You know what your dog is thinking? Prove it.

As someone that thinks about dogs all the time, I am aware of collective gaps in dog trainer’s knowledge as a whole to prove “why” dogs perform a behavior.

There are numerous theories pertaining to dog behavior, but in reality many of them cannot be proven. There are deficiencies in understanding many dog topics that creates an inability to be able to definitively prove something in such a way that there can be no counter argument.

Simple behaviors can be described accurately and without much debate, as long as the assessment stops at the observation of the actual behavior and does not cross into they “why” of the behavior.

But once the topic delves into any area pertaining to what the dog is thinking, feeling or intending to do, and how as dog trainers we should respond to these supposed thoughts, the entire conversation gets murky. Two people can “know” in their hearts that their way of training or their philosophy is correct, but many conversations cannot reach a final conclusion because the proof is just not obtainable.

To explain the difference between irrefutable observations and concepts or beliefs that require more explanation, I pose the following examples.

Examples of irrefutable dog-related observations:

  1. Your dog pooped on your couch
  2. Your dog is pulling on the leash
  3. Your dog is jumping on that person
  4. Your dog is walking out of the doorway first
  5. Your dog is eating more quickly than he was five seconds ago
  6. Your dog sat when you asked him to “sit”

Unprovable statements:

  1. Your dog pooped on the couch because he was mad you left for the day
  2. Your dog is pulling on the leash because he is trying to show you he is the boss
  3. Your dog is jumping on that person because he smells cats on her
  4. Your dog is walking out of the doorway first because he is being dominant
  5. Your dog is eating more quickly because he is trying to finish his food quickly because he thinks he will get more
  6. Your dog sat when you asked him to sit because he has an innate desire to please you

As a dog trainer versed in learning theory and science-based dog training principles, here are the ways that I would explain the previous observations. Note that in some of the answers there are many possible reasons. This is the way life works. For someone to say they “know that a dog has an innate desire to please their master”, my first question would be “how do you KNOW that?”

How I would address the above observations:

  1. Your dog pooped on your couch because is not completely housetrained. Separation anxiety might be contributing to the problem as well. Let me ask you a few more questions about your dog’s behavior patterns.
  2. Your dog is pulling on the leash because he wants to walk faster than you. Let’s train him not to pull on the leash.
  3. Your dog is jumping on that person either for attention or to play. Let’s train him not to jump.
  4. Your dog is walking out of the doorway first because he wants to get out of the house faster than you want to get out of the house.
  5. Your dog is eating more quickly possibly because he is a resource guarder (or has food aggression), let me do some tests to determine if this is the cause of his increased rate of eating.
  6. Your dog sat when you asked him to sit because there has been a reward history built up which increases the motivation to sit when you say, “sit”.

See the difference?

I want you to be careful of trainers that KNOW why a dog did a behavior based on what is inside the dog’s head. I don’t want to give the impression that  dog trainer can never say why they think a dog did something. A good trainer can make calculated observations such as: “your dog broke his stay because I threw the toy and his prey drive motivated him to chase the toy”. That is within the normal, reasonable parameters of normal dog training strategies.

However, when a dog trainer says that they KNOW why a dog did something and they attribute it to a human emotion or action such as spite, wanting to be the boss, wanting to be alpha, or a dog’s innate desire to please, the first question should be, how do you KNOW that?

When someone says, “your dog is trying to be the boss”. This is a “why” statement that cannot be proven to be true. You cannot unequivocally prove that a dog is “trying to be the boss”.

I have heard trainers say that a certain dog is trying to be the boss because they pulled on the leash, walked out of doors first, jumped on guests, growled at people, etc. I would argue that these dogs need more training, or in the case of the aggression needs to be desensitized to the triggers that are causing the aggression.

There is a way to bring the argument to the forefront of a conversation and ask the person that made the definitive statement to prove their argument. For instance, let’s use the example of someone pronouncing that a dog is “trying to be the boss”.

Here is a way to counter this argument with a simple question.

“You said that my dog is trying to be the boss, what does a dog that is trying to be the boss do?”

If the trainer resorts to the observable behavior as proof that a dog is “trying to be the boss”, this is circular logic that does not prove the point. You can’t say that a dog is trying to be the boss because he is pulling on the leash and prove it by saying he is pulling on the leash! If he says that your dog is also growling on the bed, going through doorways first or any other behavior, these are observable behaviors, but not proof of why your dog is doing something.

There is a big difference between observing a dog and knowing what a dog is thinking.
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