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Understanding Your Dog


Dogs are amazing, their ability to understand human emotions is exceptional- it’s what makes them such wonderful companions. They really are man’s best friend as the saying goes!

This article should not be used as a substitute for suitable behavioural therapy for dogs with behavioural problems (from an appropriately qualified source), but hopefully should give a better understanding and appreciation of your dog.

Seeing the world from a dog’s perspective

Different senses:

We have all heard of dog’s legendary sense of smell, scientists believe that this “super-sense” is linked to their incredible emotional empathy and loving nature. Strong smells can trigger strong emotions in dogs, which can range from very pleasurable to frightening. Because our sense of smell is very poor by comparison, we may be totally unaware of the many smells that have a powerful effect on our best friend.

Their hearing ability is also extraordinarily good, it is their early warning system for possible danger and mankind has exploited this from the very start of our evolution together for guarding purposes. We are often unaware of low level sounds which may excite, agitate or frighten our dogs.

If you try crouching down to the level of your dog’s eyes you will appreciate how much harder it is to see for any distance. Compared to humans or cats, dog’s vision is relatively poor- they rely on their other senses to interact with the world.

Just like humans dogs are sensitive to touch and stroking and cuddling can be as pleasurable for dogs as it is for people. When we not in the right mood, a stranger tries to touch us, or the person has have not been invited to touch us we can feel uncomfortable, irritated or even frightened by touch. Dogs can feel the same and deserve the same consideration when it comes to physical contact. To use an example, many people think nothing of approaching a dog that they have never met before and feel entitled to stroke them because they are cute. Imagine if someone tried this approach to other people that they liked the look of!

Good behaviour, bad behaviour, normal behaviour

Some dog behaviours that we find unpleasant, for example rolling in strong smells (including faeces), eating rotten/disgusting foods, sniffing the bottoms of people or other dogs, are actually normal behaviour for dogs.

Dogs like strong smells and there are a number of theories as to why they like to roll in smelly stuff or eat revolting things. Bottom sniffing is an essential part of a dog’s social behaviour and is not harmful.

Contact with animal excrement or rotten material may be harmful to dogs because of possible parasitism, infections or food-poisoning and should be discouraged. We should remember that these are normal behaviours and dogs do not know they are doing anything wrong and shouting or scolding the dog will never make them understand this, they will just become upset, frightened or ignore us if we do. It is better to stay calm, call them away from what they are doing and (if needed) distract them by asking them to sit or do another “trick” like giving a paw, praising them and rewarding them with a treat when they do so- even if they are already covered in animal excrement or have already eaten what you didn’t want them to. This may seem to be rewarding bad behaviour, but if you reward them for returning they will learn to come back more quickly over time, eventually quickly enough to stop them rolling in- or eating what they shouldn’t.

Respect me!

Dogs are not small people- they have a very limited capacity for language and they “live in the moment” (i.e. they do not dwell on the past or speculate about the distant future). Dogs learn in a simple “cause and effect way” the do not think about the why or how things happen, they think only about what is happening, or what they expect to happen having learned from previous experience. As humans we can understand language in abstract terms, for example the word “No” can mean don’t eat that, don’t touch that, stop pulling on the lead, stop barking and a great many other things in different contexts, dogs hear words or even just syllables as sounds that they associate with a particular event.

It is important to remember that dogs sense things in a differently, understand the world differently, and learn differently to us. We must make allowances for these differences. It is unfair to dogs to expect them to obey commands given in language that they cannot possibly understand, involving concepts that mean different things in different situations or comprehend instructions that about things that have happened in the past.

Gentleness, patience and learning to “listen” to your dog are essential, just as in any happy family relationship. We are all different (dogs and people), we have different motivation, likes and dislikes, fears and “comfort zones”. If you can observe unhappy body language, or vocal signs of nervousness you will be better at managing situations. Try not to show anger, frustration, or fear (including too much re-assurance)- you cannot command a dog to calm down or be unafraid, but you can help by staying calm and confident.

The relationship between people and dogs is sometimes portrayed in terms of master and servant. It is true that for us to live together safely and harmoniously, dogs should be well trained, however people should respect dogs (for example not approaching a dog they have never met and expecting to be able to touch him or her without “permission” from the dog).

Force or intimidation is not justifiable in the treatment of dogs, it is possible to suppress unwanted behaviours by these methods, but it is difficult, dangerous and comes at too high a cost to a dog’s wellbeing.

