Many behavioral concerns in dogs can be summed up in a line taken from the warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is failure to communicate.” In the movie, the real question was who exactly had the communication problem. With behavior problems in dogs, that question should always be considered.
To understand misbehavior, we must first understand normal behavior. Most behaviorists would agree that dogs behave in predictable ways to changes in their environment. From this perspective, what we see as misbehavior is only normal dog behavior happening in the wrong place and/or at the wrong time. Why do they do this? From my experience as a dog owner and a veterinarian, it seems that what our dogs are hearing is something entirely different from what we think we are telling them. Sounds like me and my kids. When we recognize that dogs and people are communal species that have shared a long history, this might not be too surprising.
A common form of miscommunication is the way in which we often greet our dogs when we come home. Think back to your last reunion with your dog at your home. There was probably a lot of jumping, barking and carrying on – at least by your dog. And you were probably talking, petting or playing with your dog in response. For some dogs, this is not a problem. For insecure and anxious dogs, it may lead to further anxiety and over-protective behavior.
For people, greeting one another with reassuring vocal and body signals is a sign of mutual respect. Not doing so could easily create mistrust. In dog (wolf) language, our dog may be hearing, “My human can no longer handle the position of being in charge. I need to take over.” Your dog will probably argue with you by licking, bowing and even urinating submissively in his or her attempt to get you to maintain your leadership position. And that’s just the beginning of the problems.
How should you act? The answer that your dog wants to hear is like the leading male and female of a wolf pack would act. In wolf packs, the two leaders typically greet their subordinates at a reunion by simply ‘presenting’ themselves as being in good mind and body. This reassures the subordinates that all is in order and there is nothing to worry about. Play may come later, and at the initiation of the leader, but the greeting is all about this ‘presentation of sound mind and body’.
How should we act when we reunite with our dog when we come home? Without talking to, looking at, or reaching for your dog, walk into the house and take care of your things as if your dog was not there. Your dog may keep his greeting circus going for some time, but resist interacting with him until he relaxes. When he does relax, call him to you and reward him with play. Your dog’s greeting circus will be more subdued with each subsequent reunion. A calm and reassured dog will greet you with his tail wagging at body level and sniff you, but without jumping and barking.
In strict behaviorists’ terms, you have taught your dog to greet you in a relaxed manner since you stopped rewarding his excited greeting and rewarded him when he was calm. This is true. But I’m convinced there’s more to it than just a conditioned response. Dogs learn best when they know they have calm, trusting leaders. Unfortunately, we often try to calm our dogs in ways that suggest something other than a calm leader. Learning to recognize when we are ‘misbehaving’ is an important step in helping our dogs when they’re misbehaving. Greeting them properly is a good first step.