Originally published on September 11, 2013

As a behaviour consultant, one of the most important skills in my bag of tricks is my ability to suss out what a dog is doing.  I am not talking about why a dog does a behaviour, or what drives it, but what a dog is doing.  When a client comes in and tells me that his dog is aggressive, he isn’t telling me much beyond the fact that his dog is doing something that the person doesn’t like or want.  When I take a behavioural history, I ask a lot of questions that may seem unrelated to the problem, but that help me to figure out things like what actions the dog takes that the person objects to, and what actions might precede the behaviour that is a problem.  Yesterday I worked with a family whose dog grabs sleeves as the family members walk by.  If you have something in your hand, he will grab that instead, but if your hands are empty he will grab your sleeve and have a grand game of tug with your clothing.  The description that I was given was that he would randomly attack people.  Randomly attack doesn’t give me much to work with, so a better description is needed.  The next question that I have to ask once I have figured out what the dog is actually doing is “what function does the behaviour serve?”

Behaviours don’t happen randomly.  One of the best reasons I have for studying ethology is to help me to recognize the functions of behaviour.  This morning I went down to the bank of my pond and watched the birds.  The heron spied me coming, and took off squawking.  Taking off serves to protect the bird from being captured or eaten.  But why squawk?  I can take some guesses.  Maybe it is a contact call to other herons.  Maybe it is a warning call to other birds.  Perhaps it is a signal to predators that they can stop chasing because they have been seen.[1][2]   “Honest Signalling” is an interesting aspect situation where the prey species signals the predator to leave him alone because the predator has been seen and the prey can get away.  This is most likely the reason that the heron squawked.  The function of the squawk is most likely to alert the predator to the fact that he has been seen and that he can break off the chase.  This sounds like it is a costly thing for the bird to do with little benefit to the bird, but in fact the bird also gains when he does this behaviour.  Flight is an expensive behaviour to engage in; it takes a lot of calories to take off and to flap your wings hard enough to actually get up into the air and stay up there.  The further you travel the more energy you use.  If you have warned the predator that you see him, you can land sooner, and that means that you can go back to foraging instead of fleeing.  Honest signalling serves the function of saving the bird energy, and maintains the behaviour of squawking when escaping from predators.

This white tailed deer is using her tail to indicate to the “predator”, most likely the photographer that she sees him and it isn’t worth his energy to chase her because she can get away.  This allows the deer to conserve energy and return to browsing sooner, and as a by product the predator learns not to follow deer who are flashing their tails.  Tail flashing serves the function of making it less likely that a wolf will chase the deer and allows her to conserve energy and forage in safety.  Learning about animal behaviour or ethology hones my observational skills when I try and determine what function a dog’s behaviour serves when I am helping people to understand their dogs and change their behaviours.  Image credit:Copyright: <a href=’′&gt; / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Coming back to what I do for a living, when a client shows up with a dog who is grabbing sleeves and tugging, or grabbing items out of their hands, the question I want to ask is “what function does this behaviour serve?”  I can imagine how this behaviour evolved.  The dog in question is a young exuberant and very mouthy retriever.  No doubt when he was quite young, someone was walking along with something in their hands that the dog wanted.  Not having any manners, the dog may have jumped up to see what the person was carrying and may have grabbed it.  If he got something he really wanted; say a piece of food or a toy, then that behaviour was REINFORCED.  Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated.  When the dog jumps up and grabs something, then the function of jumping up is to get something.  This means that the dog will jump up again; it worked once so why not do it again and again?  The people in the home, annoyed with the behaviour, start to slap at the dog when he grabs their stuff.  Slapping serves to teach the dog that he has to be stealthy and quick in order to get what he wants.  When you are being stealthy and quick, there is a cost; accuracy.  The next thing that might happen is that the dog might inadvertently grab a sleeve, meaning that the dog got something else he really liked; a good game of tug.  Once the dog started getting either a food reward or a tug reward, then the game gets really exciting for the dog and he might start looking for more opportunities to engage in the behaviour.  The behaviour of jumping at sleeves serves the function of getting the dog things he likes.  This answers one of the questions that my clients always want to know, but it isn’t the answer that they often want.  Why does the dog jump up and grab hands or sleeves?  Because on some level this strategy is working for him.  Dogs and other learners do what works.

One of the behaviours that I often see as a problem for people is pulling on leash.  The dog drags the person into the training hall, and the person tells me that they are working on leash manners but it doesn’t work for them.  The problem is that pulling on leash is a functional behaviour.  It works for the dog.  When the dog pulls on leash he gets to where he wants to go, and by pulling he gets there faster.  If your dog is on leash for a total of 120 minutes a day, and ten of those minutes are spent attending to leash manners then the dog is pulling 110 minutes each day.  This means that pulling works very well for the dog most of the time.  Pulling serves the function of getting the dog around the block or to the park or into the car or into the training hall.  The dog doesn’t know that if he attended to his person he would get there just as quickly with less pain in his neck and back.  The dog merely knows that if he pulls he gets where he wants to go.

