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Dog Behavior Simplified

Why do dogs behave the way they do? There are as many factors motivating dog behavior as there are dogs and situations. To complicate matters, every behavior your dog exhibits is motivated by many factors rather than just one. Understanding these motivations can be greatly simplified by grouping them into two categories — the “behavioral” side and the “fundamental needs” side. Let’s take a look at a typical problem behavior as an example: a dog that pulls on the leash when you walk. On the behavioral side — the simple way of looking at this situation is that one of two things is not happening. Either:

1) you’re not making it clear to your dog that you don’t want her to pull on the leash — you don’t know the right technique for getting your dog to walk behind you on a loose leash.
Or

2) you’re making your expectations perfectly clear and your dog doesn’t care — she doesn’t take her lead from you. Of course it could also be, and most often is, a combination of the two.
Figuring out the role of each of these factors may be more complicated than it seems. To illustrate this, let’s look at another example. I frequently have clients tell me their dog “knows” without a doubt that they don’t want her relieving in the house. The owner says that when the dog has relieved in the house she starts cowering as soon as they walk in the door before the owner even says a word. From this, the owner concludes that the dog must understand that relieving in the house is not acceptable behavior. However, there is another possibility.

In this scenario, the dog definitely knows that you got mad when she has done this in the past. But there’s a good chance that she doesn’t understand why you got mad. For all the dog knows, you yelled at her because she didn’t leave a big enough puddle! This is why I tell clients that you should NOT discipline your dog when potty training unless you catch her in the act of relieving — it will only confuse her. Making your expectations clear to your dog can be challenging!

Getting your dog to take her lead from you (in ALL situations) can be difficult as well. Most dog owners confuse their dogs by sending mixed messages. When you tell your dog to sit, or stop barking, or stop pulling on the leash, it sends the message to your dog that you think you are in control — that you’re the one making the decisions. However, if you let your dog walk out 

 

the door before you, or walk in front of you on the leash, or get out of a sit without a release, or feed your dog before you eat, you are sending your dog the message that she’s the one in charge.

In reality, these examples are oversimplified. It is the very subtle details of how you carry out these actions that communicates to your dog whether or not you are in control. It’s not merely going through the door first that sends your dog the message that you are in charge, but how you go through the door first. If your dog is not taking her lead from you, it may be that you are sending mixed messages about who’s in charge that you don’t realize you are sending.

One of the most common mixed messages that owners send is failing to follow through with a command. Telling your dog to do something, and then allowing the dog to do the opposite, sends the message that you don’t mean business, that you aren’t in control. This is very confusing to a dog because you are sending two messages simultaneously that both can’t possibly be true. By giving the command, your words are telling your dog that you think you’re in charge. By allowing the dog to have the final say, your actions are sending the message that your dog is the one in charge. Your words aren’t aligned with your actions in this situation. Your dog can’t live up to your expectations if you aren’t making your expectations clear.
There is another very important aspect to getting your dog to do what you tell her to: your dog’s “fundamental needs” must be met for her to be receptive to training. In our original example of the dog that pulls on the leash when you walk, we need to consider whether or not the dog is capable of doing what we are asking. It may not be a reasonable expectation for your dog to walk behind you on a loose leash. See my blog articles titled “Treating the Problem” and “Be Reasonable” for more insight into making sure your dog’s fundamental needs are being met before attempting to change any dog behavior.
Training can be frustrating for both the dog and owner, which impedes progress. However, when clear messages and reasonable expectations flow from owner to dog, both can relax and enjoy life. Happy Training!
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