An overview of dogs' behaviour
What motivates dog behaviour? What does society expect of dogs? Discover more.
Understanding normal behaviour, as well as the welfare needs of dogs, makes it easier to provide the right type of environment for them to thrive and prevent unwanted behaviours.
Dogs are a highly social species with the ability to gauge how others are feeling through body language, vocalisation and chemical signalling, and to change their behaviour accordingly in order to form successful relationships.
The ability to respond to changes in their social environment means that dog behaviour is very flexible.
Every individual will have their own unique behavioural repertoire that is ‘normal’ for them, however, most standard canine behaviours include:
- sentience: dogs are able to experience emotions such as joy, frustration, fear, panic, grief, lust, curiosity, and the desire to nurture, as well as pain, which is now defined as having an emotional component
- seeking social inclusion and activity
- exploring and investigating
- vocalisation (discussed within canine communication)
- predatory behaviours such as stalking, chasing, catching, shaking, tearing apart, and consuming
- opportunistic scavenging
- play and problem-solving
- exercise and sleeping
- behaviours considered to be aggressive are part of dogs’ normal communicative repertoire — for example, staring, lunging, snapping, snarling, growling, teeth-baring, barking and biting. It’s important to pay attention to what is happening whenever these behaviours are displayed, as any of these might also be performed during play. Context is key!
The amount of time a dog spends engaged in any of these activities will depend on the individual, their concurrent needs, and their immediate surroundings.
It is also important to remember that even though some dogs have been specifically bred for behaviours they excel at, such as herding and hunting, ALL dogs are capable of performing ANY of these normal behaviours.
For example, there will be greyhounds who enjoy digging, terriers who enjoy sleeping on laps, bulldogs who enjoy herding, and chihuahuas who enjoy chasing.
Any of these normal behaviours could be considered problematic depending on the context in which they are displayed. For example:
- chasing a toy vs. chasing a motorbike
- chewing a toy vs. chewing a sofa
- barking at an intruder vs. barking at a guest
- licking up spilt food vs. stealing food from a plate.
It is important to remember that dogs generally do what works out well for them. Dog behaviour is not underpinned by a moral code that they have consciously created and chosen to live by.
What influences behaviour?
Normal behaviour is adaptive, enabling the dog to respond to changes in their environment, motivational states such as hunger, thirst and reproductive urges, and pathological states such as illness and pain.
The behaviours a dog displays will vary based on a combination of:
- individual genetic factors – not only genes associated with breed/type
- environmental factors – from early life to the dog’s current environment
- learning – dogs also adapt their behaviour based on what they have learned about the environment they are in, the person or people they are with, the other animals they are exposed to, and the context
- motivational states – such as hunger and thirst, as well as seeking to mate
- emotional and mood states – such as fear, frustration, nervousness, excitement
- pathological states – life stage, health, and potential side effects of any necessary medication
- current level of arousal.
It is important to consider a dog’s arousal levels and the accumulative effect of immediately preceding events on the current moment, known as situation stacking. It is widely understood that dogs have thresholds regarding the inhibition of behaviours.
If a dog is highly aroused, as they might be when visiting the vet clinic, they are likely to be closer to this threshold.
When they reach their threshold of being able to tolerate what is happening, they can no longer inhibit themselves and might react profoundly and potentially explosively. Multiple stimuli presented at the same time may have the same effect.
The ability to exhibit normal behaviour is a welfare need
In the UK, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 mandates that meeting the following welfare needs is the legal duty of care of all animal owners/keepers:
- the need for a suitable diet
- the need for a suitable environment
- the need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
- the need to be housed, with or apart from other animals
- the need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury, and disease.
The Hierarchy of Dog Needs
The Hierarchy of Dog Needs presents the essential requirements which ensure dogs are able to lead healthy, happy, and fulfilled lives.
Each successive tier is dependent on the foundation of the preceding tier. As the foundation of lower-level needs are met, the higher-level needs become increasingly important.
For example, as a dog’s physiological needs are being met, their need for safety and security becomes more urgent, so it can be expected that the individual will become less willing to take high risks to obtain food.
This concept explains why some dogs will refuse treats within the veterinary clinic, as they do not feel safe enough in this environment to do so.
From the pyramid structure, we can see that what’s most important are the foundation needs of health and safety/security. However given a dog may not eat while frightened, one could argue that the bottom two tiers are somewhat interchangeable depending on the specific situation.
Next comes a dog’s social needs. Being a socially obligate species, reliance on being able to communicate effectively with other dogs (and humans) and form bonds enables a dog to thrive.
On top of this comes a need to be able to recover from perceived threats and periods of stress, anxiety, fear, and/or frustration.
Once a dog has their biological needs met and feels safe and connected to others within their own social group, it’s important that they are able to deal with the variety of life and everything this entails. The role of appropriate socialisation and habituation here, as well as the role of the owner, is paramount to success.
Lastly, once the preceding needs are met, a dog may be encouraged to reach their full potential in terms of being given the opportunity to learn, to use their brain and body in ways natural for their species (such as using their nose).
Owners can provide for their dogs through the provision of mental and physical enrichment through various activities, including training sessions, and introducing different games.
What motivates dogs to behave in particular ways?
Motivation refers to the process that initiates, guides, and maintains behaviour associated with a particular goal. It is often described by reference to intervening variables, for example, hunger is the motivation to consume calories.
Motivational factors may be general or specific.
- General – considered as factors that predispose an individual towards a certain behaviour, and might include aspects of personality and learned associations, as well as more proximate factors such as current hunger level or chronic pain.
- Specific – the potential immediate triggers for a certain behaviour, for example, acute pain might motivate a dog to withdraw and avoid physical interaction with their owner.
Some motivational factors are extrinsic – coming from outside the animal
These can be tangible, like food, or psychological, like verbal praise. A dog can be motivated to gain something they find pleasant and rewarding such as food or positive interaction, or avoid something they find unpleasant and/or distressing.
The key here is that how the dog feels about things really matters, for example, if they don’t enjoy being stroked, they might be motivated to avoid someone who is trying to fuss them, despite that person believing they are rewarding the dog with their tactile interaction.
Other motivational factors are intrinsic – generated from within
The immediate emotional experience of the individual plays a role in this. For example, a dog might be motivated to behave in a particular way to gain relief from stress, such as bolting out of a park and running home at the sound of a car backfiring or attempting to restore feelings of safety by snapping at an approaching stranger they are frightened of to drive them away.
It can be much harder to identify internal motivational factors, and sometimes their significance only becomes apparent because a behaviour cannot be explained by reference to external factors.
Knowing what any individual dog is likely to be motivated by within any given situation provides the owner, or clinician, valuable tools for reinforcing desired behaviour (visit the section on how dogs learn for more information) as well as an understanding of why a dog is behaving in a particular manner.
For example, an entire male dog who smells an entire bitch in season is likely to prioritise reproduction over other activities, therefore might be motivated to roam rather than respond to their owner’s recall signal.
Medical conditions and treatments might also alter motivational states. And where a motivational state is altered, the priority to maintain access to a certain resource also changes.
For example, an untreated diabetic dog, or a dog being treated with steroids, will likely eat, drink, urinate and defecate more than usual due to increased hunger and thirst arising from the medical condition itself, or as a side effect of medication.
It is helpful to share this information with clients and provide advice about how to best manage this new situation, so they can understand why their dog is behaving differently and avoid becoming upset or frustrated with their dog’s behaviour.
Helping owners understand the effect of pain – particularly chronic pain – on their dog’s behaviour could be pivotal in enabling them to support their dogs optimally.
For example, a dog’s desire to engage in an activity such as repeatedly chasing after a thrown toy might override any pain experienced when doing it, yet simultaneously risk exacerbating discomfort in the longer term.
Engaging in physical activity doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt and further damage isn’t being done, it simply means a dog is motivated more by the desire to engage than to avoid any pain experienced at that moment in time.
Understanding this might help owners regulate their dogs’ activity levels in a much more beneficial way. (See our section on pain and behaviour for more information).
Societal expectations of pet dogs
There has been much exploration around the human benefits of dog ownership and the positive impact owning a dog can have on one’s mental, emotional, and physical health. However, it is incredibly important to consider the canine perspective to ensure that the human-dog relationship is mutually beneficial.
To put this into context, listed below are some common expectations owners have of their pet dogs:
- To be able to develop new social relationships quickly, yet remain independent and be able to cope when any attention is withdrawn or unavailable.
- To be able to join social groups (people and other dogs) without any signs of aggressive behaviour.
