People often come to me wanting to know why their dog engages in certain behaviour, and if truth be told, I do not always have the answer. As much as I would love to be able to get in to your dogs’ head I cannot. What I can do (and so can you) is gather information and put the clues together to form a theory and create a plan of action.
If you would like to know why or how a behaviour has started it is best to look at history to try and determine a pattern. We know the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Usually when a behaviour begins it is rather subtle, and as time progresses it becomes more pronounced. The phrase ‘it came out of nowhere’ is unlikely to be true, there are always signs of a behaviour developing. For example, the puppy who shows fearful behaviour around people may develop in to a dog who has aggressive tendencies towards strangers.
Once you have thought about your dogs’ history of behaviour, and can find a pattern, you can now anticipate a certain behaviour. Anticipation is key because then you can teach your dog a new behaviour (one that you want) before they engage in the unwanted behaviour. If you know your dog jumps on you when you arrive home, teach them to get their toy, then engage in a game with them, they cannot jump on you while you are chasing them.
Becoming familiar with canine body language will also be a big factor in helping you determine why a behaviour is occurring. Thanks to research in this field we have a small window in to how our dogs might be feeling in a given situation. This is not to say that we always know how a dog is feeling, it simply gives us a hint, and put together with other observations you can usually come up with a reason for most behaviours.
If you become savvy with canine body language you will be able to respond to a situation on your dogs’ behalf before they feel the need to do so. If you can see your dog is tense when meeting a person or another dog you can move them out of the situation before they have to resort to biting, growling and other anti social behaviours. You will become your dogs support, you are a team and you should ‘have their back’.
Remaining objective, rather than adding emotional responses, to your dogs’ behaviour is much more effective in determining reasons for certain behaviour. Consider the following statements…
“My dog pulls on lead because he knows he’s more powerful than me”.
“My dog still goes to the toilet on the carpet even though he knows it makes me angry”.
The first part of these statements are helpful because they focus on behaviours we can see; pulling and toilet habits, these are behaviours that can be pinpointed and worked on. However, worrying about what your dog is thinking while engaging in such behaviours is counter productive, it creates a feeling of competitiveness and you should be working with your dog, not against them. When you are working to establish why a behaviour occurs your focus should be on the behaviours you can see rather than what you think your dogs is feeling.
We do not need to always know why a behaviour is happening in order to change it. Often unwanted behaviours can be changed just by reinforcing a new behaviour that you deem appropriate. If a behaviour is reinforced it will increase the likelihood of that behaviour occurring in the future. If you cannot work out why your dog barks at passing dogs it is OK, simply teach them to sit and watch you while dogs walk past, over time you will notice the change in your dog. Having a reason for your dogs’ behaviour is helpful, but not imperative for behaviour change.
You have an animal living in your home, who is not a human, it is up to you to get to know as much as possible about them, both as a species and as an individual. We all have our little quirks and some things cannot be explained, if this is the case just address the behaviour and save the interesting debate on ‘why’ during walks with your doggie friends.