Dog Behaviour: The Basics

This is for general information purposes. Please consult your veterinarian and other pet professionals when making decisions regarding the health, safety, and wellbeing of your dog.

Dog trainers are often called in to help when little problems have become big problems — problems that could have been prevented or easily changed with early intervention and a little knowledge about how dogs learn.  If you have a dog or are planning to get a dog, this information is certainly not all you need to know, but it will get you started on the right track and help you and your dog have a happy, healthy relationship.

Effort was made to provide information that is based on current scientific research accepted by many reputable dog trainers from around the world.  Research on dog behaviour continues to expand and it’s essential to seek advice from professionals who keep themselves educated and open to new information.  Unfortunately many current trainers (including celebrity trainers) are using techniques based on inaccurate information and physical or psychological discomfort. Be careful about getting training advice from television shows because the purpose of these shows is to entertain rather than inform.

Stages of development

Genes determine the “building blocks” of a dog’s temperament but factors in the environment play a large role in shaping it.  Dogs go through stages of development that greatly affect their behaviour as an adult dog, and knowing a bit about these stages can help you raise a well-adjusted dog from puppyhood through adolescence and into adulthood.  If you are getting a dog from a breeder, you can ask important questions to find out if the puppies have been set up for “behavioural success” in later life. If you have an adult dog, knowing about these stages of development will help you understand possible causes of your dog’s behaviours and the most appropriate approach to take if you’re trying to modify these behaviours. For example, if your dog’s unruly behaviour is fear-based, you need to work on changing his feelings about his triggers before you can have much success with modifying these behaviours.  It’s important to note that the timeline for the developmental stages is not exact with every dog and different breeds mature at different rates.

One of the most important stages of development is the socialization period from 3 weeks to 12 weeks. It is at this stage where dogs learn how to react appropriately to other dogs, humans, and things in their environment, and it is essential that dogs have many positive experiences with new places, sounds, smells, and sights, keeping safety in mind (e.g. protecting from exposure to disease, physical injuries, etc.). At 12 weeks a dog’s socialization window begins to close rapidly, making it extremely difficult to introduce your puppy to new things.  A dog with poor socialization during his first 12 weeks can suffer from “neophobia” (a fear of new things) for his entire life.  Clear signs of aggression or fear in a puppy are red flags and should be addressed before the 12-week window begins to close.   Be sure to seek a reputable positive reinforcement trainer skilled in “dog friendly” behaviour modification techniques because using correction-based methods will likely result in making the problems worse.  Ignoring the problem is not a suitable option either as your puppy is unlikely to “grow out of it.”  Socialization during the first 12 weeks of a puppy’s life is critical, but it’s important to note that a dog still needs adequate and appropriate socialization for the rest of his life in order to maintain those skills and prevent de-socialization.

Another important stage of development dog owners need to be aware of has to do with fear periods: developmental periods that dogs go through where they fear new things.  This is a biological survival mechanism designed to teach an animal that there are things in the environment that can harm.  Some dogs show minimal changes in behaviours during this time while other dogs exhibit extreme behaviours. A sign that your dog is experiencing a fear period can include a fear of things he knows well and hasn’t been afraid of before (e.g. a pillow, the garbage can).  A fear of loud noises or things that move suddenly are not necessarily signs of a fear period; those are usually normal responses, but if your dog’s reaction to these things seems more extreme than usual, it can be a sign that your dog is in a fear period.

The first critical fear period begins around 12 weeks and the second at around 6 months, sometimes called a “soft” period.  Some breeds will experience a third fear period at around 12-14 months.  The fear periods can last from around a week to several months in some cases, depending on the dog’s experiences during the fear periods and how the owner responds. If a dog experiences something extremely stressful during a fear period, it can cause a lifetime fear of whatever thing the dog associates with the experience.  For example, if a dog is spayed/neutered during a fear period that dog may have a lifetime fear of vet clinics, people in lab coats, or a smell or sound associated with the experience.  This is also another reason why dog parks should be avoided during a fear period: you have little control over dog-dog interactions and a negative experience with an aggressive or rowdy dog could cause a lifetime fear for your dog.

Socialization: Tips for doing it right

It’s important that a puppy is well socialized when he is under 12 weeks and that his social skills are maintained throughout his life.  This means numerous opportunities to experience new places, people, and animals, but these opportunities need to be POSITIVE experiences for the dog.  When life happens and things don’t go as planned, it’s important to know how to respond to try to minimize the damage a negative experience can cause.

It’s essential that you respond appropriately when your puppy shows fear because your response can make things worse.  There is much to know and it’s best to consult a reputable professional, but there are some key things to remember to get you started. Allow your dog keep the distance he wants and let him approach at his own pace; to help things along you can try to build positive associations with the “scary thing” by pairing it with something your dog loves (e.g. food, toys, play).  Avoid picking up your dog unless he is extremely distressed or if his safety is in doubt (e.g. the dog approaching is out of control or much larger) because many dogs dislike being picked up and doing so could add to their stress.  If you have to pick up your dog, try not to remain in the same spot but move away from the “scary thing.” When it’s safe, try setting your dog down again to see if he’s more comfortable at that new distance.

