Many behaviors that dogs exhibit are based on emotional response and mislabeled as dominant behaviors. Untrained dogs can be labeled as dominant for jumping, mouthing, counter surfing, etc. The truth is….it is just a behavior and usually one that is being reinforced by us or by the result of the behavior itself. For example, if a dog jumps up we engage, physically interact and talk to him/her. Our dog thinks, “Yay! Attention!” That simply feels good to the dog and he learns quickly to do it more. There is no ulterior motive, no attempt at a coup d’etat. The question that needs to be answered is: What is the dog getting out of it? What is the pay off? There is no single answer to this question, and it is the role of a dog trainer to assess the environment, identify the triggers and the reinforcers. A professional trainer can put together a training plan and behavior modification to help owners communicate with their dogs and improve behavior by allowing the dog to achieve the same result with a more desirable behavior.
In order to do this, 2 things need to be addressed. One is the emotional state of the dog and the other is his ability to perform basic skills that will eventually replace the unwanted display. To continue with our previous example, if a dog is taught that he will get attention for sitting and nothing for jumping, he will quickly switch gears to get the thing that feels good – treats, pets and rubs and probably a little baby talk (It’s ok. We all do it, that little voice that comes out of nowhere when we are loving our dogs.)
Emotions are a very real issue when assessing dog behavior. Research has established that dogs have emotions similar to a 2.5 year old human child. There is a great article written by Stanley Coren Ph.D. titled “Which Emotions do Dogs Actually Experience?”
Emotions dogs have: Excitement, contentment, joy, love, distress, disgust, fear, anger, suspicion
Emotions dogs do not have: contempt, guilt, pride, shame
A perfect example of emotional response is resource guarding. This is often misconstrued as a dominant behavior. It’s actually the opposite. A resource-guarding dog can feel a variety of emotions, including fear and suspicion, when a person attempts to take food or other valuable resource away. The resulting behaviors of a guarding dog are freezing, growling, lip curling, etc. Punishing a dog that is showing suspicion will add fear to the suspicion the dog is already feeling. Punishment creates a dog that is now suspicious and afraid to communicate his suspicion for fear of punishment. Many times the dog will exhibit an increase in aggression associated with the guarding. Freezing and growling can quickly become snarling, snapping, and full on biting when a dog is punished. So, what if every time an owner approached the food bowl they threw in a piece of steak? The dog’s suspicion would be replaced with excitement and this would end the aggressive displays associated with food bowl guarding. This is the power of positive training.
PLEASE NOTE: The above example is a simplified example of a protocol that can help dogs and owners but should not be attempted without the guidance of a professional trainer.
More on Dominance Theory, including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s (AVSAB) position statement can be found here: https://cooperationcanine.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/dominance-statement-avsab-1.pdf
Dogs are a bit more focused on the good things than humans. They would much rather fill their day feeling happy, eating, getting attention and laying on the furniture rather than asserting themselves over their people. And besides, they still need us to open the food containers. (Well, some of them do.)
Here’s to helping them be joyful and content.