How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog, Part 3: Behavior and Psychology

Brought you to by Charley Perkins and Romi  

When Romi is curious and interested, it’s a good time for a short training session.

In last week’s post, I linked to an article about a Florida dog shelter that was completely vacant because so many people are adopting. It was a really fun story to read, and in some ways not that surprising: I know I have a few friends who have recently adopted dogs. 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 behavior, both those of the dog and of the owner.

The best dog people are amazing at “reading” their dogs. They are tuned into their dogs’ behaviors and responses, the way their dogs react to direction, as well as to different situations. They are good at picking up on the cues that indicate their dog has understood what is being asked (or not), and they notice when their dog is confident that the chosen behavior is the correct one. At the same time, great trainers are very aware of their own behavior, and make sure to approach their dog with a calm demeanor and the correct tone for praise and reinforcement. I want to spend a little time talking about the psychology and behavior of both the trainer and the dog to make sure that the training tips to come are delivered and absorbed in the most productive way possible.

Here, Romi is happy and attentive, so I know she;s tuned-in to what I’m telling her.

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 behavior 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 behavior 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. The trick is 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 ifyou say “come here” or “get over here.” 
  4. Deliver Commands Once and Only Once. Make sure youhave 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 behavior, 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 behavior. This is the time to rev up your energy to show and tell your dog how much you love and appreciate them. You can see my (embarrassing) version of this at the end of the “place” video in last week’s post. Also try to vary the frequency and type of rewards you use to reinforce behavior (treats vs praise vs nothing). I took a Psych 101 class in college where we trained rats to flip levers and roll marbles through a maze. My teacher suggested that rewarding with food once every 3-7 times kept the rat from becoming too dependent on the food reward, but still made the association between a positive and the desired behavior.
This is Romi’s bored face. She’s looking for some stimulation from me.

Now that we’ve discussed the trainer, I’d like to take a look at the trainee. Dog behavior and psychology are a little different. Dogs don’t lie, but they do let you know how they are feeling in roundabout ways. The ways dogs communicate will not always be consistent from dog to dog. And similar signs can mean completely different things. For example, a lot of people think a wagging tail means the dog is happy. That is true, but it can also mean different things. Romi also wags her tail when she is scared or anxious, but the way she wags her tail is different (speed, posture, rhythm).

If you can decipher your dog’s subtle signs, it will help you better understand and communicate effectively with your dog. 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 behavior relates to their psychology.

Sometimes dogs do act out in stronger ways. Maybe they are overly excited in the house, or they seem really timid and submissive. Sometimes they even show some mild aggression. Generally, all of this comes from a place of uncertainty. Dogs love clear leadership. They love knowing what to do, and knowing that they did it right. You have to provide this for them. Think about these common dog behaviors and how they relate to the dog’s psychology, and try to respond appropriately:

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 behavior 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. Have your dog do a few “place” sessions and reward their correct behavior. Practice having them stay on 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. You can also assert your leadership by physically holding your dog on its back and “pinning” it to the ground. Be careful with this, but it is a good way to show dominance over smaller and younger dogs. Remember, though, don’t react aggressively to aggressive behavior; 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. Be careful not to over-train. Dogs, like people, can get burned out mentally, and they will start to go backward 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. Let their minds digest and rest.

Your dog communicates constantly but without language. Your job as the trainer is to learn to read the behaviors that indicate 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. You do that by engaging with them, reading their responses, and practicing good habits of setting clear expectations, establishing boundaries and independence, and displaying leadership. I’d suggesting trying to master tip #2 above.

Next week we will work on the “heel” command. Heel is a great way to interact with your dog in an immediate way, and also to get some physical and mental exercise. It is also a super useful skill if you want your dog to join you in all sorts of environments. For heel, think about gearing up with a no pull collar and lead or a slip lead, as both will be necessary tools. In the meantime, pay close attention to your dog, and close attention to yourself, and try to identify the mindset you are in when you are both at your best.

Charley Perkins is Orvis Brand Marketing Manger, and a member of the third generation of family ownership.

Click here for previous posts in this series:

1. New Series: How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog
2. How to Create Productive Spaces for You and Your Dog, Part 1: Crate Training
3. How to Create Productive Spaces for You and Your Dog, Part 2: Place Training

Products to Help Create Productive Spaces

Dog Beds

Slip Lead

Indoor Gates and Fences

Dog Treats

(Romi and I like smaller sized training treats so you can train with more reps without over feeding.)

Moment of Chill videos, for when you need a break

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