Often people refer to their own dogs or other people’s as being “spoiled.” What does this mean? Of course it depends on who is using the expression. One Miriam-Webster Dictionary definition of “spoil” includes the words “to impair the disposition or character of by overindulgence or excessive praise.”

Impairing—damaging—the disposition (temperament) of a dog is a serious thing to do. Would overindulgence do this in the case of a dog? It would if that means giving the dog what the dog wants when the dog growls, snaps at or bites a person. That would be teaching the dog that those are the ways you wish to be “asked” for things.

Would overindulgence in the form of food damage a dog’s temperament? It might if that means making the dog cranky due to pain from overstressed joints. It also might make a dog cranky to be ill with pancreatitis or diabetes.

And if the dog asking for food and being given food takes the place of more constructive interaction between human and dog, that isn’t building the dog’s character. The same is true of overindulgence by giving the dog his or her way when the dog behaves aggressively toward humans. How can good character develop when the dog learns aggressive behavior by how humans reinforce it?

None of this is the dog’s fault. Some of the damage can be reversible. The Nothing in Life is Free protocol where a dog has to do something in order to get each need met can help work through this kind of problem. The program probably works more because it causes the human to learn how better to manage a dog than because the dog needed to be “set straight.” The human is the one who messed things up in the first place, not the dog.

Some dogs can come across as sassy, and you may wonder at a given moment if the dog is challenging you. There is a simple way to find out. First, train with your dog so the dog will reliably lie down on your command or cue—verbal only, off-leash when in a confined area such as your home or fenced yard, and without touching the dog. Then whenever you wonder what is going through your dog’s mind at an excited moment, ask the dog to do the down. If the dog does it, you have your answer—that dog is not trying to dominate you or move up in the hierarchy.

If the dog doesn’t do it, it could mean the dog is just too excited at that moment to do the command with the amount of training you’ve done. So you need to do more training. This isn’t to be rougher, just more repetitions in a variety of situations, using the leash to make sure you’re able to follow through and help the dog understand the real meaning of “down.”

The leash helps with training, but it’s safest not to touch the dog at all in a moment of high excitement. One result of doing that can be redirected aggression. This is when a dog is aroused by something else—another animal, person, moving object, noise, etc.—and turns to bite you because your touch causes the dog’s attention to switch.

Meanwhile, in the event the highly excited dog fails to lie down on your cue, you might switch to a more active task by running away from the dog as you call. The down-stay behavior is magnificent for establishing your leadership with your dog [Read Stay Training]. The come-when-called behavior can be a matter of life and death. You are not ready to stop daily training until your dog does both of them reliably under all conditions.

Purposes and Privileges

Different dogs have been selectively bred for different tasks. Purebreds as well as mixes carry strong genetic behaviors that humans have developed through breeding. Most genetic behaviors also require training in order to come to full expression in dogs, but this is not always the case. For example, terriers may kill certain animals with no training, and may also keep the digging habit when some other breeds have given it up after puppyhood.

Herding livestock and retrieving for the hunter in the field require both the right genetics and quite a bit of training. The same is true of pointing behavior in hunting. Without training, the herding dog can develop habits of mistreating and even killing livestock. The retriever will retrieve only what he or she is in the mood to retrieve and will chew it up with abandon rather than present it in good condition. The pointing dog may break the point position to flush game prematurely (possibly getting shot in the process), and develop other problems such as running off in the field or failing to honor another dog’s point.

People sometimes think of a dog as a product when in fact a dog is a process with the breeder (whether planned or random) and owner both affecting how the dog will turn out. It’s never a completed task, either. Humans can change their beliefs and behaviors depending on education and experience in life. Similarly, your dog’s training must continue, otherwise it can fade or be corrupted.

When a dog is properly trained and managed and the genetics are aligned, the dog is safer around people and other animals. This dog can have more privileges. These dogs are often called “spoiled,” but nothing could be farther from the truth! Their training, both the established training and the on-going day-to-day training does not make them overindulged or of poor disposition. And like anyone else pursuing a clear purpose in life, these dogs have fine character.

Excessive Praise

A human who, due to wealth or other position in life, receives undeserved praise from others, can take it too seriously and fail to learn to strive to contribute to the world. This weakens a person’s character. When people of good character realize people are flattering them for ulterior motives, they guard against letting it “go to their heads.” This is not always easy, and is one reason some performers and artists choose not to read any of their reviews. The good ones go to their heads and the bad ones hurt! Neither flattery nor criticism may accurately reflect the value of someone’s work, and it takes strong character to realize this.

