Copyright 1995 by William E. Campbell 

Have you ever seen a device or a program designed to correct a dog behavior problem that explained how smart dogs are and how they think? Most plans or gadgets enable owners, literally, to declare war on their hapless pets. Little or no concern is afforded to what the dogs happen to think about them. In fact, the implication is that dogs don’t think at all … either they just react to external stimuli like robots , or respond according to genetically controlled “drives.” Dogs are rarely credited with the ability to solve a problem mentally; to analyze a situation; imagine ways to manipulate or control it, then take a pre-planned course of action toward a goal that was preconceived in the dog’s mind. In short, the dog is considered a real dummy, then treated like a dummy. But this concept is not correct. Dogs are smart. They can, and usually do, think rings around their owners. And they can do it because most owners have never learned how to think like a dog. …..We all wonder now and then what our dog is thinking. If we wonder aloud, perhaps when mealtime is approaching and the dog is looking expectantly at us, we might say something like, “I’ll bet Tippy’s thinking, ‘When is my dinner going to be ready?’ ” In all likelihood, Tippy isn’t originating any thoughts about ‘when dinner will be ready.’ It is more likely Tippy is imagining (or ‘imaging’ in his mind) the words and movements you usually say and perform before getting his dinner; something like, “You want dinner, Tippy?” All that tail wagging and those pleading eyes are aimed at stimulating you to say it.

But, an inability to originate thoughts in a spoken language does not make dogs unintelligent. Even people don’t actively think in a spoken language unless they actively ‘speak’ it. For instance, during a short vacation to Japan, if you don’t already speak the language, you’ll probably pick up the meaning of a few words. After a few natives look at you in the morning and say “Ohio,” you may eventually learn that they’re not curious about where you’re from, but are wishing you a “Good Morning.” Still, you won’t think in Japanese unless you live there a few months and actively speak it. Even a pet Akita will never learn to speak or think in the native lingo because their voice boxes, tongues and lips cannot formulate the sounds of Japanese … or English, or French, etc, etc. The limit of our dog’s language-learning is the meaning of the sounds of certain words. Luckily, dogs are quick to learn the sounds that are important to them.

With this in mind, when Tippy is prodding us about serving dinner, we’d be wise to discard ideas about complete sentences being originated and thought about, and replace them with the non-language concept of mental images. To illustrate this further; when most Tippys are asking for dinner they actually look from their owners toward the place where it is served, generally the kitchen.  Before going on with dogs, let us consider some facets of our own ‘mind’s eye,’ as suggested by Konorski. Imagine we have a date to meet a loved one at a busy restaurant. We get there on time and sit at a table near the door. Fifteen minutes go by, but no friend arrives. We begin to wonder if they are coming at all. We start watching people approach the door. Pretty soon, people with similar features almost cause us to call out to them. The more concerned and anxious we become, the more apt we are to mistake strangers for our friend. When he or she finally arrives, the pleasure and relief we feel is often mixed with mild displeasure. We are ambivalent … we have mixed emotions about meeting them in the future.

Almost everyone has mental imagery. Often, just the thought of a loved one conjures up their image. This can apply to sounds, as well. Think about your favorite musical piece and your can often hear it in your ‘mind’s ear.’ These are positive images. They are emotionally pleasant. At the other end of the scale, recalling a terrifying experience can not only create its images, but sometime even make us shudder. This is an example of negative, emotionally unpleasant images.

So it is with our dogs. When we are late getting home, or if they over-miss us because we spoil them with attention and petting every time they demand it, they very likely worry in images, too. They may well recall images of us and our activities, such as fluffing the pillows on the sofa, putting away record albums, handling magazines and books, putting on shoes just before leaving, sitting in a favorite armchair, etc. As a result of this, they often engage in activities which involve them with these images: Pillows wind up on the floor, albums or magazines are moved or chewed, a chair seat gets dug up, shoes are brought out of the closet. If they can’t have us there, they try to interact with things that symbolize us.

