A short introductory primer to dog psychology
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A short introductory primer to dog psychology

Dogs
Pet Psychology

When you consider how different humans and dogs are as species, it is something of a wonder to consider that we communicate and understand each other as well as we do. A lot of this success is largely due to the fact that over the course of millennia, dogs have adapted and evolved to fit into life alongside of humans, rather than the other way around.

Dogs naturally modulate their behaviour and methods of communication to bridge the gap between us and them, meaning that dogs communicate and respond differently to humans than they do when interacting with other dogs.

We expect a lot from dogs in this respect-we expect them to bridge the species divide, make the effort to work with us and curb or change even their most natural and instinctive traits (such as prey drive) to please us and make our lives easier. Whilst dogs are very good at this after such a long history of living alongside of humans, owners should take some responsibility for our side of things too-and this means developing a basic understanding of the very basic building blocks of how dogs think and act, and essentially, what makes a dog a dog!

In this article, we will provide a short introductory primer to the basics of dog psychology and shine a spotlight on how dogs think, interpret things, and ultimately how they view the world and their interactions with people. This in turn helps to improve our understanding of dogs as a species, and our own pets in particular-and will help to strengthen the bond between us and enhance our ability to get along happily side by side.

Pack life

Dogs are highly social animals, and in the wild would never live as solitary creatures that only come together to mate. This means that a lone dog within a family situation will soon view their family (and other pets too, particularly dogs) as part of their pack, and seek to translate this dynamic into terms that they can understand.

When dogs meet and greet out and about too, they form loose temporary packs and cooperatives, which you can see in practice when a group of strange dogs meet and start playing together in the dog park.

This means that socialisation is vital for dogs and not only helps to keep them entertained but also fulfilled and happy as a species-and this is also why it is important that dog owners make lots of effort to allow their pets to meet and play with others regularly.

The pecking order

In any pack or group dynamic, various members of the group fall naturally into set roles that help to maintain the status quo, fulfil essential roles, and keep everyone happy and working together. This is known as the pecking order or pack dynamic, and with groups of dogs, involves a clear order of authority from the pack leader down to the youngest pup or most junior member of the group.

In order for a dog to be happy, fulfilled and secure, knowing their own place within this pack is vital-and there will be a distinct and obvious pecking order regardless of the situation, such as if you keep two dogs together or one dog alone with a human family.

When you factor in the human members of your dog’s pack, ensuring that everyone is in their rightful place in the pecking order is important, and the human adults should always, without exception, fall above the dog in the list.

A dog that thinks they are the alpha will be not only bossy and disrespectful of their owners’ commands but will also be under a lot of pressure, as they see it as their job to look out for the rest of the pack, stay on the alert, protect against dangers and generally, make the tough calls.

When it comes to the pecking order between different dogs-be that dogs that live together or simply dogs that meet on walks, keeping well out of it and letting the dogs establish their own positions in relation to each other and work through any difficulties.

Communication

When it comes to bridging the gap between dog and human communication, humans have traditionally left all of the hard work to the dogs-and today, dogs modulate their behaviour and the ways in which they communicate to account for this. However, this is rather akin to a person moving to another country and expecting everyone there to make the effort to learn their own language rather than the other way around-i.e., rather unfair and not fully effective!

There are a huge range of different canine communications and responses that dogs use on an almost daily basis and that we regularly misinterpret. One simple example of this include interpreting averted eyes in the dog as ignorance or guilt, when it is in fact a calming and appeasing signal that shows the dog is yielding dominance to you-the ultimate sign of respect.

Another example is a dog rolling over to expose their tummy, and their owner interpreting this as a request for a belly rub, but again this is a submissive signal of trust and surrender above anything else.

Getting a good book on canine communication and behaviour or reading online articles from qualified experts can help considerably when it comes to interpreting canine communication, and working with your dog.

Perceptions

Dog owners often say things like “the dog looked really guilty” but ultimately, this is anthropomorphism-projecting human emotions and responses onto our dogs. However, dogs do not possess the same range of emotions as humans nor express them in the same way-dogs are not capable of feeling guilt, for example, but a “shifty” expression may be submission in response to the human’s reaction to bad behaviour.

Learning to recognise this and get to know the emotions and responses that dogs do actually use will help you to understand your dog a lot better!

Memory

How dogs recall and remember past events is something that we do not fully understand, but their processes are not linear nor always logical to us as people.

Dogs possess short term and long term memories but these are stored and processed in different ways, and the things that dogs remember and how and why vary depending on the situation that they learnt them in.

Training treats when teaching commands help to build up strong and rapid associations in your dog’s mind, which is why treats are effective at getting and keeping your dog’s attention when it comes to teaching and giving orders.

Pain, fear and other negative emotions also help to strengthen and reinforce memories, which is why a dog may well remember someone that hurt or scared them for their entire lives, and in some cases, respond badly to other unrelated people that remind them of this fear due to an intangible such as the tone of voice, appearance, smell or body language.

Re-programing a dog’s memory-such as to teach a new command or ease fear responses to stimulus can be challenging and time consuming, but it can be done-once again, using a motivator such as food to create new positive connections in your dog’s mind instead.

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