- To be tolerant of changes within their environment, such as unusual/unpredictable/unexpected noises, plus people and other dogs moving through shared spaces.
- To be able to control themselves no matter what is happening around them, and to inhibit behaviours considered inappropriate within the local community. For example, not begging for or stealing food when people are eating nearby, or not barking within the home environment.
- To be non-competitive over resources they might value such as individual people, food, toys – as well as those of other dogs within shared environments.
- To be able to cope with the frustration that might arise from awareness that other dogs are present, resting, being fed, given attention or playing with their own toys within any shared space.
- To tolerate handling, for example, when being groomed, picked up, hugged, disturbed while resting and restrained for a veterinary examination.
It might take lots of time and positive reinforcement for dogs to learn the valuable skills that enable them to meet the expectations placed upon them.
Breeding aimed at rearing prosocial, confident puppies might help to lay the foundation for robust and resilient behavioural development (see the section on behaviour development).
This might be further enhanced through appropriate socialisation and habituation to people, other animals and stimuli experienced within the everyday world.
How a dog might respond to a vet clinic
Behavioural responses to any given situation are a result of the complex interplay of combined influential factors including emotional motivation and learning history.
Some common responses to a perceived threatening situation, such as a visit to the vet, are listed below:
Avoiding a situation allows the dog to escape from a negatively-perceived stimulus.
Therefore, it is important not to prevent a dog from doing so — where possible and safe to do so — and to never force a dog to partake in a situation that they are finding difficult.
Examples of avoidance behaviours include withdrawing from interaction, turning one’s head away to avoid direct eye contact, and hiding away.
However, another form of avoidance behaviour is bolting away at speed, which is potentially extremely hazardous.
When faced with a situation in which there are several options for how to behave, a dog might do something ‘out of context’ or inappropriate for what is happening at that particular moment in time.
If the dog appears to be engaged in apparently purposeful behaviour, this might outwardly signal a desire to avoid interaction at that moment. Examples of displacement behaviour include:
- suddenly sniffing the ground
- suddenly sitting down and scratching one’s body without there being a physiological need — for example, immediately as a dog is led into the consulting area.
A dog might try to drive an unwanted stimulus away through outwardly manifested aggressive behaviours such as growling, barking, air-snapping, and biting. These may escalate in intensity if they do not achieve the desired outcome.
A dog might passively attempt to remain non-responsive to any stimuli they perceive as threatening, in order to gather more information about what is happening. So they might become very still and inhibit their behaviour.
For example, if a perceived threat is overwhelmingly intense, in close proximity, or very sudden, a dog might become very still and quiet. In the vet clinic, this might be inadvertently misinterpreted as a dog simply being well-behaved.
It is also possible that a dog will inhibit their behaviour if they have previously been punished for doing otherwise. For example, if they have been shouted at, jerked, or smacked, they will have learned to expect the same consequence if they behave that way again.
Inhibition is therefore aimed at avoiding the negative experience of the punishing response associated with doing anything other than remaining still and quiet.
The aim of appeasement behaviour is to reduce the potential negative outcome of an encounter with a stimulus and is indicative of a negative emotional state.
A dog might try a number of ways to demonstrate to a perceived threat – or an unfamiliar stimulus they have no prior understanding of — that they are no threat themselves.
Appeasement behaviour (see communication article) therefore involves gathering and offering information in a visual, vocal, olfactory and/or tactile manner and might include:
- turning one’s head away
- licking one’s lips and/or yawning
- lifting a paw
- attempting to reduce social tension by soliciting interaction or play, for example by presenting a toy to their owner or attempting to engage another dog in play.
To be able to appropriately interpret a dog’s behaviour, it is important to recognise it as communication, displaying how the individual is feeling and what they might like to happen as a result of their behaviour.
Learning about canine communication is therefore a vital tool for the veterinary professional, to which it is well worth dedicating time and practice.
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Disclaimer notice: The advice given on this website [in these materials] is intended for your general information only and should not be relied upon as specific advice for any veterinary practice or clinic. Each veterinary practice or clinic will be unique in its physical environment and each dog attending the veterinary practice or clinic will have specific needs and requirements, which the veterinary practice or clinic is solely responsible for. Unless prohibited by law, Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Behaviour Association do not accept liability to any person veterinary practice or clinic relating to the use of this information.