Why oh why is my dog doing x, y, z?
Harried dog owners feel that if they can decode why their dog is doing something, they will be able to stop it from happening. Often, they assume a human motivation (guilt, seething manipulative rage, revenge after the fact...) Luckily for dog trainers, dogs' motivations are much more transparent. Oh, if only that were the case with our co-workers, spouses, and children!
But that doesn't mean that the "why" question isn't an interesting one. I'll spill the beans: for the vast majority of stuff dogs do, it's pretty much the easiest question on a multiple choice quiz. The answer is either A. It just feels good or right or B. Reinforcement history. Don't get me wrong: dogs, like all animals, have complex cognitive abilities and tools for interpreting and moving through their worlds. But if your dog is doing something you'd like him to stop, it's almost certainly A, B, or a bit of both. Let's break it down.
A. It just feels good.
Evolution has gifted all of us with some behaviours that just feel good because they helped our ancestors to ... erm, how to put this delicately. Grow forth and prosper.
Some examples: Humans enjoy calorie-laden snacks. And we enjoy the feeling of holding and caring for our kids. A person who, at our last evolutionary bottleneck, enjoyed eating low-cal or forgot their kids at Dairy Queen (I'm looking at you, dad #neverforget) is somewhat less likely to have a whole baseball team of offspring, if you follow my meaning.
It's easy to see the evolutionary importance of eating high-calorie food and caring for our kids. But if anything naturally feels good, the likelihood is that it helped our ancestors to survive, or thrive.
Dogs are no different. Take chasing tires—dogs enjoy chasing things that remind them of prey. It's hunting behaviour, and it feels right and good. "But I feed him kibble" you might moan. And I ate breakfast just an hour ago, but has that stopped me from consuming a large slice of cheesecake as I write this? Nay. That's right: just because the behaviour functioned well in the past doesn't mean it's a great fit for the modern context. It still just feels good, though.
B. Reinforcement history.
So, some stuff just feels good. Other stuff? We have to learn to do it, and there has to be a reason we keep doing it. Why do I go to work in the morning? It's reinforced by a paycheque, which I use to buy cheesecake. Dogs are no different—if they are doing something that isn't naturally pleasurable, there is likely a paycheque involved. Why do they perch, ever hopeful, near the dining room table? It's reinforced by an occasional gobble of dropped food. Why do they release the ball (very counter-intuitive, if you think of it) when you're playing fetch? It's reinforced by another toss of the ball.
Punishment also changes behaviour, but we'll s̶t̶i̶c̶k̶ stay with the carrot as that's the best way to train dogs. However, if a dog regularly receives punishment (swats, stern voice, special "training" collar) then their behaviour will be changed by both the desire to avoid punishment and the fearfulness which often comes along for the ride.
If your dog is doing something they naturally enjoy, think about acceptable and humane alternatives: a comfy bed elsewhere, a digging pit, a chew-toy instead of the furniture. If your dog is doing something because it has been reinforced, well, put an end to the reinforcement and try training something else.
In any case, a good, positive trainer or dog class is a godsend here. Put down the cheesecake and pick up the phone. Soon. Real soon. Just one more bite.