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. 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.
Evidence of Imagery
Some very convincing research suggests that dogs think in sensory impressions;
visual, sound and odor images, etc. This is not to say that they sit around
on quiet days experiencing videos inside their brains. However, they likely
share our ability to form and experience in their minds certain images,
odors and sounds. The scientific basis for this idea came from Russia
and was published in the US in 1973. A scientist name VS.. Rusinov1 was
studying the electrophysiology of the brain and had several dogs wired
with brain wave equipment and radio transmitters. When the dogs were brought
into the lab from the kennels for experimental conditioning tests, the
electroencephalograph machine was turned on to record their brain wave
patterns. This was done at the same time each day, five days a week. One
weekend, purely by accident, Rusinov brought a group of visitors into
the lab and turned on the EEG machine. Lo, the dog that was normally schedule
for tests during the week at that time was sending wave forms nearly identical
to his regular working patterns! When the testing time passed, the dogs'
brain waves soon returned to their normal 'at rest' forms. I never found
any mention by Rusinov as to whether the dogs out in the kennel were actually
performing their conditioned laboratory behaviorisms. Chances are they
were not, but one thing is almost sure; compared to human experience in
similar types of studies, the dogs were apparently experiencing them mentally2,3.
The late Polish scientist, Jerzi Konorski,3 taught dogs to salivate and
expect food in their trays when a light flickered. This was done regularly
every few minutes. However, after a few trials, the dogs started salivating
and looking at the trays as if the food were actually there, even though
the light had not flickered. Konorski ventured that the dogs were hallucinating
about both the stimulus (the light) and the reward for salivating (the
food). One thing is sure: Something was going on in the dogs' minds that
made them behave as if they were happening.
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.
The Puppy's Dilemma
Consider the new puppy whose owners come home at regular times and join
in an ecstatically joyful greeting ceremony. This imagery is quickly ingrained,
and the pup begins to anticipate the experience, just Konorski's dogs
hallucinated about the flickering light and the food tray. However, as
will happen in even the most well regulated household, one day the owner
is late. The puppy begins experiencing the images of his tardy owners
... starts fretting, pacing. Well primed energies, ready for the greeting
ceremony, demand an outlet as the adrenaline starts pumping.
What's going on in its mind's eye or ear? It probably imagines hearing
footsteps, perhaps even sees the door open... which doesn't happen. But
it should. This introduces conflict between what it wants and expects
and what is really happening. Conflict creates frustration. Frustration
produces anxiety, which triggers an even greater adrenaline rush. The
pup searches for something real to satisfy its desire to 'experience'
the owner ... a magazine or book it saw the owner reading recently. It
is rich with the owner's scent. If it cannot have the owner there, it
can at least have their genuine odor or taste. So it sniffs, tastes, maybe
even swallows parts of the article. Naturally, this does not fully substitute
for the whole owner, so the puppy's social appetite is not really satisfied.
Finally, here comes the owner. The puppy innocently launches into
its joyous, semi-hysterical ritual. The owner starts to join in,
but spies the pulverized magazine or book. What's this? Naturally,
if not wisely, the owner angrily grabs the pup, drags it to the
demolished object and scolds it, or slaps it's snout or rump, or
both. The pet's single-track mind is riveted on the owner. It yips,
rolls over, or struggles vainly to escape. Punishment concluded,
the owner angrily picks up the remnants of the article and storms
to the trash basket.
The net result of this is a totally confused pup with a conflicting
set of images of its owner. This sort of shock to the nervous system
is called psychic trauma in both animals and humans. A conflict
has been instilled between the positive image of the owner (happy
Dr. Jekyll) and the negative (Mr. Homecoming Hyde). This creates
frustration and anxiety about homecomings, growing in severity if
the scenario is repeated a few times. (It is interesting that in
many cases, owners tell us that the pup was fine for a day or so
after the first punishment. This may equate to the human experience
of repression, in which memory of the traumatic experience is suppressed,
creating a sort of 'backwards amnesia.') Even when this occurs,
since the punishment was not associated with the act of chewing
up something, the puppy seeks out another article, perhaps a shoe,
and the cycle is repeated until the total relationship between owner
and dog is tainted with emotional ambivalence. Mixed feelings are
eating away at the positive qualities of their relationship. Negative
emotional impressions may start to dominate it.
