Why’d My Dog Do That?    -By Roger Hild

Just the other evening a good friend and I were talking about some of the worrisome behaviors we had been observing in the dog training class we had just finished.  It had been my friend’s observation that many of the owners have no idea what is going on with their dog and are taken quite by surprise when the dog seems to suddenly “act out.”  Even after the event (behavior), there is usually no realization on the owners part, of any precipitating events and only a vague discomfort related to the possibility of the same pattern being repeated.  In addition to many owners (in general) being less effective in their training of the family dog, I believe they are also losing the ability to read their dog’s intentions.  The inability of many owners to accurately “read” their dogs and intervene at an appropriate time is alarming to say the least.  Are owners who are trying to understand and effectively modify their dog’s behavior, being thwarted by a campaign of misinformation?

Dogs are pretty honest and straightforward.  Much of their behavior is predictable to the student that watches closely.  With a bit of study, it soon becomes evident that there are usually many indicators and clues that precede the incident.  There are also certain contexts in which incidents are far more likely to occur.  So how have we managed to get so out of touch with what is really going on? 

To answer this question, I look to human emotionalism and sentimentality as being largely responsible.  We have gradually (over a period of years) been encouraged and conditioned to view our animals, not as they are but rather in some unrealistic, idealized manner.  There is a movement afoot that suggests that all behavior is emotionally based – the emotion most often referred to being fear – and further suggests all we need do is engage the animal in such a way as to avoid all “negative” emotions and promote only the “good” feelings.  Viewing our dog through this emotional smoke screen clouds our vision and prevents us from seeing the dog for who he is and also prevents us from correctly reading his intentions.

I think there is an agenda behind this push, to consider emotion above reason, when it comes to our animals.  If we were to stick to the “facts,” it is possible in any debate to support your point of view in a thoughtful, logical manner.  If you don’t have the facts on your side, the only alternative is to engage in an emotion-based argument and it is very hard to dispute feelings (or even to prove the feeling being claimed as genuine).  In the case of our dogs, it is used to promote an “always be kind” approach.  The problem is that there is no agreement as to what “kind” is.  Further, it is argued, that one should not correct a dog that is in the throws of some kind of emotional distress; or another variation of this argument is, any aversive or correction will cause emotional distress (read “fear”).  Thus, effective training methods have been dampened down by use of emotional argument.  At no time in history have dogs had it better as far as being “treated nice” is concerned and generally speaking, this has in no way improved behavior.  There are huge numbers of bratty dogs that are just plain rude or nasty and who have never known anything else but “nice.”  Despite all evidence to the contrary, we see dogs slowly being killed with kindness and it is reaching such alarming proportions that movements aimed at banning dogs is seriously being considered in some communities.

Any aberrant behavior, which the dog engages in, is not likely to be dealt with in any direct manner but is more likely to be explained away using emotional terms.  These days the in vogue term being used, as the push is on to replace action with “understanding,” is fear.  To listen to some “experts” one would think fear is the central theme of many problem dogs’ lives. We hear of fear-based behaviors, such as aggression, and it’s very interesting that there seems to have been a sharp rise in the incidence of “fear problems” and “issues” since the push toward ‘always be kind’ began.  I don’t for a minute doubt that dogs experience fear but I submit that there are very few that live in fear and those few that do quite likely have some genetic component contributing to their instability.  It is worth noting how in the wild, many is the animal who has had to flee for its life from some predator, only to be found a short time later living its life as it always does.  The animal remains vigilant but the fear has passed.  This pattern can be repeated many times and still the animal is not in a constant fearful state.  None of our dogs have experienced any of the sorts of traumas their wild cousins might have.  If there is truly a fearful state in some of our dogs, it is likely the kind of fear that stems from poor leadership (no one seemingly able to take charge or know what they are doing).

So why focus so much on fear and “past trauma?”  Having worked for over 27 years in the human mental health field, I believe I speak with some experience when I say that it is a human failing to sometimes tenaciously cling to past traumas.  Rather than help victims of some trauma work through their feelings and then move forward with their lives, some “experts” allow (even encourage) prolonged focus on the past to the point that it becomes crippling.  In this process where the victimization becomes permanent – there can be no getting on with life for this individual unless and until they let go of the victim status.

There is sometimes an attempt to apply the same “past trauma” dynamics to animals, however, most animals don’t have the time or inclination to engage in this kind of narcissistic, “poor me” excuse for not getting on with their life.  If we try to keep them in the victim role we run the risk of creating emotional cripples and in the process, perpetuating any problem behavior.

How does all this relate to how we read our dogs?  If we allow ourselves to buy into the subtleties of viewing dogs in the manner I have described above, we will not be able to see them as they are and will likely misread many of the signals they give us.  We might do some very dangerous and foolish things because we havn’t read the situation correctly such as:

  • See the dog stare at or make hard, direct eye contact and assume he only wants to say “Hi” or to play.
  • See the dog menacing or intimidating another and assume, “He must be frightened.”
  • Not recognize when the dog is taking an opportunity to move up the “status ladder.”
  • Assume all dogs want to “play” and therefore not watch closely enough when around other dogs.  If you thought there is a good chance your dog will get into a fight with a new dog maybe you’d watch a lot more closely.
  • Not really accept the dog’s need for strong, competent leadership.  (This point is always under attack in some way, shape or form by the “always be nice” folks.  They know that if they can hide this fact, they can eliminate the idea of being the “master” or owner).
  • Not recognize the appropriate points at which a leader should intervene - and do so in a clear, definite way. 
  • Invade a dog’s personal space causing him to feel cornered.  People assume that because they are approaching a dog that is tied or maybe on a “stay,” they can approach as long as they are coming to pat the dog and show affection.  They miss every signal that the dog sends that says, “I don’t want you here, I don’t want to be touched by you and leave me alone.”

Some time ago the notion was put forward of “calming signals.”  I submit that these signals are only a small part of the dog’s repertoire of signals and things he might wish to convey.  Again, if we only see the dog as wanting to promote peace and good will through his use of, “everybody be calm, relax and be happy” signals we will not look for the other messages he may be trying to send.  Dogs also have warning signals, help me out here signals, stay away signals, alarm signals, “I’m gonna’ kick your butt” signals etc. etc. etc. 

I think that dogs will be in trouble until we learn to take off the rose colored glasses and truly see them as they are.  Only then will we be able to communicate effectively and repair the widening rift that has been developing between man and dog.

No apologies, just my opinion