A psychological insight between owner and dog
What tempted me to write on this subject was the amount of behavioural problems that beset so many owners. They have brought their dogs to my practice in the hundreds each year and as part of my work, I explain to owners what makes their particular dog tick. Part of any consultation that I undertake is giving an insight into the dog’s mind. Dog ownership is about rules, consequences and relationships, not too dissimilar to people hence why dogs are the most successful export from the wild to the domestic human environment. They learn, are adaptable, omnivorous in behaviour repertoire as well as nutrition.
The Dog learning jigsaw
Dog-owner relationships can be very mixed up, resulting in the owner’s belief system conflicting with their dog’s behaviour; if the owner has a belief system concerning his dog and how to control it, which lacks true understanding of the dog’s actual instincts and capabilities, then the chance of trouble lying ahead is high. It is of great concern how owners have difficulty getting solid advice in the internet jumble of mixed up and often fanatical belief systems to which they are exposed, telling them that they are bad or wrong if they don’t do what the armchair hobbyist tells them to despite this person being no wiser than most people. Experienced dog owners tend to accumulate acquired knowledge by trial and error; in time the relationship forms into equilibrium of give and take. Not very different to what we do in social interactions with other people.
I accept that it is difficult not to see our dogs as little humans; they often seem to understand our lives and problems and to provide comfort when needed. It’s all too easy to imagine that they feel in the same way as we do and that they think and reason just like us. I, too, sometimes talk to my dogs, explaining my feelings or delivering a diatribe to them about the day’s events. They listen, look at me and wag their tails as if in understanding. In fact they are reactions to my body language and direct attention to them. From the dogs’ view something exciting may happen other than me babbling about the traffic queues today. Many of us do this and it can be beneficially therapeutic. The problem is when we stop viewing it merely as a form of release and start to believe that our dog really understands what we’re saying. When owners cannot discern their dog’s real limits of reasoning then they can become frustrated or feel let down by their furry friend when their dog in other circumstances appears to be difficult.
All dog training is link learning
Many of my clients relate stories to me of their dog’s amazing abilities and the fact that their dog knows their mind or intentions before the owner does. So let’s explore how dogs learn and like a chain, add more links with each accumulative experience and/or interaction between dog and owner.
How Dogs Learn
Dogs learn by association: that is why they react to the sound of the lead being rattled or the car keys and really spring to attention when the tin opener appears at meal times. They don’t, however, relate backwards or forwards in time to a behaviour in the way we do, apply reasoning or rational thought. A dog that has chewed your best shoes ten minutes ago won’t understand if you show him the shoes and then rant on. Dogs’ minds simply don’t function that way; if you catch your dog while he’s chewing he may associate your displeasure with the act of chewing, however, he may equally associate chewing shoes as being wrong only if it’s done in front of you; after all, if he chews when you’re not around he isn’t reprimanded, alternatively he may feel you want his possession (the shoes) so you can have a good chew. The dog decides what he has learnt from the incident no matter what we might want or presume to impose; that is why most effective training methods work by teaching dogs what we wish them to learn as opposed to waiting for them to develop bad habits.
A dog’s behaviour is basically governed by instinctive survival drives for living in the wild like their cousins the Grey Wolf. These inherited modes of behaviour regulate how a dog will relate with humans and other dogs; usually it doesn’t take dogs and owners long to come to an amicable arrangement for a peaceful co-existence, but this process is ongoing. It’s up to us – as the supposedly more intelligent species – to try to understand our dog’s mind: How it functions and what we can do to accommodate its natural needs and produce a relationship that is smooth and mutually enjoyable. Whatever you do, don’t stop talking to your dog. They love it and we love it, but do bear in mind that we are different species with limits of communication.
Key Body Language
My dog Dieter, a German Shepherd, has learnt an array of body language communications from me by formal dog training and from observational signals I may unwittingly communicate. I have taught him that if I get on all fours in my attempt to be doggy my physical nudges for play and games are the trigger (link) for this play, which only happens when I get down on the floor. No verbal commands are issued.
He has also learnt like most dogs that the Kong on a rope is to play retrieve, scent search and have investigative fun and games, which he enjoys because it’s fun time. Dogs, similar to children aged about two years old, do not get bored with repetitive entertainment and as the pack leader, time with him is a big plus too. This conditioning to a very high degree is not simply for play, but to help me focus his mind on what I want him to learn through a toy. Conditioning responses are a powerful vehicle for learning. I will use that same toy as a focus point for teaching tracking (scent work), recall and basic obedience commands too. It becomes a primary motivator.
Now let us look at other learning of Dieter’s own volition. When I switch the TV off by remote in the evening, he reacts to the electronic sound as a prelude for a quick tickle – link one – this he has learnt by initial sound association and the remaining links in this chain are me rising from the chair, opening a specific door to the garden and – the final link – his freedom to roam in the garden before bedtime.
