DOG PSYCHOLOGY Part 1: What Is Dog Psychology?

Before training any animal it would probably be wise to have some respect for, and understanding of, the psychology of that particular species. Wouldn’t you agree? This seems logical to me but a lot of behavioral or psychological experiments have been done on mice, pigeons, monkeys, etc. and the conclusions are often assumed to transfer to other species. Doesn’t that seem odd? I mean, I understand that some aspects of conditioning are universal but I also believe there are a lot of things about animal psychology, behavior and training that are species-specific.

For example: Studying the behavior of rats in a laboratory tells us how rats behave in a laboratory. (If those rats are heavily inbred, it may even lack the full genetic range of rat behavior.) To assume those experiments tell us how rats behave outside a laboratory might be a mistake. To assume it tells us how dogs will behave in a laboratory setting might be an even bigger mistake. To assume it tells us how dogs will behave in the real world might be a colossal mistake.

So, an understanding of general psychology or “Learning Theory” is great but I believe it stands to reason that we should also have at least a basic understanding of things that are specific to dogs before we get into the finer details of how to train and live in harmony with them. Wouldn’t you agree? Ok, let’s get into some “Dog Psychology”.

What Is Dog Psychology? 

psy·chol·o·gy \sī-ˈkä-lə-jē\

1 : the science of mind and behavior

2 : the mental or behavioral characteristics of an individual or group

- Webster’s Dictionary

The term “Dog Psychology” is controversial but basically it means trying to understand and be considerate of how the mind of a dog works. What is the dog thinking? Why does the dog do this and not do that? What makes a dog unique from other animals? You get the picture. When it comes to animals, behavior is the prefered term, especially among academic or scientific communities, and the term psychology tends to be reserved for humans.

I suspect there are two primary reasons for the term Dog Psychology being controversial:

  1. Behavior Is Observable - Behavior is driven by psychology but the psychology itself is not observable. The argument is that there’s no way to be sure what a dog is “thinking”.
  2. Guilt and Denial - Academics and scientists have historically avoided attributing thoughts and emotions to animals. I suspect it’s because of all the horrible things we do to them such as murdering them for food, torturing them in the name of product safety, enslaving them for milk or hard labor, etc. It’s much easier to sleep at night if you think they have no thoughts or emotions.

I personally love the term Dog Psychology because it includes the “study of the mind” as well as the behaviors that are affected by the function of the mind. Is there guess work involved? Of course but that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I suppose I could have titled this article “Dog Behavior” but that just feels incomplete to me. Controversial or not, there is no doubt in my mind that dogs have thoughts and emotions, aka a “mind” worthy of study and consideration.

“Dog Psychology” is often used synonymously with “Behavior” or “Behavior Modification” or “Behavior Rehabilitation” in the sense that it involves more than just standard obedience or trick training protocols. Clearly psychology (thought) is involved in those protocols as well but, typically, if the term Dog Psychology is being used there are complex or problematic behaviors such as fear, aggression, anxiety, etc. being dealt with. Dog Psychology also goes beyond the scientific principles of behaviorism or learning theory (aka classical and operant conditioning) which can be applied to any animal, regardless of species, and which are not concerned with what the animal is “thinking.”

For example: In Dog Psychology one might say, “The dog growls when you approach his food because he is dominant, shy, afraid, etc.” This suggests an understanding of what the dog is thinking which is hard to prove. Scientists absolutely hate that! A behavioral scientist would prefer something quantifiable like, “The dog growls if you get within 62 inches of him while he’s eating.” Clearly one is a measurable fact and the other is not. However, from a Dog Psychology perspective it might be helpful to understand WHY the dog growls in that situation. A balanced perspective would be to realize you are making “educated guesses” about what the dog “may” be thinking or feeling, find various ways of testing your “theory” and be open to changing your mind or admitting you were wrong. “Hmmm, maybe it’s not fear or dominance, maybe it’s just a conditioned response?”