An example of this is the teaching of the sit command. Imagine if a person from a culture where chairs were not used visited your house and you wanted them to sit in a chair. Would you shout “sit!” then grab their shoulders and push them as hard as you could into a chair? I hope not! Why then do some people think that it is reasonable to train dogs this way? Our visitor would have a better experience of sitting in a chair if they were offered a tasty snack on a low table conveniently positioned in front of the chair, they would quickly learn that the chair was a comfortable place to sit and would quickly learn the word sit if used just before providing the food after very little practice! You can use a similar method with dogs, by gently moving a treat upwards and backwards a dog will naturally sit to reach the treat. Saying the word “sit” calmly and clearly at the same time and allowing the dog to have the treat when they are in the correct position will soon result in the dog responding to the word “sit” by adopting the position quickly to speed up the giving of the treat.

What does “Good Dog” really mean?

Humans understand the concept of “goodness” and know that the word dog means, dogs do not. The fact is the phrase “Good-dog” can mean anything according to what is happening at the time it is said.

“Good dog” is very useful when properly used. It is easily recognised and if spoken just before, or at the same time as a treat is given, it becomes associated with a happy, positive emotion for the dog. If this is used consistently during training the words and the feeling of reward become totally linked in the dog’s mind, so much so that saying “good dog” becomes a reward in itself and encourages any behaviour that it is happening when it is used.

If we say “good dog” after we have given a treat, before carrying with whatever else we were doing, then the dog will learn that it means treats are no longer available, and that can cause frustration. If used in this way “good dog” will not become a reward-phrase and will not help with proper training.

If used properly “good dog” becomes a powerful reward word which encourages whatever behaviour is going on when it is used. If it is only used when good behaviour is happening it is a force for good, if it is used when undesirable behaviour is happening it can be very unhelpful.

Why dominance theory is misguided

The following example is not a real case, but based on the experiences of many people and dogs that I have known.

John and Sandra decided to get a dog when John they were able to semi retire. They got Larry, a two year old German Shepherd cross from a rescue centre. The couple he had lived with previously had split up and neither of them could take him with them to their new homes, they had loved him and trained him to come back when called, sit, stay and lie down on command. Being an intelligent dog he had learned these commands well. Larry settled in very well in his new home, and their first year together went by very happily.

Sandra only did the occasional evening shift these days so Larry had company most of the time. Larry loved the time he and Sandra spent together pottering about the garden, or in the kitchen whilst Sandra was gardening, cooking reading or doing the household chores. Larry loved cooking with Sandra, especially as she gave him the occasional scrap of food for sitting quietly and keeping her company when she was cooking.

One day Sandra agreed to do an afternoon shift and John was out sorting out a job for his old workmates. Sandra had forgotten to shut the kitchen door and so Larry wandered into the rest of the sitting room. The new sofa had only been in the house about a month, but already it smelled of his two favourite people- John and Sandra. The sofa was very comfortable and as the sun had gone round to the front of the house and was shining into the sitting room and Larry got on and settled down to sleep.

John had had a very bad day. The job he had gone to sort was for a very difficult customer who had been very rude and was threatening not to pay. John was tired and hungry and was seething about the whole thing.

When John came home he saw Larry on the new sofa he thought of how cross Sandra would be if she came home from her shift and the sofa was covered in dog-hair. “GET OFF THERE!” John shouted. Poor Larry awoke from his deep sleep- he had no idea of what he had been asked to do. It seemed to him that John was threatening him and he had no idea why. He froze and barked in fright. “I SAID GET OFF THERE NOW!” John shouted again, moving towards Larry. Poor Larry was even more frightened by this and lay back down on the sofa hoping that John would leave him alone. “BAD DOG” shouted John and went to grab Larry’s collar to drag him off the sofa. Larry was so frightened that he growled and snapped (biting the air) to warn John to stay away.

This stopped John in his tracks and he went into the kitchen, not knowing what to do. Larry stayed on the sofa, also not knowing what to do.

Fortunately Sandra came home and Larry jumped off the sofa and greeted her happily, they were pleased to see one another. John was calming down by this time and he was surprised to see Larry apparently behaving as if nothing had happened.

Sandra and John discussed what had happened over their tea and they agreed that they had to do something about it. Sandra was working again the following day and she remembered that the sister of one of her work-mates was some sort of dog trainer who was supposed to be very good. They decided that they would call her in to help them.

Worse news came that night when she was talking to her daughter Lisa that night on the telephone. Lisa said that she had heard Larry growl at her young daughter Amy when she had run into the kitchen from the garden. (Larry was in his basket and Amy had charged in waving her fairy wand and shouting, which had startled Larry).

