Woof Wednesday With Angela Adams – What Lies Beneath: Behind The Behaviour

Dachshund acting as a bookend

Reading is a good thing.

First of all I’d like to thank Kevin for inviting me to write a guest blog, and for being such a nice guy to collaborate with. So thank you Kevin.

Kevin and I decided that a good topic for a post is what really drives behaviour in dogs, and this is also a discussion I find myself having on a daily basis during the course of my work as a trainer and canine behaviour counsellor. Unfortunately all too often new clients hold the default assumption that dogs behave badly because they are dominant and seeking to attain alpha status.

Contrary to popular belief there is nothing sinister going on.  So let’s take a look at what dominance is, why it is detrimental to apply it to dog behaviour, and what really is behind the behaviour of our canine companions.

Dominance defined: In ethology (the study of animal behaviour), dominance is defined as a relationship between individuals belonging to the same species (conspecifics), that is established in order to prioritise access to scarce resources, for example food, the opposite sex. Such a relationship cannot exist until one animal consistently defers to another.

Modern qualified behaviourists and trainers take issue with applying the dominance model to the dog for many reasons a few being:

  • Dominance theory originated from early studies of unrelated captive wolves. These studies were inaccurate and misleading because the wolves were unrelated and not in their natural environment. Studies of related wild wolves in their natural environment show a family group consisting of parents and their offspring, where the relationships are based on cooperation, with the parents guiding and teaching their young.
  • The dog is not a wolf; it is related to the wolf in the same way that humans are related to the chimp. Although dogs maintain some behavioural qualities of wolves and other canids, thousands of years of domestication, selective breeding, and coevolution with humans has greatly altered and shaped their behaviour.
  • For the past 14,000 years feral dogs have evolved as scavengers, and although sociable their existence has been semi-solitary. Where relationships are formed the associations are loose, unstructured, and changeable; members frequently come and go, a quality not seen in wolf packs. A certain degree of cooperation confers mutual benefit with fellow canines allowing for access to communal resources and shared mates. These transient relationships are based on cooperation not dominance, and the evanescent nature of these groups requires no leader or alpha. Furthermore any aggression would likely result in the perpetrator being ostracised from the group.

The dangers of the dominance model: This concept is erroneously used and sadly leads to the application of aversive tools and techniques, with the sole purpose of intimidating a dog to submit with the objective of stopping unwanted behaviours. The application of aversive techniques in training gives rise to a very serious issue of safety, for both the dog and the owner. Such techniques can push a dog into self preservation mode, “fight” or “flight” because it feels threatened or unsafe. Just as importantly such methods can potentially harm a dog’s physical and emotional/psychological well being, through pain, anxiety, frustration, fear, and high levels of stress. The fallout can result in a dog that is withdrawn, subdued, or shutdown (notcalm submissive”); because it has given up, as nothing it does works for the better. Or the result is displays of aggression because of frustration, fear, or anxiety, in this way aggression functions as a tool to create distance, make the bad thing go away or stop. However if this also fails, if we keep pushing a dog’s self preservation button, or the dog’s temperament is such that it is not able to cope with sustained frustration, anxiety, and high levels of stress, then all that is left is active aggression; a bite.

Motivation drives behaviour: All behaviour is driven by motivation, humans, dogs, cats, rabbits, rodents, horses.  There is always some function, some purpose, a motivation to behaviour(s). Although there could be any number of reasons a dog may present with problem behaviour, here we will consider motivation in relation to the following categories:

Social attention and interaction: Dogs are a sociable species, we have all heard the term “It’s just attention seeking behaviour” applied to humans, but owners will often overlook this very simple explanation as a cause for many common problems behaviours. Let’s take a look at a very typical scenario. Consider this, Fido your 10 week old pup is bored, he has been used to attention and interaction on demand with his littermates. You are doing chores and Fido bounds over to you and nips your ankle, you say “No!” attention, you gently push Fido away interaction, and as you do so you look at him directly making eye contact attention. From Fido’s point of view this works, and each time this scenario is repeated, this behaviour is strengthened, and by the time Fido is 5 months this has escalated to serious problem behaviour.

Tangibles: Like humans dogs have needs, wants, preferences, and desires for certain things such as food, activities, toys, and objects etc., which provide motivation for behaviour. It is not bad for dogs to want these things it is perfectly normal. However it is all too easy for dogs to learn to display inappropriate or undesired actions to attain these things, and this is when problem behaviours can arise.

Distance, survival, escape, and/or avoidance: Many dogs are at a disadvantage because important factors such as genetics, imprinting, habituation, and socialisation, which play a vital role in shaping dogs temperament, were lacking. Such dogs are likely to develop a nervous, reactive, anxious, shy, and/or fearful disposition, coupled with poor social skills. Therefore many of these dogs will not cope well with certain everyday situations and events. They will be motivated to create distance, escape, or avoid the situation, and in extreme cases they will be quick to switch to “fight/flight” response when faced with their fears. It is important to stress that punitive training can also put dogs at a disadvantage.  Fear aggression is one of the most common problem behaviours in this category. Whatever the nature of the issue, treatment should be management, remedial habituation and socialisation and training. Under no circumstances should aversive training techniques be applied. (See above: The dangers of the dominance model).

Sensory and intrinsic motivation: Various behaviours are internally rewarding, or self-reinforcing. Such behaviours are not dependent on external consequences, what is happening on the inside is important. For example, when left alone Fido barks excessively, he barks because he is bored and possibly also anxious. Barking is a sensory, self-reinforcing behaviour for Fido because it relieves him of boredom and stress, and makes him feel better.  Excessive barking is annoying and distressing to the owner; however, for the dog the behaviour serves the function of helping it cope with boredom or anxiety. The behaviour of excessive barking has been adopted by Fido because it functions as a coping strategy. To help resolve this type of problem behaviour we first need to change the way Fido feels when left alone, and provide enrichment to keep Fido mentally stimulated, effectively we are changing/removing the motivators.

This should make it clear that attributing dominance to problem behaviours completely disregards the true nature of behaviour; all behaviour is driven by motivation, it has a function. Canine behaviour is as simple as it is complex; that is, certain behaviours may appear to be complex, but there is normally a simple explanation. We just need to figure out two aspects; motivation and reinforcement.

© Angela Adams 2010 @ www.fun4fido.co.uk

For more about Angela, you can visit her website at http://www.fun4fido.co.uk/. You can find Angela on Twitter at http://twitter.com/fun4fido, on Facebook athttp://www.facebook.com/pages/fun4fido/63862277241, and on LinkedIn athttp://www.linkedin.com/in/fun4fido.

For more reading on animal behaviour, Angela reccommends the following: