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Dog Psychology: Here’s What You Should Know


Your dog wants to tell you what they’re thinking. They’d love to be able to clearly and succinctly communicate their needs to you. Sometimes, your dog is successful at doing so nonverbally. 

Many owners feel like they have a nearly telepathic connection with their dog. They can tell at a glance if their dog is nervous, hungry, or wants to go outside, even if their dog is standing still.

This type of silent communication comes as a result of understanding your dog’s mind. You’ve inadvertently picked up a few things about the way your dog’s brain works and how they express their desires to you. Over time, you’ve slowly entered the world of dog psychology. 

If you’d like to continue to build a close relationship with your dog, here’s what you should know about dog psychology. 

How Are Dogs Like Wolves?

Dogs and wolves descended from a common ancestor, but there are several major differences. The most important difference is that nature has handled the evolution and progression of wolves. Humans have selectively bred dogs into domestication over the course of centuries, favoring traits and characteristics that make dogs gentle and tame companions. 

People often talk about pack mentality and alpha roles when referring to dogs. The concept isn’t anywhere near the same when it comes to wolves. If you approach and regard the care of your dog with the idea that dogs and wolves are similar animals, you will fundamentally misinterpret everything your dog does. 

Attempting to establish yourself as the “alpha” over your dog in every situation won’t resonate. Your dog knows that they are a dog and you are a person. They’re also very far removed from the concept of pack mentality. Your dog likely realizes that they need some help to be taken care of, and rather than positioning yourself as an “alpha,” you’ll have better luck positioning yourself as a caregiver first.

In order to build a better relationship with your dog and make your dog easier to train, it’s important to assume more of a parent role. 

Unlike wolves or wild dogs, domestic dogs are able to clearly understand and interpret verbal commands. Snapping your fingers, pointing at objects, leading your dog, and speaking to them are the best ways to establish your relationship. Don’t forget to reward good behavior. 

What Is Pavlovian Conditioning?

The story of Pavlov’s dog, also referred to as Pavlovian Conditioning, revolves around an experiment where Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov used dogs to demonstrate a concept called conditioned reflexes. 

Dogs were trained to associate the sound of a bell with mealtime. Over time, the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell. The association became so strong that the concepts were inextricably linked in that dog’s mind. 

Pavlov’s research was so compelling and successful that modern dog trainers still use aspects of his approach when teaching animals to behave. 

Dogs may not understand why you want them to do something, like get in a crate for transport to the vet’s office or remain calm during a scary thunderstorm. This form of conditioning teaches dogs to associate their desired behavior with a positive outcome, making them more likely to willingly behave in an appropriate way even if the why of it doesn’t resonate with them. 

Both dogs and humans respond to this form of conditioning. It’s a successful way to explain or incentivize a certain set of expectations without using verbal communication.

What Is the Skinner Method of Reinforcement?

B.F. Skinner pioneered a way of understanding canine behavior through something called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is very similar to the idea behind the carrot and the stick. 

If you put a stick behind a horse and a carrot in front of a horse, it’s more likely to run towards the carrot, getting a reward while avoiding negative stimuli. The same idea applies to both dog and human psychology. 

If your dog gets a reward every time they sit and stay when you tell them to, your dog will continue to perform the behavior on cue. You can eventually phase out the reward by giving it very sparingly once the behavior has been reinforced enough to become a habit. 

It’s important to note that pain is not the proper negative motivator. Dogs experience and process pain the same way humans do. If your dog believes you’re going to harm them, your dog will never trust you. This will lead to an escalation of negative behavior. Your dog will view you as a predator and either fear you or defend themselves against you. 

Withholding treats and attention generally work as a negative motivator. If you don’t speak to or acknowledge your dog, your dog will know something is wrong. 

If you refuse to give your dog their favorite treat or special bite of chicken, your dog will realize they aren’t doing something right. In some situations, a firm declaration of “no!” “down!” or “stop!” accompanied with a clap or a snap of your fingers may be enough to command your dog’s attention without eliciting too much distress. 

How Do Dogs Communicate With People?

Your dog’s communication style is likely a bit reserved. Your dog will attempt to tell you things in a way they believe you can understand. Some breeds, like huskies and French bulldogs, are known for being vocal and dramatic. 

Although every dog is different, some breeds are more inclined to loudly tell you what they want in a very exaggerated fashion. 

Dogs will often howl, sing, or bark for your attention. They may lead you to the back door, to their leash, or to their food bowl. Some dogs will bring you their dish when it’s empty. In these cases, it’s very clear what your dog wants. 

In some cases, it’s easy to correlate behavioral changes with specific events. If your dog whines and hides during storms or firework celebrations but resumes normal behavior when they’ve ended, it’s a safe assumption that they have a fear of loud sounds. 

Many pet owners have a difficult time discerning when their dogs are experiencing discomfort. Dogs have a tendency to hide their pain, likely because they fear other members of the animal kingdom will perceive them as weaker. 

What To Do When You Don’t Know What Your Dog Is Trying To Say

If your dog is acting strange and there is no clear cause for behavioral changes, you should take your dog to the vet. 

We’ll never fully understand how a dog’s mind works, and there is no effective way to coach a dog to communicate what they’re feeling. Only a thorough examination from a veterinarian will provide the answers to important questions. It is vital to rule out any serious issues that may be impacting your dog’s health and wellness.

If more serious causes have been ruled out, your dog may be acting differently due to minor discomfort or temporary emotional distress. For example, older dogs sometimes experience issues with overall joint mobility. Some dogs may find summer storms to be distressing, and others may have a hard time coping when their owner leaves the house. 

If your dog is struggling with discomfort or distress, holistic wellness tools like the VETCBD Hemp Tincture may be able to help your dog feel better. Ask your vet about incorporating CBD into your dog’s holistic wellness plan.



Ice age Siberian hunters may have domesticated dogs 23,000 years ago | American Association for the Advancement of Science

Pavlov’s Dogs Study and Pavlovian Conditioning Explained | Simply Psychology

Operant Conditioning (BF Skinner) | Simply Psychology

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