Sometimes fear-based behaviours can look like aggression and many experts estimate that 90% of aggressive behaviours are due to fear.  Many dog owners have made the mistake of trying to correct fear-based behaviours with punishment, often making the fear worse and the resulting behaviours more extreme. (See “The Problems with Punishment.”)

One of the best things you can do is learn to read your dog’s early stress signals so you can intervene early to help ensure a positive experience (or at least keep the experience from becoming overly traumatic).   Some of the early signals are very subtle and can be overlooked as meaningless, such as nose licks, ground sniffs, and yawning.  There are many different signs to look for, and each dog will have his favourites, so be very observant and learn to read your dog’s stress signals. Watch for displacement behaviours.

Socialization efforts often compete with the need to protect a puppy’s immune health because the socialization window closes before a puppy has had a full set of vaccinations.  With new vaccines and some precautions, many experts believe that it is safe to provide some early socialization opportunities such as a well-run puppy class (starting as early as 7-8 weeks as long as the puppy has had his first set of shots at least 7 days prior to the first day of class). For more information about balancing socialization needs and health needs, check out the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on puppy socialization. If you decide not to bring your puppy to a puppy class until he’s had a complete set of shots, there are other socialization options you should try.  Many positive reinforcement trainers will offer at-home private puppy classes and reputable trainers can show you how to socialize your puppy safely.

Some cautions you should keep in mind when socializing your dog (puppy, adolescent, or adult) have to do with dog parks and poorly run doggie daycares. As well as the risk of illness from dogs of unknown health, dog parks and poorly run doggie daycares lack proper supervision and often contain aggressive dogs and very rude dogs. A bad experience or two can create problems for your dog that can last a lifetime, and you definitely don’t want to take a puppy or adolescent dog to a place where negative experiences are likely to happen.

Things can also go very wrong when you allow your dog to meet another dog while walking on a leash.  Disease and parasites aside, there are serious behavioural problems that can result. Firstly, a leash prevents a dog from getting distance from a scary thing, and when he is unable to get away from it, his only other option is to fight (or put on a good show with distance-increasing behaviours like lunging, barking, growling).  Secondly, walking on a leash prevents dogs from using their polite greeting behaviours and restricts their natural movements, often resulting in negative, aggressive interactions.  Thirdly, many owners make the mistake of letting overly excited dogs meet, thereby reinforcing low-impulse control behaviours (e.g. pulling, lunging, and vocalizing) with a high value reinforcement (e.g. greeting another dog) and run the risk of sensitizing the dog to future encounters. Each time the dog sees another dog he will likely become even more excited and his behaviours will increase in intensity.  Well-meaning people who say “Oh, just let them meet and they’ll settle down” are helping to make things worse.  If someone insists on approaching you to let her dog meet your dog, even after you’ve asked her not to, walk the other way and tell her your dog is contagious. Ringworm, dog lice, kennel cough – take your pick.

There are many good resources you can consult for more information on how to socialize your dog.  The APDT has an excellent free webinar called Socializing Your Puppy Right, and Dogwise.com is a great resource for books from reputable trainers with titles you may be able to find at your local pet store, bookstore, or library.

Training Basics

In every interaction you have with your dog you are teaching something. Are you teaching that barking gets him what he wants, nipping keeps the game going, and “chase the dog” is a really fun game?  Has your dog learned that pulling on the leash makes you stop walking, and coming when called means good things happen and does not always signal the end of the fun? Knowing some simple principles about how dogs learn can be extremely useful in teaching your dog the things you want him to learn.

Dogs learn a lot by trial and error: they do the behaviour and if they like the consequences, they are likely to do the behaviour again; if they don’t like the consequences, they are less likely to do it again.  To help a dog learn the “right” behaviours (the ones we like) we can reinforce desired behaviours with consequences the dog likes such as food, praise, attention, play, toys, access to outside, a chance to sniff the interesting spot on the grass, etc.  We can also help them learn that the “wrong” behaviours have consequences they don’t like such as nothing interesting happens, no one pays attention, the game ends, or they get farther from the interesting spot on the grass. By reinforcing “good” behaviours and ignoring or removing the reinforcement for “bad” behaviours, a dog will quickly learn to prefer the good behaviours and the bad behaviours will fade away.  However, there are some cases when unwanted behaviours can’t be ignored and need to be managed immediately, and this is where you may need some reputable advice.  Turning on the TV for the latest celebrity trainer isn’t the best choice. There are some great resources at the library, online, and in the community, but there are also some not-so-great ones.  Just because the information looks new, doesn’t mean it is.  There are many books being published (and shows being produced) that use outdated information, so try to choose reputable resources. (See Helpful Resources)

It’s important that a dog has a set of skills to help it function happily in our world, and some are essential to a dog’s life.  Housetraining problems and separation anxiety are two of the most common reasons dogs are surrendered to shelters, so get help with these problems when they are minor because they will be more difficult to correct the longer they are allowed to go on.  The APDT website has some free webinars that cover these two issues as well as other important training and behaviour topics.

