Dog Psychology – What Is Fact and What Is Myth

Dog psychology tries to understand bad dog behavior from a canine perspective rather than from a human perspective.

Because dogs are such close companions to us, it is easy to humanize them. Many dog movies and television shows including Lassie, 101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, Bolt, and others have encouraged this view.

However, dogs are not humans, and humans are not dogs.

Humanizing a dog causes miscommunication between human and canine, which can result in a variety of dog behavioral issues.

For example, many dog owners attribute their dog pooping on their favorite carpet or eating poop, when they are not home, as an act of vengeance. In actuality, it is just a symptom of stress from having an unexpected change in their routine (separation anxiety).

Dog Psychology vs. Dog Training

Skinner and Behavioral Psychology

Some trainers claim that dog psychology involves pack theory and acting like a dog. According to them, obedience training is not dog psychology but simply teaching a dog tricks.

In particular, a dog who has undergone obedience training may understand training commands such as Sit, Down, and Heel, but may still engage in destructive and aggressive behaviors, such as chewing our designer shoes, or digging up our prize roses.

Is this true?

In fact, this separation of terms is unnecessary and only creates confusion.

Dog behavior modification, dog training, and dog tricks are ALL based on operant conditioning.


Operant conditioning forms a big part of what we understand of dog psychology and animal psychology. Therefore, dog behavior modification, dog training, and dog tricks are ALL based on dog psychology.

Based on these dog psychology principles, we know that dogs learn by repeating behaviors with good results, and stopping behaviors with bad results.

Operant conditioning consists of aversive methods and reward methods. Both aversive and reward methods, can be used to modify dog behavior, train a dog to follow commands, and teach a dog new tricks.

Misunderstanding of Dog Psychology


  • The claim that dog obedience training, and dog tricks are somehow not based on dog psychology is false.
  • The claim that food only works for obedience training and dog tricks is false.
  • The claim that using food in dog training is bribery, and somehow ineffective is false.
  • The claim that using food is humanizing the dog and therefore inappropriate is false.
  • The claim that reward dog training is only based on food is false.
  • The claim that aversive dog training, particularly physical force training is more effective at behavior modification than reward training is false.
  • The claim that physical force is required to modify dog behavior is false.
  • The claim that physical force is an integral part of dog psychology is false.

Both aversive and reward techniques, can be used to “train” our dog to sit on command, to sit instead of dig on command, to drop whatever he is chewing, to chew his toy instead of our shoes, and to dig in the sand pit instead of in the rose-bed.

The divide between dog psychology, dog behavior modification, and dog training simply does not exist.

Many of these supposed behavior modification techniques, including leash jerks, alpha rolls, and finger pokes, are aversive conditioning techniques.

Dog Psychology and Dominance/Pack Theory

Dominance theory is based on the observation that wolf packs and wild dog packs are ruled by an alpha male and an alpha female. This alpha pair controls all of the pack’s resources and sets all of the pack rules. There are also rituals that pack members must follow including letting the alpha pair have access to the best food,best sleeping area, and best resources.

The theory is that when dogs come to live with us, we become part of their pack and must assume the alpha male and alpha female positions. Part of assuming this position, is to follow similar pack rituals including eating before our followers, not letting our followers have access to beds and couches, always walking in front of our followers, and using physical force to establish and maintain our pack leadership position.

However, recent studies have shown that wolf packs and also wild dog packs are a lot more complex than this simple alpha-pair model. Leadership tends to be more dynamic in nature, and the alpha dogs rule through the control of resources rather than through physical force.

Therefore, even dominance theory cannot be used to support the false claim that physical force is a necessary, or even an effective part of dog behavior modification.

While dominance theory and dog pack dynamics are interesting areas of study, the argument of whether they apply to us and our domesticated dogs, is actually a moot point.

Just as dogs are not humans, humans are not dogs.

Contrary to common belief, dogs know that they are dogs and not human. They also know that we are human and not dogs. It is us humans who frequently get confused on these matters.

Since we are human, we are not expected by our dogs to act like dogs. We must communicate with them in a way that they can understand, but that does not mean that we should try to act like them. Not only would we be poor imitators, but however well we pretend, we would still be human, and our dogs will always know what we are.

Because our dogs live in our very complex human world, it is necessary for us to assume leadership and teach them our rules. We must provide for them not just in terms of food and shelter, but also in terms of their health and safety.

To properly manage the safety of a dog (to himself, to other dogs, and to the people around him) it is necessary to institute certain human rules, and to train him to follow those rules. Training of these rules can be achieved through aversive methods or reward methods.

