Scott Sheaffer’s 15 Fundamental Guidelines for Living with Dogs

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

There are 15 principles in the dog behavior world I find myself repeating on a daily basis. Understanding and acknowledging these truths will greatly improve the relationship we have with our dogs. I’ve outlined these concepts below.

"It doesn’t really matter what we believe the dog should be thinking..."

1. Dogs are always learning.

Just like with children, dogs don’t recognize scheduled learning times. They are always observing and learning from us. For example, dogs learn when owners are on the phone they can jump up on forbidden furniture because the owner isn’t paying attention.

2. Dogs don’t do things that aren’t in some way rewarding to them.

Dogs always require some type of payoff (whether external or self-rewarded) for their behaviors.  For example, dogs dig in the back lawn because they are bored and this behavior temporarily relieves the boredom.

3. Reward calm and ignore reactivity.

To get dogs to be less reactive to certain triggers, we have to reward the dog for being calm in the presence of a trigger. It’s important not to reinforce fear, arousal and frustration in the presence of triggers by punishing - or soothing. For example, screaming at a dog for barking at the UPS delivery person every day never seems to help – the evidence is found in the part about screaming every day.

4. Stop demand behaviors by stopping the reinforcement.

The reason your dog jumps up on you is to get your attention. Simply consistently ignoring these types of behaviors will remove the reinforcement for why he or she does this in the first place.

5. When a human and a dog are together, one is always learning.

It’s true, our canine friends are quite adept at teaching us what they’d like us to do; most people are completely unaware of it too. For example, dogs train owners to feed them at a certain time every day by whining until the owner complies; over time, the owner learns to do this without the dog even whining.

6. Don’t confuse made-for-TV “dog training” drama with legitimate animal behavior science.

With only one or two exceptions, dog training TV shows are for entertainment only.  Looking to these shows for legitimate dog behavior advice is like watching Grey’s Anatomy to learn about medicine. For example, TV shows where Cesar Millan plays the role of the “Dog Whisperer” can be entertaining, but aren’t science based.

7. The animal kingdom is never concerned with the human concept of “fair”.

When dog owners bring human cultural concepts of fairness into their relationship with their dog, things get messed up. Dogs, and animals in general, don’t acknowledge or understand the human concept of “fair”. For example, feeding an obese dog a restricted diet in a multi-dog home while the other dogs get full meals will not cause the obese dog to be upset with the owner or other dogs – he or she will just be hungry.

8. “Should” is a word that causes problems when it comes to working with animals.

When a dog owner uses the word “should” with a dog, he or she is usually referring to how a dog should perceive something or how it should behave in a certain situation. It doesn’t really matter what we believe the dog should be thinking; it only matters what the dog is thinking. For example, even though a particular dog shouldn’t be afraid of men with beards, it doesn’t change the fact that the dog is afraid of men with beards.

9. Mother Nature always prevails.

This is possibly the most important axiom of all and captures the essence of all of them. Mother Nature’s rules about animals cannot be changed; they must be accommodated. For example, dogs are predators; they will chase squirrels and rabbits.

10. Your dog doesn’t understand English, Spanish, Chinese or any human spoken language for that matter.

Humans sometimes have a lot of difficulty believing and understanding their dogs don’t understand language other than the cues they’ve been taught such as sit, down, come, etc. For example, telling a dog “I’ll be right back” will do nothing to alleviate the dog’s separation anxiety.

11. Dogs attempt to read human body language just like we do our best to read theirs.

Ever wonder why dogs and humans relate so well? It’s because dogs are fairly advanced, as compared to other animals, in their ability to read human body language. For example, dogs know when humans are angry and most know to steer clear.

12. Dogs aren’t humans and humans aren’t dogs.

The thought of pretending I’m a dog by crawling around on all fours, eliminating outside and eating/drinking from a bowl doesn’t sound too appealing. Dogs feel the same way when we try to make them into faux humans. For example, while some humans love to dress up and wear nice colognes and perfumes, dogs hate wearing clothes and having floral scents sprayed on them.

13. Taking fearful dogs to areas that are dense with dogs and humans in order to “socialize” them almost always worsens their fears.

If someone is afraid of the water, the best way to acclimate them to it is by starting at the shallow end of the pool and slowly moving them into deeper water as they are ready. This same concept applies to socializing dogs – start at the shallow end. For example, it’s not a good idea to take a dog that is fearful of unfamiliar humans to a crowded Starbucks patio.

14. Dogs prefer predictable routines.

Just like humans, dogs prefer daily routines that are predictable; knowing what’s next reduces the anxiety of living. For example, dogs readily adjust to predictable feeding times, bed times and scheduled outings to the back lawn to eliminate.

15. Dogs mirror the arousal level of other dogs and humans they are near to.

One thing we love, and hate, about dogs is that they reflect the excitement or calmness of humans and other dogs that are near them. For example, if there are two dogs in a household and one of them hears or sees something that starts him or her barking, the other dog is virtually guaranteed to start barking even though he or she may have no idea why the other is barking.