Celebrating Life with a "Difficult" Dog

Most of us have a vision of what our life will be like with a new dog, but it doesn’t always work out the way that we hoped. Maybe your dog is fearful, anxious, or reactive. Their behavior might prevent you from doing the things that you hoped that you would be able to do together, and you may be experiencing a lot of stress related to your dog's behavior.

This can happen no matter where you got your dog, how much experience you have, and whether your dog is a puppy or adult. It doesn’t mean that anyone did anything wrong, including you and your dog. So many factors go into a dog's behavior, and we have little to no control over a lot of those things: a dog's past, their genetics, trauma caused by unpredictable events.

What we can control, though, is how we approach the situation. 

a fluffy grey dog in a pink harness lays in the grass with a happy expression on his face

Your life together can still be beautiful!

Unexpectedly bringing home a "difficult" dog may feel like an impossible situation, especially in the beginning, after a “honeymoon” period, and sometimes at unexpected points in the journey, but there is hope! Take some time to consider the following steps as you work to bond with and understand your dog.

Take time to grieve

It’s okay to feel sad and disappointed that things have worked out differently than you imagined. You may feel frustrated with the rescue, breeder, or previous owner for not disclosing certain behaviors, annoyed with yourself for not seeing the behaviors sooner, and even resentful of your dog for their behavior.

It’s totally normal to need some time to grieve for the dog and life that you dreamed of, and it may help you separate the idea of your “dream dog” from the reality of the dog in front of you. We can still have dreams for the dog in front of us and set goals for our life together, but recognizing that they are their own little individual can help us be more realistic.

Forgive yourself

Many of us feel like we are supposed to be head-over-heels in love with our dog the second that we bring them home, and it can be embarrassing to admit - even to yourself - that you are feeling more frustrated and disappointed than anything else.

While the fairytale story may happen for some people, it's an unrealistic expectation. All relationships take work, even those with our pets. It is totally normal to not immediately feel a strong bond, even when things are going perfectly. 

Feeling sad, frustrated, or resentful is a normal human reaction, and recognizing your emotions is an important part of processing them. They don't make you a bad person or dog parent.

Identify your dog’s emotions

As humans, we tend to assign human emotions and intentions to our dogs. Sometimes, this is harmless, but when it comes to a dog who is behaving in a way that is frustrating or problematic, projecting inaccurate emotions and intentions onto our dogs can distract us from what is actually happening, thus preventing us from effectively handling the situation.

Dogs do not act out of spite. Their behavior isn't malicious or intended to make you mad. They do not experience feelings of guilt (but they can tell from your body language and tone of voice that you are mad or upset, which we sometimes misinterpret as guilt).

All behavior has a function, and identifying what a dog is trying to achieve with their behavior is key to modifying that behavior. Are they trying to create distance between themselves and you, another dog, or someone else? Are they trying to get your attention or interaction? 

Is your dog even in a state of mind to truly understand what they're doing, or are they in a blind panic?

Try to identify what they may be feeling in that moment, whether it’s fear, anxiety, frustration, or overstimulation. Understanding their emotional state will not only help you understand what you need to do to avoid that situation in the future, but it may help you emphasize with them, which can help alleviate our own feelings of frustration.

Understanding your dog's emotions requires an understanding of canine body language. Take some time to learn more about (or refresh you knowledge of) body language and the ladder of aggression. We'll list some resources at the end of this article.

A dark brown dog wearing a red collar and tan coat sits in front of a lake, a stoic expression on his face

Find common interests

The little things matter! Finding things that both you and your dog enjoy creates a great opportunity to bond and build trust.

It can be something as easy as sharing a favorite dog-friendly snack (try making it a game by hiding the food for your dog to find), helping your dog discover new scents in a familiar environment (who can find the freshest gopher hole in the backyard?), or going to a quiet drive in the country.

There's no pressure to go anywhere new, or to even leave the house. You don't have to make it into a training situation or learning moment.  The point is to simply have fun together! 