It is as simple as that. No dominance theory required.

Dog Behaviorist vs. Dog Trainer

By using operant conditioning techniques, we can shape behavior to prepare our dog for obedience trials, or agility competitions. We can also modify behavior to make our dog into a good citizen at home.

A good dog trainer or dog behaviorist is someone who -

  • Understands classical and operant conditioning theories,
  • Has good technique (i.e. good timing, execution, redirection);
  • Can quickly and accurately read a dog’s body language; and
  • Is a good and patient teacher.

There are dog trainers, like Cesar Millan, who mostly use aversive training. There are dog trainers, like Victoria Stillwell, who mostly use reward training. And there are dog trainers who use both.

Reward dog training and aversive dog training have their own advantages and disadvantages, so make sure to pick a dog trainer that uses the style of training or behavior modification that you feel is most appropriate for you and your dog.

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers is a great resource for finding professional dog training help in your area.

Which is Better, Which is Right, and Which is Dog Psychology?

Many arguments arise in the dog behavior modification or dog training arena because many want to claim that their way is better or that their way is right.

To do this, they must first differentiate their way from all other ways. That is why there are so many terms, including dog psychology, dog behavior modification, dog training, dog tricks, and many more, describing essentially the same thing.

Moral judgements such as dog cruelty, dog bribery, evilness and goodness get thrown into the same pot and what results is a whole lot of smoke and not much else.

When we boil dog training or dog behavior modification down to its basics, we are always left with conditioning. And all of us use either aversive operant conditioning methods or reward operant conditioning methods to shape our dog’s behavior.

Both are dog psychology. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages.

I cannot say that one is absolutely better than the other, or that one is absolutely right. I can only say that I personally use reward dog training because it is more effective and less risky than the aversive methods I have tried.

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Comments

  1. says

    Good day. I am a student from UCSI University, Malaysia and is currently doing a career storyboard for animal psychology for one of my course assignment of Professional Development class – guided by lecturer Mr James Yeow.

    Our group came across that your blog here. Hence would like to find out whether there’s any animal psychologist practitioner in your sides that can give us a brief testimonial or have a very brief interview session with us regarding introduction of job prospect of this job, like applying those knowledge of animal behavior into real field work today?

    If not, do you have any contacts of animal psychology knowledge practitioners in Malaysia or overseas?

    Anticipate your keen reply soon. Thank you.

    Regards,
    Soon Ying Xi

  2. Hakon Ingi says

    Hey ShibaShake. I´m from Iceland and i am doing a essay about Dog Psychology. I read your article and i would love to be able to quote in my essay from your article, but I can’t do that except i know your name, full name.
    So please can you write me back with your real name. Thanks a lot!

  3. Oanh says

    I just adopted an 11 mo. old Golden Chow and she is very obedient when she comes into our apartment, but once she goes outside she pulls on the leash and barks at everything she can see. I am trying to work with her so that I can walk ahead of her, while she walks behind me on a loose leash. I make it a point to walk outside the apartment before her but sometimes she tries to sneak ahead of me or walk next to me. She doesn’t do this when we are coming inside the apartment, but she does it every time we head out. What can I do? I want to try having her sit and wait before I walk out. If that doesn’t work what other method should I try?

  4. Sandy Klo says

    Thank you for the article! Our family learned our lesson not to leave the choke chain on our lab when our poor sweetheart got up from lying over the heater one day, and the metal part came with her. Poor thing was afraid of metallic noises and got very upset before we could get it (the vent thingy AND collar) off. I’ve always felt terrible, and the family always took off the choke chain after that, and I generally took off her collar too, when I saw it on. She never would get too close the heaters after that, but she would snuggle up next to me when I lay down on it after school. We would never have intentional endangered our girl, but we had never heard that choke collars should only be used on walks, or any stories of anything bad ever happening. It’s just not something you hear about.
    Anyway, she lived a long happy life, and recently passed at the of 13, but my boyfriend and his family have a dog, whom I adore. They don’t have a regular collar for him, just two choke chains, and he wears one almost all the time. I’m a little paranoid and OCD, so my boyfriend always got a little annoyed when I insisted on taking off the collar when the dog was in the car, but I just couldn’t get the possibility of a car accident, causing the chain to catch, out of my head. Now, I’m paranoid and silly about a lot of things (I check the locks a trillion times, never leave ANYTHING plugged in, etc.), and I simply assumed the choke chain thing was another silly paranoia thing.
    Now that I’ve read this, I know I’m NOT just paranoid, and it really is a danger to keep the choke collar on! I just texted my boyfriend this, and he will undoubtedly go get the dog and IMMEDIATELY switch him to one of my dog’s old regular collars, that I forced him to take home once, on the off chance he would use it. You may have saved that puppy doggy, and saved all his loved ones from hating themselves if he ever got hurt!