Another sound and observation combined is the prelude to an adventure, me putting my shoes on, followed by a coat and finally car keys collected; Dieter himself has placed these sound and actions into a chronological order for an exciting walk. As a puppy all these actions were unknown to him. After a year I decided to alter the order of the sound and observational links and examine how he would cope.
I now put my coat on first, after a few days practice, he reassembled the links and now reacts excitedly to the coat first. Whichever, order I follow and providing I am consistent for about seven lessons, he learns that the new order of links equals his walk via the car. Dieter has adapted the links in the new order that bring his walk as the highlight of his day. This is also an example why dogs can change bad behaviours to good behaviours by re-training and providing the motivation, which has to be more potent than the links to the bad behaviours learnt and already established.
Like most dogs and I am sure your own dog, Dieter has made further links to the arrival of visitors and what that means. Some greet him more enthusiastically than others and he has decided who are close and who are more remote pack members; they each receive relevant doggy greetings and vocal responses, which are reciprocated according to the visitor’s view of a 90 pound dog saying hello.
Many clients complain about their dog’s over effusive greetings to visitors, reciprocated or not. The dog’s behaviour often is simply a learnt result of the visitors’ responses, control visitors’ responses and over friendly dog behaviour is easily modified. The subliminal first link the dog learnt here was the doorbell or knocker.
Lunch is served
Food delivery is probably the most powerful learnt link and you will know which set of actions sets off your dog for excitement at dinnertime. Talking of time, I always feed at different times, but dogs do have an inbuilt clock and if you feed at a certain time they begin to become active or give you that look – nudge nudge wink – of anticipation, especially if you go past the regular clock time for food delivery. Yes, they truly enjoy reminding us of what they want!
Walking my local woods, which has about 1000 deer within, I often see people struggling with their dog’s chase/predatory behaviours and one day walked alongside an owner and his dog that was firmly on a lead. When, as happens on most walks, a herd of deer suddenly rushed by at full speed his dog began to yap and want to chase, whilst Dieter off lead and nearer the deer immediately looked at the deer then turned on cue and looked immediately at me. This occurred twice more on the same walk. The man naturally enquired how I had achieved this control. I explained through dog training, but moreover that Dieter learnt at 12 weeks on a long line that running off was not what I wanted and looking at me was more rewarding. This embedded through training and the odd tug on the line produced a well-trained dog at the critical learning point in his mind’s development. In essence I had trained him to ignore his natural (normal) innate chase/predatory behaviour and respond to an alien abnormal behaviour that we call “recall training”. I replaced the natural chase innate link reward within my reward and maybe a throw of a Kong to chase and not the deer. He was still chasing, but rubber was the focus not fur.
Really Clever dogs
I have had only one dog in my kennels that could unbolt a gate and knock the bolt to the left with his nose, then pull the gate backwards toward him to escape the kennels and bingo get his reward – enter my office for company. All my staff were amazed by his intelligence; unfortunately, I had to point out to them that out of perhaps ten thousand dogs we had kept he was the only one, so was he really so intelligent? Of course I was being mischievous in one sense, but I wanted them to critically examine this dog’s action, cleverness and what he had learnt. Moreover, why was he the only one, though many dogs had tried?
The first time I saw him do this he approached the locked gate with learnt specific intention not puzzlement. He executed a number of tried and tested actions with his nose and paws on the lock and gate that indicated previous experience. In other words, past links to success were already learnt, however, the difficulty with our gate was that once the bolt had been knocked to the left with his nose it opened inward towards him; this was not a learnt link in his mind and he failed initially. He was puzzled. A gate he had previously conquered must have been opening away from him, because once he unbolted our gate he pushed the gate away by jumping up on it – this did not work, a link was missing from the dog enigma of link learning. He never approached the gate like other dogs, just jumping up and yapping. He went through a set of tried and tested actions that had produced results in his past, thus he was defeated by a gate opening towards him. Eventually he mastered this link and once learnt, we could not keep him in as the final link and success gave him freedom and access to us, which was his intention. I simply added another security device to the gate for his own safety, unfortunately for him, that he could not master. It did not stop him trying though.
I have dealt with dogs that have learnt to open fridge doors, that, thereafter, owners have added more complex locking features and their dogs have mastered them too. In fact if the reward is sufficient, clever dogs can work out all sorts of complex solutions in the home, including opening boxes with food in them, otherwise known as bins. Of course this adaptable link learning behaviour in the wild would be and is, of great benefit to wolves that apparently are much superior to domestic dogs at problem solving. Our dogs simply use that wolf intelligence to their own ends and to gain as many benefits that they want in our company. Not all are what we want, for example, scaling a six foot garden fence and running off, but that’s a dog being a dog.
Are dogs not fantastic? Let me know your dog’s clever antics and I will put the best ten on my web site for others to enjoy.
This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Colin Tennant for the CFBA, the CIDBT, and their students of Animal Behaviour