Canine Behavior Basics


Perhaps you are referring to this behavior: your dog is sitting calmly at your side, making soft, adoring eye contact…..

It’s more likely, he is engaging in an inappropriate behavior you’d really love to shut down.   The reason your dog is doing that is because….it’s working for him! Owners often inadvertently reinforce undesirable behaviors. Reinforcement makes ANY behavior stronger. The manner in which you respond to your dog’s behaviors determines whether good or bad habits will prevail.

Behavior – canine and human – is functional. Dogs do what they do for a reason. Behaviors that result in gratifying consequences WILL be repeated. When a specific behavior produces no or an undesirable consequence, it is discarded and replaced with another behavior that yields different results.

Young dogs, especially, engage in many different behaviors. This is a good situation, because it provides lots of opportunities to reward behaviors that you want in your dog’s repertoire. Behaviors may be reinforced, redirected, or ignored.  Here’s a common example. Kneel down, clap your hands, and say, “here, puppy”. The puppy comes to you, and you reinforce that action by giving the puppy a treat.   Repeating this exercise over several days results in your puppy’s prompt response when you say, “here, puppy”. You are building a reward history, thereby, making that response stronger.

Dogs love to chew. It’s a fact of life, but that doesn’t mean you resign yourself to chomped up belongings. When your dog eyes the coffee table legs, tell him “ah-ah” and redirect him to an appropriate alternative.   Putting your dog’s food into a food-dispensing toy helps him develop healthy and non-destructive chewing preferences.

Attention seeking behaviors are high on most dogs’ priority lists: jumping, stealing objects, barking, and general nudging are common. Ignoring your dog’s rude attempts to engage you will encourage him to try something else. Don’t wait until the “wild child” emerges to pay attention him. A semblance of calm, polite engagement should be rewarded (reinforced) with your attention.  Clicker training is a very effective way to shape calm and attentive behaviors.  Please note that the clicker is not an attention-getter, but rather a clear marker of desirable behaviors.


All dogs start scoping out the environment, i.e. your home, very shortly after arrival. They are assessing the availability of resources and who has priority access to them. Resources are necessary for survival and enjoyment of life.  Here are some examples of resources from your dog’s perspective: food, access to physical space (indoors and outdoors), access to comfy resting spots intended for humans (aka the furniture…), toys and chewies, attention, petting, and opportunities to play and engage in high-drive activities.

Access to food, physical space, and gaining your attention rank high on most dogs’ reward hierarchies. The dog must first get our attention before anything else is obtainable.  Depending on the dog and the situation, access to space may trump food. Dogs pull on leash, in part, because they haven’t yet learned to tolerate frustration and delayed gratification. These are two of the most important areas to address in a training program.

When you ask something of your dog (sit and wait) to obtain resources, you send a powerful message to him, regarding the order of his world. Dogs are social animals. By setting boundaries and teaching compliance, they learn calm, respectful behaviors. This structure maintains the harmony in any social group.  As a benevolent leader, you can delay delivery of what your dog wants pending requested behaviors.

Your dog can learn to EARN resources, if you ask something of her before granting her access. Give your dog a compelling reason to pay attention to you!  Ask your dog to lie down and wait before giving him his food or opening the outside door. Many puppies and adult dogs become aroused very quickly and overstep boundaries. Remember they are just guessing about our rules and need benevolent guidance.  Attaching a leash or drag line can be helpful in managing over threshold behavior.   Pick up the leash, adjust elements in the environment, and request a learned cue.   Help your too-excited dog regain his composure and ability to process what you have asked of him.  Your dog can find a balance between enthusiasm and self-control.


Remember that dogs do what works for them.   They want to please us, because our happy state usually yields gratifying results for them. Depending on your responses, i.e. your feedback to your dog, behaviors become relevant (they stay) or irrelevant (they are discarded). Dogs want something to happen when they engage in a behavior.

