IT took the success of "Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World's Worst Dog" by John Grogan, which has bounded to the top of best-seller lists, to expose a secret not easily given up by dog owners. Their dogs are often bad dogs.
M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times
"I held my dog up as the world's worst dog," Mr. Grogan said. "But I've heard from hundreds and hundreds of people who can match my story point for point."
Marley — the indelible rascal of a yellow Labrador retriever that placed himself at the core of Mr. Grogan's family despite always seeming to have some household object in his jaws or heading down his gullet — has so resonated with readers that Mr. Grogan has received thousands of "that darned dog" letters, e-mail messages and comments at his Web site, www.marleyandme.com. The letters express relief at finding others with misbehaving dogs and challenge Marley's claim as "world's worst."
Dog experts have noticed other signs of a growing concern over bad behavior by dogs, despite all the gourmet biscuits, educational toys and $70 dog sweaters lavished on them. (Perhaps because of that treatment, others argue.) Enrollment in obedience classes is escalating, veterinarians are seeing an increasing demand for help with behavior problems, and ratings for "Dog Whisperer," the National Geographic Channel's dog-behavior program, are rising. Figuring out how to make the dog mind, it seems, has become a national obsession.
The problem, some dog experts suspect, is not that there are more bad dogs, only more demanding owners. People expect their dogs to cooperate with their busier lives — to behave at cocktail parties, at real estate open houses and in cafes and shops — and to respect their better-appointed homes. And in a culture that values achievement and excellence, they readily assume that dogs value the same things, especially when there are obstacle courses to master and social graces to display.
Some dog experts wonder whether the focus on behavior is the best thing for the dog or just the latest form of self-help for people: with their furniture, their clothes and their cooking skills already up to snuff, the only way to make their lives better now is by improving the dog.
"This is the generation that invented the gifted and talented kid," said Jon Katz, the author of books on the human-dog relationship, "so now you have the gifted and talented dog."
Mr. Katz, who has written "Katz on Dogs: A Commonsense Guide to Training and Living With Dogs" (Villard, 2005) and "The New Work of Dogs" (Villard, 2003), which discusses the changing role of dogs from outdoor protectors and retrievers to indoor nurturers and soul mates, said there has been an explosion in the number of companion animals, almost a fivefold increase since the 1960's.
This increase, combined with many other social changes, Mr. Katz said, has brought about a revolution in the relationship between people and dogs. Dogs are now expected to play the role of the best friend, confidant or child, who can be taken everywhere, including the mall and a friend's house. "Dogs are a blank canvas," Mr. Katz said. "You can paint anything you want on them."
Chris Hoffman and Ann Shih put Senshi, their American bulldog, through basic dog training, twice. Then, to socialize Senshi, they took her everywhere they could: shopping, the library, cafes. And the better socialized the dog became, the less they left her at home.
Mr. Hoffman, who works in Internet marketing in San Francisco, said Senshi is a bigger part of his life than the dogs of his childhood, dogs that would spend a lot of time in the backyard. "We don't have a backyard, but if we did, she wouldn't spend much time there," he said. "She's more a part of our family."
Annie Teillon and her husband, Geoff, who live in Manhattan, found that formal training was vital for their two dogs — a Lab and a golden retriever — because they are so large and strong. "I live in an apartment with my two dogs," Ms. Teillon said, "and it is necessary for them to be very well behaved."
The number of obedience classes nationwide is not known, in part because dog training is often an informal arrangement, ranging from one-time classes in a schoolyard to intensive home visits from doggy gurus. But many trainers say waiting lists for their classes are growing.
Andrea Arden, a dog trainer in Manhattan, and her staff give 18 dog training classes a week: 10 for puppies and 8 for adult dogs. Last Thursday morning Ms. Arden put a notice up on her Web site announcing three new agility classes, which train dogs to run obstacle courses by following commands like run, jump and weave. Since these are advanced courses and cost $350 for six weeks, she expected it would take weeks to fill the sessions, but they were fully subscribed in two hours. Later in the day she added another class, and it too was quickly booked.