Compare that to how a dog would be affected by “excessive praise.” Most of our dogs live in a rather uncertain world where it’s hard for them to figure out what is expected of them. If you praise a dog for behavior that is detrimental, such as when the dog is behaving aggressively for no good reason, that’s not excessive praise. It’s inappropriate praise.

Dogs may suffer more from fear even than they suffer from pain. Without words to comprehend their world, it’s a scary place. When your praise– through relationship and solid training with your dog as a team—can cut through fear and show the dog the right path to the correct behavior for the situation, it becomes a powerful tool. Don’t be afraid to use praise.

Praise needs to be timed to happen along with desired behavior. Be careful not to wait a beat past the end of the desired behavior and praise the dog for the next thing. For example, if your dog is heeling the way you want, praise the dog while still in heel position, not after you’ve released the dog and the dog is dancing around. If you start the praise during the heel position, you can continue the happy talk after the exercise is over. Be careful NOT to be praising when the dog does something you do NOT want the dog to do, such as jumping up on a human.

One behavior that people can mess up with ill-timed praise is the stay, and another, in a similar way, is releasing a dog from a crate. The dog or someone else can be hurt by “exploding” from a stationary position. The safest and clearest way to break a dog out of these two behaviors is to have the dog assume a position and then, on cue, move calmly forward. After that, release the dog from command in a moderate manner.

Yes, it’s fun to watch a dog explode into excitement. But it can be both mentally and physically harmful. The strongest and steadiest stay comes from giving praise and reward during the stay, not after. And having a dog explode out of a crate can lead to things like separation anxiety and having potty accidents on the way to the door.

Discipline in a Good Way

The same dictionary includes a definition for discipline as “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” To many people, the word “discipline” suggests bad things. One definition for discipline is “punishment.” Does punishment build character? Perhaps it does in humans at times, but dogs seldom understand punishment.

Dogs DO respond to proper training, though. Part of good character is self-esteem. If you don’t feel you can make a difference, you don’t try. Dogs are that way, too. If you “train” your dog to behave aggressively in order to get needs met by consistently yielding to that behavior, that does not perfect moral character.

Do you not believe dogs are capable of moral character? Then you haven’t known the right dogs! Talk to a K9 police handler, military handler, search and rescue dog handler, or disabled person with an assistance dog. These dogs do things every day that can be explained in no other way than fine moral character.

If you structure your dog’s life so the dog’s needs are met and rewards are earned by good behavior, that is training that builds good character. The Nothing in Life is Free types of corrective behavior programs do not consist of punishment, other than withholding rewards until the dog earns them. Yet such training programs can indeed correct mental faculties—such as the mistaken idea the dog has developed that aggression is the right way to communicate with humans.

Unfair Expectations

The fact that dogs can transcend our expectations does not mean it’s fair to expect them to always do it. Some dogs are far more gifted than others. The talents of the human to communicate with the dog are critical. Dog training ability varies widely among humans. Some people, frankly, have none at all.

One of the hardest things about training a dog is behaving consistently ourselves. Most of us can’t do it very well. Some of us can’t do it at all and don’t even realize that. All of us do things we don’t realize we do. Dogs are good at figuring out what we are going to do next, but sometimes we make that impossible.

We need to use consistent words to cue our dogs, consistent body movements, consistent rewards, and keep to consistent schedules. Surprises need to be good ones. Unpleasant experiences need to be quickly mitigated by pleasant ones. We need to time our words with actions (our own and the dogs’) so the dog can get the connections.

We also need to learn as much as we can about how dogs think, how they experience the world, and how they feel. Otherwise we make mistakes such as punishing a dog because we think the dog “knows it was wrong” due to the dog’s body language. The dog is begging for mercy, and we punish!

A Dog’s Due

To spoil someone, you do for them and give to them things they do not deserve. If you choose to give your dog an expensive dog food, is that spoiling a dog? Well, the dog has no concept of money, so how could the dog get a “big head” over that? On the other hand, if this dog is important to you and that food will make the dog healthier, perhaps you’re making a good investment—or perhaps you are indulging YOURSELF. That’s not spoiling the dog.

Does a tiny dog prone to getting too cold care what material that coat is made from, as long as it keeps the dog’s body temperature at a safe level? So how could an expensive coat “spoil” the dog?

Dogs don’t get to choose their families. Their whole lives are under the control of humans, and they can’t even tell someone when they’re being abused. We owe them good lives. We owe them medical care, training, nutritious food, safe housing, and fulfillment of their other needs. Doing these things won’t spoil a dog.

Our dogs may spoil us humans, though, by overindulging us and by admiring us much more than we deserve, considering how we often treat them. Giving our dogs what they need, including good training, is a way to participate in one of life’s most rewarding mysteries—a relationship with a good dog.