Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA
I once knew a dog who could balance herself on her front paws. She not only stood like that, she could walk that way. Like an acrobat doing a handstand, she took tiny little steps on her front paws – while she peed.
Was it normal dog behavior? For her it was. The thing is - anything a dog does, by definition, is dog behavior. Some behavior is more typical than others: barking, biting, running, and jumping up, for example. The other stuff like the inverted pee prance, admittedly, may not be as common.
Let’s just say for now most of all the other stuff dogs do is, generally speaking, pretty normal for dogs. Normal for dogs, though, doesn’t often mean normal for us (consider the stuff they sniff… and eat). And there’s usually trouble when normal-for-dogs runs into conflict with what we are willing to tolerate in our homes or with our family and friends.
Let’s think about biting for a moment. It’s a normal behavior for dogs. But, normal doesn’t mean it’s okay any time anywhere. Bite a stuffed toy, shake it, and rip it up. That’s fine. Bite another dog (lightly) during play. That is also no problem. Bite my friend because he’s tall and wears a ball cap and that freaks you out and you want him to leave? Normal? Um, okay. But, not acceptable. Not at all.
We humans are really good at “either or.” Biting is either bad or good. Jumping up is good or bad. But I really like to teach people a more flexible way to think about normal dog behavior (and yeah, most of it is normal). Instead of “either or,” let’s consider “yes and.” Yes biting is normal and I’d prefer it be directed towards stuffed animals and Kongs and the tug rope – not my friend – not any human really. Yes running is normal and I’d prefer you run towards me and not away. Yes, peeing and pooping are normal and we should get in the habit of doing that outside please Ms. Doggie (strike whatever pose you like).
Here’s the cool thing. We can guide our dog’s normal behavior and have a happier life together as a result. And, the trick isn’t really a trick at all. Dogs choose what they’re going to do in any given moment day-in-and-day-out. Choices that make good things happen for them become more typical. Some dogs get petted when they jump up and it becomes a routine (jumping is normal and the petting makes it more typical for that individual dog). Other dogs sit to greet people and also get showered with attention and warm physical contact (sitting is also normal for dogs and very typical for many).
Biting is normal – and it hurts. Some dogs bite to get attention or start play. It’s normal and no good. Other dogs bite to make scary things stop or to ward off people or other animals who seem dangerous (but might not really be). That is also not okay in most cases. But here’s the deal. We can influence those behavior choices too. For the dog play biting to get us riled up, we can teach her that doesn’t work. At the same time we can teach her games with rules that do work to start and stop play (teaching a dog to play tug is one of my favorites).
We can also help angry and frightened dogs calm down. The key word there is help. Yeah, she’s giving my friend a hard time – but she’s also having a hard time with him and his hat. Let’s help. Let’s teach the dog self-control while we also safely show her that people in our home mean no harm. It’s doable. And, we never have to label our dog as abnormal in the process. She’s normal and we can still help her do better – feel better.
So far there is little evidence of dogs, as we know them, in the archeological record that doesn’t include evidence of humans. We are a beautiful, if not unlikely, example of co-evolution. We go together, came up together. We influence each other and have for centuries. Dogs seek things that make life-for-dogs better: food, comfort, shelter, and safety. Humans, for better or worse, control all of those things for dogs. In the best of setups we trade what we control lovingly and intelligently for all that is good and typical in dogs: companionship, affection, athletic prowess and play, – transcendent moments of wonder. We are giving and taking – taking and giving – dogs and humans. The lines tend to blur.
This cross-species communication, this guiding of choices – training – teaching – learning – it’s the makings of our life with dogs. It’s the stuff of fabled memories – a playful dog bounding towards us, so happy when we come home, grinning with a toy in her mouth – an evening together at the park - and, yes, the little one balancing on tiny front paws so careful and delicate. Aren’t these the storied moments? And, aren’t they so beautiful because they are so delightfully normal?
Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in behavior related to fearfulness in dogs including aggressive behavior.