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

Common Just-So Stories About Our Dogs

Just-so stories abound in dogdom – which is only natural, because they abound in human thinking generally. In my experience, adopters of rescue dogs who are having problems come up with abuse stories to “explain” their dogs’ behavior. If the dog barks at men with beards or sunglasses, it’s because a man with a beard or sunglasses used to beat on the dog. I’m not immune: My first dog, Izzy, ducked away when I raised a broom, so she must have been hit with a broom at some point, right?

Actually, for all I knew Izzy had never encountered a broom in her life before she saw me pick one up, and she just plain found this new object alarming. Also, most animals, including us, tend to duck away from objects swinging around or above our heads. This behavior probably doesn’t require a lot of explanation. As for those dogs who bark at men with beards or sunglasses, you can follow the same pattern as I did in making up explanations for Jake’s reaction to German Shepherds. Maybe a bearded man beat the dog up. Maybe a bearded man appeared just before there was a huge thunderclap.  Maybe the dog didn’t get much experience of the world during her early puppyhood, and so grew up to find many new things strange and spooky.

Do Just-So Stories Do Any Harm?

To the extent that an unverifiable just-so story inclines people to empathize with their dog and try to see the world from the dog’s point of view, it may be pretty harmless. I worry mainly if the story somehow gets in the way of behavioral help.

Unfortunately, some of the stories we make up are much less dog-friendly. The ones I most often come across supply dogs with nefarious motivations for their behavior, and the grand champion of nefarious motivations is “dominance.”

Among nonscientists, “dominance” is often thought of as a personality trait – it’s a label for a dog who supposedly wants to run the show in the household, or anywhere else for that matter. For scientists who study animal behavior, “dominance” is a lot more complicated and, to me, slippery. It can be seen in terms of control over resources and/or in terms of whose behavior isn’t inhibited by others. Also, who is “dominant” may vary from situation to situation.

Two things scientists don’t do when they talk about dominance: make value judgments and ascribe dictatorial motivations. Plus, there is plenty of argument about whether dogs have fixed social hierarchies anyway. This might not matter, except that when we regular people think of our dogs as “dominant,” we may see them as our enemies instead of as companions who need our guidance and help.

Why Ask Why?

One other thing about just-so stories: We don’t need them. If Dogalini is afraid of men with beards, you and your behavior consultant will go about helping her the same way regardless of how her problem arose. You’ll use counterconditioning or another scientifically sound behavior-modification technique, such as Behavior Adjustment Training, to relieve her fear.

If Zippy growls when you approach his food bowl, why ask why? In any case, a sound behavior plan will focus on teaching him that you are not, in fact, a threat. And as for Jake’s Thing about German Shepherds, same story. The solution might include elements of counterconditioning, well-rewarded practice in self-control exercises and in coming when called, and, eventually, careful up-close-and-personal introductions to some GSDs. How Jake got his Thing, we’ll never know. But fortunately, it doesn’t matter.

As always, you can write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I get so many questions that I can’t respond individually, but check out past episodes – I might already have answered yours. And please visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer..

German Shepherd image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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).