What's Your Dog's Why?

Luzelle & Puppy Sage of HausTralis Malinois at Starbucks Botany Auckland

By Luzelle Cockburn

Have you ever wondered “what’s my dog’s why?” Most likely you haven’t. I mean you’re more likely to ask: “why does my dog bark at people” not actually the more important question “why did my dog choose to bark at that person? What was it about them that made my dog bark? What kind of bark is it? Threatening? Scared? Territorial? Playful?”

Drilling down is the first step in discovering your dog’s why. And Google can’t answer you, because Google doesn’t know your dog.

Why is Your Dog’s Why Important?

OK, so let’s imagine that you would like to compete with your dog in Obedience. But your dog is nervous of the other dogs at training, and can’t concentrate on the task at hand. All you see is that your dog is constantly sniffing. But your dog is not sniffing the grass because the grass is interesting. Knowing your dog’s why means that you’ll realise that your dog is sniffing because she is nervous around other dogs and doesn’t know how to handle the situation.

You will not make progress in Obedience if you keep going to class. In fact, unless you start working with your dog instead of against them, you will not make much progress at all. I had exactly this situation with my German Shepherd, Kaz. So I had to adjust the way I trained her according to her why. To suit her. Once I did that she made rapid progress and started to shine.

Your dog may have everything it takes to be the next obedience champion, if only you would recognise her why and adjust your training to suit your dog. Not understanding a dog’s why is the number 1 reason many teams fail to compete, dogs fail as working dogs or why dogs are left in the back yard and don’t get to enjoy their life with their humans.

“Ultimately, thinking about how to best help your partner requires you to have an inside knowledge of your best mate, because I guarantee you that your dog is watching you and knows you better than you know yourself.”

The Power of Understanding Your Dog’s Why

If you observe your dog and try to adjust what you’re doing to suit your dog, you might find that your dog becomes the best dog you’ve ever had. Learning to work with your dog has immense power. Your dog will feel understood, and might try harder for you.

But it requires you to “listen” to your dog. It is true, your dog can’t speak to you. But, you can pay attention to their facial expressions. When does your dog sigh… is it a sigh of contentment or a huff? How does your dog carry their tail when they’re happy? When they’re unsure? When they’re scared? What makes your dog get up in the morning? Not every dog that carries their tail between their legs is scared.

For example, I struggled to teach Delta new skills. I knew she wasn’t stupid, but she didn’t seem to be the smartest cookie in the box. Until one day, I discovered almost by accident how to teach her new skills. We were getting ready to compete in a breed or beauty show. I had practiced and practiced and practiced with her, but there was no way that she would get it through her head that I didn’t want her to heel the same way as she did for Obedience Competitions.

We had been watching the show together while waiting for our turn. When it was finally our turn to enter the ring, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Yes, I almost fell off my chair, and I wasn’t even sitting. Delta was prancing around like she had been doing it all her life! She looked just as good as the other dogs in the ring, prancing around like a pro!

You see, you’re not the only person in the team. You can’t have a team if you’re not working together. And, as the thinking party (I know, I say this a lot), you’re the one who can change. And yes, you will need to change with every dog. Just like no two people are the same, no two dogs are the same.

So how were the dogs I worked with Different?

Zak needed clarity, consistent rules and love. Actually, Zak just loved food – even bananas and tennis balls. Zak would trade his soul for a banana. Read that as let anyone into the property. He was just a 40kg lap dog really, with a good bark.

Kaz needed cheer leading and confidence building and lots of rewards for little effort to encourage her and tell her she’s on the right path. As well as clear rules (she is a German Shepherd she likes rules). Kaz loved just one toy, a special blue ball. You could show her two identically looking balls but she would only work for ‘her’ blue ball.

Delta needed an example to copy and consistent rules (she doesn’t like rules, but needed them Delta thinks rules are for other dogs) she also needed lots of effort for less rewards. Delta just really wanted to have fun. In saying that, she’s the dog who found chicken bones at a park and brought them to me. Delta will always be that special dog. The free spirit that couldn’t be tamed.

Jazz needed cheer leading and turning work into play. Jazz liked to be your special dog your second-in-charge, so Jazz wasn’t a dog you could really share with another dog.

Jake needed someone to love him, he’d never really had that. The look of appreciation and puppy-like hope and trust and innocence when I called him one day to give him an egg was so special to me. 

