Shouldn’t my dog just (insert behaviour here)?
I am asked this question, or some version of it, almost on a daily basis. It’s a big part of my job to explain to dog owners that what we think our dog “should just do” doesn’t really match up to the reality of what the dogthinks he should be doing.
Here are some examples of behaviours that people have told me their dogs should just do:
Walk calmly beside me at all times
Not bark – ever
Come back every time I call him
Know and demonstrate good manners
Do everything I ask all the time – without being rewarded
Here are the activities that I am fairly sure dogs think they should be doing:
Playing and wrestling (with other dogs)
The dogs’ list is much more specific and covers almost every behaviour that owners find annoying. What most owners don’t realize is that most of those behaviours literally kept dogs alive for many, many years before we put collars around their necks and started dropping their food into bowls. In order to survive in the wild dogs needed to acquire food (sniffing, chasing, chewing, scavenging), protect valuable resources (digging, burying, peeing, barking, wrestling) and pass on their genes (humping).
In a world where dinner is delivered in a bowl on a regular daily schedule dogs no longer need these behaviours for survivial but every dog still comes with the built-in software that drives them to practice these skills. It’s important for us to understand that these are ingrained, instinctive behaviours that are not a result of careful thought and planning. Rosie, my Australian Shepherd, loves to roll in raccoon poop whenever she can find it. I doubt she stops to think, “I need to roll in that horrible smell to disguise my scent from prey.” I am sure Rosie’s brain simply tells her “Wow that stinks so much I just have to roll in it!”
Reminding ourselves that our dogs are still genetically encoded to steal sandwiches off the counter, bury our favourite shoe, or rifle through the garbage can lessen our frustration and anger. They are not deliberately being bad or spiteful dogs. They are just doing “dog stuff.”
Fortunately dogs also have the ability to learn. We can teach them to make better choices that we prefer through training, management and positive reinforcement. When they are rewarded for making more of those better choices they will have far less time and inclination for all of those activities on their to-do list. But it’s up to us to provide education, alternative choices and positive reinforcement. They “shouldn’t just” have to figure it out for themselves.