Tag Archives: animal behaviour

How Dogs Think – Part 1

Have you ever wondered what is going on inside your dog’s head? To be honest, we can’t really know, however it’s an interesting subject for the dog lover to ponder.

Dogs are so much a part of our family that it can be hard to accept that they are not human and don’t think the same way we do. An understanding of how a dog’s brain works and the way they communicate helps us to recognise what they are feeling and how we can best provide for their needs.

Not only can we learn more about their motivations and body language, we can also learn to communicate in a way that makes sense to them.

Information is the common currency of dogs and their most valued resource.

In any new situation, you dog may seek to find out: Who’s in charge? What are the rules? Where do I fit in?

With new objects it seems to be: Can I eat it? Should I save it? Is it fun to play with? Will I mark it?

Always there will be the questions: Am I safe or unsafe? Unsure? Where are the exits? Where are the threats? What worked before?

Information represents control over their environment as they search for comfort and security in their world.

You will see your dog provoking their environment to get information about what’s going on. They want to see how others around them, people or other pets, will respond. This might take the form of barking, movement, touching, nudging or even aggression or humping.

How can we best communicate with our dog?

To communicate with dogs fairly and kindly, we need to focus on providing them with information that is relevant, unambiguous, consistent, reliable and accurate. It needs to make sense to them. Visual signals are more powerful than verbal ones.

Consistency is key, as is staying positive and friendly towards your companion. We choose to have pets so we can smile with love for them. Never feel you need follow outdated confrontational training methods. These only cause fear which impedes learning, dissolves trust and damages that precious bond with our mate.

Dogs communicate with body language which can often be misinterpreted. If they do not follow your cue, don’t be hasty to label them as stubborn. With hearing four times more sensitive than ours, it is likely they hear us loud and clear. They may be avoiding a situation they have learned to fear or just don’t understand.

Perhaps the most misunderstood suite of canine behaviours are the ‘fiddle’ body postures used to convey appeasement or conflicted emotions. These are normal behaviours like stretching, yawning, looking away, blinking, shaking off, lip licking, showing the whites of eyes. They are normal behaviours used out of context to diffuse a situation in the doggy world. Our pets will often use these signals in response to a reprimand and owners commonly misunderstand this as guilt.

We owe it to our dogs to try our best to understand the way they think. We need to credit them with their capabilities and avoid attributing them with understanding they don’t have. They are not people and cannot be expected to act like humans. There is no perfect dog (or perfect person for that matter). Expect them to have the reasoning ability and emotional development of a two year old child.

They are opportunists, impulsive and live mainly in the moment. They are not bound by morals or aware of right and wrong. In any particular situation, your dog’s behaviour is shaped by their memory of consequences of past actions in similar settings. They will choose to do what has worked for them before. They can experience fear, anxiety, excitement, frustration, rage, disappointment and social bonding. They are not capable of regret, guilt or spite. Nor can they be stubborn or vindictive.

Over the 40,000 years that we have co-evolved with dogs, they have learned to read our body language better than any other animal. Dogs are one of the very few animals that have the ability to follow the line of direction from our pointed finger to an object! They know when we can be trusted and when we are unpredictable and angry.

We can also learn a little of their own language to communicate with them. Turning our body side on, averting our gaze or crouching down reduces threat in their eyes. A play bow is recognised as an invitation to play.  However, don’t be tempted to yawn when they yawn or growl back as they are likely to feel intimidated.

In part two of “How Dog’s Think”, we will look at understanding how the normal brain works, and how dogs learn so that we can teach them to be good citizens and reduce undesirable behaviours.

We are so privileged to have dogs share our lives. They are deserving of the greatest respect.



How Dogs Think – Part 2

In part 1 of “How Dogs Think” we explored how dogs interpret their surroundings. Now we will look more at how the brain works and what that means for you when you are trying to manage your dog’s behaviour. We will also see how they learn.

Since the evolutionary path of dogs diverged from that of wolves around 40,000 years ago, they have evolved alongside humans and learned to read our body language. Natural selection has favoured domestic dogs with more amiable temperaments that equip them to share enduring bonds with us.

In the last few decades, pet dogs have largely moved from the backyard to the bedroom. They have become integrated into our families and as a result, there is a risk of attributing them with human qualities and emotions that they do not have. This has led to some misinterpretations of the emotion behind their behaviours. Through understanding how dogs see their world and the motivation behind behaviour problems, we can respond appropriately to dogs with undesirable behaviours and guide them to choose more acceptable options.

How do dogs perceive their world?

Dogs sense information from the world differently to us. Their sense of smell is exquisite. As their primary sense organ, it is not surprising that it commands a large percentage of their brain. They have been known to pick up the smell of a fingerprint on glass six weeks later!

As far as taste goes, if it smells good, it must taste good too and to our disgust, they find some putrid smells very attractive!

Remember before you raise your voice that your dog’s hearing is four times more sensitive than ours. It’s no wonder that thunder storms can be scary.

