Compared to our hectic schedules, our dogs have very little to do or think about every day. Often, our dogs are simply observing the activity around them. They watch us, study us, and learn from us. Our dogs, therefore, become experts in understanding our behavior patterns.
We are creatures of habit so we have routines that we follow, and our dogs learn these routines, usually very quickly. They see a pattern and learn to predict our behavior based on the pattern. More importantly, they learn to use an understanding of our behavior patterns to get what they want.
For example, putting on a certain pair of sneakers may signal to your dog there’s a very good chance you’re going for a walk and he’s coming with you, so you find him waiting attentively at the door. He might learn that when you begin cooking dinner, his meal is soon to follow, so he’ll lay down next to his bowl in anticipation.
Without any conscious effort to teach our dogs what these kinds of signals mean, they learn them anyway and act accordingly. But most dogs will do more than just react to our signals: they try to initiate a behavior from us that they have seen before.
Instead of waiting patiently by the door, Rover might decide a walk is in order and bring your walking shoes to you. Or if he’s in the mood for a snack, he might bark at you from the kitchen to call you.
Whether these more assertive gestures are considered problem behavior often is a matter of personal preference. Sometimes, they are just downright cute!
It is not uncommon, however, when clients ask for help, that we find the dog engages in a long list of behaviors that serve to run the household on his terms. Only when an owner is confronted with a “problem” are these other controlling gestures identified and fixed.
Sometimes, we teach our dogs things we never meant to teach him. If we take Rover outside while gardening — pulling weeds and digging holes for plants — what do you suppose he’s learning to do? To try some gardening of his own, of course.
With a puppy, what does he learn when we ask, “What’s that? Who do you hear?” and he rushes excitedly to the window barking at any possible intruder? It’s a fun game at first, but not so when the puppy grows up believing that he has to defend your home from all of your friends.
The most common and least understood behavior we unwittingly teach our dogs are the subtle signals we respond to for attention. A nudge of the hand, bringing a toy, leash, or maybe something he’s not supposed to have at all to initiate a game of chase.
These behaviors our dogs will use to try to shape what we do. Most of it is quite harmless and even fun, but some of it can become annoying, and some may represent problem behavior that requires a solution.
What behavior does your dog initiate that you find endearing? What would you rather he stop?
Who is responding to who is important to dogs; it’s part of how they figure out their relationships within the social structure of the family. In the social structure, leaders are the center of attention and our dogs often discover that is exactly where they sit; we have inadvertently taught them to be leaders. Remember, they learn our behavior patterns, then they respond to them, then they try to manipulate them.
Most dogs don’t want to be in charge, however, because leadership can feel like too much responsibility. Without meaning to, we often give our dogs a feeling of too much authority, and that can be troubling for both owners and dogs.
What have you taught your dog inadvertently? What’s he learning today? When you recognize his and your patterns of behavior and use those to teach him, you’ll be on your way to a happy dog, and we all know the rest.
Jeri Wagner is a canine behavioral therapist and master trainer. Jeri uses a natural training system leveraging the same communication methods – body language and voice control – that dogs follow as part of their instinctive pack mentality. Training takes place in the home where the problems generally occur. Jeri trains in western Montgomery County, northern Chester County and eastern Berks County. For more information, call 1-877-500 BARK (2275) or visit www.barkbusters.com.
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