Why learn dog behavior theory?
Updated: Apr 27
I spend a lot of time looking for answers to bridge the disconnect between man and dog. It was, after-all, what inspired the writing of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior. The purpose of this book was not to tell us how to train our dogs, but rather to help us understand the motivation behind why our dogs act the way they do; to understand their emotional needs and how we fit in. Armed with that knowledge we can more fully appreciate the advice given to us by dog trainers and behaviorists.
I have found that people are not only perplexed by the myriad of contradictory advice out there in the world of canine self-help articles, but are often left unconvinced by sound advice given to them by extremely talented dog behaviorists and trainers. That's a big problem.
Imagine, for instance, a dog trainer asking their client to tether their dog on-leash at all times, and to confine them in a kennel at all other times. Someone who doesn't understand the reasoning behind this advice will likely be shocked or even horrified at such suggestions. If so, they probably won't follow through, and as a result, another dog will fail to receive help.
I have seen first-hand the veiled shock that sweeps across some people's faces. "You mean they can never be free?", they often ask as their eyes dart back and forth processing the dissonance of emotional and rational mental conflict. Then comes the inevitable question, "Isn't that cruel?"
These crazy-sounding suggestions are much more palatable when people are armed with the knowledge that dogs naturally seek small spaces to enhance their feelings of security. And that dogs are burrowing creatures by nature, so placing them in a kennel aligns perfectly with their nature. Whereas dogs who run amok for hours on end without parental structure contradicts their very nature.
The leash advice makes a lot more sense when it is understood to be a temporary measure to help dogs form emotional attachments to parenting figures. And that by doing so will enhance their feelings of security and thereby reduce behavior problems. It makes even more sense when we observe that wild dogs and wolves do not allow each other to simply leave without any consequences. These dogs actively work to maintain structure, discipline, and rules in their highly-organized societies.
Within these observations we can also see that dogs are a lot more like people than previously thought. This point is driven home by observing our interaction with human children. We hear few complaints about children who are required to sit behind a desk at school for hours on end. For some reason that form of confinement is rarely questioned. Of course we should not ignore the counter-balance to the argument, that dogs -- and children -- also require plenty of room for creative expression, social interaction, and play while in safe environments. The issue is rather one of finding a suitable balance.
Many training programs do tend to emphasize skills development. This is fine. However, the totality of a dog's behavior has less to do with how many skills they have learned, and more to do with the relationship they have with their guardian. The most pressing question in their mind is, am I safe within a secure attachment relationship? This is the real question underlying dog behavior. What is needed is a guide, or theoretical road-map, to show us the way. Armed with this knowledge we can meet their needs. For this reason the "why" question must be understood by all competent caregivers. Otherwise, we can't really claim we have their best interest in mind when we free them to unbounded chaos.
So while learning proper hands-on technique to change our dog's behavior is extremely important, none of it will make any sense without a full, theoretical explanation of the "why." Only then will we understand the "how-to."
For more information about dog cognition order Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior, and learn to see dog behavior in a new way.
Aaron McDonald is a Canine Behaviorist and Canine Cognitive Theorist. He can be reached at www.ThreeDimensionalDog.com. For help with your dog please call 205-563-8383.