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Why Dogs Do What They Do

It happened out of the blue!” “There was no warning!” “He just won’t listen anymore!”

While it might appear that a behavior “just happened,” there is always a function to the behavior — behavior happens for a reason, even if that reason may be difficult for us to detect. For example, while you’re sitting here reading this, you might shift in your chair slightly; maybe it’s because your wallet or phone is in your back pocket and it’s a little uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because you’ve been sitting in front of the computer for a long time, and the chair isn’t feeling quite as soft as it did earlier. Someone walking by you might not be able to detect exactly why you’ve shifted slightly, but you did it for a reason. In this case, it was to avoid further discomfort.

Here is a scenario that happened with a client: The client contacted me because a new behavior had popped up “out of the blue” with their dog. When it was time to leave the park, the dog would disappear, with the client reporting that it sometimes took over an hour to find the dog. Prior to the new disappearing act, the client reported a history of excellent recall, so were stumped as to what was going on. The human and dog were going to the same park, encountering the same playmates; and the client still brought super-tasty treats to reward recall, so no change on that front. From the client’s perspective, everything was the same in the park routine, but further investigation discovered the likely cause of the new “disappearing act” behavior. The client had recently traded in a small car for a larger vehicle. The old car didn’t have room for a crate in it, but the new one did, so in the interests of safety, the dog owner had begun crating the dog when traveling in the car. The client’s former partner shared in the dog’s care, drove a smaller car, and did not experience the evasive behavior at all. It turns out that the dog was just not crazy about the crate. The situation was addressed by switching to a seatbelt harness as an interim measure while we worked on helping the dog enjoy traveling in the crate. The evasive park behavior ceased.

The next time you find yourself puzzled by “why” your dog is engaging in a behavior, look at what happens right before the behavior and right after the behavior. Right before your dog engages in a behavior, something or someone in the environment will have served as the cue for it. In the case the disappearing dog mentioned here, the owner calling the dog and heading back toward the parking lot was acting as a cue for the dog to retreat further into the park, in an attempt to avoid being put into the crate.

When we talk about the function of a dog’s behavior, we’re referring to what outcome the dog is seeking. For example, is the dog trying to access something or avoid something? When walking a dog that enjoys meeting people, a stranger looking at them and talking to them may act as a cue to pull on the leash toward the person, as the dog seeks to decrease distance and greet them. But with a dog that is unsure of new people, the same behavior from the stranger may act as a cue for the dog to lunge and bark, as they seek to increase distance between themselves and the stranger. The dog that lunged and barked isn’t being “mean” here — the dog’s desire is simply to prevent the stranger from approaching any closer. When we recognize the dog’s need for space in situations like this, we can proactively engage by maintaining a buffer zone as people approach and pass.

It’s important to remember that behavior is an action; it’s something your dog does, rather than a label that describes what your dog “is.” Our dogs take action because they want something to happen. When you look at your dog’s behavior, look at it through the lens of what happened as a result of the behavior. Were they seeking access to attention, toys, play, food, other dogs, or comfortable places to rest? Or did the behavior help your dog escape or avoid something he finds unpleasant? Take note of the “before” and “after” when your dog does something you’re not crazy about. If you stop for a quick assessment, you’ll be better placed to identify what in the immediate environment has acted to cue the behavior and what outcome is fueling it.

Gee Hahn has been working with dogs for 15 years and has been a professional trainer for 13 of those years. She is a 2005 graduate of the SF SPCA’s Academy for Dog Trainers and went on to pursue a degree in animal behavior at the University of Chester in the UK. She is currently an instructor with the Dog Training Internship Academy, a part-time program of study for aspiring professional dog trainers. For more information about the Dog Training Internship Academy, Next session starts this January.

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Main article photo by: Liliya Petrova