Dogs don’t act at random any more than people do. Yes, there’s a reason you keep buying soy sauce at the grocery store, even though you did it last time, and maybe even the time before that.

We’ve been trained by a hundred years of psychology to invent really complex reasons that we do things. Our grocery shopping behavior is linked to our happy childhood memories of eating around the table, or our unhappy childhood memories of skipping meals. And it is. But, it’s much more pragmatically linked to the fact that we’re stressed and keep forgetting the grocery list.

Your dog offers behaviors for a reason. It’s important to remember that. It’s also, however, important to let it go.

For example: Silas is barking out the window. He’s barking out the window because there are people outside, and that stresses him out. He’s an anxious dog with a history of awkward relationships with strangers, due to genetic influences on his temperament and maybe too little socialization.

Alternatively: he’s barking because he finds this behavior rewarding. He’s hoping that if he barks at them (behavior) that they will go away (reward).

The first construction of this is a very compelling narrative, and truthful as far as I know. In the grand scheme of things, it might even give me some useful training data. It tells me that I should keep exposing Silas to new people, and do everything I can to keep his anxiety level down. It’s not nearly as much help with the actual behavior in the moment, though, as the second construction. That second narrative helps me to recognize that barking is self-rewarding, and that if I want it to stop I will need to somehow intervene in that moment.

As a training tool, the big picture ultimately matters very little compared to watching the response/reward pattern. That’s good, because it’s also easy for our deep psychological reasons to be entirely wrong. We are not inside our dog’s heads. More dangerously, those same unverifiable psychological explanations often become excuses. “The dog poops on the floor while I’m at work to spite me for leaving him, so I can’t do anything about it.” “He was abused; he’ll always bark at men.”

How about this: your dog pees on your rug, eats your trash, chews your shoes, hides when you vacuum, and barks at strangers because he finds it rewarding to do so. Behaviors that are rewarded increase in strength and frequency, whether your dog is a singleton puppy with genetic fear issues or the most confident show-dog in the ring. There’s a narrative you can act on, rather than just feeling sorry about.


6 thoughts on “Behavior

  1. Good points. I think people forget to start a step earlier and work on things that lead up to issues, rather than wait til the actual issue starts and it must be so helpful to Silas that you recognize that!

    I think in dog training, the pros have to outweigh the cons for dogs too and it obviously varies from dog to dog greatly. For example, once in a while Norman barks at some noise on the other side of the fence and I give him a stern “no” which he is sensitive towards. The next time he hears the same noise, I know he remembers the correction and thinks, “hey, I’d rather not bark than bark and be told no again.” The same goes for rewards like dogs learning to sit for their food. The con would be them being told over and over to sit when they really just want to eat.

    And yes, it’s a great idea to realize things about your dog but not use it as an excuse to expect never to accomplish certain things! Can you tell I love topics on dog behavior and training?


  2. And don’t forget that some dogs are just more likely to bark. My first two dogs were German Shepherd mixes. I didn’t know as much about training then. And I’m sure I could have decreased their barking by taking your suggestion to take a look at how their behavior was rewarded.

    But my Golden Retriever Honey is so different. She doesn’t bark as much. And it’s pretty much always her trying to tell me something.

    Once I understand and acknowledge the barks, she stops.

    Of course keeping all these things in mind when our dogs bark is part of what makes living with them so fun. Just don’t tell Silas I said so. He might bark more.


  3. You always make me think and today is no exception…You know I don’t have the ‘issues’ that you have with Silas but that doesn’t meant that I dont’ want to learn more about why Gizmo is the way he is…He’s not generally a barker…except when he sees dogs on the path across the street and then he feels obligated to bark at every one of’s really the only time he barks…so what does that tell me? I think it’s that he’s guarding his home and wants the other dogs to know it…Am I right? Who knows? I usually let him bark for a minute then do my best to redirect his attention to something more rewarding, be it a treat or just a pet


  4. Wonderful, thoughtful post. It’s funny, I was just thinking about how it isn’t actually useful to yell at a whining dog, but is kind of self rewarding for the HUMAN to want to yell at a whining dog.

    All of us, dogs and humans, do things that are rewarding.


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