Readers seemed to like a blog I wrote recently about dog training. I got many comments about the aspects of dog psychology I discussed. So I figured I’d share some other ideas I have gleaned by working with various dog trainers over the years.
The most important thing I learned about dogs is that they can not and do not think like humans. We tend to anthropomorphize them and attribute to them motives that they are incapable of having. For example, most people believe that dogs chew furniture or poop in the house when they are left alone because they are ‘getting back’ at their humans for leaving them. The problem with that theory is that it requires levels of conceptualization, insight and understanding of cause and effect that is way beyond a dog’s capabilities.
First, they must have the self-awareness to realize that they are feeling angry at you, which they can’t and don’t. Then they have to understand that they can get ‘revenge’ (a human concept) if they make you mad or upset too. That is more than a two-year old child can do let alone a dog. Thirdly, they have to figure out, in the abstract, what behaviors they could do to make you upset. This is more than a reasonable stretch for any dog.
The explanation for most negative dog behavior seems to be stress or anxiety. Different things cause stress in different dogs and different dogs react to stress in different ways. Chewing and making in the house are examples of anxiety driven behaviors, as are excessive barking and hyperactivity. None of these are thought out revenge schemes. My anxiety prone dog gets most anxious when other people come into the house. Apparently that’s because she thinks she has to ‘protect’ me, which means that she is on duty when the doorbell rings. However, this skittish dog does not react to things that stress out many other dogs, like thunder, vacuum cleaners, packed suitcases or even a trip to the vet. She is the calmest, most relaxed dog my vet has ever seen in her office! Go figure!
Another interesting fact I learned about dog psychology is that dogs are very Zen. They truly live in the moment. They can only think about what just happened for about 10 seconds. That’s why to train a dog you have to reward them the minute they do what you want them to. When housebreaking a dog, you have to praise them profusely while they are in the act of making, not even a minute later. If you rewarded your dog right after they made, they would think you were praising them for whatever they were doing in that exact moment, like sniffing a bush or wagging their tail.
This brings up a funny story about how my anxious girl, Lexi flummoxed the dog trainer. It also points up how dogs can see things differently than even the dog trainer believes they should. When Lexi was on the sofa with me, she would often growl at our other dog when he came near the sofa. So we followed the trainer’s advice and told her ‘no’ immediately and threw her off the sofa. In most dogs, this would end the offensive behavior.
However Lexi continues to growl at her brother, but as soon as she does, she immediately jumps off the sofa and lies down on the floor. The trainer has never seen a case of self punishment before. Her takeaway is logical though; ‘when you growl, you have to get off of the sofa’ is as valid a lesson to take from the situation as is just ‘stop growling’!
Think of your dog as a two-year old child. You can’t expect the child or the dog to act or react like an adult/human or understand the world the way we do. You are the superior intellect in the relationship so you have to try and understand how your dog perceives and thinks. Don’t get mad at your dog for ‘scheming’ against you and ‘purposely’ behaving badly to annoy you. His brain doesn’t work that way. Figure out what stressor is triggering his undesirable behavior and deal with the stressor or channel the dog’s anxiety in another way.