    PS- Perhaps it should be common sense to take off the choke chain, but certain things just don’t seem that unsafe unless your told about it, or hear a horror story. My family of paranoid everything-checkers has many probably imaginary dangers, but we didn’t think a collar would be one.

  5. Caryl Ferguson says

    My new dog that I rescued from the animal shelter always cowers and then lays on her back when I try pick her up. She also crawls to me when I call her to come. Doesn’t like to walk outside . I’m trying hard. Can you please help?

    • shibashake says

      Big changes can be difficult and stressful for a dog because there is a lot of uncertainty. It will be even more difficult for a shelter dog with a challenging past.

      When I get a new dog, I make sure to start small and go in very small steps.

      In this way, I can maximize success and build trust. For example, being restrained or picked up off the floor, can be a bit scary, especially for a new dog. We start by looming over him, and then we take away his freedom to run away. It is the same with people – allowing someone to pick us up requires a fair amount of trust and certainty of the environment.

      To build trust with my new dog, I start by just tossing treats to him whenever I am nearby. This helps him to associate me with food and positive events. I may also sit down on the floor a certain distance away, and spread treats around me. In this way, he automatically gets rewarded for coming near me.

      Once he is coming to me regularly on his own, I start to do simple touch exercises and very simple obedience commands such as Look. What works well for my dog is to go in small steps, so that our training sessions are successful. The more success my dog has, the more confidence and trust we build.

      Recall training (come when called) is a more complex command, so I wait until I have built some trust and established a bunch of simpler commands before doing this.

      I do the same thing with walk training – start small and go in small steps.
      1. I first desensitize my dog to the collar and leash.
      2. After he is totally comfortable with collar and leash, I do walk training with him inside the house.
      3. After he is totally comfortable walking with me inside the house, we move on to the backyard, then to very quiet outside areas, and so on. I desensitize him to various sounds and objects if necessary.

      Here is an article on training shy dogs with hand targeting.

      Here is an article from the ASPCA on adopting a puppy mill dog. Although the article specifically targets puppy mill dogs, I think a lot of the information is also useful for shy or fearful dogs.

      This site may also be helpful-
      http://fearfuldogs.com/

  6. ahmad says

    i have a 4 month old bull mastiff. He is very friendly but sometimes show aggression towards me . how can i stop it ?

    • shibashake says

      Hello Ahmad,
      Dog behavior is very context dependent, so the temperament of the dog, his routine, past experiences, environment, and more, are all important. Usually, “aggressive behavior” is triggered by something.

      For example, what was puppy doing before the aggressive behavior? What were the people around him doing? Are there high priority toys or food around? What else changed in his environment? What type of training has he had? What is his daily routine? What kind of aggression was he showing – growl, showing teeth, lunge, bite? Did he cause any damage?

      For safety reasons, it is usually a good idea to get help from a professional trainer in cases of aggression.

      Initially, dogs do not know our human rules and what *we* consider to be good and bad. We need to teach them these things through conditioning techniques. Here is more on how I trained my Husky puppy.

  7. ricky ruggeri says

    I am living in Thailand,in the family we have a dog,tibetan terrier, almost 8 y.o.,in the last month 3/4 times he pissed inside the house despyte the area out side where he can do,he has never done so,we change house since 4 month,every day i take him out for his need,is there something wrong??? Difficolt to answer…..if u have a little advice i’ll be very grateull,don’t know what ti do…Thanks,,,, Ricky

    • shibashake says

      There could be many reasons for this.

      It could be a physical issue.

      It could also be due to the move or due to anxiety. When I move, I make sure to set up a fixed routine for my dog, that is similar to his previous routine. I make sure he has enough people time and activity. I do potty training exercises again if necessary. Here is more on dog anxiety.

      It could also be due to something else.

      Does he seem anxious? Are there any other changes in behavior? Is his activity level and appetite normal? Is his stool and pee normal? Anything else out of the ordinary? Any other changes to his schedule, food, environment, etc.?