Because some unwanted behaviours are emotionally-based, you need to find a reputable trainer who is experienced with positive reinforcement methods and knows how to use counter conditioning and desensitization properly. The emotions behind the problem behaviours need to be addressed before “training” (operant conditioning) because emotions guide behaviour.   This is particularly important when you are trying to deal with fear and aggression.  Private at-home consults by a reputable trainer can be very helpful and many trainers offer these services.

Dog classes can be a fun way to help you to teach your dog important skills, and there are many options that cater to varied abilities and interests; however, a group class can be a highly stimulating environment and hinder a dog’s ability to learn (and frustrate you).  Some dogs experience extreme distress in such environments, and forcing them to remain in such an environment will often sensitize the dog even more, making the behaviours worse.  For these dogs, a private class or a group class effectively designed for dogs with over-reactive behaviours are options to consider.

Is Your Dog Dominant?

Dominance is a highly misunderstood term and research over the past two decades has revealed much about dominance theory.  For a bit of clarity about dominance and leadership and why this is important for understanding interactions between humans and dogs, have a look at the APDT position statement on Dominance and Dog Training  as well as the AVSAB position statement on Dominance.

The Problems with Punishment

A discussion of punishment in the context of dog training requires some clarification.  In this discussion, punishment will refer specifically to “positive punishment” rather than “negative punishment.”  Professional trainers and those familiar with the science of operant conditioning will know that “positive punishment” refers to adding something immediately after the behaviour to reduce the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again, and “negative punishment” refers to removing something immediately after the behaviour to reduce the likelihood that the behaviour will happen again. (Think of addition and subtraction rather than good and bad.) For example, consider a dog jumping up on guests: yelling “Get Down!” is positive punishment; taking away your attention when he jumps up is negative punishment.  The opposite of punishment is “reinforcement”: doing something immediately after the behaviour in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again.  “Positive reinforcement” is adding something after the behaviour in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will happen again, and “negative reinforcment” is removing something after the behaviour in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will happen again.

Punishment relies on physical or psychological discomfort to reduce behaviours. Punishment can work (sometimes) but it often doesn’t and it usually causes more problems than the behaviours it was being used to reduce in the first place.  Punishment is difficult to use effectively because in order for it to reduce a behaviour, the timing has to be perfect, the intensity has to be “just the right amount”, and it must happen every time the unwanted behaviour happens.  Even if it’s done correctly, it still can result in undesirable consequences such as a reduced ability to learn, injuries, increased aggression, house soiling, submissive urination, over-reactivity, and destructive behaviours (including self mutilation as a stress response).  Punishment also tends to damage relationships rather than strengthen them.

A major weakness of punishment-based methods and equipment is the suppression of behaviours, which is especially dangerous when the behaviours are fear-based (e.g. growling, barking, lunging).  Owners think everything is fine but the dog is merely suppressing his warning signals and the result is a dog that bites without warning.  Rather than punishing signs of stress, a more effective approach is to address the causes of the stress and those behaviours will go away as the stress diminishes.

Many people use punishment without even realizing it, even trainers who claim to use “dog-friendly” methods. Pinch collars, choke chains, and citronella collars are all tools that use punishment.  Jerks on the leash, making a harsh sound, or prodding your dog with your foot or hand to reduce behaviours are also technically punishment. Some examples involve a higher intensity of physical or psychological discomfort than others, but they are all forms of punishment and are subject to the same problems.

Why is punishment used despite its proven drawbacks?  Trying other methods can sometimes require more time and skill, making punishment an easier choice for some people. As well, punishment can be reinforcing to the person using it due to a variable reinforcement schedule; in other words, it sometimes works so people keep using it in the hopes that it will work again.  A variable reinforcement schedule has a lot of power to maintain behaviours, as all casino operators know.

Because of the numerous problems with punishment, several reputable professional associations have policy statements specifying that punishment should be used rarely and only after other options have been attempted.  The Association of Professional Dog Trainers defines “dog-friendly training” as “training that utilizes primarily positive reinforcement; secondarily negative punishment, and only occasionally, rarely, and/or as a last resort includes positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement.” The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a four-page position statement outlining why punishment “should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems”; instead recommending that punishment be used only after a combination of other approaches have been unsuccessful, approaches that “focus on reinforcing desired behaviors, removing the reinforcer for inappropriate behaviors, and addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions driving the undesirable behavior.” The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, a well-recognized national organization, lists positive punishment as the last choice in its Hierarchy of Procedures for Humane and Effective Practices.

If a trainer recommends punishment-based equipment or methods as a first resort or without making much of an effort to try alternatives, that is a pretty good indicator that the trainer is not up-to-date with current research on effective training methods.

Helpful Resources:

Books:

The Power of Positive Dog Training, 2nd Edition (2008) by Pat Miller

Family Friendly Dog Training: a six week program for you and your dog (2007) by Patricia McConnell and Aimee Moore

When Pigs Fly: training success with impossible dogs (2007) by Jane Killion

Websites:

Dog Body Language website called Silent Conversations 

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior

Association of Professional Dog Trainers. The site has many free webinars on numerous topics related to dog training and behaviour

Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (ccpdt.org)