Working Alongside Your Dog: Understand Your Dog’s Behaviour

Written by: Isobella Ash

Brought you to by Charley Perkins and Romi  

Despite the challenging times we are all facing, I like to think that there are some silver linings, one of which is the opportunity to build, or strengthen, the lifelong relationships we share with the dogs in our lives.

One friend who was considering (and now has) adopted a new dog in his house asked a really thoughtful and interesting question: “Will my dog be okay when life gets back to some sort of ‘normal’ and we are no longer able to spend all day together?” He was concerned that living so closely with his new dog might establish some dependence, and in breaking that pattern his dog might develop bad habits like barking, anxiety, counter surfing, etc. I really appreciated his concern for his dog’s psychological well being, and it made me think a lot about psychology and behaviour, both those of the dog and of the owner.

The best dog people are amazing at “reading” their dogs. It’s important to pay attention to cues that will help you better understand your dog’s behaviour. Look for indications that your dog understands what’s being asked and is confident in their behaviour. Good trainers should also pay attention to their own behaviour, taking care to stay calm and choose the right tone for praise. Whether you’ve recently adopted or are getting an older dog acclimated to these changing times and environments, training is crucial to having a positive experience working at home with your dog. So, I want to start off by talking about the behaviour and psychology of both the trainer and the dog to make sure you can make the most of these training tips.

What Trainers Should Keep In Mind

First the trainer: remember, when you start working with a dog, your job is to be the calm, cool, and collected leader of the pack. Your dog doesn’t speak human language, but it learns a ton from your behaviour and energy. If your dog is excitable, it is extra important to be calm. Take the following steps to make sure that you are in the right frame of mind, and behaving in a way that will help you teach in a clear and efficient way:

  1. Be Positive. How are you feeling? Are you stressed and anxious about life, or frustrated that your dog is behaving badly? If so, take a breather, and check out our “Moment of Chill” videos. I think that training works best when it is a positive experience for the dog and the trainer, and when to focus on correcting your dog’s behaviour with positivity. I also know that staying positive can be hard. Check yourself before communicating with your dog because if you lose your head or patience with your dog, it could result in a big step back. 
  2. Have Realistic Expectations. For many of you, this is all new. Take it slowly, and appreciate the little wins. Training a dog is a lifelong process built out of little moments. When training a dog, never ask it to do anything you are not confident it can achieve. Dogs learn best with a clean, linear path of positive reinforcement.
  3. Consistency is Key. Go into training with a plan, and stick to it. Everybody has a slightly different way of teaching their dog, and that is fine. One advantage of working at home with your dog is that it will be easier to stick to your plan! Don’t change up your commands. If you want your dog to come when you say “come”, only train “come” and don’t get upset when they fail to come if you say “come here” or “get over here.” 
  4. Deliver Commands Once and Only Once. Make sure you have your dog’s attention and use a single clear word or gesture. Repeating commands, or speaking to your dog in full sentences, will only frustrate you and confuse your dog. If you repeat yourself again and again and then your dog does the desired behaviour, it will reinforce that your dog doesn’t have to listen to you at first. Unless you really like repeating yourself, try not to when training.
  5. Reward Good Behavior Quickly. This will strengthen your dog’s connection between the command and the desired behaviour. This is the time to rev up your energy to show and tell your dog how much you love and appreciate them. Also, try to vary the frequency and type of rewards you use to reinforce behaviour (treats vs praise vs nothing). 
When Romi is curious and interested, it’s a good time for a short training session.

 Your Dog’s Behaviour

While I can give some tips on understanding your dog’s behaviour and how to deal with it, it’s important to remember that every dog is different. Also keep in mind that your dog’s behaviours may only vary slightly from feeling to feeling. Take a wagging tail for instance. Most people associate it with a happy dog, but for Romi it can also mean she is nervous or scared. I can, however, pick up on differences in how she is wagging her tail that help me understand what she’s feeling. Use the time you’re quarantining with your dog to really get to know the ins and outs of their behaviours!

