Why Ask Why?

If your dog has a behavior problem, you're probably wondering and speculating on what caused it. Did something happen way back in your dog's puppyhood, before you adopted him, to cause the issue? Turns out, there's no need to wonder because it doesn't matter. And here's why...

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #227

A listener’s dog – we’ll call him Jake – has a mysterious behavior problem. Beth writes that he gets along well with all other dogs and loves playing with them off leash – with one exception: German Shepherds. Let Jake catch sight of a German Shepherd, and Karen says:

“He charges at it and barks quite aggressively. It's only German Shepherds, no other dogs, and it appears to only be purebreds. He's never bitten them and thankfully these dogs have never fought back. He eventually gets over it and they sniff each other and move on, but if we cross paths again with that dog later on the walk, it's the same story. I'm not sure what happened to him in the first 2.5 years of his life but do you know a possible explanation?”

I can come up with lots of possible explanations for Beth. But I don’t think any of them matters one bit. This week, Just-So stories and your dog.


The original Just So Stories, by the English writer Rudyard Kipling, are a collection of children’s stories about how various things came to be: the origin of armadillos, why leopards have spots, and how camels got their humps, for three. They’re clever fantasies.

“Just-So Stories” and Science

Scientists have borrowed the term “just-so story” as a label for certain kinds of explanations that people come up with. These just-so stories that we tell ourselves might or might not be true, but we’ll never know, because a key point about them is that they can’t be tested. Often, they seem to cover all the facts – at least, all the facts we’re aware of, which is to say some of the facts. The ones we don’t have might be the crucial ones. We just can’t know.

How does this relate to the way Beth’s dog Jake goes after German Shepherds? We weren’t there when Jake’s problem behavior started, and even if we had been present physically we couldn’t get inside Jake’s head. This means that we can never test the truth of the stories we make up about why Jake does it. Something about GSDs sets Jake off, and that’s as far as we can get.

In responding to Beth, I said that I could invent several plausible explanations, and I can. This: Maybe Jake was attacked by a German Shepherd in puppyhood. Or this: Many dogs respond aggressively to intact male dogs; maybe the first GSD Jake ever encountered was also the first intact male he ever encountered, and Jake now responds to all GSDs on sight as if they were intact males too. Or this: Maybe someone walking a GSD repeatedly frightened Jake somehow, and Jake associates GSDs with his own experience of fear. Or this: Maybe Jake’s first sight of a GSD happened to precede a loud bang that startled him. Any or all or none of these stories could be true, but we can’t know. They’re all just-so stories.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).