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Brian’s Bite-sized Behavior Bits

A Certified Dog Trainer (IACP-CDT) and member of the International Association of Canine Professionals, Brian Bergford has extensive experience as a Dog Behavior Specialist and is the owner of Altitude Dog Training. He also owns Uptown Dog in Longmont, Colorado, and functions as the Director of Training and Behavior for this center which provides Behavior- and Pack Work-driven daycare and boarding. Brian specializes in Pack Work, People Development, Basic through Advanced Training, and Behavior Modification and Rehabilitation.

Brian’s Bite-sized Behavior Bits – September 2017
Taking the Time to Listen

One thing I have been guilty of more times than I’d care to admit is not investing the necessary time and energy to understand where my dog is coming from. Have you ever been really frustrated with something your dog was doing until you thought through things from her perspective?

I’ve had times when I’ve gotten annoyed while concentrating on a work project that was interrupted when one of my dogs started whining. Later, I realized that the water dish had gone empty and she was truly thirsty. She wasn’t whining to be a pest – she had a legitimate need for something and was trying to communicate it to me.

I wonder how many of the challenges we run into that might be solved much more quickly if we put ourselves in our dog’s shoes. Great dog trainers, and owners, are masters of picking up on subtleties in their dogs’ behavior; they have a genuine desire to understand and meet the needs of their companions. People who are great at building and maintaining healthy relationships with other people share the exact same quality. If we want to have the best possible relationship with our spouse, we need to become a great listener. We need to anticipate and meet their needs. If we want to form great friendships or work relationships, the same principle is in play. Being engaged and proactive in our communication can help us achieve this.

I often tell clients of mine that if you observe 10 dogs exhibiting the exact same problem behavior, they would likely be doing it for 10 entirely different reasons. In other words, we need to understand why our dog is doing a particular behavior. Knowing the underlying motivation is important if we’re going to find the right “treatment.” For example, many dogs exhibit leash reactivity toward other dogs while on walks (lunging, barking, growling, showing their teeth, shrieking, etc.). Believe it or not, the least common motivation for leash reactivity is dog aggression, although it does occur on rare occasion. There are a multitude of far more common causes including boredom, frustration, protectiveness, territoriality, insecurity, the desire to play, and the most common: defensiveness or anxiety resulting in the desire to create distance from the other dog.

Don’t worry: you needn’t understand every root cause of problem behaviors nor have the perfect game plan to deal with all of them – that’s what working with a qualified local dog trainer is for. The point is to become more curious and appreciate why your dog is acting a certain way, and in order to do that, you have to be a good listener. How do you accomplish this? Here are a few tips:

  • Get a baseline for “normal” behavior (i.e. how your dog behaves under normal circumstances when she is healthy and confident)
  • Anytime her behavior begins to deviate from that baseline, take notice!
  • Observe – and even write down – what specifically has changed. Making generalizations is not going to help you pinpoint the real issue.
  • Ask yourself if anything has changed in terms of your dog’s daily routine. Tip: many challenges we face as owners can be tied back to life changes (moving homes, job/schedule changes, having a new baby, etc.)
  • Have a genuine desire not just to nip the problem in the bud, but to observe your dog’s energy and body language in order to get clues as to what’s really going on – sometimes a dog will act out because she’s painful, not because she’s being “stubborn.”

The takeaway here is to have an open mind and cultivate a healthy curiosity so you can discover how to best support your dog. While you never want to make excuses for your dog’s misbehavior, you should endeavor to understand why it is happening so your solution is based on reality, not assumptions.


Content Copyrighted 2017. Brian Bergford. All Rights Reserved.