If you can decipher your dog’s subtle signs, it will help you better communicate with and understand your dog’s behaviours. Watch their facial expressions, and the movement and position of tail, eyes, and ears express a ton. Practice by observing how your dog reacts to different situations and try to recognize their patterns. Learn your dog’s signs of happiness by watching them before they eat, or when they see a friendly dog. Figure out how to tell if your dog is curious by watching it find a butterfly or grasshopper for the first time. Try to understand how your dog acts when it is nervous, maybe when going to the vet (Romi dislocated her toe as a puppy, and generally doesn’t have the best association with the vet’s office), or when a thunderstorm approaches. Is your dog protective? What does that look like? The more time you spend watching your dog in different situations, the more comfortable you will become understanding how their behaviour relates to their psychology.

Situation and environment can also play a role in how strongly a dog acts out. They might be overly excited in the house making working at home with your dog a challenge. They also might seem really timid and submissive or show mild aggression in some situations. Generally, these behaviours all stem from uncertainty and clear leadership, training, and praise from you can help them deal with this. Think about these common dog behaviours, how they relate to the dog’s psychology, and how you might go about correcting your dog’s behaviours in these situations:

Romi shows happiness or excitement by smiling or baring her teeth. She does this in the mornings, when she is excited about an activity, or when she hasn’t seen a friend in a while. When photographed or captured in slow-motion, Romi looks really scary!

  1. Your Dog is Exuberant or Bouncy: This means your dog is looking for engagement and attention. It is fine to engage, but unless you love hyper dogs make sure not to respond to your dog until they calm down. If your dog learns that undesirable behaviour makes you respond in a desirable way, you are in for trouble. Don’t give your dog what it wants until you get what you want.
  2. Your Dog is Needy or has dependency issues: They need you to give them confidence that they don’t have. If you’re worried about this while you’re quarantining with your dog, have them do a few “place” sessions and reward their correct behaviour. Practice having them stay in place or on a bed for longer and longer amounts of time. Work up to putting your dog in a place out of sight or in a different room. Eventually, try leaving them at home when you run errands. Praise and reward with tons of energy to reinforce and build confidence.
  3. Your Dog is Growly or Mildly Aggressive: This probably means your dog is craving leadership. This is a great time to practice exercises that specify you as a leader of the pack such as “heel” (which we will cover in next week’s post). This is helpful because it asserts your command, the directions are super clear, and it reinforces that your dog does not get to act on its own. Remember, though, don’t react aggressively to aggressive behaviour; stay steady and measured, and provide clear direction. Your dog is anxious, and your job is to alleviate that anxiety by taking command of the situation. 
  4. Your Dog Starts Failing at Easy Skills: This means you are doing too much. While it might be exciting and fun to train your dog during quarantine, be careful not to over-train. Dogs, like people, can get burned out mentally, and they will start to go backwards and won’t be excited for the next session. A dog learns best from a few very short training sessions through the day, featuring consistency, and clear boundaries. Give both of you some rest by taking breaks from training while working at home with your dog.

Your dog communicates constantly but without language. Your job as the trainer is understanding your dog’s behaviour that indicates your dog’s mindset and to change that mindset if it is not working for you or for your dog. To answer my friend who is concerned about dependency, your dog will be fine if you help them build a healthy, confident, and engaged mind while you train your dog. You do that by engaging with them, reading their responses, and practising good habits of setting clear expectations, establishing boundaries and independence, and displaying leadership. I’d suggesting trying to master tip #2 above.

In my next post, I’ll go over the “heel” command and how to work on it while you’re working at home with your dog. It is a great physical and mental exercise as well as a really useful skill. In the meantime, keep working on understanding your dog’s behaviours as it will continue to help both of you throughout all of your training sessions!

Click here for previous posts in this series:

1. New Series: Work From Home With Dogs

2. Creating Productive Work Spaces At Home With A Dog, Part 1

3. Creating Productive Work Spaces At Home With A Dog, Part 2

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