For example: I worked a case of aggression around the dog dish where the owner, having searched the internet, thought it might be fear or dominance. The dog did not appear to me to be fearful or dominant in any other situation but was very intense around his dish. Low, deep, intense growling and snarling and he would bite my boot if I got near the dish. We tried leashing the dog and teaching him to sit and wait to be released to eat. The dog just went ballistic, totally unmanageable. Long story short, we fed him from a different bowl, in a different location and there was absolutely no issue. So, “Dog Psychology” told me that it was simply a conditioned response from a pack oriented, predatory animal that doesn’t generalize very well. The behavior started as a young pup with pack survival instincts that told him to “protect” his food. By the time the pup matured and realized those instincts were not needed in a domestic home that one, specific behavior had been practiced, engrained and conditioned to the point of no return. The dog was not thinking, “I want to dominate my humans.” He was simply reacting habitually but it started as a hardwired canine behavior. (pigeons and mice aren’t likely to do this) Fortunately, the aggressive behavior had not generalized to other areas.

What do I mean by generalize?

Here’s a common example: a dog has been taught to sit for his food dish, and does it perfectly every time, but fails to sit in other situations. The dog is not being “stubborn” it’s just because he’s a dog and only knows sit in that particular setting...sit means put your butt on the ground...while sitting in front of me...in the kitchen...when there’s food in the red plastic bowl that’s placed on the bone-shaped mat. The dog needs to be taught to sit in a variety of settings until the light bulb goes off. When the dog understands, “Oh, I see, sit means to put my butt on the ground wherever I am.” the behavior has been “generalized.” Lucky for us, this particular dog hadn’t generalized his aggression around the dish. New dish, new setting, new behavior...that’s an example of Dog Psychology in action. If I didn’t have an understanding of the canine mind I would never have thought of that solution.

The term “Dog Psychology” was popularized around 2006, when National Geographic released the TV series Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan which went on to become a huge hit. Cesar was catapulted to a rockstar level of celebrity overnight. However, Cesar doesn’t call himself a “Dog Psychologist.” He doesn’t claim to have any academic credentials and doesn’t even consider himself a “trainer” in the traditional sense. He states, “I rehabilitate dogs and train people.” That said, he does use the term Dog Psychology a lot and calls his facility the Dog Psychology Center.

It’s important to know that the term was actually not invented by Cesar Millan. It goes back at least as far as 1964 when Leon Whitney, a biologist and veterinarian, published a book called Dog Psychology: The Basis of Dog Training. So you might be pleased to know the term has been used by at least one person with academic credentials. However, my guess is that Leon didn’t invent the term either.

Critics of this term may also point to the fact that there is no such thing as a “Dog Psychologist” because you cannot go to college and major in Dog Psychology. As far as I can tell you can get a veterinary degree with additional courses to become a “Veterinary Behaviorist” or a psychology, biology, anthropology, zoology, etc. degree with added studies to become an “Applied Animal Behaviorist.” To my knowledge that’s about as close as you can get to being a Dog Psychologist, at least as far as academic credentials are concerned. Again, that doesn’t mean dogs don’t have a psychology, it’s just an example of their preference for the word “behavior”, which I covered earlier.

Full Disclosure: I am not an academic so I am free to use whatever language I want. I have no college degree. I’m a “certified” dog trainer through Animal Behavior College but honestly that doesn’t mean as much as you might think. I’m not disgruntled or anything, it was a fine experience, I learned a few things, but if that was all I knew I wouldn't be much help to anyone. Let me put it this way, certified does not necessarily mean qualified, so don’t be fooled by credentials. I have also read a lot of books, watched a ton of videos and have trained with local trainers but at the end of the day I’m a mostly self-educated, former musician, former cabinet finisher, blue-collar guy who trains dogs (and their humans) for a living.

You don’t need a PhD to be good with dogs. But, if you want to learn to speak to dogs you do need to appreciate the fact that they have their own psychology and their own “language”. Here’s a hint, it’s not English.

Part 2 will be on the topic of what is, and what is not, a dog. Part 3 will cover other things that affect Dog Psychology