‘Why does my dog do that?’
The above question is one canine professionals hear a lot, especially when the dog in question is doing something that their guardians do not understand, or find problematic. Why does my dog bark at other dogs? Why does my dog not toilet in the garden? Why does my dog chase cars? Why does my dog growl at people in the street? These and many more are common questions. The answer that can be guaranteed in any situation is that it has nothing to do with the dog being dominant or attempting to be the boss – so why then do dogs do the things that they do?
At the most basic level, behaviour is communication. As humans, we are able to talk about what we think and feel in any situation, and communicate what we want or need to the others around us verbally. Dogs do not have spoken language but instead interact with the world around them largely through body language, with a well-established pattern of postures, movements, and limited vocalisations. A minimum of a basic understanding of canine body language should be the aim of anyone that spends any time around dogs, in order to be able to read their dogs and the dogs in their immediate environment.
The reason why a dog will do anything is that behaviour is a form of communication. When we look at a dog and see what they are doing, the positions of their ears and tail, where they are looking, how they are holding their body, and so on, what we are actually seeing is a representation of the internal state of the dog – a visual signal of what they are feeling and thinking. With practice and education, we can learn to assess the full picture in front of us, that of the dog and the environment around them, to be able to interpret what that dog means by that body position. Once we can begin to understand what the dog is showing us, we can start to know how we can best support and help them in that moment.
Understanding really is key to the bond between humans and their canine companions. Next time your dog does something that you are unsure as to why they would do that, take the time to observe what is going on in detail. What is your dog doing? How does their body language differ from their normal positions? What are they looking at or are they listening to something? Instead of wondering ‘Why does my dog do that?’ think instead ‘What is my dog telling me?’
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