If dogs really do store up and recall images of us and life’s other objects and experiences, it follows that we might use this to our mutual benefit. But since most owners do not understand how dogs think, this imagery is where the seeds of most behavior problems are sown. Dogs receive and recall conflicting images of owners and many important experiences.

If dogs really do store up and recall images of us and life’s other objects and experiences, it follows that we might use this to our mutual benefit. But since most owners do not understand how dogs think, this imagery is where the seeds of most behavior problems are sown. Dogs receive and recall conflicting images of owners and many important experiences.

Dogs that are unduly upset when left alone usually enjoy their owner’s attention and petting whenever they ask for (or demand it) when the people are at home. To apply the imagery concept to this relationship, we could say the dog ‘sees itself’ as directing, or leading the owner. When it wants some petting, it nudges or otherwise stimulates the owner, and the owner complies. The dog wants out, whines at the door or at the owner, and the door gets opened. Mealtime approaches, dog whines and prances, and dinner gets served. When the owner goes from room to room, the dog is either ahead, leading them, or close behind. This is the reality of their relationship, at least in the dog’s mind. But, when the owner leaves, against the dog’s wishes, the pet is predictably upset, and problem behavior occurs. This can involve barking, chewing, pacing, self-mutilation, off-schedule bowel movements, urination around the house, etc. The leadership problem can be turned about by presenting a different reality to the dog; one in which the dog is pleasantly, but firmly and consistently told to perform some simple act, such as ‘sit’ whenever it attempts to gain attention or affection, or whenever the owner wants to give the dog some attention. All ‘sits’, or whatever command is used (‘down’ is a good one for highly bossy dogs) are praised happily as 3 to 5 seconds of petting is awarded; then the dog is cheerfully released with an “OK” or “Free.” (Free is a good release because OK is too common a word.) If a really bossy dog refuses to obey, and many do when they realize their relationship is being turned around, simply ignore the situation, turn away and go on about some other activity, ignoring the dog. Some dogs have refused to respond for as long as four days before coming to terms with a follower relationship. However long it takes, after a few days the dog’s image of itself seems to evolve from one of giving direction to taking it with compliance prior to being petted, getting dinner, going out the door, getting on the couch, etc. In moving around the house, whenever the dog forges ahead, simply about-turn and go the other way. This must be repeated until the dog walks patiently behind or, better yet, doesn’t even follow. It is also helpful, but not vital, to practice down-stays of increasing length during several evenings a week.

Most ‘home alone’ problem dogs get extremely emotional when their owners get home; some even get excitable when regular departure times approach. To supplant these emotionally over-stimulating images, sit quietly for about five minutes before leaving, in the area where the dog will be left. No eye contact or speaking is allowed. Then, get up and go without looking at or speaking to the pet. At homecoming, enter quietly and ignore the dog until it quiets down completely. Then it is greeted happily, but briefly, away from the door of arrival. This subdued routine soon replaces the dog’s highly emotional mental images of returns and departures with calmness and serenity. Here’s the tough part for most all dog owners: When coming home the place is a mess! Pillows have been chewed, or the chair is tattered again, or a pile of poop graces the doorway, or some other problem is evident. If we keep in mind that the dog has in the past suffered from conflicting images at homecoming, it is imperative that no emotion, or even attention, should be directed at the remnants of the problem; such as chewed up magazines, shoes, defecation, etc. Instead, after five minutes of ignoring the dog, it should be greeted away from the scene of the misbehavior, and then pleasantly taken outdoors or to another room and left alone while the mess is cleaned up. This avoids creating new (or reinforcing old) conflicting images of emotional reactions to, or interactions with, the debris, defecation, etc. I have always called this ‘the secret clean-up’. It has worked wonders as part of programs ranging from digging in the yard to housetraining puppies. Just why it is such an effective adjunct to correction programs remains to be satisfactorily explained. In the meantime, we’ll have to say that the lack of an image of the owner and the mess is more beneficial to correction than is the image.

For more information on this subject, please refer to these publications. “Behavior Problems in Dogs,” 3rd. ed. (1999) and in the New “Better Behavior in Dogs,” 1999, A Guide to solving all your dog problems, (Direct Books – (800) 776-2665).