Dog Behavior – Should We Ask What or Why?

Great Dane laying on a torn up couch

Why did I do what?

Sometimes when I feel nervous or anxious about something I pat myself on top of the head really fast. It’s a silly affectation I’ve adopted to deal with stress. If you were to ask me why I started doing it or even when or where, I couldn’t give you an answer. Personally I find it a completely ridiculous thing to do, but on an unconscious level it soothes my nerves. In truth there really is no why to this behavior other than I did it once and it felt good and so it has persisted.

In my opinion, many animals adapt similar methods for dealing with things that stress them. If an animal no longer has the ability to avoid stressful situations by flight, it may adopt a behavior that is soothing to it, but annoying and undesirable to us. Seeking to understand the why of this behavior may be our first reaction, but is it really the most productive?

We all possess some degree of curiosity, it’s part of being human. Often we feel the need to know why things are as they are; our curiosity is not satisfied until we do. This trait has led directly or indirectly to almost every discovery and invention known and is enormously beneficial to us. However, sometimes our need to know why supersedes all other considerations and becomes the focus of our frustration with something that can’t really be explained.

This point is one reason (among many) I don’t like methods of training dogs that seek to deal in status, hierarchy, and dominance as reasons for behavior. It seems to me that those methods seek to explain behaviors in adversarial terms. If we perceive someone or something as adversarial to us, it becomes much easier to see it as something to be corrected rather than a chance to educate. Our tendency to deal with the adversarial lends itself to deal in ultimatums instead of alternatives.

I do believe that understanding the whys of behavior are integral to being a good trainer or teacher. But sometimes I believe it’s better to ask what instead of why. What would I rather my dog do in this situation? When you can answer that question, then you also have a clear path to follow that rewards your dog and allows you to build a relationship instead of seeking to establish a conflict.


4 thoughts on “Dog Behavior – Should We Ask What or Why?

  1. Love the picture! Interesting post–food for thought. I like asking why, but sometimes, isn’t it just “what it is?” I know many of us need background info to learn a task, but I don’t think dogs do.

  2. I’ve always said that a person’s desire to dominate a dog says FAR more about them than it does about the dog.

    At times when Lilly does not respond to my requests, often it’s because she CANNOT … not that she doesn’t want to, or whatever.

    Understanding *that* improved our relationship all these years ago. Fear, not “disobedience,” drove her response.

  3. This is a really lovely, well-written piece, Kevin. I too feel as though one of the biggest differences between traditional and modern training is that traditional training focuses on coercion, and modern training attempts to build cooperation.

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