Understanding Dog Behaviour
and why we advocate for the
Gentle Stress Free Approach
Our Dogs are doing their best to communicate with us.
Dogs have the mentality of a 2-year-old child. They understand a lot of what is going on and have very similar emotions. Just like a 2-year old child:
- Dogs do not understand delayed gratification
- Dogs are not logical
- Dogs can’t think into the future
- They can’t think about how someone else’s feelings influenced that person’s actions toward them (they don’t understand why they are in trouble)
- They can’t think about how their own actions affect other people’s feelings (they are not vindictive and don’t hold grudges)
Their behaviour is simply what they think they need to do, in response to what is happening to them right now.
Some people find it helpful to think of how you would react to a 2 year old child behaving in a similar way, to simplify what your dog needs, and how you should treat it at any particular time.
Dogs can’t tell us in words that:
- they are uncomfortable,
- They are a bit scared,
- They want to go home,
- They don’t like that person (etc).
They are VERY good at telling us with their body language though.
If we pay attention, our dogs are showing us with their eyes, ears, body shape, where they are moving to etc, exactly what they need – especially when they are not comfortable. When that information is not being acknowledged or acted on by us, they may growl get our attention, add more information, and be sure that we are listening. If we still don’t listen, they may then bite.
WE are NOT very good at LISTENING.
Learning to Listen
The first step toward improving a dog’s behaviour is to pay attention to what they are saying to us, and reacting accordingly. This is a very different way of thinking, when we have previously insisted that the dog is obedient, and does what we want, when we want. We need to pay attention to them and their body language or we will miss their communication. When we do miss it, they will move to the next step to get our attention.
Growling is good!
A growl is one of the dog’s ways of communicating, and it is usually appropriate. It is an indication that they don’t feel safe, they are requesting space or that they are afraid.
Normal Growling has developed over years of evolution, here are some examples of when it will happen:
- When a person, dog or animal tries to take something off a dog that they really want, they will probably growl – this is normal communication between dogs.
- When a dog is resting and doesn’t want to be disturbed, they may growl if someone insists on disturbing or patting them.
- When a dog is in pain or has been hurt, growling is normal. Sometimes the source of pain is not obvious to the owner (eg. Ear infection, rotten tooth, back pain, prostate pain, bladder infection), so sudden changes in behaviour, especially aggression indicates the need for a full health check.
- Dogs have never evolved a strategy for dealing with some human behaviours, so it is normal if they growl in response to hugging, teasing, removal of their food while eating, taking their highly valued toys away.
Punishing your dog for growling turns off the early warning system.
The best reaction is to talk to them and let them know that you understand, or at least know in your mind that they are trying to communicate that they are not happy. It is now up to you to work out what it is that they don’t like. They will be telling you with their eyes and body too. It is your job to give them space, move them to safety, ask the other people to move away (or whatever your dog needs)
Keep it simple. Do not ask for your dogs to do any tricks in order to receive food. When a dog is being fed once a day, they are very hungry at meal time, and food is the most important resource around at that time. Basic manners are important, but if your dog is hungry, let the dog eat and get out of the way.
Do NOT practice removing your dogs food while they are eating. They will not get used to this behaviour, they will get increasingly worried, and aggression around food will worsen over time. Don’t remove what they are eating unless you want to eat it yourself, or if what they are eating is unsafe for them. If food is a very highly valued resource for them, feed them more frequently so that the build up waiting for meal time is shorter, and the intensity of feelings by the time the food comes will not be as high.
Ensure your dog has their own space for when they need it. It needs to be theirs alone, and everyone needs to respect that space and teach the dog that if they choose to rest there, they will not be disturbed – they are safe. Leave them alone when there. Let them come to you when they are ready.
If they chose a piece of furniture that will not work for the rest of the family, and they growl to guard that spot, you may need to prevent access to the furniture in future. You can also work on teaching the command “get down” using positive reinforcement (lots of treats) to teach them what you need them to do.
Training that incorporates punishment will TURN OFF the early warning system. It teaches dogs that there is no value in trying to communicate, so no point growling. Some dogs will skip the growl and go straight to the bite, but the more devastating scenario is learned helplessness, in which the dog gives up and shuts down.
Punishment teaches dogs to stop what owners don’t want and replace that with an alternative behaviour. The dog does what it is told out of fear, rather than an understanding of what if wanted.
We aim to understand the motivation for the behaviour, so we can learn what is driving the behaviour. We need to deal with the emotion that is being felt by the dog, so it is no longer an issue, and as a result the problem behaviour will stop.
Not doing something is not the same as not wanting to do something anymore.