The next weekend Larry sensed that something was wrong, John and Sandra seemed very tense and a strange visitor came (the dog trainer). She smelled strongly of many dogs and stared very hard at Larry- he felt intimidated by her.

When she had heard what had happened, the supposed dog trainer announced that Larry was trying to take over the pack. She said that he had started on their grandchild and was now challenging John for the position of “pack leader”. She told them that Larry was trying to take over the sofa and the supply of food to achieve dominance over the “pack”. She also warned that if Larry was not put in his place he would become a danger to the whole family and be out of control. Her advice was that they must stop feeding Larry in the afternoon before the rest of the family ate, they should exclude him from the sitting room and most importantly they should do lots of obedience work with him.

What the dog trainer said made sense to John and Sandra remembered when their son Pete was a teenager he would pick arguments with them about all sorts of things and got himself into a bit of bother. By standing up to Pete in all sorts of ways and making him join the scouts seemed to teach him some discipline and he had grown into a fine man of whom they were very proud.

Thing seemed to go from bad to worse. Larry who normally sat just fine on command wouldn’t do so in front of the trainer (he was too anxious to concentrate). The trainer said he must do as he was told and she would demonstrate. She grabbed the lead out of John’s hand, “SIT!” she shouted loudly and roughly pushed on Larry’s back to push his bottom to the floor. This hurt and frightened him so much that Larry bit the trainer on the hand, breaking the skin. She was furious, throwing down the lead and shouting. Larry ran off into the front room to hide. The wound on the trainers hand was very deep and bruised and she had to go to casualty to get it treated.

John and Sandra were very apologetic. The trainer said that Larry was the most dominant dog she had ever seen, and that it was their responsibility to have him put to sleep as soon as possible as he was “a dangerous dog”. What she didn’t understand was that Larry was terrified, and if he had actually wanted to hurt her he could easily have bitten her fingers clean off.

Sandra was in floods of tears after the trainer had gone, John felt sick with worry and with a heavy heart called his local vet to make an appointment to have Larry put to sleep.

Fortunately the receptionist was very understanding and booked an appointment with the vet that day to discuss things.

The vet welcomed them all into the consulting room and sat John and Sandra down. He told them to let Larry off the lead and explore the room whilst they discussed what had happened and the vet made some notes. He asked them all about Larry’s physical health as well as his behaviour. Larry didn’t like the smell of the vet much and was quite nervous, but he came to sniff the vet out of curiosity when a bag of treats was produced. Larry allowed the vet to examine him without too much difficulty, although Larry did growl when the vet touched him on the back. The vet respected this warning, did not tell him off and stayed calm.

The vet explained to them that Larry was not a “bad” “evil” or “dominant” dog and advised that they should be referred to a proper qualified behaviourist so they could learn about why Larry had behaved in this way and how they could prevent it.

Sandra and John were worried but jumped at the chance to sort thing out and got an appointment as soon as they could. The behaviourist asked them even more questions and explained to them how differently Larry experienced and understood the world and why this had caused misunderstanding between them all and how fear had led to the aggressive behaviour. He showed them and encouraged them to do plenty of reward based and non- threatening training methods and how to spot the early signs when Larry gets nervous and how to react when this happens. He also showed them the right way to ask Larry not to do things.

Larry loves his training- he finds it very stimulating and loves learning new things. The whole family are amazed at what he can do. Amy is never left unsupervised with Larry but Amy is also a quick learner and they also do some training together.

John and Sandra are so proud of Larry and all of their family. They secretly hope that Amy will study hard at school and one day and become a vet, which is something that Sandra always fancied doing!


Many people feel ashamed of their dog’s behaviour, feeling that they are responsible for “spoiling” them. Unsympathetic people who say “can’t you control your dog” or other unhelpful things make matters worse by adding to everyone’s anxiety. Please don’t be scared or ashamed, but seek appropriate help.

If your dog is not behaving in the way you expect him or her to it is better not to ignore the problem but to seek properly qualified help.

If training is an issue, seek the advice of a suitably qualified trainer. Ask if you can sit in on a training session before taking your dog so you can see how they do things. If calmly used commands are used, gentleness and rewards are used suitably, give it a try. If shouting, lead tugging or any form of roughness or punishment is going on then walk away.

If your dog is displaying aggression, separation anxiety (destructiveness, barking etc) then seek proper behavioural advice from your vet.

If your dog has bitten someone, try and stay calm- panic and fear will only make the problem worse. Seek veterinary help as soon as is practical and avoid the situation that resulted in the bite. If you can write down everything about the incident and that went on leading it do so as soon as is practical, as such details may be important in the diagnosis and treatment of the problem.