Solving the Puzzle of Dog Behaviour

Guest post by Holly Leake.

If you are curious, you'll find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.

Erno Rubik

Have you ever considered that addressing canine behaviour is like solving a puzzle? There is so much we need to learn about the dog and we can only do this by taking the time and patience to explore each area of the dog’s life. This requires us to understand the potential connections between behaviour and the dog’s environment. This blog is going to consider 4 areas that we need to explore to the solve the puzzle of behaviour.

The Function

The first piece of the puzzle is the function of the behaviour, as this helps us to understand why it is happening. For example destructive behaviour may provide the dog with entertainment and mental stimulation. Reactive behaviour may make the scary dog go away and create a feeling of safety. Chewing furniture might reduce separation distress by releasing dopamine. Every behaviour has a function and when we determine what this is, we can establish how to adequately address the dog’s needs and provide appropriate training.

The Dog's Needs

When we understand what the dog gains from the behaviour, we can identify what the dog needs and how these needs can be met. As professionals, we are now overwhelmed with clients that have chosen breeds they actually know nothing about. Often clients are attracted to the dog’s appearance and believe that no matter the breed, they will conform to their routine. Sadly this is just not the case and if a dog’s behavioural needs go unmet, this manifests itself in negative behaviours. Digging, chewing, scavenging, barking and chasing are all normal behaviours that are perceived as negative by most dog guardians. Therefore, we need to show clients how they can provide positive outlets for such behaviours and how this can contribute to calmer behaviours.

The dog’s needs could also encompass the need to feel safe, which may not be met if the dog is regularly exposed to stimulus they fear, such as other dogs, being touched by strangers or being groomed. Every dog is unique and will have needs individual to them and ensuring these are met can have a profound effect on their behaviour. In fact, ensuring all needs are met makes the picture so much clearer, making it easier to find the other pieces of the puzzle.


A dog’s health can be a huge part of the puzzle, thus it’s really helpful to investigate the dog’s overall health and if they have any current or past medical conditions. Conditions, such as epilepsy, hypothyroidism, heart disease and arthritis are just a few examples of conditions that can influence behaviour.

It's important to consider whether pain could be triggering the behaviour, especially when the dog presents with very sudden behavioural changes, such as aggression. Sadly, it’s not widely known that undiagnosed pain can have a significant impact on behaviour and many clients will dismiss it as a potential cause. Vets may also miss the subtle changes to behaviour or body language that indicate pain, such as star gazing (staring at the ceiling/sky), compulsive disorders, increased clinginess, resource guarding and anxiety. So when we are assessing behaviour, we should always ask if, there has been any sudden behaviour changes, such as reduced activity, becoming withdrawn, reluctance to be touched/handled, an increase in fear-based behaviour or appearance of sudden aggression.

Routine and Environment

Finally, the dog’s routine can also be pertinent, as any changes either to environment or routine can have a significant impact on the dog’s behaviour. This could include moving house, having a new pet, changes to work schedule, a new partner or the arrival of a new baby. Something as simple as having workmen in the home, could also cause a dog anxiety. In my experience, when you ask your clients if there have been any changes to the dog’s routine or environment, they often say ‘no’, so it's helpful to provide them with examples, as they may not appreciate how even small changes can be significant to their dog’s behaviour. Just like a puzzle, some may view one piece as insignificant but without it, we wouldn’t be able to discern the bigger picture.

“Sometimes the hardest pieces of a puzzle to assemble, are the ones missing from the box”- Dixie Waters