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Do You Really Know Your Dog?

Sally Gutteridge
Knowing your dog means that you empathise with him and try to see the world from his point of view and not your projection of him.

Projection is something we do naturally and way more than is particularly healthy. We look at a stranger and decide how they feel, when we disagree with someone and things get heated, we decide how they feel – often without any evidence or communication. We can look at our dogs and decide that their fear is naughtiness, their stress is because they are feeling obnoxious or their confusion ignorance.

Even whilst none of these are true, they certainly make us feel differently about the dog and his behaviour. Take some time out and just chill with your dog. Stop acting and responding and start observing. Ethology is the act of observing an animal in their natural environment, with no interference from the watcher. Become your dog’s ethologist and learn from him. Your dog’s behaviour is a direct indication of how he feels.

So, if he looks relaxed, he will be feeling relaxed. If your dog looks excited, he will be feeling excited and if his body tenses up, he is likely to be feeling pretty tense. The way a dog feels is usually dependent on what the environment around him is like. There is an exception to this. When a dog is ill or in pain it will naturally change their behaviour and the way they look. Any unusual behaviour should be assessed by your veterinarian, to check your dog’s health and wellbeing. When a dog is feeling poorly or in pain, it’s their right to see the vet.

The dog with a clean bill of health, that has a behaviour change will usually do so based on an environment change. So, if your dog is asleep and the doorbell goes, there’s an obvious change, he might bark and run around. If your dog is scared of bangs and is relaxed, but a firework goes off in the distance, his behaviour will change, he may tremble and hide. The dog that is scared of children might hear a scream and become tense then bark in response – telling the screamer to stay well away.

Your task is to witness these overt behaviour changes and empathise with your dog. He doesn’t know who is at the door, he may feel that the firework is a direct threat to his survival or it could really hurt his ears. Your dog may never have never had a good experience with animated and noisy children, so is scared of them and gets defensive. When we start to observe with empathy, we stop focussing on the awkward behaviour and we place focus on how the dog feels and his motivation behind that particular display. When we start to approach observation from this viewpoint, we are becoming enlightened observers, we are ethologists.

The basis of any behaviour change is how the dog feels. The way he feels is usually triggered by the environment and the reason he chooses that particular behaviour is because he has learned to choose it in similar situations in the past.

So, when you observe your dog, ask yourself, how does my dog feel, what has made him feel that way and what is reinforcing this type of response. Because a consequence will always drive behaviour, without fail, if your dog finds that his behaviour worked in a situation, that behaviour will get stronger by repetition. 

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