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Observable behavior

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A recent conversation got me thinking about the basic training principle:  “address observable behavior”. In short, do not make assumptions about what a dog might be thinking or feeling; work with what is happening in front of you.

I know where this well meaning advice came from.  It’s a reaction to the human tendency to place their own feelings and emotions onto their dogs; often in an irrational manner and without basis.

For example, “He sniffed on the recall!  He was getting back at me for leaving him alone yesterday.”

So should we stop making assumptions about the emotional causes of dog behavior?

No! If you don’t take the time to understand the underlying emotions that might be causing your dog’s undesirable behaviors, then you’ll also struggle to find effective training solutions.  Both approaches (an unfounded application of emotions or an exclusive focus on behavior) are going to lead you to poor decisions.  Your assumptions about your dog’s emotions should be logical – based on information that you have about the dog and the situation.

Do dogs have emotions?  Do dogs think?  Can a dog’s emotions impact observable behavior?  


Dogs could not learn if they were unable to make emotional connections between their behavior and the events happening around them.  Like people, dogs work to avoid things that make them uncomfortable (avoiding the emotions of fear, stress and the feelings of pain) and towards things that make them happy or secure.  If dogs lacked basic emotions and the ability to alter their behaviors as a response, then they would be unable to survive in our world. 

If we want to be highly effective trainers, we have no choice but to make educated guesses about what a dog might be thinking and feeling at a given moment based on our interpretations of their behavior.  Understanding a dog’s emotions often provides the only route to explaining behavior, which in turn provides a solution to create change.

As an example, let’s take another look at that dog that sniffs and wanders instead of moving towards her handler on a recall.

What should we do to change the dog’s behavior?

If you believe that only observable behavior is relevant, what is your suggested solution?  Stop reading for a moment and consider what advice you might give someone.  (the dog is sniffing as he comes towards the handler on the recall).  Then continue on.

ok; now let’s look at it:

If the handler frequently drops food in the training area, then it is likely that the dog is sniffing in the hopes of finding some food.  His likely emotional state?  Curious or hopeful.   If this is the cause of the sniffing, then the solution lies in proofing.  This dog has to learn that even if food is on the floor that this food is not for the taking. (Note:  In my training, proofing is a positive event for the dog, but for the purpose of this example how you teach is not relevant – you would “proof” the dog for food on the floor however you know to do that).

But what if the handler does not drop food and the dog is not finding anything on the floor?  What if you discover that the dog has been doing recalls, one after the other, for five minutes, and now the dog has just begun sniffing?

I’d guess that the dog is simply bored and disengaging, doing the same exercise over and over.  Boredom is not curiosity – it is avoidance.   If this is the root issue, then first figure out what aspect of the recall is really the handler’s interest; why is the handler doing multiple recalls? (speed?  Fronts?  Finishes?).  Then work on that small piece outside of the formal recall while alternating with other activities.

What if you applied the “proofing” solution to a dog that was bored as opposed to curious?  You’ll likely make the problem even worse with the additional repetitions!

What if the handler had been working that recall repeatedly and has not been rewarding any of them?  Is that piece of information relevant?  Does it matter if this is the first or tenth recall?  Might those many repetitions affect the dog’s emotional state?

Yes, because now I’m going to begin to suspect that the sniffing may be an avoidance behavior that reflects the underlying emotion of anxiety (as opposed to boredom).  If a dog is asked to perform the same exercise repeatedly without adequate feedback, then displacement sniffing is a very common result.  Stop doing all of those unrewarded recalls and see if the problem goes away.

If you misread the dog’s displacement behavior and assumed curiosity sniffing and if you then applied a proofing solution, then you can expect to make that problem worse as well.  Your anxious dog will now be both anxious and unmotivated.  He might stop sniffing but don’t be surprised if he starts…scratching.  Yawning.  Lip licking.  Or staring off into the distance.  All are problematic if you value an enthusiastic and engaged working partner.

But what if the dog has always done wonderful recalls and has no objection to multiple drills, either with or without food?  Would it be relevant to know that this same dog had been lunged at the week prior by another dog in the same area?  Might your dog’s sniffing behavior actually be an reflection of nervousness caused by the emotion of fear?

If your dog has experienced an upsetting event, then you should be dealing with your dog’s fear issues and you shouldn’t be doing formal exercises at all.  Work through your dog’s worry or fear before continuing.

Ok; let’s say that none of that is relevant!  The dog is doing a first recall, with a cookie and without anything on the floor and there has been no trauma.  Is there anything else that might be relevant which is not a part of the presenting behavior of sniffing on the recall?

Could the dog be in pain?  If your dog is sore from the prior day’s hike in the woods, it can be painful to sit in front.  As a result, the dog avoids the front position altogether.