  8. DoggyLover123 says

    Do you have any advice on three-legged dogs? especially exercise, the do’ and donts. He is very lively and only having 3 legs virtually doesn’t affect him at all

  9. DoggyLover123 says

    I called my black Labrador mix Shadow, because
    1) He’s black (obviously)
    2) Hes soo friendly and follows me everywhere!!
    He was a rescue dog! He lost his leg recently but hes still as quick as ever!! :)

  10. Barb says

    I trained my dog with an e-collar to stay out of the high grass. My thought was to make him think something in the grass was “biting” him. My question is, Would a shock to the paw be better training than a shock to the neck when approaching say a street? I have heard some dogs will be “good” when the collar is on and then lose all training when its removed because they know it is the collar.

  11. Linni says

    I have a 11month old husky mix. She definitely is quite the character, she is becoming somewhat dominant in the household, with getting off of furniture she will growl or hesitate, when asked to sit or anything she barks. Almost as thought shes a teenager arguing with me lol, I worked with a behaviorist for a bit and he said just not to acknowledge her at all, is there other methods i can take? Shes a rescue, and i will admit I do tend too spoil her a little bit. Walking on the leash shes right beside me, no pulling, more just distracted by everything and sniffing the ground for food. With dogs shes very submissive, but really doesn’t want much from people. Is this her taking on an alpha role with humans only? It seems shes confident sometimes and then very insecure at other times. I love my dog, but overall I want us to be able to have fun instead of getting frustrated with her all the time.

    • shibashake says

      Hello Linni,

      In terms of pack leadership, what has worked well with my Huskies is to follow the Nothing in Life is Free program. This teaches them that the best way to get what they want is to do what I want first. :D

      At home, I set up a fixed routine and a consistent set of rules. In this way, they know exactly what to expect from me, and what I expect from them.

      Here is a bit more on my understanding of dogs and dominance.

      Here is a bit more on how I trained my Husky puppy.

      During my difficult times with Sephy, I visited with several professional trainers. Timing is very important in dog training, and a trainer can be very helpful with that. Our trainer also helped us understand Sephy better, by reading his body language, and observing what things trigger stress and gets him reactive.

      Hugs to your Husky girl!

  12. Robert Newbolt says

    the small problem we are having with our young (13 month) Ibizan Hound is that she seems afraid to go out when it is approaching dusk. She heard a loud firework 2 weeks ago at dusk and any noise outside (which she cannot understand appears to frighten or startle her. She does not like the dark now and we do not press her. I know you should try to distract them etc. but this is easier said than done.

    • shibashake says

      What has worked well for my dogs are desensitization exercises. My Sibe puppy Lara used to be afraid to go out in the backyard at night. She also got very fearful when the coyotes started to sing.

      I would play with her and get her to do fun commands (with rewards) close to the backyard door. I leave the backyard light on. Then I slowly move the game into the backyard – where the light is. I keep sessions short, fun, and engaging. I also make sure that I stay positive and do not get worried, frustrated, or stressed. My dogs are all very good at picking up on my energy.

      When she is comfortable playing with me in the light and gains some confidence, then we very slowly, start playing farther away, then a bit farther away and so on. I go very slowly and keep things positive. The key is to help her build confidence so that she feels less fearful, and ultimately, she feels safe in the backyard even though it may be dark.

      I do a similar thing with the coyote singing-
      Sound desensitization exercises.

  13. Laurens van der Klis says

    In my opinion there are a lot of dog trainers that make up their own terms in order to sell themselves and their particular take on dog training. Dog psychology is one of them, this term is often used by Cesar Milan.

    But there are various others like “Amichien bonding” and what not. This leads to a very messy idea of how dog training actually works. All you really need is a set of tried and tested ‘laws’ of animal learning, and you will be able to properly explain and analyze most if not all training methods instead of relying on vague stuff like ‘intuition’ or ‘alpha dog position’ etc… It’s not that complicated!

    It is very nice to see that you present a much more balanced and informed view on dog training on your site. I do think you are too mild on some the famous trainers. These trainers should be more responsible and present a much more detailed view instead of obfuscating the training process with sloppy terminology and sometimes plain nonsense that has been disproved decades ago.

  14. Aaron says

    Love your website. Very informative. While I have trained 3 dogs,all fox hounds and they are well behaved and very loved, I am having a problem with the Beagle I found wandering in the local forest her in Plymouth,Ma. She is very sweet,mellow in the house and house trained but minute we get outside she pulls and pulls on the leash. I have leashed trained my other dogs to the point I dont need the leash anymore, just a quick “heel” is all thats needed to make them walk by my side. She is very different and the training I used with my other dogs only makes her pull even more and seems like she ignores me. She is a beagle and was trained to hunt rabbits….like I said I found her in state forest, starved,covered in ticks/fleas and cuts all over. Its pretty obvious shes a hunter. Do you have any suggestions to help me out?

