Your dog is going ballistic – running all over the place like a chicken with it’s head cut off. You’re frustrated because you need to get this stopped; it’s impacting your life! At the same time, you know that your dog’s behavior is being driven by not getting enough exercise and stimulation and it’s coming out in a way that is making you crazy.

Yet – your dog seems to kind of enjoy this new form of exercise; bouncing from couch to couch and chasing the cat.  it’s working for her!

Is your dog’s emotional state/not getting her needs met driving the behavior or is the dog’s behavior exacerbating the emotional state?

It’s both.

In general, I like to focus on the underlying unpleasant emotions that drive problematic behavior, because I see that as the root of what is happening.  If I can change the dog’s emotional state/root issue them I’m not suppressing behavior – I’m addressing it.

Having said that, it’s also true that expressing the behavior itself can exacerbate an emotional reaction. For example, bouncing off the walls and chasing the cat heightens the intensity of some positive feelings that the dog has – it’s fun! The movement of feet, barking, and running?  Yes, it was caused by lack of exercise but it provides it’s own reward as well.

So which comes first?

Right now, while it’s happening, that is the wrong question. It doesn’t matter. Stop the behavior.

Okay – you stopped the behavior. What happens if you just stop the behavior without addressing the emotional root?   As with most things it kind of depends on the circumstances, but the most likely result is that you’ll end up struggling and fighting very hard to keep the behavior where you want it because the emotional need has not been met.

For example, if you have a six month old baby in puppy class but he is too excited to learn and just lunges and barks, you can focus on keeping the puppy on the mat eating food but that misses the point. The point is that at that age, that particular pup is not emotionally mature enough to be in that environment. So while yes, you can continue trying to get calm or focused behavior, a more logical answer would be to acknowledge that the puppy is not ready to be there and move further away so the puppy can function.  Or bring the puppy into the space for extremely short periods of time and make the most of those before the inevitable meltdown occurs. But heck, you DID stop the bad behavior so that’s a great start!

When addressing an issue that likely has emotional underpinnings, you want to cycle back and forth. What is the dog’s emotional state and how is it driving behavior? At the same time, can you now affect the behavior and contain it so that the dog’s emotional state doesn’t deteriorate? It’s a cycle, but instead of creating a negative cycle of escalating panic, aggression, frustration, or whatever, you’re creating an alternative cycle which brings the dog back into a better space. You cannot have the dog barking and lunging – stop that.  The mat (eating) is not really addressing the emotional problem either – the problem is the puppy’s age makes the puppy a poor candidate for the situation.  How about changing that scenery so the puppy isn’t so overwhelmed?

This is a more challenging way to think about behavior change than just focusing on emotions or just focusing on behavior. If you only focus on emotions, odds are pretty good that you’re not taking into consideration the needs of others, and that by allowing the dog to express bad behavior she may well be exacerbating it because plenty of bad behavior ends up with positive results for the dog (it can be fun to bark and lunge when one is excited and frustrated!)

On the other hand, if you only look at behavior, you’re going to find yourself struggling mightily to get behavior change to hold over time, because the dog’s emotional needs have not been met. (okay you’ve stopped the barking and lunging – great!  But the puppy is still in a situation that is more than she can handle)

It’s a chicken or egg situation. At each step of the game, ask yourself if you would be wise to focus more on the dog’s emotional needs, or more on the actual expressed behavior.

Focusing on the emotional needs might be things like increasing the amount of attention or exercise the dog gets, moving further away from the stimulus, or changing the location of the session all together.

Focusing on the behavior might be things like performing a down stay on the mat at a moderate (calming) distance, physically preventing the problematic behavior, for example by putting your hand in the collar, or giving the dog an alternative behavior to perform from the one they are engaging in (tricks, chasing cookies, etc.)

It’s both.  Behavior feeds emotions.  Emotions feed behavior. Stop the cycle by stopping the behavior and then see about a plan to offer an alternative that manages the underlying emotional needs as well.