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The Canine Connection

By Sue, from "It's a Dog's Life" - Training YOU to train your dog!

Roddach Cottage West, Main Street, Cummingston, Burghead, Elgin IV30 5XY

Tel: 01343 831420 email:


The trouble with dogs is……………….?

Although the modern dog is (and has been for thousands of years) a member of our human society, he is governed by his natural instincts. He is, and always has been, a pack animal. Several of his wilder attributes, however, have been bred out and today’s domestic pet is really a perpetual puppy. He is totally reliant upon us for his survival. We provide his food, warmth, care and attention, and he is part of our family unit (pack).

Man has been associated with dogs for the past 10,000 years, but it is, however, only in recent times that their relationship has changed quite dramatically. Until as recently as the 1950s a dog was treated like a dog. He had to earn his keep in some way – guarding, herding, ratting, carriage duty, hunting, fishing, ship’s dog, timber hauler and even postman! The household dog was confined to the kitchen where he would either curl up at his master’s feet or stay in his basket. He was fed on the leftovers from the family’s meal after everyone had eaten – if he was lucky!

In this modern day, more affluent society, central heating gives open plan living and the family dog can wander freely around the house. There are far more career minded couples than ever before and this has produced a switch from having children and then buying a dog to buying a dog – or often two (usually from the same litter) – and then having children much later on. The dog is often quite unintentionally treated as a child substitute. He is attributed with human feelings and emotions and is given the best that money can buy – “food fit for an athlete” - but insufficient exercise and mental stimulation. Interestingly, the pet food industry is one of the biggest growth industries today! Exercise/mental stimulation consists of being “chauffeured” to the nearest park or forest walks where the dog leaps from the car and then spends the next half hour or hour running around pleasing himself before being “chauffeured” home again (providing he comes when he’s called of course!). Feeling guilty about leaving their dog(s) alone all day, owners overcompensate, lavishing love and attention on the dog as soon as they arrive home. His every whim is pandered to, he is allowed on the furniture and may even sleep in his owner’s bed. The dog soon learns an ever-increasing repertoire of attention seeking behaviour to which his owners respond without realising their dog has now trained his humans to perfection and considers himself to be “leader of the pack”.

Modern living, therefore, has unwittingly increased the dog’s privileges – freedom to roam the house and garden (pleasing himself), access to furniture, being fed before the family, often being fed titbits from the table, freedom on walks – he instinctively believes he holds a high rank in the pack.

If his rank is challenged, because he is perhaps asked to do something he does not wish to do, he may try to defend his rank by completely ignoring and refusing to obey or he may object strongly by growling, showing his teeth (a canine warning) and if pushed further may even bite (well, he did warn you!). He views children as lower ranking (if not an entirely different species from humans!) and may defend his rank there too with sometimes disastrous consequences.

Alternatively, his perceived status can turn him into an anxious, hyperactive, antisocial, disobedient hooligan or a neurotic nervous wreck.

It is a proven fact that the majority of canine “problem” behaviours are as a direct result of our modern way of life. That “problem” behaviour is, in actual fact, the dog reacting in the only way he knows how. He is not being spiteful or mean or “getting even”. He is doing what dogs do: being a dog!

Dogs cannot understand or cope in our free democracy. Their law of nature, pack mentality and canine culture all mean they must have a dictatorship. They need a leader to be in charge, to protect the pack and their territory and to ensure the future of their pack. They need a hierarchy to ensure harmony within the pack. Owners who lavish attention on tap and on canine demand are not perceived by their dogs as leaders. They are in essence fulfilling the lowest ranking pack members’ job, which is to constantly appease and “pay homage” to the high ranking.

If a dog perceives no obvious leader in his pack (family) then he is duty bound to take on that role – pack safety and survival depend solely upon their being a strong and competent leader.

The domestic dog, however, is far from able and very poorly equipped to play the part of leader within our human society. A whole range of behaviour “problems” can stem from a dog’s perception of himself as being responsible for his pack:

Disobedience: ignoring commands

Leaders don’t take orders! They give them!

Aggression to visitors

He doesn’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry coming onto his territory! Shouting at the dog for his behaviour only confirms his belief that these “strangers” must be warned off!

Aggression to owners

Why should he get off the chair/the bed/come out of the car? – It’s his! Wrinkling his lips, showing teeth and/or growling is the canine equivalent of “I’m warning you!” Prior to that he will have no doubt given you a look that you either failed to notice, or did not interpret. Taking it further is “I told you to stop that!!” Snap!


This normally indicates a high state of anxiety, showing the dog is unable to cope with his responsibilities. It can present as hooligan and “terrorist” activities!

Separation Anxiety: destruction, barking, self mutilation, soiling

When owners go out to work or go shopping (leave the pack), the dog has no idea where they are going and, indeed, if they will ever return (telling him “Mummy won’t be long” means absolutely nothing to him and emotional and fussing departures make matters worse!).

As a “human” comparison, imagine you’re looking after a two-year-old child. The child disappears out the front door, you are unable to follow and you have no idea where he is going. How would you feel? Panic!

