The Psychology of Your Dog

Basic Dog Training

May 14, 2021

The Psychology of Your Dog

And the importance of understanding them

Dogs are a truly fascinating species. Many experts agree that they’re self-domesticated. They’re uniquely skilled at reading human expressions and understanding our gestures. Humans routinely both over- and under-estimate their cognition: we attribute simple foraging behaviors to spite, we assume that their tendency to learn context-specific behaviors is actually stubbornness. However, the psychology of your dog is important!

The reality is, studies into dog psychology are actually quite new. Up until recently, dogs weren’t considered worthy of rigorous scientific study because they’re not wild animals. Researchers like Patricia McConnell, Clive Wynne, Adam Miklosi, Bryan Hare, Raymond Coppinger, and Zazie Todd have been digging into the psychology of our best friends.

Puppy looking into a man's eyes concentrating

What makes your dog tick?

Understanding more about what makes our dogs tick can help us better meet their needs. This can also help them succeed in our world as partners. This is a huge topic, but it’s important to start out with the concept of umwelt (pronounced oomvelt). This German word means “the world as it is experienced by a particular organism”. Rather than trying to interpret our dog’s behavior through the lens of our human experience, which is very centralized around vocal communication, hierarchy, protocol, and vision.

In contrast, our dogs experience their world primarily through olfaction and pheromonal communication. Their social worlds are entirely dictated by our schedules and whims – they really can’t chose their housemates or friends. In the past few generations, their worlds have also changed dramatically. Very few dogs live on farms or get much off-leash time to sniff, dig, explore, and really “be dogs.” Even fewer dogs do the jobs they were bred to do. For example the jobs that their genetics urge them to do. 

Black and white great dane dog standing behind a white pet gate@deardanes

What lens we view our dogs through

The fact that humans often view dogs through the lens of our own experience and forget that our dogs are captive animals, not small furry humans, leads to all sorts of behavioral and training issues. Humans often react to normal dog “hobbies” like chewing, digging, running, or barking as “nuisance behaviors.” We continually restrict, say “no,” and neglect to attend to the essential dogginess of our pets. When a dog growls at a child, many parents view this as a dangerous assault rather than a controlled communication.

Reading books like “Inside of a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz, “Meet Your Dog” by Kim Brophey, and “The Other End of the Leash” by Patricia McConnell can help dog owners better understand their canine companions and meet their needs. 

Woman and small shaggy dog sitting on a couch

How we observe our dog

In the meantime, try to really observe your dog. Study them like Jane Goodall studied her chimps: what is he getting out of digging in the yard? What rewards make her excited to jump up on people? Then get creative: how can we meet their needs in a way that works for everyone in the family? If your terrier just loves to dig, give them a kiddie pool full of sand and buried goodies so they leave your tulips alone. If your exuberant lab just loves the attention from jumping up, consider getting them more attention and exercise. Of course training your dog to listen and follow human rules is important. Many, many dog behavior issues actually stem from the unmet needs of our dogs and our misunderstanding of their motivations.

Have more pet questions? We’ve got you covered over on our blog.