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The New Science Of Understanding Dog Behavior

Dr. John Bradshaw is an anthrozoologist and a noted scholar of animal-human interactions.
Basic Books
Dr. John Bradshaw is an anthrozoologist and a noted scholar of animal-human interactions.

What's the best advice to give man about respecting man's best friend?

Animal behaviorist John Bradshaw says it's realizing that dogs are neither wolves nor furry humans and that dog owners have certain responsibilities to make sure their dogs are psychologically healthy.

Bradshaw, who has spent much of his career debunking bad advice given to dog owners, is the author of a new behavior guidebook called Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. The book details what pet owners should expect from their dogs and what their dogs should expect in return from their owners.

How To Reprimand Your Dog

One of the most common problems owners face, says Bradshaw, is knowing what to do when a dog misbehaves. For example, many owners might be inclined to immediately physically reprimand a dog for jumping up on visitors. But Bradshaw says that's the wrong way to teach your pet how to behave because dogs see any form of attention — even negative attention — as a reward. Instead, he says, owners should immediately ignore their pet completely.

"Most dogs require their owners' attention [and] they want their owners' attention," he says. "They want people's attention in general. And withdrawing that is a very powerful signal to the dog."

Bradshaw recommends folding your arms, looking away and pretending your dog isn't in the same room. Your change in body language will be apparent to your pet.

"Then you'll find that quite quickly the dog begins to realize that [their bad behavior] is not working," he says. "You can then use a distraction technique to get the dog to do something else, like sit or lie down and then it will get the idea that this is what it's supposed to do when visitors come to visit."

Bradshaw says dogs naturally want to please and play with people, especially the people who love them.

"[When a puppy's eyes open it has] a very strong ability to learn about people and ... this behavior persists throughout life," he says. "And surprisingly, most dogs, given the choice, will actually prefer human company to other dog company."

Studies indicate that dogs will naturally gravitate toward humans, though Bradshaw says how that idea gets into a dog's developing brain is still somewhat of a mystery.

"But they have an exaggerated tendency to learn from anything that people do right from the minute they're capable of doing it," he says. "They're particularly sensitive to human body language — the direction we look in, what our whole body language is telling them, pointing gestures. They are much more sensitive to things like that than almost any other species on the planet."

Creating Expectations For Dogs And Owners

Bradshaw says humans also expect dogs to be companionable when they're needed and unobtrusive when they're not. City dogs, he says, are expected to be better-behaved than the average human child and as self-reliant as adults. But these expectations, he says, create problems for modern dogs.

"Many dogs — maybe as many as half the dogs in the West — that are kept in homes have a real problem with being left alone at some point in their lives," he says. "And the problem may last for weeks or years. ... They crave the company of people. They also have a mind which does not have a particularly good sense of time, so when they get left alone, they can immediately begin to think, 'When's anyone coming back? Have I been abandoned forever?' "

Dogs can get extremely anxious as a result, Bradshaw says. But there are bits of training owners can do to help their dogs avoid separation disorders.

"You train your dog to toilet outside. You train your dog to sit on command," he says. "You should also train your dog to cope with being left alone."

Bradshaw suggests creating a gradual routine when you leave the house: For example, pick up your keys and coat from the same place, in the same way each time you leave. Those behaviors will become triggers for your dog, who will associate them with your impending absence. He also suggests training new dogs by having them become familiar with these actions — and gradually increasing your time away so that your dog has time to become acclimated.

"You go to the door. You come back from the door. You put the coat back on the rack. You put the car keys back down on the shelf. Then you do it again, but this time maybe you open the door," he says. "Then the next time, you go outside the door and come straight back in again. And the next time, go outside and stand outside for 10 seconds. And then come back in again. And what the dog learns at that stage ... the association with you going out and you coming home. And that is enough for most dogs to reassure them — and very quickly you find you can leave them for hours. They've learned that association, and you coming back and making a fuss of them, and so the idea of you going out actually becomes pleasurable instead of something to panic."

John Bradshaw is the director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in the U.K. He has studied the behavior of domestic cats and dogs for more than 25 years.

Interview Highlights

On common misconceptions about wolves

"The main [myth] ... is that wolves are essentially an intrinsically aggressive animal that is continuously trying to take over whatever group they find themselves in and dominate it. And the new wolf biology really exposed that as an artifact — that particular view of wolves came from wolves in zoos and in wildlife parks, where a bunch of unrelated wolves were basically put together and told to get on with it and, not surprisingly, they got on with it by being aggressive toward one another. The new picture of wolf society is that wolves are harmonious animals. They live in family groups. They get along really well together, and they're almost never aggressive to one another. The aggression comes out when two families meet, so they have very strong family ties."

On playing tug of war with your dog

"Let's take a very simple piece of advice that trainers take out, which is you should never allow a dog to go in front of you through a doorway because it will give the signal to the dog that you are submissive and are therefore allowing him or her — the dog — to become dominant. Take another one. Many trainers advise against playing tug of war games because there is a risk the dog will win and the dog, by winning, will think that you are being submissive and he will therefore be able to control you in the future. We've done research into a number of these things — including the tug of war game — and have shown that the premise is just completely not true. If you do let a dog win over and over again at tug of war, it likes you. It wants to play with you more than it did to begin with because it's having fun. If, on the other hand, the dog gets less attracted to you and doesn't so much want to play with you — again, but there's absolutely no change of the dog's behavior outside of that particular situation of play — the dog does not get into its head that you're kind of a soft touch and that in the future it will be able to control you and whatever you do."

On breeding

"There's still a great genetic variability if you take the dog as a whole. But within a breed, the variation has diminished. So you get all kind of inherited diseases coming up [which are] very difficult to eradicate at the moment while the breed barriers are being maintained."

On military dogs

"I've been involved with training dogs for the military for about a decade now, so I think everybody but me has been surprised by the dog that went in to find Osama bin Laden. They're very valuable dogs. And I must say, if I was in an environment like that, I would actually much rather have a dog ahead of me than another human being because it's another set of senses — and particularly the olfactory sense. These dogs are trained to find and then indicate all manners of things. In that particular instance, it would presumably be explosives and ammunitions and guns and so on."

On dog senses

"They're colorblind to a certain extent but colorblind humans are not that badly handicapped. Their hearing is a little bit more sensitive than ours in the high-pitched region. But it's their sense of smell that really distinguishes them from us. And I don't think we really take up too much recognizance of that. I think dogs have a right to sniff things whenever it doesn't cause a problem to us. When I meet a dog, I hold my hand out. I don't stick my fingers right out, just in case, but I just make a loose fist and put my hand out to the dog. If it's a small dog, I'll squat down. And that dog will want to come and sniff my hand and lick it if necessary. That's a greeting, and I think if we don't do that, I think it's as upsetting to the dog as if we were talking to somebody that we never met before and covered our faces at that point in time, as if we were trying to disguise who we were."

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