When you look at this image you probably see a boy running with a dog.  I see more.  I see a history where the dog has learned to keep his leash tight.  How do I know that this is a habit more than just a moment in time?  Because the dog is in motion and balanced against the leash.  This tells me that the behaviour happens often, and that the dog has developed the muscles to keep himself in that position.  The whole picture shows us that the way that the dog moves has served a function; probably to protect his back and neck as he pulls ahead, and the pulling ahead likely serves the function of getting to where he wants to go as fast as possible.  Image credit: warrengoldswain / 123RF Stock Photo

Understanding that behaviours serve a function helps me also to see what the dog isn’t doing.  When the dog is always looking out or away from the person, then I know that being engaged doesn’t serve much function for the dog.  People often tell me how much they hate it when the dog is begging at the table, but what the dogs have learned in this case is that attending to what the owner is doing will result in something that the dog wants.  The dog sits calmly and quietly, and stares eagerly at the person, but when the person is eating they don’t like the attention.  The function of attending to the person is that the dog will likely get a table scrap.  That same person who doesn’t like all the attention during meals will tell me that they just want the dog to attend to them when they are out in public.  At home during meals, the behaviour serves the function of getting food.  Away from home, attention to the owner gets the dog nothing.  It is easy enough to reverse this trend and make staring at you during meals a useless behaviour and attending to you out in public a very useful behaviour, but you have to make attending to you valuable and pulling or looking away a useless behaviour.  If your dog gets nothing from pulling away; no steps forward, no trips to the park, no illicit treats snatched out of the neighbours garbage, then pulling serves no purpose.  When the behaviour does not have a function, it no longer exists.

This behaviour is rarely desired by people who own dogs, when it happens at the table.  It is highly desired when it occurs away from the home, but it happens much more rarely.  Begging at the table is essentially complete and total attention to the person who is eating.  This behaviour serves the function of getting food for the dog.  Dogs are hard to dissuade from begging at the table because the behaviour works so well for them.  Likewise, it is hard to get this level of attention from a dog out and about in the public because the behaviour doesn’t serve any function; there is little value in attending to a person who just wants you to work and work and work for very little reinforcement.  If we turn the tables so to speak, and start making it worthwhile to the dog to attend to you.   Simply paying the dog with food is often not enough, when the dog wants something like play with other dogs.  If other dogs are what your dog really wants, then make atttending to you the key to getting to play.  Then atttention to you will serve a function for the dog.  Image credit: designpics / 123RF Stock Photo

As an example of a functional behaviour that happened by accident, I can tell you about a client who has a service dog.  That dog whines and makes grunty noises when she has an impending medical event.  This is not the alert that I would have chosen when we were training however, this noisy behaviour happened to coincide with when she would need to take her medication.  The fact that her medical condition would resolve maintained the behaviour in the dog.  This means that the noises the dog makes are maintained by the fact that the handler is in less distress after he grunts, and thus the dog’s life is more peaceful.  .  The noises that the dog makes are all about his own distress, but his distress is resolved when his partner takes her medication.  When we did an analysis of when the grunting was happening and what happened both immediately before he started making noise and immediately after he stopped making the noise, then we were able to use the behaviour that he was showing as an alert to the oncoming medical event.  Now the grunting happens much earlier than the person would be aware of her own body needing assistance because the dog has learned that he can avoid the issue of his partner going into a distressing state altogether if he gets in early enough to warn her.  Does he care about his person?  I would argue yes, but he didn’t start grunting just because he cared about his person; he started grunting purely accidentally and coincidentally with his person’s medical event.  This kind of functional behaviour can be readily used to our advantage when we take note of what is going on and we become aware of when things happen, and when the behaviour serves a function to the dog.

This type of inadvertent function happens a lot in dogs with behaviour problems.  The dog exhibits a behaviour that helps the dog in some way.  Something else happens at the same time and when that thing is something that the dog wants or likes, then the behaviour is maintained.  When jumping up and sleeve grabbing results in a fun game of tug, then sleeve grabbing happens more often.  When bolting out the front door results in a great game of chase around the neighbourhood, then door bolting becomes the norm.  When doors don’t open unless and until the dog is making eye contact and connection with the owner, then door bolting never becomes an issue.  Which brings us full circle to the situation that prompted this blog.  It doesn’t pay most of the time for the dog to attend to the owner.

Dogs training instructors will often say “the dog never lies”.  What we mean by that is that we can tell how much homework people are doing simply by what the dog does.  I worked with a dog this week who has a funny quirk when he lies down.  You say down, and the dog sits, drops into a down and then scoots backwards a few feet.  Somewhere along the line, scooting back worked well enough for this particular dog that he continued to do that.  When you look at the dog, you will discover that the dog is a medium sized herding dog being trained by a very tall man.  I would bet that as a puppy every time that the man asked him to lie down, the dog couldn’t see his person’s face, so he learned to scoot back as he lay down.  What maintains this behaviour?  The fact that it was reinforced often in the early stages means that we will see more of it, and the fact that it continues to be reinforced even though the handler is now working at a distance keeps that behaviour working for the dog to get what he wants.  This is a case of a dog who attends to his person and a trainer who regularly and reliably attends to his dog.  The two of them have a lovely soft relationship that is a joy to watch.  They attend to one another.  They take care to see what the other is doing.  They trust one another.  And why is this dog not having behaviour problems when other dogs in his litter might be?  Because attention and engagement are functional.  This dog would not think of chasing squirrels without first checking in with his person to see if this might be something they can do together.  And the person wouldn’t think of taking his dog to a place where squirrels might be without being prepared to go chase squirrels with his dog.  Relationship is functional in this case.

Probably the single most common problem I observe in my behaviour cases is a lack of functional relationship.  When the people get the dog in order to have an animated stuffed animal in their home, when they allow their children to do things to the dog that he doesn’t like, then what happens is the function of the dog is fulfill a need in the family, and the function of the dog’s behaviours is to avoid having his needs violated.  When these dogs come to me, they may have attacked a child, or perhaps harmed another dog; perhaps they are toiletting in the house or maybe they run out the door and chase the postal delivery person.  When I look at the behaviour that is the problem I always have to ask how that behaviour serves the dog.  When I know that, I can often change the outcome of the problem behaviour for the family, and change the behaviour of the dog.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s