequence must be meaningful enough to stop the behavior. If it isn’t working, then the consequence must be increased to a level that works. Some dogs can be very sensitive, so it doesn’t take much to make a point with them. Other dogs don’t get subtlety, and it can be extremely tough to convince them to change. People should have at least three levels of correction in mind so if one isn’t working there is already a plan for what to do next. I recommend people hold their dog on a leash for a day or two when working on certain issues. That way the dog can be instantly corrected every time they engage in the negative behavior. 

An example of a low-level correction may be a firm voice. A moderate correction would be a firm voice accompanied by a quick sideways leash tug that pulls the dog off balance. A high-level correction would be a harder voice and leash tug or a five to ten minute timeout in the dog’s crate. This time in the crate is the pack ostracizing the dog from the group. The message is if you don’t follow the rules then the pack doesn’t want you around. 

Dogs respect whom they think is physically and/or mentally the strongest. Our dogs must believe we are both. When working to stop an unwanted behavior, we must win every time. There are no days off, no moments of weakness, no letting it slide. The appropriate consequence must happen every time the dog exhibits the behavior. If the owner is vigilant, most dogs will completely give up a bad behavior in a day or two. Some people may have to get out of their comfort zone if their dog is harder wired and requires firmer corrections. 

Dogs learn from patterns and timing. You have about one second to reward or correct a dog and they will match it to the right behavior. Most dogs will not learn something after just one correction or reward, but will get it after five or six repetitions for a reward or at a level of consequence that gets their attention. 

Dogs need direction or they will do what they think is in their own best interest. Persons who can’t give the needed push back will not see positive results. For dogs who have started growling at or biting people, their owners should seek help from a professional dog behavior specialist. Merely having feelings of love is not enough to raise a problem free, respectful dog. However, when love is put into action, through guidance, behavioral-based rewards and consequences, and never giving up before the dog does, then love most certainly is enough.

Valerie Broadway, the Canine Coach, is a dog trainer and behavioral specialist. For more info call 919-542-4726 or visit