At about this stage, many owners conclude that the punishment may not
have been severe enough. That's why the correction was not permanent.
So they intensify it. The relationship erodes further as weeks go by.
Enough of this cascading negative effect and the owner is ready to take
drastic action. The dog, now hyper-sensitive to its owner's mood change,
feels something is wrong. This often is reflected by new problems, such
as submissive wetting when the owner comes home or approaches the dog
at other times; off-schedule bowel movements or urination occur, etc.
Many pets act insecure, currying more favor when the owner is home, and
hence, missing the owner even more acutely when left alone. Frustration
and anxiety build, while the isolation-related, tension-relieving behavior
mounts. The unwitting owner, who originally may have thought the dog is
'getting even' for being left alone, begins to consider it incorrigible.
This is when outside help is often sought. A book is purchased. The veterinarian,
breeder, pet shop, a trainer or behaviorist may be consulted. If lucky,
the owner gets advice that brings genuine insight into pet/owner relationships
and dog behavior. But, more likely, they find traditional quick fixes
and the dog winds up in a desensitization program; gets dosed with anxiety
relieving drugs or barbiturates; is stuck in a cramped crate or cage all
day, or banned to the yard or garage, or has its mouth stuffed with chewed
debris and taped shut for hours. Since none of these approaches deal with
the causes, the 'thinking dog' and the total relationship with its owners
and the environment, success is rare. The majority of these formerly precious
pets find themselves rejected ... relegated to the local pound for five
to seven days, where the odds are 3-to-2 they'll suffer society's 'ultimate
solution'. But things don't have to be so grim, if the owners learn some
Applying Positive Imagery To Solve 'Separation Anxiety'
Dogs that misbehave when they are left alone are said to be suffering
from separation anxiety. The term is a neat buzz-phrase; almost everybody
uses it. It sounds professional. The trouble is, as a transplant from
human psychiatry, it really doesn't convey much useful information. However,
the term is here, so we'll use it in its broadest sense, which is; "a
troubled feeling when left alone or apart from a certain person or persons."
This allows us to recommend a remedial behavioral program that deals with
the realities of the dog's total relationships. First, however, we must
be sure that the dog's veterinarian has ruled out the many physical/medical
causes for anxiety, such as thyrotoxicosis, hyperthyroidism, pre-diabetes,
encephalitis, allergies, hyperkinesis, etc. etc.
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,
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
Images of Hyper-Emotionality
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,
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.
The Big Picture
So, there it is. Dogs think in images and we can mold and change their
behavior in hundreds of ways if we will think as they do. For instance,
on the negative side, a set up whereby a car screeches to a stop, horn
blaring, just as a dog starts toward the street from the sidewalk, then
praising its retreat, is a valuable exercise in negative imagery. However,
it must be repeated until the dog avoids the street when cars are not
present, as well.
Teaching the 'panic' command to come needs the dog's name followed by
a code word, a sound image that is exclusive to coming when it is absolutely
necessary, and praise words or a vocal rhythm that is unique to that command,
coupled with fast hand-clapping while taking a crouched position. These
combined, positive images can create a dog that will dependably respond
to your code word and come to your praise. It is especially important
to teach this command when the dog is out of sight, as well as in darkness.
OK, you say, why bother to crouch to clap and praise in the dark, or when
the dog can't see you? The answer to that lies in the dog's exquisite,
finely tuned and interrelated aural/visual senses, as well as just how
intelligent our dogs are. But that's another story for another issue.
In the meantime, keep positive images of yourself and the future and you
will convey confidence and cheer to your dog and all whom you meet.
- V.S. Rusinov: Electrophysiology of the Central Nervous System, Consultants
Bureau, New York, 1973.
- Delgado, J.M.R., MD: Physical Control of the Mind, Harper and Row,
New York, 1969.
- J. Konorski: Integrative Activity of the Brain, University of Chicago
Press, Chicago, 1967.
Copyright 1995 by William E. Campbell