Why does my dog…? The age old question and before we start, know that this blog post is not about answering it. As a dog trainer I get asked this all the time, so I decided to flip it around and ask my friends on social media why they think their dogs do the things they do. Things like barking, digging, chasing cats, pulling on the leash and more. I got some great answers, some not so great answers and some hilarious answers. So first I would like to thank everyone that participated in my little experiment and please know that I am not going to embarrass any of you or call you out publicly.
I did this simply because it is a great question, maybe one of the most important. Why? Because it tells me you understand that there actually is a purpose in what they are doing. You see every behavior has a function. We may not understand what that is, but to your dog it may be very important. Many behaviors serve various functions, and finding out which one is key to understanding our dogs; and in some cases, helping them to find alternative ways to access those functions. Let’s take barking for instance. Is he barking because he wants you to play? Is he barking because he heard another dog and wants to join the conversation? Is there a burglar outside (paper sack blowing by), or maybe he’s been holding his knees together for the last hour and needs to go to the john.
If we don’t take the time and figure out what function the behavior serves, and instead try to suppress it through punishment, we end up with a dog that either shuts down and stops offering behaviors, (good behaviors included) or with a frustrated dog that eventually lashes out in a destructive or aggressive manner. You see, when we suppress behaviors instead of addressing them, the motivation is still there, and in fact can be made stronger. For instance if your dog lunges and barks at the mail man, and you punish him, his thought process is mailman appears, bad things happen to me, I hate the mail man.
Most dog owners have unrealistic expectations for their dogs. We expect them to understand everything we say although they don’t speak our language. We leave shoes, pillows and rugs (i.e. toys) out and then punish them when they destroy them. In short we are terrible communicators and yet we expect them to be great at it. Then there are those who don’t care what the function of the behavior is and only want obedience and compliance no matter what. To those I say fine, next time that paper bag tries to break in and steal your things, I hope your quiet dog watches the whole thing and laughs.
In conclusion, it is up to us to show them ways to achieve their goals in ways that are acceptable to us, and to stop setting them up for failure. This is done by paying attention to our dog, asking the right questions, building strong bonds, training and management.