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Why Do Dogs Do the Things They Do?

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

The Reason for Behavior Change: Made Easy

Why do dogs do the things they do? Understanding the science behind behavior, and therefore, behavior change, is what will not only allow you to understand your dog better, it will also help you figure out how to modify your dog’s behavior on your own. The more you understand about behavior, why changes occur in behavior, and how to achieve a desired behavioral result, the better the relationship you will have with your dog.

So, why do dogs do the things they do? In short, the only reason why a dog does anything is because it works. Well, what works, exactly? The behavior the dog is displaying works to achieve a desired result.

Let’s break that down a little bit and get more specific.

Example 1: Jumping on the counter works to get the food scraps that were left out.

Example 2: Pulling on the leash works to get the human to walk faster.

Example 3: Barking at the door when the dog wants to come inside works to get the humans to open the door.

Example 4: Biting people works to get the scary guest to give the dog some space.

Example 5: Barking at other dogs works to get them to go away.

Discordance in the home occurs when the behavior a dog chooses to display is different from the behavior the owner wants the dog to display. The owner can actually get a dog to change behavior by ensuring that the dog doesn’t get what she wants when she displays the undesirable behavior, and she does get what she wants when she shows desirable behaviors.

In order to implement this, we must first determine what the dog wants. Let’s follow Example 1 (above) through a little further. A dog is jumping on the counters to eat the leftovers. This means the dog wants food. What would we tell a client in this scenario?

  1. Manage the problem: Ensure the counters are kept clean at all times, with no access to food. This is ensuring that the dog doesn’t get what she wants when she does jump on the counter.

  2. Undesirable behavior goes extinct: The dog will continue trying to jump on the counter to access food, but the dog's efforts are fruitless (no pun intended!) every time; therefore, the dog will decide to do something else more often.

  3. Find an appropriate alternative behavior: Would it be more appropriate if every time you are in the kitchen, the dog goes to the bed in the corner and waits? Finding an appropriate alternative is crucial, otherwise the dog may choose to replace the behavior with something even worse.

  4. Teach the alternate behavior: Have a training session or two to teach the initial behavior of going to the bed while you're in the kitchen.

  5. Reinforce the alternate behavior frequently: Whenever you see the dog on the bed at all, be sure to deliver lots of treats. Continue giving the dog treats as long as he/she continues to sit on the bed.

  6. We have manipulated access to the desired result to achieve the behavior that we want!

In the end, we would end up seeing a dog who is more often than not, going to the bed to get food tossed rather than checking the countertops for food that will never be there again.

On the other hand, it is also important to ensure that desirable behaviors will work to get the dog the desired reinforcement. If your dog is really excited to see you, runs up to you, and sits politely, be sure to pet the dog and give him/her attention! If the dog decided to wait calmly on the “place” all throughout dinner, be sure to reward the dog. Nobody works for free, including animals!

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