Canine Behaviourist and Trainer

What is Canine Psychology?


Canine psychology, as with human psychology, is primarily related to the study of the mind.  In fact early experiments carried out by notables in the field such as Freud and Pavlov were almost exclusively carried out on animals as it was believed that the thought processes of animal and man did not differ significantly except in their level of complexity.


Of course the key differentiator will always be that even though my clients are normally more than happy to lie down on the couch, usually whether they are invited to do so our not, they cannot actually tell me in words how they are feeling.  Therefore to understand what a dog is thinking we must rely on analysis of its behaviour in relation to a given stimulus or certain environment, and how it interacts with those around it both human and animal.


Dogs of course are capable of communication in a number of ways.  They communicate by vocalisation, the main sounds falling into four groups, growls, barks, whimpers and howls and within each of these groups the frequency, pitch and volume varies to convey different messages.  We all understand the meaning of a growl, used primarily to threaten or to warn, however a bark can convey anything from alerting other pack members to the approach of a stranger to saying I've found something interesting why don't you all come and see!

behaveDogs also communicate by the use of body language using either the whole body, or ears, eyes, tail or mouth or indeed a combination of these things to convey specific meanings.  When you consider this it is easy to understand why so many people are against the docking of tails and the cropping of ears, as we are in effect denying the dog a frequently used method of communication.

Dogs also use olfactory communication, as they have a very well developed sense of smell.  Dogs will use scent to pick up messages left by other dogs, which might say for example, this is my territory.

It is also extremely important to understand how a dog learns the behaviours it manifests in order to analyse how problem behaviours begin. 

One of the most common ways dogs learn is by classical conditioning as demonstrated by the well-known experiments undertaken by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s.  Whilst undertaking research into the digestive system Pavlov noticed that dogs would often salivate before they actually saw food under a given set of circumstances for example when you take out their food bowl.  Pavlov then experimented on the use of a stimulus, in this case a bell when the dog was given food.  Very quickly the dog would salivate on hearing the sound of the bell even when food wasn't present.  Conditioning is however more complex than it first appears in that if the bell were to be continually rung without the food then the dogs would eventually cease to display the conditioned response.  This is a valuable lesson to remember when training.

Another way a dog learns is by operant conditioning, which basically means that behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences, for example the use of food in training as a reward would be classed as operant conditioning by way of positive reinforcement. 

What it is extremely important to remember in operant conditioning is the frequency of the reinforcement can be pivotal.  For example if you always reward behaviour i.e. when training the dog to sit you always give it a titbit when it sits successfully the dog will very soon stop sitting on command.  What actually works best for the dog is a variable reinforcement; sometimes it gets a treat sometimes it doesn't.  You only have to watch someone playing a one armed bandit to understand how well this approach works from a psychological viewpoint in humans as well as animals.

Many owners assume however that canine thought processes are exactly the same as their own, and many of the difficulties encountered by owners arise from this mistaken belief.  Dogs in fact are capable of many of the thought processes that we humans have, however on a much more basic level, and dogs certainly have no sense or right and wrong in terms of moral codes or ethics.  It therefore follows that they have no sense of guilt, and this concept is often one of the most difficult for dog owners to understand.  This is why the dog does not learn well by punishment.

While most behaviours are learned it is also important to remember that some behaviours are inherited as part of the dog's genetic makeup, for example the need to scavenge even though the dog is perfectly well fed, and whilst some of these behaviours are less than desirable, many inherent traits can be used to our advantage in dealing with problems, for example the hierarchical pack structure.

All dogs perceive themselves, their owners and any other animals within the household as part of the same pack, and it is their perceived position in the pack that causes them to act the way they do toward other members.  Many of the inappropriate behaviours complained of by owners stem from their dog's perception that it is in fact pack leader and can be eradicated simply by restructuring the pack in the eyes of the dog.

Whilst very basic, I hope this information has given you at least a taster of what I deal with on a day-to-day basis.  The world of the dog psychologist is very different from say that of a dog trainer, as dog trainers work, most often in a class situation with multiple dogs to teach owners how to control normal behaviour.  The canine psychologists job is to analyse in depth the behaviour of an individual dog and create a programme of behaviour modification, which the owner then applies.