Some Thoughts on Dog Behavior: Is your dog dumb, defiant or stressed?

Posted on September 28th, 2012 by FetchMasters in Behavior Modification

As with humans, dog behavior can be heavily influenced by stress. And understanding how to identify your dog’s stress, as well as how to help your dog through it, is a critical skill for both dog trainers and dog owners.

Nobody promised me a rose garden, but sometimes I wish they would have. Life as a human, a business person, a dog trainer and a family man can get stressful. Between dealing with family challenges running a business, trying to complete multiple projects with tight deadlines, financial obligations — you know, the same junk you deal with — the stress of life can figure significantly into our behavior.

Humans have numerious ways of dealing with stress. We might express it emotionally, exercise, do a hobby, sweep it under the rug, act professional, act like a jerk, run away, or face it head on. The point is, human behavior in the face of stress is geared towards finding some way to get through the stress. Dog behavior is not much different in this regard.

With humans, some of our coping mechanisms can be deceptive. For example, if I am feeling stressed, I may try to act professional to mask how I really feel. Dogs do not do this. Dog behavior is completely transparent and honest. They do not have ulterior motives or higher agendas. They very much live in the moment and wear their hearts on their sleeves, displaying how they feel at any given moment.

Dogs openly reveal their stress in an effort to communicate to you that they are confused, intimidated, fearful or otherwise agitated. Fellow canines can easily understand their language, but humans often find dog behavior and body language confusing.

Here is an example:

Recently I was working with a client whose Doberman Pinscher frequently tried to bolt through the front door whenever it was opened. Our plan was to train him to sit away from the door while it was open, and until he was given permission to walk calmly through it.

This particular dog had little previous training, and thus little impulse control and had grown very accustomed to bolting through the door. To him, that was just the way he had come to understand his environment — the door opens and he flys out of it.

Changing his understanding of how things were to be done was difficult for this Dobey. Whenever we would start to open the front door and he would get up from his sit, we would quickly close the door until the dog sat back down again. However, after a few tries, the dog started exhibiting some indicators that he was stressed.

He began panting heavily, whining, sniffing around the floor, and would refuse to sit back down. The owner then said to me: “This dog is either dumb or defiant.”

While the owners saw this sort of dog behavior as inicating either intellectual limitations or a character flaw, the Dobie was very clearly exhibiting signals that the whole exercise was stressing him out. He was having trouble getting his mind around it and was finding ways to divert himself away from the task at hand and relieve his own stress.

All good dog trainers would have quickly understood what was going on. But humans have the tendency to anthropomorphize dog behavior — that is, relate to it in human terms. But dogs act a bit differently than humans and have different (but recognizable) mechanisms for dealing with life’s stressors.

Without going into a lot of detail, we worked our way through the problem by taking a little break and playing with the dog to get his spirits back up again, and then breaking the whole exercise down into easy fun goals. Within about twenty minutes, the doberman had figured out how things needed to work and how he could get what he wanted — to go outside.

The dog’s owners were amazed, and I pointed out to them that their dog was actually not dumb or defiant. He was just confused and stressed; and he required a little slower and more careful approach to learning.

They then siad that I was a “dog whisperer.” They mean it as a compliment and had no idea how poorly Caesar Milan is viewed in the positive dog training community. I just thanked them and explained that I am more of a dog watcher than a whisperer.

You can be a watcher too. When training your dog or trying to correct an unwanted behavior, watch for signs of stress. Most of the following behaviors could have other causes, but when they exist in combination, or when considered in context with the environment and current goings-on, these behaviors could indicate your dog is stressed:

  • Freezing
  • Holding breath
  • Stiff or quivering limbs
  • Refusing to eat or take treats
  • Wide-mounted panting
  • Drooling
  • Ears held back
  • Licking the nose or lips
  • Sniffing the ground
  • Wide-open eyes with dilated pupils
  • Yawning
  • Acting distracted
  • Looking away from the source of discomfort
  • Wet paw prints

If your dog is stressed, there are a few things you can do to move past the stress, calm your dog, and keep him learning.

  • Stop
    You will make more progress in five minutes of taking a break than in an hour of trying to push the dog through the stress. Do something your dog likes in order to “talk (or whisper?) him off the ledge.”
  • Assess Your Dog’s Understanding
    Ask yourself if your dog actually understands what you want. Avoid seeing your dog as dumb or defiant. While I have certainly seen dogs with what seems like learning disabilities, they have been few and far between. The chances that your dog falls below the average canine learning spectrum is ridiculously low.
  • Revamp
    Analyze the task or behavior you are trying to teach and break it up into smaller sections. Try to increase the fun-factor, and be patient. Despite what some trainers would have you believe, time is almost NEVER of an essence.

Thomas Aaron is a Denver, Colorado, dog trainer and the owner of FetchMasters, LLC. He specializes in developing off-leash reliability, dealing with many behavior issues, and training hunting dogs using positive, dog-friendly methods.