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Dog behaviour is a frequently frustrating aspect of dog ownership that doesn’t always get as much discussion as it should. Too often people fall in love with a dog immediately when they see them as a puppy, bring him or her home, and slowly realize that this dog is behaving in ways that they don’t appreciate or understand. This could be a dog that barks or vocalises too much (or all the time) a dog that eliminates indoors, scratches furniture and knocks things over, or who growls and bites even members of the family. It’s sometimes impossible to see these behaviours before you bring the animal home, and once they are “yours” people are understandably guilty and reluctant to declare the adoption a failure of some sort.
Sometimes these behaviours can be dealt with by turning to obedience training, crating, or simple routine alteration like taking the dog out for a long walk at a different time of day. You shouldn’t be dreading returning home to what should be your faithful companion. One thing that all of these scenarios have in common is that your dog is trying to communicate with you.
Dogs are social animals, and as such they seek to integrate themselves and the people they perceive as their ‘pack’ into a social order. Most dogs naturally allow their human owners to assume a leadership role, and allow them to set the pace and tone of their lives – but there are instinctual limits. The first step to dealing with your dog is to understand that everything they do is meant to communicate with you and the other people around them. Imagine if you could not speak to people but had to show them what you were feeling or what you needed non-verbally – and now imagine the people you are communicating with don’t share your physiology at all, either!
We all know that when dogs wag their tails at us, they are happy or excited. Many dog behaviours are plainly interpreted. When they stand by the door and whine, they want to go out. When they bring their empty food bowl to your lap, they’re hungry. But this also applies to other behaviours: Dogs do not have a moral sense of right and wrong like we do. They act on instinct.
Consider inappropriate elimination – peeing indoors (or worse). Dogs do this in order to communicate something to you – anxiety, loneliness, or perhaps a physical problem. Treating these actions as simply punishable misbehaviours will only serve to increase your dog’s unhappiness and anxiety, and teach them that they cannot communicate with you without fear of punishment.
Dogs are territorial, and sometimes that ancient instinct rears up in ways you don’t want, such as growling or biting if you attempt to take away food or toys, or barking aggressively at strangers when they enter your home. Again, your dog is simply trying to communicate, and punishment is not always the best answer. Instead, think like a dog psychologist. Why is he barking? Why does he always pee in the same spot in the kitchen? Why does he whine and cry at night, always around the same time? There may be no easy answers for these questions, but if you attempt to answer them instead of assuming the dog knows perfectly well that it is misbehaving and will therefore understand why it is being punished, you will get much further towards solving the problem and having a happier pet at the same time.
Ultimately, you may need to bring in an expert. It may sound silly to bring in a pet psychologist or behaviourist, but these are professionals who have studied dogs and their behaviours more deeply than we have, and can often perceive patterns and causations we can’t.