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Canine Behavior: Understanding Your Dog

Having a working knowledge of why your dog behaves the way they do can make a huge difference in how you go about training your dog, as well as daily life with your dog. The good news is that you don’t have to have a degree in animal behavior to “get it”. There is one thing that all animals have in common, even us-the instinct to survive. All animals take in information from their environments and use this information to learn if they will have a positive or negative outcome from a certain behavior. They learn from the consequences of their actions. Taking this one piece of fact and applying it in training and in daily life in a common-sense way can result in very favorable outcomes in training.

One thing you must understand is that your dog has needs and instincts that they need to practice. For example, puppies have a need and an instinct to chew and bite. Working-breed dogs have a need and an instinct to perform the jobs that the breed was designed to perform. Many of these instinctual traits, if not given an appropriate outlet, will turn into what we deem as destructive behavior. Of course, you can put a lot of effort and time into training these inherent traits out of your dog and, if done right, have reasonable success in doing so. But, if that is your intention, then begs the question “why would you get this breed?” It would be akin to bringing a retriever into your home and then spending countless time and energy training them that they must never retrieve a ball that is thrown.

Positive-reinforcement training works WITH your dog’s natural inclinations. One example of this, is that when we start training, we use food as a lure and reward to obtain the results/behavior that we want from the dog. Because food is a primary reinforcer, the dog will want to do what it takes to obtain the food. Because of your dog’s nature, he will want to perform the behavior that he has learned achieves the food. On the other hand, if your dog performs a certain behavior and has a negative interaction with his environment because of it, then your dog will learn to either remove the behavior OR remove the behavior from the situation. With receiving a positive consequence for his actions time after time, the dog learns the very specific behavior that is giving him the food. However, when a dog receives a negative consequence for his actions, there is not always clear learning going on. For example, if your dog is digging a hole in the yard in front of you (especially if he has already learned to enjoy this behavior uninterrupted when you aren’t around) and you provide a negative consequence, is it clear that digging is bad? Or is it clear that digging is bad only when you are around? The latter is much more likely and the negative association is applied to you-the owner, not to digging.

It is important to keep in mind when raising a puppy that nearly everything you are doing in response to your dog’s behavior is teaching your dog something. However, what it is teaching them isn’t up to you. You should understand that though A+B clearly equals C in your intellectual human mind, doesn’t mean that the answer is that clear to your dog, who lacks such advanced reasoning and learning skills. Don’t get me wrong, dogs aren’t dumb, they just have a different way of learning than we do. As a matter of fact, you would be extremely surprised at just how smart and capable of learning your dog is once you understand how they learn and how to most effectively teach them.

Oftentimes, it is the things that we humans do accidentally or without thinking that can throw a huge curveball in the training process. The recall is an excellent example. You teach your dog to come to you, sit, allow you to grab his collar and then you give him a treat. Most of the time, owners will decide that this behavior is solid enough to quit working on. At this point, the practice ends. The next time you have to actually use the recall, you are calling your pup away from something he shouldn’t be doing or something dangerous. He comes, he sits, you grab the collar and you shut him up in a crate, or you yell, or you take him away from the fun thing, choking him the whole way to safety. YOU have just changed the rules of the game, he doesn’t know it yet, but a few more times of that and he’ll figure it out. And when he figures it out, your recall and all the work you did building it is gone. Now let me explain, it is completely reasonable to think that if you are calling your dog away from, say, a moving car or a dangerous dog, that you will likely be upset, not have a treat on you, not be worried about a treat or anything other than getting your dog to safety. That is completely understandable! That is what you train the recall for, to keep your dog and others safe! But with every negative interaction with this or any behavior, you are taking away the positive association that had been built previously when training the behavior. To fix this, continue practicing the recall in low-risk situations where you are prepared with a toy or treat or affection. It is a balancing act, and you want the scales to always be tipped in your favor. So if something happens to tip the scales the other way, spend some time tipping those scales back.

Understanding canine behavior at a working level is much simpler than you think. If you can’t quite figure out from your own point of view how something could have gone so wrong in your training, take some time to reevaluate and try to see things from your dog’s perspective. Ask yourself, “Did I send a clear message? If so, was it the message I intended to send?” Your dog, like any animal, is looking out for their own survival AND their perception of their own best interests. Use this to your advantage! After all, you are the smarter animal, right?

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