Ask The Experts: 6 Things You Should Know About Dog Behavior

As humans, we don’t always understand why our dogs act the way they do. Seriously, why does my little Diego constantly bark at the friendly UPS man when he comes to our door? Why did it take so long for my Gigi to understand the rug isn’t the same as the grass outside? Why do both of my dogs want to sniff the same tree for upwards of 15 minutes when I’m in a rush? We all have questions (and frustrations) when it comes to dog behavior!

In order to better appreciate or even modify our dogs’ behavior, we have to understand them a little better. That’s where Certified Dog Behavior Consultant Kathy Reilly comes in. During our chat about dog aggression, she offered some eye-opening advice. Check out the 6 things she wants every dog parent to know!


By: Dog Behavior Expert Kathy Reilly, owner of Sit Happens

1) The Terrible Twos

Scientists now believe that dogs have the cognitive abilities of a 2-year-old child. They are basically furry toddlers. So, when your dog does something you don’t like and you think he/she should know better, think again. Would a 2-year-old know better? Redirect and Reinforce. If a 2-year-old moves to touch an electrical outlet, we don’t smack their hand and yell at them. We interrupt the behavior (No No) and guide them to an appropriate toy. If your dog is chewing the furniture, interrupt (No No) and redirect to an appropriate chew toy. If you reinforce behaviors that you like with praise, petting, and treats, your dog will exhibit those behaviors more often.

2) Dogs Do What Works

Per number 1 above, dogs do what is reinforcing. Dogs don’t plan. They don’t manipulate. They don’t want to take over your household. Dogs will do what works to get them what they want in the moment.  If they jump up on the counter and get a delicious sandwich, they will continue to jump up on the counter in the hopes of finding another sandwich. If they bark like crazy and the mailman goes away, they will continue to bark whenever they see the mailman. If they jump on people for attention and people yell and push them, they will continue to jump on people. See how that works? Teach your dog an alternative behavior and make that behavior really reinforcing. Practice this new behavior over and over until your dog really gets it. And don’t blame your dog for doing what works. Remember our toddler analysis – your dog does not know better and he’s not trying to make you angry, he’s just doing what works for him.

3) Dogs Need To Be Dogs

If our dogs were free to roam our neighborhoods, what would they do? Well, they would wander haphazardly following their noses. They would search and find interesting things to chew, taste, and roll in. They would eat and drink whenever and whatever they wanted. They would find cool, comfortable places to rest and pee and poop whenever and wherever they needed. We bring them into our houses, however, and tell them you can’t wander and explore where you want. You have to stay in this crate/room/house/yard until I get home. You can’t pee or poop wherever/whenever you want. You have to hold it until I get home and take you to a certain spot of my choosing. You can’t chew on or eat anything you want. I’ll give you certain things to chew and the same dry kibble to eat every day. You can’t rest on the most comfortable spots like the couch or bed. You get the floor and maybe a dog bed if you’re lucky. When we go for a walk, you need to walk in a straight line at a constant pace by my side. 

Ask yourself – when does your dog get to be a dog? When does he get to wander aimlessly? Follow his nose? Smell new things? Take him to an off leash area once in a while. Use a 20-foot lead to walk him and let him explore, smell, taste, and roll. Find a time each day, if possible, to let him just be a dog. 

4) To Punish or Not to Punish

Punishment does not work to change behavior. Punishment includes, but is not limited to, swatting, scolding, pinch/prong/choke collars, electric shock collars, alpha rolls or “making your dog submit,” squirt bottles, and shake cans. Punishment stops behavior – that is true. But it does nothing to help your dog learn a better, alternative behavior and it does nothing to help your dog with whatever stress or anxiety your dog may be experiencing in the moment. Punishment causes that stress and anxiety to worsen, leading you to try stronger punishments to make the behavior stop. Punishment leads to redirected aggression and breaks the bond of trust you have with your dog. Back to our toddler analysis, redirect away from inappropriate behaviors and reinforce appropriate behaviors. 

5) The Brain Needs Exercise Too

We all know dogs need physical exercise to burn off energy. But did you know your dog needs mental exercise too? Dogs were bred to do jobs for us. As our house pets, they no longer have jobs. We can, however, enrich their lives, relieve pent up stress and energy, and prevent unwanted behaviors by working their brains. Some ideas for mental stimulation include puzzles, food dispensing/interactive toys, scent games like Find It! and Nose Work, Hide-and-Seek, walks on long leads or off leash (if possible), and fun classes like agility.

6. Be More Fun!

We tend to set ourselves up as adversaries to our dog. We want to rule over, command, limit, and control our dogs. Our actions induce feelings of anxiety and fear. What we want to do is induce feelings of excitement and fun. We should become the most exciting thing in our dogs’ lives. Our dogs should associate wonderful things with us – yummy food, play, chase, and fun! If you become the center of your dog’s world, you can call him off any inappropriate behavior because you are more reinforcing than anything else! If you follow 1-5 above, you will be on your way to becoming more exciting and more valuable to your dog.


Have More Questions About Your Dog’s Behavior? 
Check out Kathy’s website, Sit Happens, by clicking here!

Photo by: Sit Happens

Photo by: Sit Happens