What’s going on in that canine brain?

earl2Originally posted on dogconnect.wordpress.com.

One of the critical elements I learned in graduate school when writing case notes for counseling and social work clients was the art of description. An example one of my professors gave, which still sticks in my mind two years after graduate school, was as follows:

A woman comes into your office for a counseling session, and her eyes are red and bloodshot. What can you derive from this?

One of the immediate answers that comes to mind is, “Oh, she’s been crying, of course.” True, that’s one of the possible answers. But what if the woman has allergies? What if she has been using drugs or alcohol? What if she has a medical condition? If a counselor were to write in her case notes that the client had been crying prior to the session, odds are this would be incorrect. It doesn’t take a graduate degree to realize the consequences of this. A much better case note would describe the woman’s appearance, avoiding any interpretation or inferences without further input from the client.

As I embark on my new career as a professional dog trainer, I frequently note the parallels between training and clinical social work. The added difficulty is, of course, dogs don’t speak our language. Perhaps less easy to digest, we don’t speak their language, either.

Sure, we have a growing bank of research on animal learning and communication, but when it comes down to it, we can’t enter our dogs’ brains and read a closed caption translation of what’s going on in there.

In her book “Oh, Behave,” animal behaviorist Jean Donaldson makes the excellent point that even using a high-tech brain scan on a dog would simply give us numbers and brain wave readings. It wouldn’t give us a Cliffs Notes version of what that dog is thinking.

Does this mean we should despair? Of course not! As dog owners, and in my case a student of animal learning, we have the tool of observation. Returning to my previous example of the therapist and client, the therapist could ask the client questions to determine why her eyes are bloodshot. Unfortunately, we can’t ask our dogs why they are, for instance, snarling and growling at a grandparent. But we can gather facts about the behavior, which are valuable clues:

  • When does the behavior occur?
  • Where does the behavior occur?
  • What exactly occurs? (In the example of growling, are the teeth bared? How much of the teeth are exposed? What is the rest of the dog’s body doing during the growl?)
  • What’s the duration of the behavior?

And so forth. Note the word “why” is not listed above. “Why” is a tricky word when it comes to dogs. There’s a lot of pressure in the dog behavior and training world to explain “why” ad nauseum, even when we might have no clue why a dog is behaving a particular way. One of my colleagues at the Academy for Dog Trainers recently made the brilliant observation that some of the best trainers have the confidence to tell clients, “I have no idea why your dog is doing this! But we can focus on the behavior.” This isn’t to say that “why” isn’t an intriguing question. On the contrary, it’s a question that gets me excited about research and science – and I’m a liberal arts major at heart. But when it comes to living with our dogs, training our dogs, and communicating with trainers and veterinarians, “why” isn’t always productive.

Anthropomorphizing is a dirty word in some scientific circles. I am a frequent offender when it comes to this. Just like many, I love dogs. I give them voices. I give them little monologues in those voices when they do silly things. I talk to them even though I know they have no idea what I’m saying. In my opinion, there’s no harm in this if done in fun. It’s a great way to increase the bond between owner and pet. But when it comes to training and behavior, in particular behavior that is “bothersome” to us, we have to be careful. One of my fellow Academy colleagues recently brought up the example of house soiling, and the fact that sometimes owners think it’s a sign their dog is retaliating against them. I can understand how this myth started. In our minds, doing one’s business on the floor is a clear way to communicate “back off!” In our minds. But dog’s minds are different. Here are two ways of looking at this example.

  • Case 1, The interpretation: “Fido did number 1 and 2 on my favorite carpet that cost $1,000! He must be mad at me.”
  • Case 2, The observation: “Fido, a five year-old basenji, did numbers 1 and 2 in the house. He was left alone for 4 hours for the first time in his life. He typically is left alone for 2 hours. Fido gave owners a dramatic greeting with lots of vocalization and jumping upon their return. Fido is fully house trained. This is the first time he has soiled in the house since his owners got him as a puppy.”

See the difference? In case 1, we are led to believe that Fido is one vengeful dog, and we have no further information as to how to prevent this behavior in the future (other than, I suppose, lecturing Fido on not taking his anger out on an expensive carpet). In case 2, we have more to work with. In fact, it tentatively appears that Fido may have had some separation anxiety due to being left for longer than he is comfortable.

Dog trainers love this type of information. It’s meaty. It gives us guidance as to how to develop a training plan. Most importantly, it helps identify how we can help the dog, a trainer’s ultimate goal.

My hope is that dog owners will learn how helpful this information can be for them as well. Imagine being relieved of the guilt that Fido isn’t exacting feces-fueled revenge on you. (Quite a burden to bear!) Imagine the stronger bond you could share with Fido by observing, and therefore learning, his behavior. And, most importantly, imagine how much you could help Fido if he’s scared, anxious or in pain. Not to mention you’ll become every dog trainer’s favorite client because of the excellent diagnostic information you’ll provide!

For those of you to whom this is new, try it out this week. Pretend that your dog is your “client,” and jot down observations about his or her behavior. You’ll be well on your way to stronger communication with your dog and a deeper understanding of what’s going on inside that complex canine brain.

– Maureen Backman, MS