Basic Training

Thinking Like a Dog to Understand Behavior

What do we know about dogs? The more appropriate question is what do we think we know about dogs? The world of canines is a vast place populated with a wide variety of different breeds, backgrounds and circumstances all of which must be accounted for when trying to understand dog behavior.

It may be time now to ask different questions and begin reframing people’s point of view about dogs, for the benefit of both species. Fabrications that people have been taught about dogs cause harm and do nothing to help us really understand these amazing animals.


Two premises should be considered; firstly, dogs are perfect at being dogs. Each one of us has a dog who is perfect at being a dog and perfect at being themselves. The problem that we often run into is not that their not perfect dogs, but rather that their not perfect pets.

The next premise is that dogs are incapable of abstract verbal conversations. What does this mean?  In the most basic terms it means that there is a profound difference between people jargon and dog jargon. For example, a saying that has been used for years and years in reference to dogs is that they are “willing to please.” Willing to please is an abstract thought and therefore not possible in a dog’s mind. To a dog this sentiment, and the human meaning behind it, means nothing.


Dogs  cannot have abstract verbal conversations. They are visual and physical creatures. So understanding this when we think of dogs changes how we approach their behaviorial issues. What do we know about dog cognition so far? We know this; nobody knows exactly what is going on in  a dog’s head. No one knows what a dog is thinking. We are simply guessers, including myself.. All I can do is look at a dog’s overt behavior and try to guess what is going on in their head.

Nobody will ever truly know what is going on in a dog’s head, because of the fact that we are unable to have complex, abstract verbal conversations with them. In my experience, people are taught to assume things about dogs that do not service dogs and our relationships with them. For instance, the presumption that dogs can validate what is right and what is wrong is a major misconception in society. Dogs live in the present. They do not think about the future and therefore cannot rationalize the effects their present actions may have upon events that are yet to happen. Right and wrong are human conceptions and we must remember (no matter how much we love our dogs) that dogs are dogs, who will do dog things.


Another common misconception often exuded by the media is that dogs should be adaptable to any situation without any trouble. Do you think that dogs must be adaptable to any situation? Is this possible? What problems could be created by this assumption?

Put yourself in your puppy’s paws. You take your puppy to the veterinarian for the first time.  He walks into a waiting room where there are all kinds of new people, dogs and cats. Some of the other dogs are shaking or barking. It is loud, crowded and bombarded by foreign smells. Chances are your puppy will enter a stressed state, especially if he has not been prepared to be handled by people other than his owner. Then he goes into the vet’s office and is poked and prodded without explanation. Would you be adjusting to this situation without any trouble?

The next time puppy goes to the vet his prior experience tells him this is not a fun place to be. He walks in already stressed and may no longer able to make good assessments about whether something is a threat or not. Some dogs become worse with each visit because of this repetitive stressful pattern and they become difficult to handle while being examined. Some may even require a muzzle and are labeled as ‘aggressive.’ But is it aggression or is it defensiveness? This is where we humans need to step back and consider the situation from an instinctual perspective. You will not be able to reason with the dog. You will not be able to take him to one side and explain in detail why the vet is taking blood samples and shining bright lights in his eyes. All the dog knows is the fear he remembers and as a result his instincts tell him to become defensive.

It is important not to punish your dog if he is being defensive due to fear, because punishment makes fear worse. Instead, you need to address the situation in terms a dog will understand. Prevention is the best method and the best way to prevent fear memories from forming is to create positive associations with an otherwise stressful situation.

Prior to that very first visit to the vet, teach your puppy how to be handled by new people. Socialize him so going out to a place filled with other dogs and people will not be scary, but rather exciting! Give him treats while waiting for the vet, so that he remembers a positive feeling when in the waiting room. Make sure your veterinarian takes the time to get used to their presence in the examination room.  These are things that a dog can understand. When the next visit rolls around, repeat these actions and in time the inevitable trip to the vet will be associated with positivity in your dog’s mind.


