Dogs are many things, but spiteful is not one of them. They do not plan ahead to get back at you for leaving to go to work, nor do they artfully wait until you are out the door to exact revenge upon your carpet or door molding. Dogs, as Jean Donaldson puts it in Culture Clash, think in terms of safe vs dangerous rather than good vs evil or moral vs immoral. Since they are motivated to keep themselves safe and out of danger, it is very important to help them understand what safe is and to feel as comfortable as possible, especially when first introducing them to your family.*
With this in mind, I try to help clients understand what their dog needs to be successful in their home, by helping them see the world from their dog’s point of view. Not only is the canine perspective on the world a lot lower to the ground, it is from a different species with a less convoluted brain and no language skills (think in terms of Frat boys and you get the picture…).
I found a wonderful article** by Irith Bloom, the Director of Training at The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles about understanding the canine perspective. In one section, she does a superb job of describing what it must be like for a newly adopted dog who is anxious and worried about being left, and how we humans mis-interpret the actions of the dog. What we perceive of as acting guilty for wrongdoing, the dog sees as appeasement gestures to try and get his people to stop being angry. Sadly, this cycle of misunderstanding behavior inevitably sets up both humans and canines for failure:
One classic example of how canine instincts and poor communication can have devastating results is the all too common story of the rescue dog who has been placed in a new home and has a touch of separation anxiety due to several recent transitions. When the dog finds himself left alone in the house, he panics, urinates, and scratches at the door. While it’s dangerous to anthropomorphize, it’s reasonable to assume the dog is stressed at being isolated from his new-found family, and he may even “think”—in some canine way—that the family will never return now that they have left.
The family comes back at the end of the day to find their home a mess. They yell at the dog, who throws all his best calming signals at the family in an effort to placate them, and becomes even more anxious about the situation in his new home. At some point, the family leaves again, and the anxious dog engages in more destructive behavior. Day after day, this pattern continues. The family is sure that the dog knows he’s being bad while they are out, since he “acts so guilty” when they come home. This makes them yell at him even more.
Unfortunately, they don’t understand that the dog does not associate the family’s current anger with actions he took hours earlier, and that his behavior has nothing to do with guilt. The dog has learned that when the family comes home, scolding ensues, so he throws calming signals at the family in an effort to avert it. He doesn’t understand why his calming signals aren’t working, or what exactly is causing his family to be so angry. This makes him more and more anxious, so he becomes increasingly destructive. In the end, the dog’s fear of permanent separation from his family is realized, when the family, at their wits’ end, drops the dog off at the local shelter.
So what’s an owner to do? If your dog is having behavioral issues*** such as: destructiveness, barking, whining, house training problems, lunging or snarling at other dogs or people, or trembles at the sight of anything new then, first, understand that your dog is not doing this to hurt or spite you. He is likely fearful and needs some help to overcome his difficulties. Please contact a positive reinforcement trainer**** who can help you to better understand what your dog is trying to communicate and how you can better communicate to him that life is good and safe.
*This is why it is so important to properly socialize your puppy, so that he understands that kids, bikes, lawn mowers, vacuums, sidewalks, men with beards, wagons, snow blowers, teenage boys with iPods, golden retrievers, scooters, steps, etc are all safe things! See my blog: Why your puppy should be a social butterfly and Bringing home your new best friend.
**This essay was a contribution to the Dogwise John Fisher Essay Scholarship (sponsored by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers).
*** I have written several blogs on behavioral issues. See Behavior or “What the heck?” for a variety of blogs on behavior. For specific puppy issues see: This is not the dog I wanted, and Fearful puppies, biting adults, an unhappy alliance.
**** The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) offers a trainer search by zipcode, and I do behavior consults as well as training. Please call if you have any concerns about your dog’s behavior, 740-587-0429
Blog Posts by Category
- Training or “Why, Why, WHY?”
- Behavior or “What the heck?”
- Informational or Doggie Demographics
- Care and management or living together in harmony
- Philosophy of training or “Why be positive?”
- Toy Box or stuff that doesn’t fit neatly elsewhere
- Plato’s Forms Explained in Terms of Dogs. May 16, 2019
- Puppy Vaccinations: How they work and why your pup needs so many. April 1, 2019
- Does your dog bark, lunge, snarl, or growl when on leash? You are not alone! March 1, 2019
- Aging With Canines February 8, 2019
- Sometimes it is the dog, not the owner. January 16, 2019