How Do Dogs Think? And Does it Matter??

Dog training can be a frustrating affair – the dog ignores you, wanders off, does the opposite to what you expect. “Aaargh!!! My dog’s so stubborn!’, ‘He knows he’s been bad but he does it anyway!’, ‘Why can’t he just remember what we did yesterday?!’ – these are all frequent complaints I hear about dogs from their owners.

The thing is – dogs don’t think like us. They have no moral compass. They don’t think – ‘Hmm, better get off the sofa, she looks like she needs a seat”. They don’t worry that their behaviour is rude, or unwanted, or not socially acceptable. Here’s the thing - dog’s do what works for them! Much like young children, they are motivated by their own desires and needs and nothing else.  If that means rolling in fox poo because they want the scent on them – they’ll do it! Or eating all the sausages you left to thaw because they smell good – they’ll do it!

And yes. It does matter. If we expect dogs to think like us, we are really going to struggle to communicate... We might find ourselves getting increasingly grumpy, trying harsher and harsher reprimands to ‘correct’ the dog’s choices. But it won’t work. Sure – the dog might learn to avoid things because it’s become anxious and fearful of how you will react - but is that really what we want? Is that a good foundation for a lifelong partnership? Fundamentally – the dog needs to understand what IS expected of him rather than being constantly told what isn’t. Everyone will be a lot happier if the rules are clear and the ‘correct’ choices are rewarding and easy to get right.

So – when we start thinking like the dog, we begin to realise that we need to motivate the dog to do the right thing. You want them to choose to work for you because it’s fun/ tasty/ rewarding in some way. If it isn’t, they won’t do it! Simple as!

For example - the dog sits and you give it a biscuit. “Oh,” thinks the dog, “that was good. Let’s try sitting again…  yes! – another biscuit! I think I’ll keep doing this….”. The biscuit persuaded the dog to make the right choice. With time, practice and consistency, those choices become the dog’s instinctive choice and hey presto, you have shaped your dog to choose the same thing you want too.

So – the next time your dog doesn’t do what you’ve asked, just have a think…. One of these things will be at work:

Dog doesn’t understand what you have asked – Solution: more training required for you and on how to make it clearer

Dog is not being rewarded well enough so it’s not worth him doing it – Solution: improve the value of the reward you are offering – e.g. offer roast chicken instead of a boring biscuit

Dog is too distracted – Solution: try again in a less distracting environment and practice more before working in more difficult places

Dog is having too much fun doing something else – solution: work harder to improve your dog’s interest in you in general and think hard about the motivations/ rewards you are offering him – there will always be room for improvement! OR – let him have the fun and THEN ask him to do what you want – everyone needs to do fun stuff sometimes!

Dog is fearful or worried about something – solution: address the underlying fear rather than expecting him to be able to think straight in the face of fear – would you be able to answer questions on history when faced with a man eating spider?!

Understanding that our dogs are not being deliberately obtuse, annoying or naughty is crucial. Take a good long look at what you are expecting of the dog and consider if you would do it, if the roles were reversed. Chances are you will soon be coming up with all sorts of new motivations and ways of working with you dog, and you will both be happier as a result.


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