Those little moments of time together, the ones that make you smile or laugh, will help you better appreciate your dog for who they are, and that can make the difficult moments a little bit easier to manage.

Schedule “you” time

It’s easy to get so caught up in your dog’s needs that you neglect your own.

Everyone and their brother is yelling about self-care, but it truly is important to take care of yourself if you are going to be able to effectively care for your dog.

Make it a point to set aside time for yourself that doesn’t involve your dog - without guilt! Even a couple hours apart while you do something fun (going to work doesn't count for this one!) can help you reset and come back better able to manage the difficult moments. 

If you’re the type of person that keeps a calendar, literally putting this time on your calendar may help you stick to it. If you need to enlist the help of a friend, family member, or pet sitter and have the resources to do so, enlist that help without guilt. 

Seek help from professionals

Even if you are a super experienced dog parent, it can be difficult to see the whole picture when you’re living it every single day. A qualified trainer, behaviorist, or veterinarian may be able to help you identify problem areas and find effective solutions.

It is super important to find professionals that use methods that address the root of your dog's behavior - those big feelings like fear, anxiety, and frustration - and modify their behavior by changing those feelings. "Old school" methods that rely on correction and punishment may appear to work in the beginning, but because they are only addressing the "symptoms" of those big feelings, you will almost always see an escalation of behavior at some point.

A vet with experience in behavioral medicine will also be able to help you determine whether your dog might benefit from medication to help with anxiety or impulse control. Medication is often stigmatized and misunderstood, but in reality, it is an extremely effective tool when paired with training and management. The goal of medication is not to sedate your dog or change their personality; it's to help your dog achieve a mental state in which they are able to think clearly and learn. A dog that is truly panicking or is so overstimulated that they can't think straight will struggle to make progress no matter how much you train.

Remember - even the best dog trainers in the world often seek help from other trainers, especially when it comes to their own dogs! There is no shame in asking for help; in fact, recognizing that you need a second set of eyes is one of the best things that you can do for your dog.

A small, fluffy dog sits on a wooden porch, looking directly at the camera

Talk about it!

One of the most difficult parts of living with a “difficult” dog is the isolation that often comes with it; physically, especially when you have a dog that struggles around other people, but also emotionally, because so many people simply do not understand what you’re going through.

Many people suffer in silence because they're embarrassed by their dog's behavior, or because they feel like they are personally doing something wrong. When a friend, family member, or even stranger makes a comment about your dog's behavior that makes you feel ashamed, it's easy to put up a wall and avoid the topic in the future.

But you are not alone. There are so many people who have gone through and are going through the exact same things that you are experiencing. Finding people who relate and relying on community can help us get through the most difficult days.

Life with a "difficult" dog can be a rollercoaster

Your journey will not be a straight line. There will be good days and bad days; moments that feel completely unbearable and moments in which you will be so proud of how far you and your dog have come. 

Loving your dog for who they are may take time, and that's okay. Celebrate the little things, and enjoy those happy moments whenever you can. And remember that when things feel tough, that's okay, too. 

All we can do is our best, and your dog will love you for it.


Below are a few starting points for better understanding canine body language and other concepts that may help you on your journey with your dog. 

If you have the resources to do so, consider consulting with a qualified trainer or behaviorist. Video consultations are a great option for dogs who are anxious or fearful! We recommend starting your search with the IAABC database or CCPDT database.


Understanding Dog Body Language - Learn how to read dogs behavior better, Kris Crestejo

How to Read Your Dog's Body Language When Training, Emily Larlham

Playlist: Dog Body Language, Susan Garrett

Playlist: Behavior Modification Dog Training Videos, Emily Larlham

Trigger Stacking & Stress Hormones, Donna Hill

Counter Conditioning: a Visual Explanation, Donna Hill


Train your dog more effectively, K9 Turbo Training

What is Trigger Stacking, K9 Turbo Training

Canine Ladder of Aggression, BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behaviour (excerpt) 

Reading the Canine Ladder of Aggression, Frania Shelley-Grielen


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