When we live with dogs, sometimes we can find the things they do problematic. The term 'behaviour problem' is commonly used, but the truth is that most of the dog behaviours we see are normal and natural dog behaviours. They are not really a problem as far as the dog is concerned, but they are something the humans in the family can find difficult to cope with.
It can be extremely easy to think that the main thing we should focus on is stopping the 'problem behaviour' – after all, if we’ve stopped the behaviour we don’t like, the problem goes away. The issue with that line of thinking is that when we concentrate only on stopping the behaviour rather than understanding what the dog needs in that moment or finding an alternative way to meet the dog's needs, what we are actually doing is suppressing the behaviour.
What’s the difference? The behaviour stops, which is the most important thing in some people's minds. The thing is that there is a world of difference, and it all comes down to the question of WTF (What’s The Function?)
There is a phrase often said that there is no such thing as good or bad behaviour, it’s all simply behaviour. Underneath that behaviour will be an emotion, a need that the dog is fulfilling in that moment. If we focus on stopping the behaviour, that does not remove the emotion that the dog is feeling or the need that the dog has right then. This is why it is vital to consider and understand the function of the behaviour.
The dog who barks may hear something outside of the home that worries them or see movement out of the window and feel the need to alert their humans to this fact or drive the interloper away. Simply trying to stop the dog barking in that moment will not remove the effect of hearing or seeing the thing outside. The underlying emotion will still be there.
Much more effective and considerate to the dog to consider management to stop them being bothered by seeing things outside of the window, perhaps by the use of window film to block the dog’s view while still letting light into the room. For the dog barking at sounds outside we can teach them a cue that signifies we have heard them barking and acknowledging that they have alerted us to the thing outside. Something as simple as a ‘Job done, thank you!’ followed by a tasty treat when the dog quiets for a moment will soon have the dog happy that they have done their part and the humans have got things under control.
The dog who guards their food or toys from other dogs in the household or family members is worried about losing access to a valuable resource. The item they are guarding may not seem important to us, but it is incredibly important to them and that is what matters. Trying to force them to give up whatever it is they want to keep hold of will likely only make the problem worse. Careful management to avoid the dog feeling pressured when they have something like a tasty chew or are playing with a favourite toy can prevent the problem arising and the dog feeling the need to guard.
The dog who growls and lunges at other dogs may seem aggressive at first glance, but this behaviour is often based in fear. Unfortunately, a knee jerk reaction on encountering this can be to punish – the behaviour of growling, barking, and lunging may feel shocking and embarrassing. When we realise that underlying emotion is fear, we can begin to see that the dog needs our help and support to feel safer and more comfortable around the source of their fear.
Many behaviours are signs that in some way the dog’s needs are not being met. Consider the dog who creates chaos by excavating the flowerbeds. Digging is a completely normal and natural canine behaviour, and part of our responsibilities as caregivers is to ensure that the dogs in our care have opportunities to carry out natural behaviours. Stopping the dog digging without providing a more suitable outlet means we are not meeting this need. Giving the dog a ‘legal’ location to dig, such as a child’s sandpit for instance, will meet the dog’s needs and allow the function of the behaviour without endangering the shrubbery.
The best thing we can do for the dogs with whom we share our lives is to learn how to understand them, to accept and respect their emotional existence, to meet their needs and to give them all the opportunities we possibly can to carry out natural behaviours and simply be dogs.