Many dogs, as a result of their perceived responsibility for the pack (family) are destructive in their owners’ absence (chewing, digging, scratching at doors) or they soil in the house or bark and howl incessantly or even mutilate themselves. Not surprising is it? The majority of destruction happens within the first 30 minutes of the owner leaving home. Chewing is a stress relieving activity and “it’s all chew toys” to the dog. He can’t discriminate between your best Gucci loafers and his nylabone!

“He knows he’s done wrong!” “He looked guilty!” He’s done it for spite!

Dogs don’t do “guilty” or “spite”. They do, however, expertly read body language to the tiniest nuance! He’s been frantic with worry and can only read his owner’s body language on finding the scene of destruction. Rowing the dog serves only to further increase anxiety and confusion and, of course, alienates the dog from the owner. A dog cannot connect punishment with something he did two or three hours ago but he can and will associate his owner’s homecoming with unpleasantness - “My owner’s always in a real strop when he/she comes home!” Anxiety is increased even further as the owner’s next homecoming becomes imminent. That look of guilt is the dog’s apprehension and trepidation as a result of his previous experience when his owner arrived home ……..and so a vicious spiral of behaviour develops.

Leadership Qualities of the Canine Variety

In canine terms the leader is:

Cool, calm, confident, aloof, in control at all times, doesn’t respond to attention seeking behaviour (i.e. gives the orders – doesn’t take them!), greets visitors first, goes through doors first, eats first, re-establishes himself as leader every time the pack reunites (i.e. coming home from work, shopping etc).

How well trained are you? - Attention Seeking Behaviour

Attention seeking behaviour comes in many forms and dogs very easily build a large repertoire: He……

  • Nudges your elbow – and, of course, you pet him.

  • Puts his head/paws on your knees – and, or course, you pet him.

  • Stands at the door - and, of course, you get up and open the door for him to go out, then

  • Barks at the door outside – and, of course, you get up and let him in again.

  • Barks in your face – and, of course, you take him out for his 7pm walk.

  • Brings you a toy – and, of course, you play with him.

  • Pulls your clothes/licks/paws/jumps up – and, of course, you give him attention.

  • Paces up and down, whining – he must be bored, so you take him out for a walk.

  • Begs at the table – he must be hungry, so you give him a tasty bit off your plate.

By responding to attention seeking behaviour, as above, we have effectively done a brilliant job of training the dog to perform all these behaviours. We’ve trained him to jump up, we’ve trained him to beg at the table, we’ve trained him to demand attention, demand playtime, demand a walk, etc. After all, we have rewarded him each and every time. But, in reality, he has made an excellent job of training us! Dogs are opportunists – if there’s something in it for him, he’ll do it again! Because his demands are met – he does the demanding (leading!) and we do the attention-giving (following) – he perceives himself to be leader/top dog. Depending on his genetic make-up/internal wiring and whether he was adequately socialised or not as a puppy, determines how he reacts to finding himself as “Chief Executive Officer” of the establishment.

As mentioned previously, he may take on his leadership role in a belligerent way – growling and refusing to get off the furniture when told, not allowing anyone to sit in his seat, growling at visitors, guarding his food, refusing to be groomed (especially his nether regions), demanding attention and becoming bolshy when ignored or asked to do something, lying in doorways and refusing to move, mounting family members and visitors, pulling on the lead, being generally disobedient and totally pleasing himself, etc. It can very easily get to the stage where family and visitors are genuinely frightened of the dog. The dog, meanwhile, on reading these signs, takes his job even more seriously.

More probably, however, the dog displays signs of stress and anxiety because he cannot cope with such an onerous responsibility as that of his “human pack”. All too often, however, we do not recognize these signs as stress or anxiety and many are classed as behaviour problems:

  • Jumping up, crawling up your legs

  • Being destructive )

  • House soiling - “separation anxiety”

  • Howling/barking/whining

  • Hyperactivity/restlessness - the “chandalier swinger”

  • Compulsive licking/self mutilation

  • Pulling on the lead

  • Total disobedience

  • Excessive salivation - foaming or dribbling

  • Persistent yawning

  • Agitated lip licking

  • Panting when the dog can neither be too hot nor breathless

  • Farting

  • Avoidance by hiding behind or under chairs or tables

  • Refusing to make eye contact, turning the head away

  • Urination

  • Sweaty feet

  • Barking at visitors continuously

  • Jumping up at visitors, bringing “presents”, refusing to settle

If we can recognize canine stress and deal with it appropriately in canine terms, by establishing our leadership and the hierarchy below us, a dramatic change can be achieved in a very short space of time.

Bossy, bolshy dogs become more agreeable and obedient (they’re no longer CEO, they’ve been demoted to tea-lady!); hyperactive, anxious dogs become calmer, displaying an almost miraculous change of attitude; destructive dogs stop being destructive (somebody else has taken responsibility for the pack!). The independent dog, who quietly and infuriatingly goes about his business totally ignoring and refusing to comply with any commands, starts to pay attention and even begins to do what is requested.

Become a leader, become familiar with canine culture and you and your dog will soon be communicating with ease.


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