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By Published On: February 15th, 2011

cartoon of boy doing a math problemWhat is behavior all about anyway? Why do dogs or anyone, behave the way they do? Why do they make choices to behave one way over another?

In some cases there’s not much choice involved. If I am stepping off the curb and see a car speeding toward me out of the corner of my eye it’s not in my best interest to think too much about what I should do or how I should do it. By the time I come to a conclusion I will likely be a statistic. If my nervous system is working optimally in that situation it will have triggered my muscles to get me back onto the curb post haste.

The behavior we see in fearful dogs is often due to the response of their nervous system responding to a threat, not because they have taken the time to weigh their options. When we are working with our dogs it is up to us to provide them with conditions under which they can think and make choices, and not continually provoke them into jumping back onto the curb.

I think about ‘behavior’ as a way we solve problems. If I need to pay the mortgage every month I have to figure out how to behave in order to do so. I’m sure there are people who would continue to get up early in the morning, sit in rush hour traffic and spend the day in a factory, office, school or other place of employment, even if they weren’t going to get a paycheck at the end of the week, but I feel safe in betting that many would not. Going to work solves a problem. Some people solve the problem of providing a roof over their heads or acquiring food or something else they feel they need, by picking up a gun and robbing liquor stores. This solves the problem of getting money, but it’s generally frowned upon.

When we catch someone behaving out of accordance of rules we’ve established we punish them. The robber goes to prison. Recidivism rates in the U.S. do not indicate that this method of changing behavior is very successful. Sixty seven and a half percent of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years. And just because someone wasn’t apprehended for 3 years doesn’t mean they waited that long to commit crimes again, nor does it include numbers of people who were not caught.

When our dogs behave in ways we think are inappropriate we can punish them, but this does not help them solve the problem they were responding to to begin with. If we want our fearful dogs to change their behavior we need to provide them with acceptable alternatives that not only make us happy, but work for them. If a dog learns that growling and snarling effectively keeps scary things away from them, simply punishing them for this behavior only solves the problem for us, and like a jail sentence, the result is often temporary. Not only does the dog still perceive that there is a problem, but the effects of continuing to suppress, through violence or the threat of violence, a dog’s behavior to protect themselves, is potentially dangerous. If growling ceases to work to make scary things go away, a dog may up the ante by biting.

After having their behavior suppressed, an animal can react in a way that is out of proportion to whatever is provoking the response in that particular instance. In humans we see this in women or children who respond violently toward someone in their life who has abused them. Victims of this sort of attack often suffer what seems like ‘over kill’? I recall reading about a woman who stabbed her husband over 50 times and I had to wonder, didn’t the first 20 do the trick? In the research done in animal behavior we know that reactions like this are not unusual. How many dogs who are defined as ‘dominant’ are only responding to being subjected to painful or threatening control of their behavior by their handlers?

If we can come up with behaviors for our dogs to perform that are appropriate from our point of view, but also help solve whatever problem the dog perceives, we not only have a win-win situation, but the likelihood that our dogs will be willing to practice and be able to replace their old behavior with this new behavior increases.

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