The Importance of Knowing Your Dog



Knowing your dog means that you empathise with him and try to see the world from his point of view and not your projection of him.


Projection is something we do naturally and way more than is particularly healthy. We look at a stranger and decide how they feel, when we disagree with someone and things get heated, we decide how they feel – often without any evidence or communication.


We can look at our dogs and decide that their fear is naughtiness, their stress is because they are feeling obnoxious or their confusion ignorance. Even whilst none of these are true, they certainly make us feel differently about the dog and his behaviour.


Take some time out and just chill with your dog. Stop acting and responding and start observing. Ethology is the act of observing an animal in their natural environment, with no interference from the watcher. Become your dog’s ethologist and learn from him.


Your dog’s behaviour is a direct indication of how he feels. So, if he looks relaxed, he will be feeling relaxed.


If your dog looks excited, he will be feeling excited.


And if his body tenses up, he is likely to be feeling pretty tense.


The way a dog feels is usually dependent on what the environment around him is like.


There is an exception to this. When a dog is ill or in pain it will naturally change their behaviour and the way they look. Any unusual behaviour should be assessed by your veterinarian, to check your dog’s health and wellbeing. When a dog is feeling poorly or in pain, it’s their right to see the vet.


The dog with a clean bill of health, that has a behaviour change will usually do so based on an environment change. So, if your dog is asleep and the doorbell goes, there’s an obvious change, he might bark and run around. If your dog is scared of bangs and is relaxed, but a firework goes off in the distance, his behaviour will change, he may tremble and hide. The dog that is scared of children might hear a scream and become tense then bark in response – telling the screamer to stay well away.


Your task is to witness these overt behaviour changes and empathise with your dog. He doesn’t know who is at the door, he may feel that the firework is a direct threat to his survival or it could really hurt his ears. Your dog may never have never had a good experience with animated and noisy children, so is scared of them and gets defensive. When we start to observe with empathy, we stop focussing on the awkward behaviour and we place focus on how the dog feels and his motivation behind that particular display. When we start to approach observation from this viewpoint, we are becoming enlightened observers, we are ethologists.


The basis of any behaviour change is how the dog feels. The way he feels is usually triggered by the environment and the reason he chooses that particular behaviour is because he has learned to choose it in similar situations in the past. So, when you observe your dog, ask yourself, how does my dog feel, what has made him feel that way and what is reinforcing this type of response.


Because a consequence will always drive behaviour, without fail, if your dog finds that his behaviour worked in a situation, that behaviour will get stronger by repetition. Here’s a common example:


My terrier, Chips is socially awkward and somewhat fearful of other dogs.


(Yes he's lovely isn't he!)


He actually really likes other dogs and with proper introduction he will be friendly and enjoy a brief hello. He’s much more comfortable with the smaller dogs and those that don’t have obscured faces, such as long haired or black dogs which are more difficult for others to read.


When he sees a dog that he’s not comfortable with, Chips will put on an aggressive display – as Braveheart terriers often do when they feel awkward or worried. His display can easily become full on lunging and barking, whilst on the lead. The consequence from his 40cm viewpoint, when the dog leaves without approaching him, he has maintained his safety with that behaviour. He’s a winner in his mind and next time he feels awkward and anxious he will use that same technique again.

(Guaranteed to blow your mind, he's a winner!)



Interestingly though, I have been in a position where He’s been on the lead and another dog has too, I have let Chips off and he’s ran the other way. Chips doesn’t want to practice defensive acts, he’s done it when he feels there was no other choice. When there’s choice, he makes a good one and goes the other way. He has made lots of new friends by learning a good approach, and that he doesn’t need to practice defensiveness. Yet had I dragged him past dog after dog, whilst he ranted and raved, his behaviour would be stronger than ever. Knowing your dog will help you to understand what they need, and how you can provide it for them. And simply by meeting a dog's needs we can often change their behaviour.

Get to know your dog's language with our:

ISCP Certificate in Advanced Canine Body Language