Understanding something about the psychological make up of dogs is very useful because it helps us understand how they view the world, and beneficially, how to handle them more effectively. Some would say that better owners make for better dogs and they aren't far wrong.
Dog Psychology Basics
We all tend to love our dogs and want them to be part of our families. Whilst this is a perfectly natural desire, dogs have no concept of equality and will tend to seek their place within a pack structure. However, when they are treated like equals, or indeed like children as so many owners do, they will generally try to assume the role of pack leader. This is where so many people encounter problems with their dogs, from annoyances such as pulling on the lead and jumping up at visitors, and then onto much more serious problems like unwanted aggression. Note that dominance aggression is different to fear aggression, although if you are established as the pack leader this will help a dog relax simply by taking away this responsibility from them.
It is important to remember that dogs are happy enough just being dogs. They do not need to be treated like a child or a person. People who make this mistake are often led by their dogs.
The trick is to learn how to be the pack leader whilst still giving your dog plenty of affection and adoration. They key here is to understand that pack leaders don't rule through using force or fear, and you can still allow your dog up onto your sofa for cuddles so long as this is done on your terms and not the dog's.
A dog's strongest sense is its sense of smell, and it will use this combined with body language and energy when communicating with other dogs. It will also use these skills to interpret a person's mood and feelings, making it impossible to conceal these, and it also makes it a waste of time yelling at a dog as they focus on these rather than words.
- Establish and enforce any house rules from day one. If your dog is not allowed on the sofa, make this clear.
- Be consistent. Don't allow your dog on the sofa one day and then scold it for jumping up on the sofa the next. These mixed messages will only confuse it.
- Don't enforce rules when you feel angry, emotional or tired. Wait until you can respond unemotionally to your dog's behaviour.
- Never yell or hit your dog. Easier said than done at times, sure, but resist the temptation as this negative feedback is detrimental and will make both you and your dog feel low.
Normal Dog Behaviour
What exactly is normal? Well, this can vary but generally involves a dog being active and playful, responsive and eager to join in family (pack) activities. It also incorporates being cautious occasionally, barking to announce the arrival of strangers, being sociable with other dogs and people, being curious, happy, alert, exploratory, patient, responsive to food and of course affectionate.
This can involve hyperactivity, jumping up at strangers, general disobedience, being overly fearful of people, animals or objects, excessive barking, antisocial behaviour, aggressive or predatory behaviour, being overly territorial, possessive of belongings, compulsive retrieving, chewing or tail chasing.
This should always be positive, and using reward-based training is ideal for any problems arising through fear and anxiety and for general dog training. However, this is no good for addressing dominance based aggression because you may be inadvertantly rewarding your dog for this unacceptable behaviour by trying to distract it with treats.