What motivates behaviour? Genetics, training, both, how and why?

Here at The K9 Company, dog training goes far beyond just teaching your dog to sit and have nice manners in your home and around your family.

We have a huge focus on the mindset and the experience shared by both you and your dog – why your dog does what it does, what motivates the behaviour?

Because behaviour is dynamic and always changing and adapting to its environment (excitement, play, stress, danger etc), it’s pivotal to understand these aspects when working with your dog.  By doing so, we can provide you with solutions that will last due to the fact you gain an insight as to the WHY.  The WHY is one of the most powerful questions we ask ourselves, after all, each and everything you do (dogs inclusive) is motivated by something. This may be something you (or your dog) want to experience more, known as reinforcement or something we want to experience less of, known as punishment* (see below).

Most people have the basic ideas of what they don’t want their dog to do in regards to behaviour, but often they haven’t considered the individual dogs genetics from a holistic point of view and how that may affect how they live and interact with the dog when they bring it home and welcome it into their family. An example that we hear all too often is people wanting a guard dog to protect their family, sounds like a good thing, a feeling of safety and a deterrent to unwanted “guests”, correct?  But, there are so many more aspects that need to be considered.

The individual dog! Not all dogs within a particular breed have what it takes to do this kind of work ie: just because it’s a German Sheperd Dog doesn’t mean it has what it takes to be a guard dog, in fact, it may be better suited as a therapy dog that visits nursing homes.  Another point that needs to be considered is, do you really want all of the responsibilities that go with having a guard dog. There are strict legal requirements (check your state’s legislation), and then there’s the risk that the dog may not always get it right and see our family as the threat, especially when the training is not done correctly and continuously throughout its life – but that another 10 blogs in itself.

But if we that a look at the genetics of the individual dog and the overall breed traits (again from a holistic and objective point of view), this can give us an idea of what may present itself as the dog develops.  Is the dog/breeding still close to what it was originally intended for, or have the years of human intervention and selection in the breeding had a massive impact on its genetics? And importantly what implications will this have on the dogs’ overall health and behaviour.

All of these things can play a huge part in the motivations and behaviours that dogs display.  The image below has a great little animation that explains how domestication and human selection in the breeding processes have and continue affect/change animals over time.  The silver fox experiment that they refer to is also an interesting watch.  I remember seeing this approx 10 years ago and how much we can learn about our dogs from the experiment itself and from the continued study, research and obviously hands-on experience.breedingAll of these factors and more should be of consideration when selecting a dog that will best suit your needs and lifestyle. The same goes for selecting a trainer for your dog. It goes well beyond the basic (albeit good) questions of; How many dogs are in the class? What methods do you use? What equipment do you use?  As I said before, behaviours are dynamic, so should your and your trainers approach to your dog. Why try and force a square into in a round hole, be dynamic, be the person, be the trainer that can make the difference by understanding as many facets as you can, then actively seek to learn more – always throughout your journey.

When you know better, Do better!  Learning is a gift that empowers and allows you to make better choices, but you must take the action upon gaining the information, not just sit on it.


*** It’s really important not to read or hear the word punishment from an emotional context. In no way, shape or form would any mentally healthy person condone cruelty. So for the purpose of clarity here is the dictionary exert for punishment

In operant conditioning, punishment is any change in a human or animal’s surroundings that occurs after a given behavior or response which reduces the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. As with reinforcement, it is the behavior, not the animal, that is punished. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punishment_(psychology)

One of the examples I use almost every day in my work to clarify what a punishment is the example of Turkish Delights.

I remember as a teenager being given a Turkish Delight chocolate. excited and looking forward to a yummy snack, I took a big bite of what I was expecting to be anything but what I experienced it to be – Yuk and disgusting! I couldn’t get that taste out of my mouth, even after brushing my teeth. Because it was so unpleasant, I have and will never knowingly eat a Turkish delight ever again and trust me, when I get a box of chocolates, the first thing I do is remove each and everyone and give it to my husband because unlike me, he really enjoys them.  So there is an example of a stimulus (a thing) that I will actively avoid at all costs = punishment, whereas my husband would actively seek out = reinforcement.

Another example is how we understand and utilise traffic lights. We actively avoid running a red light, thus avoiding one of 3 possible punishments – a fine, a crash or death. Having this ability to actively avoid such outcomes is actually empowering and conducive to good health, even if it slows our journey or makes us run late.

Think about things you actively avoid.

Coffee that’s too hot?

Super duper spicy food?

Driving on the opposite side of the road (Here in Australia that would be driving on the righthand side)

Pulling a baking tray out of a hot oven with your bare hands

All of these things empower you as a person. Being able to make the choice to actively avoid these things is a valuable skillset and not one that we should be thinking is a “bad” thing.  It’s a powerful thing which motivates our behaviour every day.


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