The Three Factors
The behaviour of our dogs, at any given moment is always a result of three main factors. When trying to understand why they are behaving the way they are, these three factors must be taken into consideration:
Genetics; The breed and individual traits of the dog.
Past experiences and learning; What has been learnt through consequences through.
Present environment; Their internal, and external environment.
The genetic makeup of the dog refers to the traits and characteristics inherited from their parents and passed on from previous generations. Many behaviours can be attributed to their species, remembering first and foremost that they are dogs. More specifically, each breed of dog has been selectively bred by humans for generations, resulting in breed-specific characteristics.
In addition to traits and characteristics influenced by species and breed, each dog is an individual, possessing its own unique personality. Within a single litter, for example, despite having the same parents, littermates will exhibit a variety of behaviours specific to the individual, ranging from personal preferences, for example, to tolerances, to certain medical conditions.
These genetic influences will impact on the behaviours exhibited by the dog throughout its life. We cannot change their genetics. Rather we must work with and not against the dog to ensure a happy and content animal and a harmonious relationship between human and dog.
For example, behaviours such as digging for Dachshunds, herding for Kelpies and Collies or tracking for Beagles are a result of generations of selective breeding from humans. These behaviours are therefore driven by genetics and it is our responsibility, as owners, to offer the dog a healthy outlet to fulfil these needs. Suppressing their instincts can result in frustration and subsequently lead to problem-type behaviours. Teaching our dogs when it is appropriate to engage in these behaviours and when it is not is the key to maintaining a harmonious relationship between owner and dog.
Past Experiences and Learning
Dogs learn through consequences. If they consider the result of their actions rewarding, they are more likely to repeat the behaviour in order to achieve the favourable outcome. Alternatively, if they learn that a specific action results in an adverse outcome, they will actively avoid repeating such behaviours. The more consistently a dog performs a behaviour (be it positive or negative) that results in a repeated favourable outcome, the more imprinted this becomes in the dog’s brain, eventually resulting in an automatic behaviour.
When determining the cause of a dog’s behaviour, it is important to identify whether the dog is motivated by a desire to achieve something positive or rather to avoid something negative. This distinction is crucial as it will directly affect how we react to the behaviour.
If, for example, the dog is attempting to avoid something negative, introducing punishment or correction will only elevate the dog’s level of stress and therefore intensify its learned negative association. An example of this is leash correcting a dog to stay still and tolerate a dog is dislikes. The leash correction will only increase the level of stress experienced by an already anxious dog.
Having an awareness of the motivation behind a dog’s behaviour, also enables us to discourage undesirable behaviours. For example, leaving food on a counter-top, within reach of the dog, will only encourage “steeling from the counter” as the outcome of this behaviour is rewarding for the dog.
The dog’s present environment refers to both their internal and external environments.
Their internal environment relates to their mental and physical state before and during a situation.
Factors that may impact on their mental and physical wellbeing include such things as anxiety and physical pain, both of which may cause them to behave differently in a given situation. The internal environment can be difficult to determine from our perspective. Being social animals, a dog will often do what they can to mask physical pain thus making it harder to identify. Mentally and emotionally, a dog is affected by both pleasure and stress. Stress can be brought on suddenly through a traumatic experience, for example. However, it can also develop more subtly through an accumulation of sequential negative experiences (triggers) with inadequate recovery time in between each.
The external environment can also be challenging to understand from a dog’s perspective. The world we live in is more easily understood from our perspective because, as humans, we either built it or engineered our lives around it. A dog has the cognitive ability of an 18-24month old child and as such will never understand its external environment in the same way we do. Noise and movement are the two main stimulants for dogs and city living is dominated by both. This can very easily overwhelm dogs, resulting in hyper-vigilance, reactivity, nervousness and anxiety.
Dogs build associations within environments. A learned behaviour will be remembered and repeated the next time the dog is exposed to the same environment. As owners we determine which
environments our dogs are exposed to. We therefore need to be conscious of the behaviours we desire in these different environments in order to teach our dogs what is appropriate and what is not. If we wish to create a calm and positive association in a specific environment, then we must be attentive to our dogs, communicating with them regularly and rewarding calm behaviours.
If, on the other hand, the dog is taken to an environment in which it can let loose and expend some physical energy, our expectations may differ. In a higher state of arousal we may expect less (but NOT none) of the dog’s attention in such an environment. A dog will not instinctively know how to behave appropriately (not should we expect them to) and reprimanding undesirable behaviour, especially without teaching, is both unacceptable and counterproductive.
External environment not only refers to location but to numerous other factors including conditions within that environment as well as the presence of other individuals, be they human or animal. As with learned associations related to specific locations, dogs are capable of building positive and negative associations with other humans and animals. For example, they can learn to tailor their behaviour to avoid conflict in the presence of certain individuals or to engage in rewarding behaviours such as play with others.
Understanding the affect the dog’s internal and external environments play in determining their behaviours offers us greater understanding of our dogs. It also provides us with knowledge and insight when it comes to training our dogs and enables us to manipulate aspects of their environment in order to achieve desirable and appropriate behaviours and ensure a happy and well-adjusted dog.