Understanding your dog’s behaviour
October 16, 2020
Dogs are amazing. Their ability to understand human emotions is exceptional and it’s what makes them such wonderful companions. They really are a man’s (or a woman’s) best friend, as the saying goes!
The below information 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 you a better understanding and appreciation of your dog. This is what we will cover below:
- Seeing the world from a dog’s perspective and their different senses
- What is good dog behaviour, bad dog behaviour, and normal dog behaviour?
- How your dog learns & understands the world
- What does “Good Dog” really mean?
- Why the dominance theory is misguided
- Seeking help for your dog’s behaviour
Seeing the world from a dog’s perspective
SMELL – We’ve all heard of a 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.
HEARING – Their hearing ability is also extraordinarily good – it’s their early warning system for possible danger and humans have exploited this from the very start of our evolution together, for guarding purposes. We are often unaware of low-level sounds that may excite, agitate, or frighten our dogs.
SIGHT – Try crouching down to the level of your dog’s eyes and you will appreciate how much harder it is to see for any distance. Compared to humans or cats, a dog’s vision is relatively poor – they rely on their other senses to interact with the world.
TOUCH – 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’re not in the right mood, if a stranger tries to touch us, or a person has 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 they’ve never met before and believe they’re entitled to stroke them because they think they’re cute. Imagine the same scenario if someone tried this approach with another person?
What is good dog behaviour, bad dog behaviour, and normal dog 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 behaviours 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, however, may be harmful to dogs because of possible parasites, infections, or food-poisoning, and should be discouraged.
We should remember that these are normal behaviours and dogs do not know they’re doing anything wrong. Shouting or scolding your dog will never make them understand this, they will just become upset, frightened, or ignore you. It’s better to stay calm, call them away from what they’re doing, and (if needed) distract them by asking them to sit or do another ‘trick’ like giving a paw. When they do as you ask, praise and reward them with a treat even if they’re 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 for you to stop them rolling in or eating something they shouldn’t.
How your dog learns & understands the world
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’ – they 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 recognise and associate with a particular event.
It’s important to remember that dogs sense things in a different way, and the way they understand the world and learn is different from how we do. We must make allowances for these differences. It’s unfair to a dog, to expect them to obey commands given in a language they cannot possibly understand, involving concepts that mean different things in different situations, or comprehend instructions 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 motivations, 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 reassurance) – 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, their boundaries, (e.g. not approaching a dog they’ve never met and touching them without the dog’s ‘permission’), and their needs.
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 onto a chair? We would hope not! Why then do some people think it’s 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 upward and backward, 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 what the words “Good dog” mean, dogs do not. For a dog, 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 is happening when used.
If we say “good dog” after we have given a treat, before carrying with whatever else we were doing, 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 that encourages whatever behaviour is going on when it is used. If it’s only used when good behaviour is happening, it’s a force for good, if used when undesirable behaviour is happening, it can be very unhelpful.
Why the dominance theory is misguided
The following example is not a real case but based on the experiences of many people and dogs that we have known.
John and Sandra decided to get a dog when they were able to semi-retire. They got Larry, a two-year-old German Shepherd cross from a rescue centre. The couple whom Larry lived with previously had split up and neither of them could accommodate him at their new homes. They’d loved Larry and trained him to come back when called, sit, stay, and lie down on command. Being an intelligent dog he’d learned these commands well. Larry settled 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 cooking, reading, or doing household chores. Larry loved cooking with Sandra, especially as she gave him occasional scraps of food for sitting quietly and keeping her company.
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 for 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 around to the front of the house and was shining into the sitting room, Larry got on the sofa and settled down to sleep.
John had a very bad day. The job he’d gone to sort out was for a very difficult customer who’d 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 and 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’d been asked to do. It seemed to him that John was threatening him and 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 had calmed down by this time and was surprised to see Larry apparently behaving as if nothing had happened.
Sandra and John discussed what had happened over their tea and agreed they had to do something about it. Sandra was working again the following day and remembered that the sister of one of her workmates was some sort of dog trainer who was supposed to be very good. They decided that they’d call her in to help them.
Worse news came when Sandra talked to her daughter Lisa that night on the phone. Lisa said that she’d heard Larry growl at her young daughter Amy when she’d 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’d heard what had happened, the supposed dog trainer announced that Larry was trying to take over the pack. She said that he’d 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. They 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. Standing up to Pete in a number of ways and making him join the scouts, seemed to teach him some discipline and he’d grown into a fine man, whom they were very proud of.
Things 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 trainer’s 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’d 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’d actually wanted to hurt her he could have easily 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 while they discussed what had happened, and he made some notes. The vet asked them 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 properly 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 things out and booked an appointment as soon as they could. The behaviourist asked them even more questions. He explained how differently Larry experienced and understood the world and why this had caused the misunderstandings between them all, and how fear had led to 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 is amazed at what he can do. Amy is never left unsupervised with Larry, but she is also a quick learner and they do some training together.
John and Sandra are so proud of Larry and of all their family. They secretly hope that Amy will study hard at school and one day become a vet, which is something that Sandra always fancied doing!
Seeking help for your dog’s behaviour
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 them to, rather than ignoring the problem, it’s better 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 commands are given calmly, and 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 or 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. Try and write down everything about the incident and what went on leading up to it as soon as is practical, as such details may be important in the diagnosis and treatment of the problem.