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Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Trying to change a dog's behavior? Focus on the 'what,' not the 'why'

By GAIL FISHER
June 22. 2018 11:13PM
Is a dog being "stubborn" when he repeats an undesirable behavior, or when he fails to respond as the owner expects? Remember, dogs learn from success - from getting something desirable that reinforces their behavior. Further, it's important to recognize that "desirable" is from the dog's perspective, not ours. (Metro Creative Connection)



I lived in New York City after college with my first "own" dog. My neighbors in the apartment next door were a young couple with two beagles. We became friends, as people who walk their dogs together do, and so did our dogs.

One of their beagles - they were never sure which one - had an interesting behavior. Because the husband was the first to come home from work, he was responsible for the late afternoon walk. If he was late, he would often find that one of the dogs had moved her bowels in one of his shoes. Not next to, not nearby, but neatly deposited right inside, and never in his wife's shoe. If you were going to ascribe a reason for this behavior, what might it be? Anger? Spite? Revenge? "I'll teach him not to be late?" How can we know what emotion is motivating this behavior?

We often hear from owners who will attribute their dogs' undesirable behaviors to such things as "He's mad at me," or emotions such as jealousy, anger, guilt, shame, stubbornness and spite. But can you really say a dog is operating out of spite? Out of revenge? Is a dog being "stubborn" when he repeats an undesirable behavior, or when he fails to respond as the owner expects?

Remember, dogs learn from success - from getting something desirable that reinforces their behavior. Further, it's important to recognize that "desirable" is from the dog's perspective, not ours. There are many things that dogs do (eat, roll in, sniff and enjoy) that are repugnant to us. These activities are clearly reinforcing to the dog, or why else would they do it over and over, even when we show them our displeasure?

For example, have you ever seen a dog roll in something revolting? The dog sniffs the spot, gets a rapturous expression on his face and immediately lowers his shoulder to the ground to get as much of the horrible whatever-it-is on his body. Meanwhile you're screaming, "Stop! Ugh! Don't do it!" NO! NO! NONONONONO!!! By ignoring your hollering, is your dog being stubborn? Nope. He's being a dog.

So how might we eliminate what we perceive as "stubborn" (or any other emotion)? The answer is simple: We can't. Don't misunderstand. What I mean is that we can't address the feeling or emotion called "jealousy," or "spite," or "mad at me." What we can address is what the dog is doing - the dog's observable behavior. Defining the dog's specific actions rather than what we may think he's "feeling" is to "operationalize." When we operationalize observable actions, we can address the behavior, no matter what the dog's reason is for performing it.

Whether my neighbor's beagle was operating out of spite or another emotion doesn't matter. The solution was to address the behavior, which in this case amounted to management: Put the shoes away, fix the closet door so she couldn't get to the shoes, arrange the schedule to come home a half-hour earlier, or hire someone to walk the dogs in the event he was delayed.

No matter what the undesirable behavior is, rather than trying to figure out and label the emotion behind a dog's action - the "why" - define and operationalize specific behavior - the "what." Then use management, training or a combination to address it. In that way, we eliminate problem behavior, improve the dog-owner relationship and have a happier dog. A win-win-win.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog" and a dog behavior consultant, runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, which appears every other Sunday, email gail@alldogsgym.com or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.



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