Could it be an issue of training technique?  What happens when the dog gets to the handler?  Does she reach out and correct the dog by the collar for sitting crooked?  Could that be part of the dog’s choice to sniff rather than to come to front position?  Of course it can.  In that case the handler needs to change HER behavior – all of the proofing, reinforcement and behavior work in the world won’t solve the issue unless the handler changes her training technique.

If you offered a solution to sniffing on the recall, and all you had access to was information about the dog’s specific behavior, do you still think that your solution was the right one for any of these scenarios?

Almost every observable behavior problem should be considered within the context of the dog’s prior training, experiences, temperament, and physical well being, because all of these affect the dog’s emotional state.  Ask yourself ; does the dog feel safe in the environment?  Is the handler pleasant? Is the work pleasant?  Does the dog know how to meet expectations?  Is the dog being inadvertently rewarded for incorrect choices? And…how might he feel about all of this?  Stressed?  Unsure?  Anxious? Hectic? Excited?

Can you see why it’s easier to come up with effective and workable solutions if you consider the dog’s emotions as part of the causes of behavior?

The more you practice thinking holistically with behavior as more than an observable event, the more quickly you’ll find yourself coming to accurate conclusions.  And when your first conclusion proves to be wrong, the more quickly you’ll be able to change direction and try a new path.

Creating lasting change in dog behavior requires more than the ability to accurately observe and describe what a dog is doing at a single moment in time.  Change requires the ability to identify and interpret the possible underlying causes of the dog’s behavior, often rooted in their emotions, and to select appropriate solutions that are logical for that specific challenge.   Because dogs cannot talk to us, interpreting their behavior in the language of underlying emotions is often the fastest way for a handler to come to a workable solution.  The risk, of course, is when we attribute emotions within the context of power dynamics and calculated behavior.  That will get you into trouble every time.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

8 responses »

  1. Denise, thank you for articulating this so clearly. While I think that I have thought this way for a long time, it has not been until working with my 4 year old GSD Hedda, that I have so had to hone that ability & evolved my thinking to this level. Interestingly, now that I have done that, I can never look at a dog & its’ behavior without thinking about what their internal state may be. It causes me to work harder at finding the appropriate solution for that dog. Thank you again!

  2. How does one know when the dog is feeling stressed, anxious or simply just not interested. I am having an issue with my almost 3 year old Golden Retriever. This is a dog that is trained to the utility level, although we are still perfecting exercises, but is the picture of consistent inconsistency. He can be brilliant one day and the next day he’s at a fun match taking off, barking and chasing his tail and, at one point, leaving the ring!! I’ve been told by someone that this is a clear case of him not respecting me; another person feels it’s stress and avoidance and I chalked it up to him being tired (as he spent 3 days at a kennel just prior). I believe that his behaviour has a few people baffled!!

    I am very new to performance training so this is all very new to me. I believe my lack of experience certainly has something to do with the way he behaves but honestly, I don’t know how to read him and it is frustrating to say the least.

    I should note that we are currently enrolled in BTG at the bronze level so hoping that perhaps some of the behaviour may be the result of something that will be addressed later on.

    • As a rule, I have seen handler’s lack of respect for their dogs to be a much more prevalent issue than dogs that lack respect for their owners.

      Your explanation is logical – he was tired. When tired it’s hard to concentrate and work. For me too, actually. Why doubt yourself?

      BTG won’t address reading dog behavior – but if you follow a BTG approach to training then your dog will learn to choose work and the risk of working a dog that shouldn’t be working with decrease quite a bit.

      If you want to learn to read and understand dog behavior, I’d like to recommend Donna Hill’s class “Dog as a Second Language”. That will be offered in June, so next term:

      • Thank you. I considered not working him given the fact that I knew he would be tired and may not give me his full attention. However, we have so few opportunities for fun matches in our area that I wanted to take advantage of it. My bad!!!!

        We are following the Gold students closely and doing our homework so I’m hoping for nothing but positive things from my guy!!

  3. Excellent article!!!
    I have never gone for this — “we don’t know what the dog is thinking” thing. Sure we don’t, but them we never know what any human is thinking! (Even if we ask them.)
    But dogs are good, and more honest communicators that humans, and unless we have a pretty good ide of WHY a certain behaviour is happening, we have the devil of a job to deal with it.

  4. As a reply to Laurie, Our own behaviour will strongly affect our dog’s behaviour.
    My Ironbark usually manages to come first in the Ob, ring on the first trial of the weekend (Sat AM). And completely and absolutely bomb out in the subsequent two. (Sat PM, Sun AM).
    I am beginning to realise that it is not HIM who is bombing, but ME, a I’m getting tired and slower 😦

  5. Jenny H….I agree with you wholeheartedly!! I am working hard at trying to change my behaviour so it will change his. Just when I think we have it figured out, he proves me wrong. Things will be going swimmingly and then whammo, he turns into a wild man!! Tough nut to crack this boy!!! I keep telling him “it’s a good thing you’re cute”!

  6. Pingback: Observing Your Dog’s Behavior | Jack The Dog Trainer

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