Are we bullying our dogs?

We often hear talk about bullying in our schools. Thinking about this, I paused to wonder if dog owners might sometimes bully their dogs. Yelling at them, physically manipulating them into position, using force-based training equipment (shock collars, pinch collars, choke chains), and popping their leashes are just a few examples that come to mind.

Let’s imagine you are calling your dog in from outside so you can leave for work. Two of your three dogs come immediately and the third remains fixated on something in the oak tree. You are late for work and cannot wait any longer. In a frustrated voice, you yell to the dog to come inside. He slinks toward the house and sheepishly moves past you to go inside. Feeling the stress of getting to work late, you berate your dog and blame him for the fact that you are late. Isn’t this bullying?

Or you have friends over to the house for pizza and a movie. Your exuberant young dog jumps on everyone as they come in the house. Embarrassed that your dog does not listen when you tell her to stay, you push her bottom to the floor when the next friend arrives, trying your best to keep her in that position by hooking her leash to her collar and yanking her back when she gets up. Isn’t this bullying?

Stress causes people to act in inappropriate ways. And with the resurgence of the myth that we must be the leader of our dogs, or the alpha, or the boss, it is easy to see why people are led to believe they can treat their dogs in a manner that unfortunately erodes the relationship between them and ruins any trust the dog had in his or her human.

Science is expanding into areas of animal cognition that reveal how similar animals are to humans in brain physiology, neurochemistry, and the spectrum of emotions they feel. It is known that animals have the same fundamental emotions we do (excitement, distress, disgust, fear, anger, contentment, joy, suspicion, affection). Fear is one of these fundamental emotions. See for a blog post discussing which emotions dogs do experience.

Imagine how you feel when someone yells at you, berates you for something you did wrong that in reality you had not completely learned how to do, or forcefully made you do something. For some of you, anger comes to mind; for others, fear. Are either of these emotions what we want our dogs to feel?

Our most cherished relationships are built on trust – our best friend, our spouse, our parents. For many of us this includes our canine companions as well. We cannot build and sustain a caring relationship with our dogs when our actions cause them to act in an aggressive manner or to withdraw from us out of fear.

When we act inappropriately towards our canine companions, we damage the trust they have placed in us. I can think of nothing worse than bullying our faithful friend, the same friend we took in as a fearful young dog, who in time learned we could be trusted to do him no harm. Bullying is harmful. Our canine companion no longer feels he is completely safe around us. Trust has been damaged, if not destroyed.

If we look at the two examples above, we can easily see there should be a better way to communicate with our dogs. We need to teach our dogs to perform behaviors in all contexts. The dog who is fixated on something in the tree has not learned to come to you in the presence of distractions. That is our mistake, and it can easily be corrected through training. The same can be said for our exuberant greeter. She has not learned to greet people politely in a highly arousing situation. It is up to us to help our dogs become well-mannered members of our family and not the brunt of our frustrations.

Bullying is wrong when directed to children, and it is also wrong when aimed at dogs.

Interested in force-free training classes? Contact Pawsitive Companionship at