Caroline has more than 12 years of experience solving canine behavior problems either with families, in rescue or at her own home.
Why Does My Dog Do the Things He Does?
Why does anyone do anything? The answer is simple really; we do what we do because it works. We do what we do because it makes us feel good, because on some level it has somehow satisfied a primal need that was present in us at that moment. If you are hungry; eating something will satisfy that need. If you are lonely; hugging a loved one might satisfy you. If you are afraid; it will make you feel better to create distance between you and your fear. It really is as simple as that.
We have lots of needs that ensure our survival in some way or another, and our pet dogs are no different. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s research led him to identify our key motivators. In the 1940s, he first proposed his theory of the Hierarchy of Needs. Portrayed here as a pyramid, it is easy to see the basic motivators and the order in which they should be met for best survival. Of course, his pyramid refers to human needs, but I think it can safely be applied to dogs.
In the pyramid, we can see that the most urgent needs are those of immediate survival, the physiological needs such as breathing, food and sleep. It is interesting to note that the most important layer of the pyramid also includes reproduction and exercise; two often neglected elements, especially in dogs. Only once all the needs are properly met on one level can the dog seek to fully satisfy the next layer of the pyramid, which is safety. Safety of self, family and possessions are included in this layer. As you can see, safety is less important than food, this is important as if this were not the case, the dog would not be able to put himself in a potentially dangerous position and hunt for his dinner.
Fact: When surveyed, half of dog owners admitted to being embarrassed by their dogs behaviour in public!
— The Kennel Club, February, 2014
If Physiological Needs Are Not Met
Pulling on the Lead
Antisocial around Dogs
Let’s talk in more detail about the needs on the bottom layer. Some of these are pretty obvious; we all know that we need to eat, sleep and breathe to stay alive. We would never even consider starving our furry buddy, but we should remember that not all food is created equal. To properly fulfill this need, we need to consider whether we are offering him the best type of food, and in some cases whether we might be offering too much!
I have already touched on the obvious needs, but many people don’t realize that it is just as important to get adequate exercise and to procreate. Yep, reproduction is that important; in fact it might very well be the most important thing any of us can ever do for the continuation of our family genes and the species—no pressure! Now we know how important procreation is for any animal or human, it is clear, that unless our pet dogs are allowed to partake in this activity regularly then, just like us, they will become unhappy and deeply frustrated, which could in turn lead to unnatural and unsociable behavior. The solution here is to do one of two things, either find pooch a life partner, or take the problem away permanently and neuter your dog; I would personally recommend this second option as it is a far healthier and much less risky option.
We should also take a moment to talk about exercise as it too features on the bottom level of the pyramid, this makes it an essential requirement for all dogs and is very often neglected. In my experience, a lack of adequate exercise is often a contributing factor to behavioral problems, so it is worth considering whether you need to increase the amount of exercise Fido is getting, or if the intensity is right for him, maybe he needs more doggy playtime, or a run alongside a bike, for example.
This second layer is mostly concerned with safety and security, not just his own, but that of his family, the home, and the resources you all share. Just like us, our dogs need to feel safe and, for most of us, we are all reassured when we are in the presence of someone who is calm and in control. We like rules and boundaries, and dogs are just the same.
The rule maker is also the one that is responsible for the main security, so your dog will thank you for relieving him of this burden. So, in order to properly satisfy your dogs safety needs, first create some rules and structure so that your dog knows exactly what is expected of him, and when. You must also learn to manage your own emotions when in the presence of your dog, take your time, be patient and especially be calm, as a leader that loses his head regularly will do nothing to make his pack feel safe and secure.
A secure den is always a must, it will do his anxiety levels no good if there are regular, unexpected visitors to the garden especially if it is the neighbors dog, and it is not just the garden you need to worry about. It is essential also, to make sure that visitors to your home are always properly invited in, and in a calm way, and not just allowed to come and go.
Problems Caused by Safety Worries
Aggression to Strangers
Love And Belonging
Love and Belonging Layer of the Pyramid
This section is often the least neglected, certainly when it comes to our four legged friends. After all, we introduced a dog into our homes specifically so we could show them love and affection, and for most of us, if we have worked hard to satisfy all the more urgent needs in the pyramid, we should be getting tons of affection and loyalty back in return.
Don’t overdo it though. A dog that gets too much attention whenever he wants can become needy and dependent on it, which will likely lead to separation problems. He may become overly attached to one or more members of his family too, and this could lead to him becoming overly protective of them. A good rule to follow, if you want to get this right is simply to make sure that love and affection is only offered as a reward to calm, gentle behavior and is mostly only given by your demand and not your dogs.
Self Actualization and Esteem
Antisocial with Dogs
Fear of Strangers
Self Actualisation and Esteem
I have bunched these two together as they are not really that different, certainly not to dogs anyway. If you have managed to fulfill all your dogs desires up to this point, then your dog is ready to learn and this is important as he needs to feel like he can please you and be a useful member of your family. Taking time to teach your dog a few tricks will do wonders in this department, and, as long as you choose positive, reward based methods, it will be a great bonding experience for you both, you might even consider joining a local dog training club or taking up a sport together such as Flyball. A dog that doesn’t know how to please his family can quickly lose confidence in himself and that could lead to any number of anxiety related behavior problems.
How Can I Change My Dogs Behavior?
So, if you are struggling with your dogs behavior and you want to change it, the answer is quite simple. Start at the bottom of the pyramid and work your way through each layer, making sure that you are meeting each need as you go. Then when you get to the top, you will have solved all the underlying problems, he will most likely still be misbehaving, but your dog will now be ready to learn new behaviors and break his old habits, and all that training will now finally start paying off.
If you are not sure how to stop a particular behavior, a quick rule is to find out what you dog is hoping to get out of it and do the opposite. He’ll soon start looking for better ways to achieve the same result and when he picks one you approve of, just make sure you are ready to reward and encourage him.
For example, your dog pulls on the lead. He does this to get ahead of you and to get “there” faster. Simply shorten the lead and slow down the walk, if he continues, the lead gets a little bit shorter and you get even slower, keep going like this until there is no lead left and you have ground to a halt. Once he relaxes and the lead loosens, start walking again, the better he does, the faster you go and the longer the lead gets until you are back to normal. Be patient, this one really works, if you take your time!
Keep calm and carry on, no matter what happens
And finally, just like you and me, your dog will need to have all his needs met at each level of the pyramid, starting at the bottom, before you can progress upwards. If you have missed any, you will struggle to effect any change in your dogs behavior.
Remember also, that every dog is so completely different, some don’t need much input to satisfy their needs; a gentle cuddle and a friendly word might do the trick for some dogs, whereas others will need regular praise and contact to have their family and intimacy needs met. Likewise, some dogs are happy with a half hour amble round the park, whereas others will need two hours of free running and boisterous dog/dog play to be truly happy.
Be sure to judge your dog by his own standards and adjust his routine if you feel any one of his needs could use a little more attention, just make sure to be proactive and always meet them in a positive way.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2016 Caroline Brackin
Caroline Brackin (author) from Bangor on August 11, 2016:
Thanks Madoline, I think it works real well.
Natalie Ball from West Newton, PA on July 16, 2016:
I love how you use Maslow's hierarchy to show how to meet your pet's needs!