Dogs are attuned to movement. They see better at night and have poor colour definition. Blue and purple are seen well, whereas red, green and orange are not.

They are highly sensitive to touch, pressure and temperature. Pain can be more overwhelming for them, not knowing why it is there or when it will stop.

When do dogs learn?

Dogs learn from the consequences of previous actions. They make associations between things that occur together and above all, they always try to get the good stuff and avoid bad things. What’s more, they continue learning throughout life so you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!

Dogs have critical periods for learning and are more vulnerable to developing fear memories if they have a bad experience during these times.

You have most likely heard about the socialisation window for puppies between 3-12 weeks of age. Positive learning about novel and unfamiliar experiences during this time helps to create a well-adjusted dog.

Sexual maturity occurs between 6 and 8 months. Just as with humans, the brain is rapidly developing during this phase.

Social maturity between 12-24 months is another critical learning period when dogs are learning new ways to interact with their world.

Fear periods are critical times when a bad experience has a greater effect on future behaviour. These commonly occur around 10 weeks of age and between sexual maturity and social maturity. A bad experience, for example an intimidating interaction with a strange dog, during a fear period can lead to a persistent fear of unfamiliar dogs.

Geriatric dogs undergo similar changes with brain aging that people experience and this is another critical period when dogs are more vulnerable to developing anxiety disorders.

How do dogs learn?

Classical conditioning (remember Pavlov’s dog?) is learning by association. For example, when food arrives with the sound of a clicker, the clicker becomes associated with a pleasant reward. Before long the clicker by itself triggers a positive emotion and can be used to reward desirable behaviour alone. With this type of learning, the dog is not consciously offering a behaviour, however we can use classical conditioning to change their emotional response.

Operant conditioning is learning from the consequences of an action. What the dog gets or doesn’t get after offering a behaviour influences whether they will use that behaviour again in a similar situation. Positive reinforcement is the recommended form of operant learning and is the basis of rewards based training. Dogs and owners who train with this method LOVE training because it’s fun and strengthens the bond they share.

We can also modify behaviour by removing a reward to reduce the chance of a behaviour being repeated. For example our pup might jump up on us for attention. Completely ignoring jumping up (and that means NO attention – not looking at, speaking to, or touching the dog) can lead to cessation of the behaviour if you are consistent, however the behaviour may initially increase as a heightened effort to gain your attention and care must be taken not to reward the heightened behaviour.

It is less likely to frustrate your dog if instead, you reward an alternative desirable behaviour. Make your training mantra: ‘don’t do that, do this instead.’ For example give attention, but only after the cue to sit is followed by four paws and the bottom are on the ground.

Punishment is another form of operant conditioning, however it is not recommended. For a start it is aversive and damages the pet-owner bond. It is also very difficult to do correctly as the punishment needs to be immediate, consistent and sufficiently aversive (harsh) to stop the behaviour being tried again. Dogs are not deliberately trying to misbehave and never deserve to be punished. They are just doing what works for them to fulfil their canine needs. Besides, there is enough bad stuff in the world without adding negative emotions like fear into our relationship with our mate.

We know ourselves that fear memories are strong. They evoke a strong avoidance (flight) reaction in the future. If avoidance is not an option, an aggressive (fight) response may be the last resort. Dogs in this heightened aroused state cannot learn or engage in training.

Flooding refers to exposing the pet to something it fears at an intensity where it becomes overwhelmed and gives up. This is also known as learned helplessness and should be avoided at all costs. For example forcing a dog that fears other dogs to be close to unfamiliar dogs would be like putting a person with a spider phobia in a room full of spiders! Inducing shut down is not an acceptable way to change behaviour and is most likely to increase the fear emotion.

Dogs also learn by habituation, which is where they just get used to something of no consequence, for example a pup that grows up near a main road may be tolerant of traffic noise.

Using our knowledge of the way dogs learn, we can work with them to change their emotional experience and thus the behaviour they choose. We can desensitise dogs to a fear trigger by patiently exposing them to a low level of that trigger such that they no longer feel threatened. When they are distant enough from the trigger to be calm, we can pair the low level trigger with something positive, like a treat or a game. With time, a lot of patience and attention to body language we can bring about a change the dogs emotional experience from fearful to calm.

In Part 3 of ‘How Dogs Think’ we will explore how anxiety scrambles normal thinking, learning and processing. When our dog is anxious or distressed, we can help them by using positive methods to reduce this negative emotional state. Our goal is to foster calm so that they can learn behaviours that help them to feel safe. This is essential for their well-being.

How Dogs Think – Part 3

In Part 1 and 2, we explored the way dogs perceive their world and what motivates their behaviours. We looked at how they learn and how to best communicate with them.  Now we will look at how the normal brain functions and what happens in the anxious dog’s brain.

In the normal brain, information about the environment is gathered through the senses and processed in part of the brain called the thalamus. From here the information travels at lightning speed to the amygdala or “danger brain” to enable rapid reactions to life threatening situations. The information travels to the cortex or “thinking brain” more slowly. We have all experienced this. For example, we jump away from a stick lying on the ground before our brain computes that it’s not really a snake.