Reinforcement makes a behavior more likely to increase. The timing of your response, i.e. .5-3 seconds, determines whether your dog is likely to repeat the behavior or try another one.   Access to resources is a reinforcer to your dog. “What am I doing now that results in getting what I want? What must I do to get what I want?” Punishment makes a behavior more likely to decrease. “When I jump on people, they don’t look at me, speak to me, or touch me. I’ll try another behavior.”

Behaviors are learned depending upon the consequences: favorable (reinforced) results for your dog will increase the behavior; aversive (punished) or no (extinction) results will decrease or end the behavior.

Training goals are: developing a reward history for desirable behaviors, which become your dog’s default (or “go to”) behaviors and achieving verbal connection with your dog. The visual and verbal signals you give must be clear. When your dog responds to your signals, he needs feedback. Is the response correct or incorrect? Will I get the cookie? Reward and no reward markers provide this critical feedback. The clicker is a clear reward marker.  The behavior is marked by the sound of the clicker and followed up with a treat.  Verbal reward markers, such as “yes” or “good” can work well, too.  No reward markers, such as “pfui” or “try again” indicate to your dog that his response was incorrect. Try a different one.

Confusion fuels anxiety. Anxiety inhibits focus and learning. Clarity reduces stress and facilitates learning. Your dog knows which behaviors work for him to obtain access to resources, because of the reward history you have developed. These solidify into his behavior repertoire. You set up a desirable behavior repertoire.

Feedback is essential in achieving verbal control and reliability. Over time, food lures and super high value reinforcements are faded. The dog complies with trained cues that are reinforced with real-life rewards. Habits have been installed.  Randomly reinforced behaviors increase in frequency. Your dog responds, because there might be a “payoff” this time.


Puppies have a short developmental deadline for socialization. By four months of age, a puppy has formed an opinion of other dogs, unfamiliar people, and new situations and places. Socialization is a series of deliberate interactions. It is not a large get-together “to meet the new puppy” or trips to the dog park. These are set-ups to overwhelm your puppy and/or expose him to negative experiences with other dogs. These practices can backfire and be harmful. Do not force your dog into a scary situation. If he is balking or backing up, respect his clear fear signals. You can either try to “jolly” him past the scary situation or create distance to reduce stress.  Find a place where he can tolerate the situation and reinforce his calm, relaxed behavior.

It’s best to introduce your puppy or rehomed adult dog to one or two people at a time. Include lots of smiles, soft voices, and treats. Your puppy’s play dates should always be positive, i.e. with other puppies or friendly adult dogs you know or in a puppy class where play is closely monitored by the trainer.

Counter-conditioning and remedial socialization programs may be needed. A counter-conditioning program is intended to change your dog’s conditioned emotional response to certain stimuli from a fearful to a relaxed internal state. In doing this, you change her ability to behave differently amidst that stimuli. Remedial socialization is a gradual catch up in that process to reduce stress to unfamiliar stimuli.


You can use the resources in any environment to motivate your dog to be attentive, compliant, and respectful. Every time you give your dog access to her “good stuff” (access to space, food, toys, belly rubs, opportunities to interact with other dogs, go out for a walk…or other real-life rewards), ask her to sit, lie down, or come when called. This practice establishes an extensive reward history for great behaviors.  Your dog routinely demonstrates deference to you.  He thrives on structure and the mental engagement of figuring out what he must do to “make” you throw the ball.

A word about punishment…Where reinforcement makes a behavior stronger, punishment decreases the likelihood of a behavior. A motivational training method sets your dog up to learn to earn rewards for the appropriate behaviors. Compulsion-based methods rely on the use of aversives to punish undesirable behaviors. The dog works to avoid a punishment rather than engaging in behaviors to earn rewards. While both methods work, positive punishment techniques can do harm and doesn’t take into account modern scientific findings on canine cognition.  It, also, falls short with respect to current academic knowledge in the arena of dogs’ emotional lives and does not teach the dog life skills.  


© 2018 Kimberly B. Mandel  CPDT-KA
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC