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Understand Your Dog

The key to any good relationship is understanding the other's point of view, as best we can.


L.E.G.S. is a model of dog behavior from Ethologist Kim Brophey. Her excellent book Meet Your Dog goes into detail about the phenotypes of different types of dogs (working, herding, guardian, terrier, etc.) Dogs are not robots or software that can be programmed to follow our commands. They are unique individuals with emotions, desires, and motivations of their own. 

Dr. Brophey chose to name her model L.E.G.S. as a fun play on the fact that (most) dogs have four legs. I would have chosen to call it G.E.L.S. since Genetics is the first influencer, but I get it!


Dogs are learning, whether we are purposefully teaching them or not. They learn from their experiences. For example, they learn from experience that doorbells mean there is a person on the other side! They often learn things by experience we wish they hadn't! If they happen to find food on the counter one day, they learn to always check the counter in case there is food there. If they get attacked by another dog while on leash, they learn to stay vigilant and defensive when meeting other dogs on a walk. If small children pinch their armpits when picking them up or drop them, they learn to be defensive with children. 

They also learn things we teach them, like the sound "sit" from you followed by a certain hand signal means you want them to plant their butt on the ground. And, they learn things we unintentionally teach them, like jumping on people to get attention. When they are puppies and jump on us, we find it adorable and reward them with lots of praise, petting, and picking them up. By the time they are adults, jumping on people is a strong habit!


Environment impacts learning, therefore it impacts behavior. It can even impact how the brain develops. Dogs born in a "puppy mill" situation with no toys, no opportunities to play, and no chances to explore will be developmentally stunted. It's true for people, too. Children raised in an awful Romanian orphanage with no toys, play, or chances to explore are emotionally and intellectually stunted for the rest of their lives. Dogs born and raised as mainly indoor dogs are very different from "free-range" dogs, street dogs, or feral dogs. 

Environment shapes behavior in more subtle ways, too. The dog who doesn't have access to counters when there is food on it never learns to counter surf. The dog who doesn't have a window to stare out of won't learn to bark at everything that passes by. A dog adopted from my rescue as a puppy was returned a year later because she so intensely wanted to chase cars that it was impossible to take her for a walk. Turns out, their fence was by a road. She was left in the fence all day and entertained herself by chasing passing cars down the fence line, a behavior that would not have developed if she lived in the country surrounded by trees. 


A dog is a dog is a dog? Not exactly. If nature had its way, that might be the case. But, humans got involved, selectively breeding for certain traits. The hunter needed a dog to track game, so they chose dogs with the best nose and bred them until they had a sniffing specialist! The rancher needed a dog to help corral sheep, so they chose dogs that would stalk and chase the sheep but not kill them until they had the perfect herder. While they were at it, how about one to guard the sheep against predators? Livestock Guardian Dogs were born. 

Some of the things considered "behavior problems" were put there BY DESIGN. It's not a bug, it's a feature. A hound that could easily be distracted away from a scent would not be useful for the hunter. If a Malinois will stop pursuit of a suspect if they throw a tennis ball, they would not be useful for law enforcement or military work. If a terrier backed down from a badger or ran from a rat, they would not get their job done. 

Now, we keep dogs more for companionship than for their specialized job skills. The dogs still have the genetic drive to do those jobs. The herding skills that were so valuable to the rancher may be a nuisance for the parent of small children. Some behaviors can't be "trained out" of a dog anymore than we can change their coat color or train them to whistle instead of bark. A herding dog will herd. A terrier will kill small animals in the yard. A dog is gonna dog, just like a cat is gonna cat and a bird is gonna bird! 


Self is how the individual dog expresses his or her combination of Genetics, Environment, and Learning. 

Dogs are not Wolves

Dogs are close genetic relatives to wolves, but they are definitely not the same! The breeds that are close descendants of wolves will have the most wolf-like behaviors. Here's a fun article about which breeds are genetically closest to wolves and which are farther away. Would you believe that Shih Tzus share more DNA with wolves than German Shepherd Dogs? Even still, a Shih Tzu is definitely not the same as a wolf! Click here for a thorough breakdown of why keeping a wolf as a pet is not like having a pet dog. 

It doesn't make sense, then, to treat pet dogs like they are wolves, because they are not. They are dogs. We humans share more than 98% DNA with Chimpanzees, but we are not Chimpanzees.


The BIGGEST misunderstanding about dogs is that they try to "dominate" us. The irony is that is a misunderstanding about wolves, too. Wolves live in family packs of a mom, dad, and children. It is only when they meet another family pack and fight over territory that there are fights for dominance. It's a property dispute. 

The sad part is that dogs have suffered terribly because of this misunderstanding. This story in particular stands out as one of the most heartbreaking for me. The man said his GSD would sleep laying on his feet at night while he sat in his chair. One day, he "realized" that she was "asserting dominance over him". So, without any warning, he stomped on her paw as hard as he could, and "she never layed on my feet again".


Well, of COURSE she didn't! Here is how it went from the dog's point of view. I used to love laying on my human's feet while he watched tv in his chair. It was a special bonding time for us, the closest I could be to him since I wasn't allowed in the chair with him. One day, out of the blue, he suddenly became aggressive and stomped on my paw. There was absolutely no warning! It makes me sad that I can't be close to him anymore, but I can't trust him because his behavior is so unpredictable. 

Dogs are neotenized. Any behaviors they do share with wolves are with wolf puppies, not adults. Wolf puppies sleep all on top of each other. It's comfort, not dominance. Your dog can sleep in your bed and snuggle on the couch with you if it makes you happy with no fear of them "not listening". 

Alpha-rolling your dog will basically scare the crap out of them. It's not necessary to go through doors ahead of your dog. How do you do that in the car, anyway? You don't have to eat before you feed your dog or stick your hands in their food (please don't). And, it's perfectly fine for them to walk in front of you, as long as they're not pulling on the leash. If you have to be in front for them to listen to you, how good of a leader are you, anyway?

Dogs Don't "Refuse to Learn"

How does one "refuse to learn"? It's kind of involuntary. You may have just learned that Shih Tzus are genetically closer to wolves than GSDs from the article above. It's not possible to refuse that knowledge. Once you know that 2+2=4, you always know it. Dogs don't refuse to learn to housetrain or refuse to learn to come when you call them. Dogs are not "too stubborn" or "too dumb" to learn. Any healthy dog of any age can be taught.

Dogs Don't "know it's wrong" but do it anyway

A sense of right and wrong implies morality. Do dogs have morals? Can they sin? 

Why Does my dog do that?

All behavior has a function. Dogs do what works to get something they want or avoid something they don't want, same as us. The difference is only what we want and don't want. We don't want to roll in stinky dead things; dogs do. We enjoy loud rock concerts; dogs don't. 

Hard to swallow pill: most of the time, it has nothing to do with us! We can be pretty narcissistic when it comes to our dogs, believing that everything they do is either to please us or to spite us. Sorry to burst the bubble, but no. They don't pee in your bed to spite you or come when you call them to please you. 

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