Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Imagine you've spent hours working on a DIY kennel for your dog. You carefully selected materials that look great and feel cozy, and you showed your dog around the premises during construction. Using metal stud wall screws, you didn't even need to drill holes, completing the whole project in a fuss-free manner with minimal material damage. After applying the finishing touches, you'd expect your dog to bound right in and curl up, appreciative of your efforts, right? 

Image by DavidDMuir licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In real life, that's seldom how this scenario unfolds. Dogs are among the smartest animals we know, but that doesn't mean they can easily understand most of the strange things we humans do every day. Breaking down this common situation, you can find three underlying principles at work. In turn, knowing them will help you develop a better understanding of your pet. Here's a closer look.

Natural influences

Dog owners know that their pets are pack animals. They are descended from wolves, so we've come to expect similar behaviors from them. When another dog in the neighborhood howls, it's no surprise that your dog howls back in response. So when you build them a kennel, which is the equivalent of a den, shouldn't the dog take to it immediately?

The truth is a little more complicated. Dogs have been selected by humans over thousands of years, favoring specific traits - the ability to hunt and follow a scent, pull loads, or demonstrate submissiveness, for instance. They no longer behave entirely like their wild ancestors. Modern dogs have become more highly social animals. While there is some debate around whether or not they view humans as the 'alpha' of their pack, there's no disputing that dogs will follow human leadership.
Natural influences remain, of course, but these are mostly concerned with the survival basics-food, water, and shelter. Thus, when you bring a dog into your home, they don't understand that the house is a construct for human habitation. If they are accustomed to following you around the house all day and sleeping in your bed at night, they can't tell the difference between their kennel and 'human stuff.'

Habit formation

Of course, the high degree of social ability most dogs possess, combined with an unusual level of intelligence, makes them receptive to human efforts to train and condition them. We all know that dogs can form habits. But when your dog doesn't seem to understand, or simply refuses to follow orders, it's easy just to give up. We put it down to a stubborn temperament or being less willing to learn compared to other dogs.

Variations do exist between individuals and across dog breeds. But just like humans, dogs can require a specific approach for habit changes to take effect. Going back to the kennel example, you may have tried a few tricks to get them accustomed to the place. Maybe you put treats inside to entice them to enter, then pet or praise them once inside. But how long do you keep up this behavioral reinforcement? Like people, some dogs imprint behaviors quickly, while others will drop their habits unless reinforcement is maintained for a month or more.

As a rule of thumb, think of dogs as toddlers when trying to teach them something or break a bad habit. If your approach to their training would be effective for a toddler, it's more likely to work for your dog.

Proactive ownership

Whenever you try to understand or shape your pet's behavior, their natural instincts and individual psychology aren't the only factors to consider. As owners, we can exert great influence on our pets even when we aren't attempting to do so.

Our consciousness of the difference between dogs and humans means that we don't always see ourselves as behavioral models. Yet dogs are constantly observing and learning from us and responding within their limited capabilities. Reactive owners only train their dogs when a problem arises, when a behavior needs to be corrected, or a new one developed.

The proactive owner is aware of the need to be constantly the leader. If you want your dog to adapt to living in a kennel, that doesn't mean you have to sleep inside it-but you have to put the right conditions in place so that they form positive associations with it. Toss them treats occasionally while they're already inside, and not while they're in other areas of the house. Encourage them to stay inside the kennel regularly, not just when you're leaving the house-that would only tie into their fear of separation anxiety.

From this common scenario, you can learn a lot about a dog's psychology, and use that to guide your effort to train them in the future.


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