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How to Understand Dog Behavior

Updated: Feb 12

Dogs are more than just pets; they are family members, companions, and in some cases, even service animals. As dog owners, it is our responsibility to understand our furry friends and their behavior, so we can communicate with them better and build a stronger bond. In this article, we will dive deep into dog behavior, including why they do what they do and how we can respond appropriately. By the end of this article, you'll have a better understanding of your dog's behavior and be able to communicate with them more effectively. Why do dogs do what they do? First and foremost, it's essential to understand that dogs are animals with natural instincts. While they have been domesticated for thousands of years, their instincts still play a significant role in their behavior. Understanding these instincts is key to understanding your dog's behavior.

Instincts from Their Wolf Ancestors

Dogs are direct descendants of wolves. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, dogs are direct descendants of wolves. The museum explains that dogs were the first domesticated animal and that genetic evidence shows that dogs and wolves share a common ancestor that lived between 9,000 and 34,000 years ago. Over time, dogs evolved through selective breeding to become the wide variety of breeds that we have today. However, dogs still carry many of their ancestral instincts. For example, dogs are social animals, just like wolves. They crave social interaction, which is why they love being around people and other dogs. This instinct also explains why dogs can become anxious or destructive when left alone for long periods.

Dogs also have a strong prey drive, which comes from their wolf ancestors' hunting instincts. This drive can explain why some dogs may chase after small animals or birds.

Learned Dog Behaviors

Dogs also learn through experience and association. If a dog has positive experiences with certain behaviors or actions, they will continue to repeat them. On the other hand, if a dog has negative experiences, they will avoid repeating those behaviors. Here are some common examples of learned behaviors that dogs can form.

  • If a dog barks at someone entering the house and the person immediately leaves, the dog may learn that barking scares away intruders.

  • If a dog is given a treat every time it sits on command, the dog may learn to associate sitting with receiving a reward.

  • If a dog is scolded every time it jumps on someone, the dog may learn to associate jumping with a negative consequence.

  • If a dog is taken for a walk every time it hears the sound of a leash being picked up, the dog may learn to associate that sound with going for a walk.

  • If a dog is exposed to different environments and situations, such as going to the park, meeting new people, and experiencing new smells, it may learn to adapt and become more confident in unfamiliar situations.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors such as upbringing, training, and socialization can also play a significant role in a dog's behavior. A dog's experiences in their early life, such as socialization with other dogs and people, can shape their behavior for years to come. For example, a dog that is not adequately socialized with other dogs may become aggressive or fearful around them. According to the American Kennel Club, "Puppies who are not properly socialized during the critical period of three to 14 weeks may develop irreversible fears, leading to timidity or aggression." Proper socialization can also prevent behavior problems and increase the likelihood of successful adoptions for shelter dogs. It is recommended to start socializing your dog as early as possible and to expose them to a variety of people, animals, and environments in a positive and controlled manner. Similarly, a dog that is not properly trained may engage in destructive behaviors or not respond to commands. Here is a quick 1-minute video on some easy-to-follow training tips. If you are interested in learning 3 basic commands every dog should know, you can read that blog here. Understanding these instincts and behaviors is the first step in communicating with your dog effectively.

Common Dog Behaviors and What They Mean

Now that we've covered why dogs behave the way they do let's take a closer look at some common behaviors and what they mean.

1. Tail Wagging

Tail wagging is often seen as a sign of a happy dog. However, tail wagging can also indicate other emotions, such as fear, anxiety, or even aggression. A fast-wagging tail, combined with a relaxed body, typically means a dog is happy and friendly. On the other hand, a slow, stiff wag, combined with a tense body, can indicate a dog that is fearful or aggressive. Remember, not all tail wags are happy wags!

2. Barking

Barking is a natural way for dogs to communicate. However, excessive barking can be a sign of anxiety, boredom, or even aggression. If your dog is barking excessively, try to identify the trigger. Is it a particular sound or sight? Once you have identified the trigger, work on desensitizing your dog to it. For example, if your dog barks at the sound of the doorbell, ring the bell several times throughout the day and reward your dog when they remain calm.

3. Chewing

Dogs chew for a variety of reasons. Chewing is a natural behavior for dogs, especially puppies who are teething. However, chewing can also be a sign of boredom or anxiety. Dogs may chew on items such as shoes, furniture, or even their own paws. To address chewing behavior, provide your dog with appropriate chew toys and ensure they have plenty of physical and mental stimulation throughout the day. If you catch your dog chewing on something they shouldn't redirect their attention to an appropriate chew toy and praise them when they chew on it instead.

Doggie Language guide showing body language of dogs

4. Jumping

Dogs may jump on people as a way to greet them, show affection, or seek attention. Jumping up is a natural behavior for dogs, especially when they are excited or happy. However, jumping can also be a sign of dominance or lack of training. To discourage jumping behavior, teach your dog a "sit" or "down" command and reward them when they comply. You can also turn away or cross your arms when your dog jumps up to avoid reinforcing the behavior. Consistency is key in addressing jumping behavior.

5. Digging

Digging is another natural behavior for dogs, particularly breeds that were originally bred for hunting or digging such as terriers. However, digging can also be a sign of boredom or anxiety. To address digging behavior, provide your dog with an appropriate digging area, such as a sandbox or designated area in the yard. Reward your dog when they dig in this area and redirect them if they try to dig in other areas. Ensure your dog is getting enough physical and mental stimulation throughout the day to prevent boredom and anxiety.

By implementing the knowledge gained in this article, dog owners can create a happy and healthy relationship with their furry friends.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please give it a share. Be sure to follow me on Instagram to stay caught up with the latest features and events! This blog was written by Tiffany, your custom pet portrait artist!



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