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Behavior: What Your Dog Does, Not What Your Dog Is

Whenever I write something about dominance, I get a number of questions along the lines of, "My dog does _______. If it's not dominance, what is it?" For so long, we've been trained to put labels on behavior.

Dominant. Submissive. Stubborn. Spiteful. As if these words will somehow unlock the secret to stopping unwanted behavior. Once we determined what the dog was thinking, we could find the right tool or form of punishment to make him stop thinking that way. Except no one, no matter how many dogs they've owned, no matter what breed of dog they've owned, no matter how many dogs they've trained, how many degrees they hold, can read a dog's mind. Remember the old joke, "The only thing two dog trainers can agree on is that the third dog trainer is wrong"? That's because back in the olden days, explanations for dog behavior were left to individual interpretation. Fast forward 30 years later. Dog trainers are no longer expected to rely on personal experience and knowledge. In fact, any trainer who relies solely on their own experience should be avoided. Instead, trainers are expected to learn from the fields of ethology, psychology, neurology, as well as health and nutrition. All of which help us understand behavior at a level that goes far beyond these labels. So, if it's not dominance, what is it? It's behavior. If it's behavior we want to change, then we need to do three things: 1. Describe the behavior. Not what the dog is thinking, wanting, or trying to do. But what the dog is doing. Behavior is what a dog DOES, not what a dog IS. 2. Describe when the behavior happens. Your dog isn't barking, mounting, destroying couch cushions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When does it happen? Behavior is triggered by something in the environment. 3. Describe the consequence of the behavior. What happens as a direct result of the behavior? All behavior has a purpose. This is called the Three Term Contingency, also referred to as the ABC's of Behavior. Antecedent (what happens before), Behavior (what the dog does), Consequence (what happens as a result of the behavior). You can read more about each of these here. This allows us to look at behavior and not only determine it's purpose, but also predict when it might happen. For example, your dog doesn't lunge and bark at the front door all day, he only does it when he hears the mail carrier drive up. After he barks, the mail carrier goes away. See? No need to guess what the dog is thinking. We've identified the behavior, what triggers it, and what happens as a result. From there, we can decide whether or not we want more or less of the behavior and construct a training plan from there. Behavior is what a dog DOES, not what a dog IS. Remember, your dog doesn't get to choose where he lives, who he lives with, where or if he goes for walks, to the dog park, on hikes, or camping trips. If any of those cause him enough stress (fear, frustration, etc), he is going to do whatever he can to relieve that stress. That's not being dominant. That's trying to cope. Your dog is not dominant, pushy, stubborn, or spiteful. Your dog is just a dog, behaving in ways instinct and learning history have told him are most effective at keeping him safe, relieving his stress, or getting him the things he wants most. Just as any animal does.


Serenity Canine Behavior Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved. Originally appeared on

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