    • shibashake says

      Yeah, a Beagle that is already used to hunting will be a challenge to leash train. What leash training methods have you used with her?

      Some things that have helped with my Sibes-
      1. I start leash training them in my backyard. Very little distraction there, they know it well, so I can just focus on getting them used to the leash and learning walk commands.

      2. Once we are doing well in the backyard, then I start by taking them to very quiet areas in the neighborhood. Having a lower stimulus environment really helps a lot with initial leash training. Then once we improve and they get accustomed to walking in more quiet areas, I slowly increase the environmental challenge.

      3. My Sibes have high prey drive, so they will still sometimes lose it when they spot cats, squirrels, and deer, especially if there is quick motion. I have found that desensitization exercises can help in those situations. It doesn’t remove the instinct, but it helps to raise the instinct threshold.

      Here is a bit more on my leash training experiences with my dogs.

      Here are some of my thoughts on what I call the “Squirrel Instinct”. :D

      Hugs to your furry gang! I am so glad that the little Beagle girl found a good and loving home.

  15. Barbara Sullivan says

    We recently adopted a 2 year old Shih Tzu from a rescue facility. The dog has been with us for approx. 4 weeks. He is a wonderful little guy, is housebroken and seems to have had some training at some time — and we love him — but, whenever he is startled, and very often when he awakens, he barks furiously and growls. He continues for some time until we can get him calmed down. We calm him by calling his name and saying “No, no” in a sharp tone, sometimes while stroking him. We have a 5 yr old Shih Tzu as well, and the two dogs seem to be adjusting well to each other, at times — but at other times our new adopted dog seems to direct his barking/growling at our older dog — even if the older dog isn’t even near him. Our older dog is non-aggressive and does not appear (to us, anyway) to present any challenge to the new dog. We would like to know the proper way to train our new dog to stop the aggressive growling and barking when he awakens or is startled.

    • shibashake says

      Yeah, my Shiba Inu also gets really stressed out when he is startled awake from a deep sleep. If I need to interact with him when he is sleeping, I usually make some noise while I approach and make sure he is awake before I play with him or touch him. That way, he doesn’t suddenly feel like he is under threat and vulnerable.

      When Lara was a puppy, I would also call her to me when I want to interact rather than going to her. In this way, she doesn’t suddenly have someone big looming over her, which can be scary to a puppy or small dog.

      Some things that have helped my dogs with barking-
      1. Teaching them the Quiet command.
      2. Redirecting them into doing something else.

      Here is more on my experiences with dog barking.

  16. says

    Thank you Shibashake!

    My puppy can go outside, but he need to pee in the potty pad at night when his small puppy bladder can’t hold it.
    He makes so many mistakes that the house floor is swelling up due to the liquid.

    Sincerely, Winnie

  17. Winnie says

    Hi!!!

    I just had a few questions and problems with my new shiba.
    Hope you can help.
    My shiba isnt peeing on the potty pad( we don’t have time to take him outside).
    And when he sleeps, he sleeps on the potty pad.
    What do I do?

    Thanks

    P.S: I love your website

    • shibashake says

      Hello Winnie,

      Yeah, my Shiba also disliked doing his business inside the house. We got him at 10 weeks old and since then he only wanted to go outside to do his pee and poop. I found that it was easiest to train him to potty outside, otherwise, there would just be a lot of messes in the house and cleanup time. Here are some of our potty training experiences.

      Also, Sephy really needs his daily walks and exercise. He had a lot of energy as a puppy and the walks help to redirect his energy into doing something positive. If not, he would just figure out his own Shiba-activities, which usually are not very furniture friendly. :D

  18. Teresa says

    My male, 4 month old, border collie, curls up his upper lip and shows his teeth when I correct (using Cesar Millan’s ‘Tsst” and touch method) him when he tries to eat the other dog’s food. How do I handle this?

    • shibashake says

      When I was training my Sibe puppy Lara, I would leave a drag-lead on her (only with a flat collar and *not* an aversive collar). When she tries to go near my other dogs during meal times, I would no-mark her (Ack-ack) and then lead her away using the drag-lead. Then, I would engage her in something else, usually doing some fun obedience work for me where she gets rewarded well. In this way, she not only learns what not to do, but also what to do instead.

      My dogs work of all of their food. I use their daily food rations for training, grooming, play, etc. Whatever is left over, I put in interactive food toys. In this way, they don’t get any free food and they also don’t gobble up their dinner in 2 seconds. After they finish working on their interactive food toys, they will usually come to me for their short and rewarding training session. They know that that is the best way for them to get additional food. :D

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