Understanding dog behavior

The following ten facts and tips will give you a greater insight into dog behavior, and help make training easier.

Training a dog is a tricky business — especially when you’re not in tune with his actions. This list of common behaviors will help you better understand your companion, and make training him a lot simpler.

1. A dog is a dog

A lot of people make the mistake of trying to communicate with their dogs the same way they would another person. Although dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, they still live by the same rules and exhibit many of the same behavior patterns as their wild ancestors. One of the first things you need to do to effectively train your dog is realize he has different needs than you do.

2. Dogs have a pack mentality

In the wild, dogs have always lived in packs. They instinctively know that living with others, under the leadership of a dominant member of the pack, enhances their chances for survival. Pack animals not only want to live with others, but want leaders who are strong, consistent and fair. You need to model these characteristics to be accepted as the pack leader and have your dog respect and obey you.

3. Dogs don’t understand English

To believe dogs fully understands human-based communication is as unreasonable as thinking we know everything they are saying when they bark. A dog’s vocal communication is limited to barking, growling, whining, and other sounds. By understanding how he vocalizes, you will be better able to know when you may be telling him one thing while your tone is telling him something completely different.

4. Dogs are not spiteful

People often say things like, “My dog chewed the furniture because I left him.” There are a number of reasons why dogs misbehave, but spite is not one of them. Dogs don’t reason like we do, so they cannot disobey out of spite.

5. Understand what causes aggression

“You can take the dog out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out the dog.” This means simply that a dog’s natural instincts are never far below the surface, and sometimes manifest as aggression. A dog will only do what his instincts tell him to do, unless trained otherwise. The most common cause of aggression is fear of the unknown – whatever the dog cannot understand or recognize as normal. When a dog is frightened, he will react in one of two ways: fight or flight. One of your responsibilities is to maintain your leadership so you can teach him what is acceptable and what is not.

6. Body language is his main mode of communication

Dogs rely heavily on body language to communicate what is on their minds. A person’s body language can very easily be misinterpreted by a dog. If a dog jumps on you, for example, and you respond by pushing him down with both hands, he may think you want to play.

7. You can teach your dog to think

You can’t teach your dog to reason the way you do, but you can teach him to think. Dogs are continuous learners and have good memories. The three things that primarily influence his behavior are association, instinct and experience. Dogs recall information with associative stimuli. For example, you cannot explain to your dog, as you would a child, not to eat food off the floor. The only way for him to get that lesson is to eat off the floor and learn through voice correction and body language that this is an unwanted behavior. By conditioning your dog, and effectively showing him what you consider good and bad behavior, you can help him change.

8. Unwanted behaviors are often natural

To most humans, behaviors such as digging, chewing and jumping are unacceptable, but to dogs they are natural. In order to teach a dog which behaviors are and are not acceptable, you need to associate an unwanted behavior with a negative experience, such as a disapproving tone of voice, and good behavior with a good experience, such as praise or a treat.

9. Know the right way to correct him

Dogs will only do what comes naturally or what they have learned through association; therefore it is not productive or even logical for humans to get angry with them. Physical force is both inappropriate and counterproductive. As well, your dog will only comprehend your message if it is delivered in a timely manner. A correction must be issued at the precise moment the dog is actually doing something wrong. Similarly, rewards should be given immediately upon the performance of good behavior.

10. Dogs sense the world differently from humans

Smell is the most dramatic sensory difference between humans and dogs. Dogs have about 25 times more olfactory (smell) receptors than humans and can sense odors at concentrations many times lower than humans can. Their night vision is also better and their hearing more acutely developed. The distance from which a dog can hear things is four times further than for a human. A dog’s hearing is also selective — he can sleep beside a blaring TV but wake up as soon as he hears something unrelated to the TV, like the can opener. Dogs only process things they want to hear; make sure your voice is one of those things!