Trying To Change Your Dog's Behavior? Owners 'Are Half Of That Story,' Author Says

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"Meet Your Dog," by Kim Brophey. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Meet Your Dog," by Kim Brophey. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In her new book "Meet Your Dog: The Game Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog's Behavior," canine behavior consultant Kim Brophey puts forth her system for understanding the factors that shape how dogs act. She shares her strategies with Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Meet Your Dog"

Understanding Your Pup: The L.E.G.S. System

"'L' is learning, and the learning is your dog's experiences and education in life. So a lot of times, that's the primary cultural value we have, that it's 'all how you raise them.' They're tabula rasa, blank-slate puppies, and we can just make them what we want them to be. But then there's these three other legs that we need to talk about and consider, too. So, environment, the aspects of your dog's external world. What's happening in a given moment and on a daily basis for our dogs as they meet the world that they're sharing with us. And then the genetics, the DNA that designed the dog on the inside and out. What we can see and what we also can't see, the genetic software. And then the self, the unique, interior world of the dog. Their health, age, sex, development and then their one-in-a-million, unique qualities as an individual."

Tips For Socializing

  • The first 16 weeks are critical, though that time frame is flexible among different breeds and different individual dogs.

"We've kind of had the approach to it, like, the more, the merrier, and we'll just flood our dogs with all these sensory experiences, and therefore they will like them. And the reality is, is that for some dogs the opposite is actually true, and that exposing a certain type of dog or a certain personality of dog to those experiences, if we're not carefully watching and observing, those socialization experiences can actually be detrimental to our dogs."

What If You Make A Mistake?

"We think of learning like it's this mechanism that operates outside of evolution. And the actuality is that learning is the cogs and the wheels of evolution, because if things can't adapt to circumstances, if they can't change their behaviors and make different choices based on the varying pressures, then they're doomed. So a certain behavior the dog might have been born with as part of their genetic software, because that particular behavior was reinforced for so many prior generations, that in subsequent generations it's going to die hard. It's going to be very difficult to modify something that has that long of a reinforcement history. Now, when it comes to something we've done with our dog, or some interaction we've had, or some habit that has set about in place just in the dog's lifetime with us, then, yes — if we change the circumstances, if we change the environment, if we change the responses and the outcomes that the dog is getting, if we work to change the ideas that they're bringing to the table, then those things can shift. But you have to be really realistic about your expectations through that process, and also take full responsibility, as we kind of started with this conversation on that point of, we're half of that story. We have to realize that what we want them to do is one thing, but what are we doing to actually create and facilitate that behavior? We have to modify both of our behaviors, simultaneously, in most cases."


What To Do If Your Dog ...

  • Chases a squirrel: Instead of punishing, chase along with your dog! "What we're doing is we're using the motivation that the dog already has as the reinforcement for the behavior that we want. So we're not going to compete with it, with other punishers or reinforcers, so the dog comes to you. And then together you can chase the squirrel up the tree. [laughs]"
  • Begs at the table while you're eating: "You want to make sure you're setting up the environment so that the dog is not getting reinforced for that behavior. So if the dog is able to get scraps under the table, then that's going to accidentally reinforce that behavior. Tether the dog on the other side of the room, a few feet away. And if he's calm throughout the meal, at the end of the meal, he could have some table scraps."

More Tips For Caring For Your Dog

Book Excerpt: 'Meet Your Dog'

by Kim Brophey

Good Intentions

Dogs have been the practical companions to man for thousands of years. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have influenced and modified dog behavior for our own purposes, both individually and genetically. Through artificial selection—the deliberate reproduction of individuals with desirable characteristics—we designed master hunters, trackers, livestock guardians, herders, ratters, personal protectors, gladiators, lap warmers, and companions. If we needed a dog to help us track and hunt large game in sub-zero temperatures or a heat-hardy partner to move livestock over miles of plains, we designed exactly that. Exchanging one dog for the other—and operating on the assumption that one would work as well as another if trained and cared for in a certain way—would have resulted in unsuccessful hunts in the arctic and murdered livestock on the prairie.

Consider for a moment that this is precisely the situation we so often create with our approach to today’s dogs, placing them in our homes as if they were interchangeable. We often assume that they all need similar amounts of exercise, affection, health care, and food in order to be suited to our lives.

When these dogs fail to live up to our expectations, the consequences can be serious for everyone. Personal and community safety are compromised when we unwittingly set them up for failure; and the dogs’ lives are jeopardized when the owners give up. For all our good intentions, we continue to put a square dog in a round hole, and marvel at the consequences.

Behaviors that were highly desirable to our ancestors and were intentionally developed—such as killing small mammals and herding livestock—are now extremely problematic natural drives as they manifest in modern conditions.

We can all appreciate the inevitable consequences of asking a free-spirited, world-traveling human to settle down for a quiet life at a desk job. We know what happens when we try to change a person into someone they are not. Some terms are negotiable in a relationship, and some aren't. Of course you love your dog, but there is more. Whether that adorable long-eared dog at your feet is compatible with your own unique needs and limitations is the real question you need to ask yourself.

It could be a star-crossed love affair between a busy modern career woman and a cowboy hungering for the open range. What’s more likely, however, is that you and your dog have come to a misunderstanding. You may simply need a good old-fashioned reality check in order to move forward.

As a modern dog lover, you most likely have never even had the opportunity to take a good honest look at your dog. This book can be that new pair of glasses that brings the details into focus for you, a crash course in dog science to prepare you for the dog love search and all of the many happy four-legged adventures ahead. You can navigate and enjoy a healthy relationship. You can, at last, meet your dog.

Excerpted from MEET YOUR DOG by Kim Brophey. Copyright © 2018 by Kim Brophey. Reprinted with permission of Chronicle Books.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2018.

This segment aired on April 30, 2018.



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