Another misconception is that dogs should be submissive to all people. Is this reasonable? There is a theory that the majority of people want a Golden Retriever, because they are by nature very accepting of everyone around them. Of course, we all want our dogs to be well-liked and friendly, but it is a bit much to think that dogs should automatically bow down to everyone they come into contact with. Why, you may ask? Well, again, we need to think like a dog.

Let’s go back to the vet’s office. Recently, a client’s puppy had a terrible itching problem so they took him to the vet and had him examined.  It was decided  that a scraping needed to be done. While they were examining little Jack, a tech came in, put him on his back and restrained him.

And what do you think little Jack did? He started trying to defend himself. In order to continue with the scraping, Jack was held tighter and his legs were pulled out straighter so that they could scrap his groin area. What did Jack do next?  He really started struggling while making  growling sounds and then started snapping.

The tech looked at the owner and said, “Boy do you have an aggressive dominant dog here. You had better do something quick about it or you’re going to have all kinds of problems.”

The owner, however, retorted that their treatment of Jack was not appropriate and made the decision to take them to another vet’s clinic.

The fact of the matter is that Jack, although generally sweet of nature and friendly, felt threatened by that particular staff and naturally felt the need to defend himself. Flipping a dog onto his back is forcing them into a submissive state, rather than earning respect and thus earning their submissive compliance. To the dog the entire interaction was threatening and dangerous and Jack’s animal instincts reacted accordingly. Of course, we do not want our dogs to be dominant and aggressive, but it is unreasonable to presume dogs will naturally submit to anything we want. Dogs will do what they perceive to be best for them. If they feel threatened, they will react to that. It is our job to understand a dog’s point of view and control situations in ways they will comply to.


Dogs lead and experience rich emotional lives. As a matter of fact dogs share the same core emotions we have. But people often confuse our emotional similarities with rationality. As mentioned earlier, dogs cannot have complex, abstract thoughts. They do however have emotional responses to their surroundings and things they encounter. We must learn to navigate this difference in order to relate to our dogs and help them be the best dog they can be. One of the best things you can do for your dog is to prevent fear memories from forming in the first place, whether you are at the vet’s office or someplace else. Positive association is a powerful tool and key to teaching dogs good behaviourial habits when faced with difficult situations.

When working with dogs we need to change the emotional responses in order to change the behavioral responses. We have more in common with dogs than we do not have in common with dogs. My hope is to bring about a better and truthful understanding of dogs with the latest updated and remodeled information so that dogs can finally be seen as what they are DOGS.


Dianne Sarasin

Certified Behaviour Therapist & Master Trainer, CAPPDT,DGSE




  1. Judy

    Jan 16, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    Many dogs are predisposed to stress at the vet because that’s the only time they get in the car; and when they get to the destination, they end up being poked, injected, or blood drawn or worse (anal glands???). Ugh.

    I make it a point to take my dogs for some short outings. Recently, with a foster dog, I had the windshield wipers on, and it freaked him out. Now, we are takinga few trips around the block in the car, and I put the wipers on so he gets used to them. I don’t want him going to a permanent home and panic in a car and bolt because of the windshield wipers!!

  2. Joy Braun

    Dec 22, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    Dogs, amazingly understand a great deal if we take a moment to say what we need to say in words they are familiar with. I had a recent need to take my 6 lb. maltese, I recently adopted @ 12 yrs. old, to the Vet because he had tooth pain. I have frequently used the term “mama can fix it” for a variety of malities he’s suffered, i.e a mat, poo residue on his butt, etc. He shivers and cries at the Vet, so this time I told him “the doctor will fix your owie”. He was totally calm and cooperative, and, the doctor did! A magical experience.

  3. Tastlema

    Dec 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    This is a well written article. If only people would strive to understand how a dog thinks. They need to realize a dog cannot think like a human but a human can think like a dog so humans need to get down to a dog’s level and not expect a dog to come up to their level… they can’t!

    • Joy Braun

      Dec 22, 2012 at 8:08 pm

      It does take a moment to put things in the perspective of NOW, which is where dogs live. You are so right, we can communicate on their level!

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