Many behaviour issues in dogs stem from physical changes in the brain associated with anxiety. It is essential that we recognise when anxiety is causing a behaviour problem in order to seek the right help for our mate.

What happens in the anxious brain?

In the anxious dog, the danger brain hijacks the thinking brain and threats are perceived that are not real. Their amygdala is larger than normal and fires too readily and more strongly. There are also changes in the neurochemistry of the anxious brain.

So rather than being naughty, anxious dogs are physically unable to perceive situations logically and calmly with their thinking brain. Instead they react with fear behaviours and anticipate that unfamiliar situations will be frightening. They are unable to relax and cope calmly with their world.

It’s so important to understand that the brain of an anxious pet is abnormal. These are ‘special needs’ individuals with seriously compromised welfare. Not only is their experience of life negative and scary, anxiety also reduces the function of the immune system, makes pain seem worse, causes physical exhaustion and a shorter life. Importantly, it reduces the dog’s ability to think and learn better ways to cope.

How do I know that my dog is anxious?

First recognise what our dog’s body language is telling us.

There are four types of behaviours that communicate to us that a dog is frightened:

Flight response: Here your dog seeks to increase the distance from, avoid or hide from the threat.

Fight response: They may bark, growl, lunge and snap to make the threat go away.

Freeze response: They stay very still or walk as though in slow motion.

Fiddle responses: These are normal behaviours seen out of context, for example yawning when not tired, lip licking when not eating, stretching when not waking, shake off when not wet, scanning when not in danger.

It is important that we read the signs of anxiety in order to recognise and respond to fear behaviours in a way that helps our dogs cope. In time this helps them to adopt a more calm emotional state.

To understand how our dog is feeling, think about emotional states as three zones:

Green zone: This is where they are happy and relaxed. They can think, remember and learn. The behaviour is considered, ‘mature’ and predictable.

Orange zone: Here they are less able to think, remember and learn. Their behaviour is becoming more unpredictable and reactive. There is a risk of triggering quickly into the ‘red’ zone. This area is the most familiar for anxious dogs.

Red zone: ‘fight or flight’ behaviour. The behaviour is reactive and self-protective. It is more ‘immature’ and unpredictable. This emotional level can lead to aggression or desperate attempts to escape a yard to find an owner.

When your dog is in an anxious state, they are less able to respond to cues or learn new responses, as they are focused on self-preservation or what threats lurk elsewhere. Animals with anxiety live in a state of increased arousal (orange zone) and are quick to react and escalate to aggression when they feel threatened (red zone). This low threshold for reactivity, means that they are more likely to respond to innocuous triggers, for example another dog being walked past. They are less able to cope with people/children and dogs that also display reactive or confronting behaviour.

What can I do for my anxious dog?

Behaviour problems that stem from anxiety are not a training issue and should not be referred to trainers. These dogs are suffering from a medical problem and whilst training can help, they need a veterinary diagnosis and treatment. Your patience and commitment will be essential to manage their special needs and helping them learn calm ways.

Despite the fact that anxiety is a medical problem, there is a common misconception that anxious dogs just need discipline to show them who is boss to stop them behaving inappropriately. Punishment is particularly detrimental for anxious dogs and can make their behaviour worse in the long term.

Dogs – especially anxious dogs – need calm, kind and consistent handling to help them feel safe and secure in a stable environment. Consistency is the key as it minimises the stress associated with change.

We often attribute human emotions, thoughts and motivations to our pet’s behaviour and become very frustrated when they do not behave as expected or desired. Pets do not think in words and only know those few words that have been trained by association and reward. The way forward lies in no longer looking at what they should ‘stop’ doing but rather what the right behaviour would look like and how to teach him to do that. “Don’t do that, do this instead.”

Dogs have a very different view of the world than the one we assume. They are observers and live mainly in the moment. They don’t spend time plotting to do bad things or making grudges. They make decisions based on past events and learning. Their most pressing needs are finding and keeping food, staying in their safe social group, having some control over what happens to them and the ability to escape harm and fear. They quickly learn what works for them to reduce exposure to threats. Anxious aggression is not about being naughty or angry. It is fear behaviour, an attempt to avert perceived threats to keep themselves safe.

Where can I get help?

At Hall Veterinary surgery, we provide behaviour consultations for pets with behaviour problems. We recognise that these issues can have a huge impact on quality of life for both pet and owner.

Starting with a questionnaire, we discuss your observations at length and drill down for the underlying triggers and motivation for the behaviour. We then carefully craft a treatment plan that reduces opportunities to practice problem behaviours whilst teaching calm alternative responses through positive reinforcement.  In some cases, medication is helpful to reduce anxiety and lower arousal levels.

Anxious pets will always spend more time in the orange and red zones than a dog without anxiety. However, over time, their emotional responses will become more normal and both pet and owner can live a more calm and relaxed life and thrive in each other’s company.