By Richard and Vicki Horowitz
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 sneakers 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 behaviors often is a matter of personal preference. Sometimes, they are just downright cute!
It is not uncommon, however, that we find dogs that engage in a long list of behaviors that serve to run the household on their terms. Only when an owner is confronted with a real “problem” that disrupts their enjoyment of their dog are these other controlling gestures identified and fixed.
Sometimes, we teach our dogs things we never meant to teach them. If we take Rover outside while we are 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 allow him to rush excitedly to the window to bark at any possible intruder? It’s a fun game at first, but not so much 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 comes from the subtle signals we respond to for attention: for example, a nudge of the hand, or bringing a toy or leash (or maybe something he’s not supposed to have at all to initiate a game of chase).
Our dogs will use these behaviors 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 behaviors that require a solution. What behavior does your dog initiate that you find endearing? What would you rather he stop?
Who is responding to whom is important to dogs; it’s part of how they figure out their relationships within their instinctive social structure, or pack. In the pack, 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 because pack 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 and stressful 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 desirable actions instead, you’ll be on your way to a happier dog—and a happier family.
Vicki and Richard Horowitz, of Woodbridge, are dog behavioral therapists and trainers with Bark Busters, the world’s largest dog training company. For more information, call 1-877-500-BARK (2275) or visit www.dog-training-new-haven-ct.com.