A dog’s changing behavior

Culture Clash
Jean Donalson’s book The Culture Clash is one that I recommend to people who want to know more about the nature of the human-canine bond and how dogs struggle to understand a world so very different from their own. Ms. Donaldson is quite adept at presenting the canine point of view as well as bringing humans up short for their inept behavior concerning their dogs.  The Whole Dog Journal sends me regular emails with tidbits about dogs, oftentimes referencing experts and their books. Here is a recent one about changing behavior in dogs from The Culture Clash:

People are terribly mystified by any change in their dog’s behavior and go on a lot with the “why? WHY?” as though there should never be any variability whatsoever in this living organism’s behavior. Training regressions are a frequent occurrence and no big deal. It is so important to remember that behavior is always in flux, constantly subjected to whatever contingencies there are in the environment as well as being influenced by unknown internal events. In the case of behavior problems, there are three main reasons for behavior that had seemed to be “fixed” to break down again:

  1. Undertraining: the behavior was never that strong in the first place
  2. Contingency change: the behavior extinguished or another one was trained by the owner or environment
  3. Failure to generalize: the behavior falls apart in a new location or context

A “contingency change” example: Inadvertent New Rules


A contingency change might look like the following. The dog has learned that it’s safe and often reinforcing to urinate in the yard and dangerous in most places he has tried in the house and so a fairly solid yard habit is in place. The owner has become upset about the yellowing of grass from dog urine and has decided to limit the dog to eliminating in one corner of the yard. The owner takes the dog on leash at elimination times for a couple of weeks, always going to one corner and praising the dog for urinating. The first couple of times the dog goes out off leash, she urinates in the wrong area. The owner punishes the dog. On the third day, the dog will no[t] urinate in the yard. The owners sees this and takes the dog for a walk. The dog has a very full bladder and finally urinates and is praised by the owner. The owner likes the idea of the dog urinating on the walk rather than in the yard and 61_dog_peeing on mailboxstarts taking the dog around the block to eliminate, which is successful and keeps the yard urine-free.


A few months later, the owner is in a rush to prepare for guests arriving so lets the dog into the yard to pee while finishing the cooking. The dog does not urinate in the yard and comes back in full. When the guests arrive, the owner puts the dog on leash to calm one of the visitors who is afraid of dogs. The dog urinates on the Persian rug. The owner thinks the dog sensed that one of the guests didn’t like her and urinated to demonstrate her resentment. In fact, the dog has learned to urinate when on leash only, based on the new contingencies inadvertently set up by the owner. Dogs aren’t into big agendas. They just need to know where and when it’s safe to pee.

I like this example because it shows: 1) how easily we can misinterpret our dogs’ motivations, making them much more complex than they really are; and 2) if our dogs are now making mistakes, perhaps we need to consider what we have changed in their routine or if we have inadvertently taught them to do exactly what we don’t want them to do!

Other End of the LeashAnother book which speaks to the bond between people and dogs, and the importance of understanding that what we do on our end of the leash directly impacts the behavior of the creature on the other end of the leash, is Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book The Other End of the LeashDr. McConnell is an Applied Animal Behaviorist who deals with serious canine behavior problems on a daily basis. She is also, however, a dog trainer, breeder, competitor in dog herding trials, and a dog owner who understands just “how easy it is for us humans to miscommunicate to our dogs.” Her clear and approachable writing style makes this compendium of personal and professional experience translate into terms that help people to better appreciate and communicate with their particular canines and, moreover, to love the dog they actually have.  As she so eloquently states:

Perhaps one of the kindest things that you can do for your dog is to understand that, just like us humans, every dog has both a unique nature and a bevy of characteristics that he shares with others and that this bedrock foundation of “personality” is influenced each second by internal and external factors that impinge upon him throughout the day. Every dog is indeed special, and he deserves a human who gives him permission to be who he is, whether it’s sweet and shy or bold and cocky.” (The Other End of the Leash, pg. 207)

By understanding that our dogs don’t have ulterior motives, that they have distinct personalities and preferences, and that they are watching us for clues to how this world works, The Culture Clash and The Other End of the Leash help us not only to enjoy our dogs more, but to be the best possible advocates for the goofy, wonderful canines that populate our lives.

Puppy Twister

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