Ryker needed someone to respect him and when he got that, I was his new best friend. No really, it was like love at first sight. Except, it wasn’t the first time he’d seen me… maybe he saw me with new eyes. Whatever it was, it was very special. It was like all of a sudden I could do no wrong. He’s still my most special boy. I got to see a side of him that very few people get to experience. 

Rango needed someone to let him win, the look on his face when he realised I wasn’t a foe or opponent was priceless. Again, once I understood his why and worked with him and not against him, I could do no wrong. It was like he could trust me. And that was all he needed to know.

Nym needed to be pushed harder. And I haven’t started training Raven yet, she’s too young still. I’m sure I’ll tell you about Raven’s why when I get to know her better. But so far she is an absolutely brilliant dog!

These are just some of the dogs I’ve worked with and built personal relationships with. Some accidentally. Some intentionally. What each dog needed depended on my goal. Most of these dogs I was training for competition, so I needed to help them develop a love for work. Others I just befriended and accidentally discovered what they secretly needed from me to flourish and trust me.

How will Understanding Your Dog’s Why Help You?

Each and every dog is different. There are many similarities, but there are also many differences. Understanding your dog’s why could be the difference between them living a happy and fulfilled life or them being shut away in the back yard (something, I’m sure neither you nor your dog would like).

It is true that you probably don’t need a lot of talent to train a dog. I’ve seen many people of average skill get to the top levels of obedience competitions. But they could have done so a lot faster if they worked with their dog and actually made an effort to understand their dog’s “Why”! It involves knowing when to add motivation and when to remove it to help your dog. Do you know when to use better quality treats or to use plain kibble? When to make your dog work harder or when to stop? When to use play and when to be stoic?

In one of my early sessions preparing Nym for obedience competitions, I was using like 5 toys to reward her. I sent the video footage to my awesome friend Natalie (because even dog trainers need to have a sounding board with their own dogs), and she observed that I was rewarding Nym too much, and that I needed to ask more of her for less rewards. And you know what? That worked for Nym.

Understanding your dog’s “Why” will give you an insight into their behaviour that no one else will be able to pick up. It will set you and your dog up as a superior and unstoppable team. Because let’s face it, when you understand your dog, you can make changes to accommodate your dog. Get help where needed and in turn achieve better results.

So Why Know Your Dog’s Why?

Just like us, dogs have reasons for doing, or not doing things.  They have likes and dislikes, some of which make no sense to us what-so-ever!  But that doesn’t matter, to have an effective partnership with your dog, you should think “What’s My Dog’s Why?” because ultimately, thinking about how to best help your partner requires you to have an inside knowledge of your best mate, because I guarantee you that your dog is watching you and knows you better than you know yourself.

Without knowing the “why” you might make your dog’s behaviour problems worse or you may even make them afraid of you.  They may not even understand what you want!  Of course, you want your dog to want to work with you, and not against you.  So understanding your dog ‘swhy will help you to achieve a partnership, rather than wasting energy working against each other and getting frustrated because you don’t understand each other!

How can you understand your dog better? Stay tuned for our blog post How to Communicate With Your Dog – and you don’t need special powers either!

Did you find this blog post helpful? Tell us in the comments below your thoughts, questions or comments! We’d love to hear what you think!

Need Some Help with Your Dog?

The whole reason I’m a dog trainer is to keep dog out of shelters and rescues and off death row. The best way to do that is to keep dogs with their families! So, I’ve put together some resources to help you with your dog! It’s all kept in The Dog Training Lab – you’ll find heaps of free resources, just pop your email address in The Free Resources Hub to get access and you’re set! 

What information is in there? Tips to help you with walking your dog on lead, toilet training, problem barking and so much more!

Luzelle & Raven Black & White image

Hey, I’m Luzelle!

If it has to do with transforming your naughty, embarrassing, frustrating or worrying dog into an obedient, well behaved member of the canine society that you can actually enjoy spending your life with, I can help.

Wanna know more? Check out the SolutionK9 About page!

5 thoughts on “What’s Your Dog’s Why?”

  1. A very useful blog. I work with quite a number of dog handlers and will use this tip (knowing your dogs why) to help guide some of our newer (and olďer) handlers. Thanks for sharing.


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