Working with your dog's natural behaviours




When we bring a dog into our lives we must accept that they are in fact dogs and not wannabe humans.


They have their own wants and needs which, for the most part, are a lot different to what our wants and needs are.


To give your dog the best life possible it's incredibly important to understand what makes them tick. Food is often used to train dogs (we use it all the time too), but to take your training to the next level we must not forget about all the other things that our dogs REALLY enjoy doing too. Once we take note of these behaviours we can then look at ways to use them in our training.


We have breeds of dogs for a reason. Sharing your life with a border collie will be a much different experience to sharing your life with a bulldog broadly speaking. They all need the basics but there's a reason bulldogs were not used to herd animals and there was a reason why border collies weren't used for bull baiting.


dogs have what we call motor patterns whereby one behaviour triggers the next behaviour. The predatory action sequence is something that is something that not just dogs often practice but all predators in the world have had to do to survive.


Now, our dogs don't need to do this to survive as we take care of them, but millions of years of evolution cannot be undone within a few thousand years. Most dogs will practice at least a few of these behaviours. Certain breeds have been selected to have emphasised parts like the greyhound (chase), border collies (eye/stalk) bully breeds (kill bite).


The sequence looks like this:


- Scent

- Eye/stalk

- Chase

- Grab bite

- Kill bite

- Parade

- Dissect

- Consume


All dogs will have the consume down (otherwise they would be dead). Lots of dogs love to chase and nearly all dogs will catch a scent and focus on it. But some dogs will enjoy certain parts of the sequence more than the others.


Some dogs may love grabbing on and biting (grab bite) but may find the tugging (kill bite) too combative and conflicting.


On the other hand some dogs will just rag doll a toy and never want to let it go.


Some dogs will love to chase and not much else. I've met dogs who will catch up to other dogs and nose punch them as if to say keep going!


Some dogs, typically the retrievers and pointers, like to parade around with their toys. It's not uncommon for these dogs to get excited, pick up their toys, bring them over to you and then as soon as you try to grab it they run off and prance around even more.


Some dogs are notorious for destroying any toy they are given (dissect) within seconds of getting it. My very first dog loved to rip up what we called a 'fluffy bone' which was a brightly coloured bone shaped fluffy squeaky toy. She would literally get it, destroy it and then 5 minutes later my mum would be picking up the stuffing. She loved it so much we ended up having a bunch in the cupboard and every now and then she'd get to destroy (dissect) one. I didn't know it at the time, but this was hugely enriching for her and something we do now with our dogs too.


So how can these make their lives better and our training more effective with this information?


First off all, we must understand that to get our dogs doing what we want them to do we have to reinforce that behaviour we want to see more of. Using food can do this, but sometimes that doesn't cut the mustard.


I love food! But I don't want it all the time and in all situations. I don't want it at the gym. I don't want it when I'm in my workshop. Food isn't reinforcing for me there. Doing the thing I'm doing is what is reinforcing for me.


When we take our dogs out and about they're likely going to want to be a dog. And some of these things will include parts of the predatory action sequence. When dogs play you'll see all sorts of these motor patterns. Stalking, chasing, grab bites, scenting all the dogs that have previously been there etc.


One of the things I highly recommend to people is to build reinforcers.

It's a big reason why I implement a lot of play in my training. Playing with a dog is a skill. We have to know how the dog would best like to play and mould how we do things to the individual dog.


For example if I try to play tug with a dog that finds being in close proximity to people scary then I'm going to poison the play. If the dog doesn't enjoy it, then we can't use it as a reinforcer. A flirt pole would be a better place to start. It allows them to keep their distance and there's no tugging so it's not combative or intimidating.


The breed of the dog will give you a good indicator of what they may enjoy. But all dogs are individuals so if you do have a Bulldog that likes to stalk things, go with it!


So let's look at how we can implement training and build reinforcers utilising these natural behaviours.


If you have a dog that LOVES using their nose then scent work is going to make them very happy. A simple game you can play is just hidings treats around the house and then letting them go and search for them instead of being fed out of their bowl.


If you want to up your game you can teach dogs to find certain objects by using their nose. Head over to our scent work section to see how to do this: https://www.thinkdog.nz/scent-work


If you have dog that likes to stalk things you can teach them to stalk their toys which is what Hannah has done with Tory. One way you can achieve this relatively easy is to show them their favourite toy and slowly walk back with the toy just in front of them. As soon as they take a slow step towards it (stalking behaviour) mark that behaviour and let them have the toy. Once they can take 1 slow step forward reliably we can then walk back a little further so they take two slow steps whilst stalking the toy. This is building value for the toy. We have to remember it's necessarily the toy that they like, it's what comes with the toy that really builds the value. So for a dog that likes to stalk things, if the toy means they get to practice that behaviour then the toy will become much more valuable to the dog.


For dogs that love to chase then a flirt pole is great. This gives your dog an appropriate outlet for chasing something that is around you. You can teach dogs to wait before they chase it and also to ask for your permission to chase by simply sitting and looking at you. Wait for the eye contact - mark that behaviour - make the toy 'run'.


Grabbing ahold of things is nearly the most common problem face with young puppies. They just want to bite EVERYTHING. This is a little annoying initially but you can turn this 'annoying' behaviour into something they really enjoy which in turn helps you build a powerful reinforcer. Give them something they are allowed to bite and heavily encourage them to do so. This is not for them to chew however. It's for them to grab and tug with.


With dogs that like to really rag doll their toys, then let them do so on appropriate toys. Tory has a conditioned 'kill it' which basically gets her very excited with her toy and she growls and rag dolls it. If you have a dog that likes to do this, then there is no problem at all allowing them top practice it on their tug toys. Just make sure you are very consistent and not let them do this on your clothes.


Parading or possessing an object is something a lot of dogs seem to enjoy but it's where we can cause some conflict. Puppies are notorious for picking up underwear and running around with them. Sometimes the chase is what they are looking for and sometimes it's simply just holding something in their mouths. If we notice dogs enjoying this we can add it into our play with them. Adira likes to chase, grab and then parade with the flirt pole. So when we play games with her we make sure we don't stop the play without her getting to practice those 3 main behaviours. When she grabs the tug we then put up some resistance (as if the prey was trying to get away) and then after a while the tug 'dies' and then she parades around with it.


And finally when we play these games, we must remember that the toys/tugs we use are NOT chew toys. That means if you are not playing with them the toys need to go away. Not only will these allow them to last longer, it will also build their value as the dog doesn't have access to it all the time.


If your dog does tend to want to dissect the toy, interrupt it and keep the game going. Once you have finished the play session offer them something they can dissect like a cardboard box or a kong. This gives them the option to practice the dissection but on something that they are allowed to practice it on.


So when we are working with our dogs and want to train them to the best we can, we have to look past using food and look to using their natural desires and figuring out ways we can use those behaviours to build powerful reinforcers that will lead them to want to do what we ask of them as it leads to them being able to do the things they were designed to do.


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