At a basic level behaviour can be seen as motor-responses to events, which are repeated through reinforcement. However, behaviour goes beyond the original theories of Pavlov, Skinner, Watson and Thorndike. It is a much more complex process, influenced by internal factors (genetics, physiology, neurology) and external events (environmental experiences and learning), and is also affected by current emotional states.
Recently it was brought home to me just how complex behaviour is, and why it’s important to investigate every aspect when looking at changes to a dog’s normal behaviour.
My (nearly) 3 year old Lurcher Storm had been exhibiting unusual behaviour for a little while: licking paws, staying close to us, whining if we went upstairs without him. These behaviours can be signs of increased stress levels and feelings of anxiety. Prolonged paw licking can potentially turn into compulsive behaviour and self-mutilation quite quickly (after starting out as soothing). We did not see any other “obvious” signs but started investigations. We clipped his nails (they were a little long and may have been causing discomfort) and took him to the vets to be checked over “just in case”. The vet found a slightly high temperature, so he was prescribed antibiotics and we were told to “keep an eye on him”.
His temperature came down but his behaviour started to increase in “naughty-ness”. For example he started to get “cheeky” with food, trying to steal from plates, eating his own meals very quickly and then trying to get Rosie’s, lying down while staring at us constantly, occasionally whining for no reason.
Dogs need routine, it helps them to have an element of control in their life by predicting certain environmental events (when to be fed, where to sleep, who is around etc.). Now, we happen to have some changes happening in our house at the moment which has interrupted Storm’s routine. Could this be the reason for his anxiety and poor behaviour?
As a behaviourist, I understand the science behind what may cause this behaviour (don’t worry, I won’t bore you with it), but as his care-giver, I am more experienced than anyone at recognising changes in my dog’s behaviour.
An unexpected change saw Storm performing a “perfect sit” randomly (and then look behind him). Investigating his rear end, I couldn’t see anything untoward but when a hand was placed on his back (near his tail), he gave a very slight shudder (as if tensing). Off to the vets again to find that his anal glands were blocked! Now they have been emptied, his behaviour has reverted back to the same level of “cheekiness” it has always been (in other words normal).
He has never had issues with his anal glands before, and his behaviour did not conform to the classic “scooting across the floor on his buttocks” routine (so often seen with anal glands blockages) or show any discharge etc. However, he must have been uncomfortable and as his internal stress levels increased, “thinking” processes that are needed for moderating impulsiveness reduced, leading to food-stealing and anxiety-related behaviour.
This is a prime example of medical issues showing no obvious outward symptoms. Without a medical check-up, I could have gone down a totally different path, while his behaviour continued to be influenced by feelings of stress/anxiety/discomfort.
Unfortunately, the first sign that something is wrong is often a change in normal behaviour and therefore (as I said at the beginning of this post), it is very important to rule out any possible medical problems first, especially when dealing with new or unusual behaviour.
Remember … Think, Dog Positive.
McLeod, S. A. (2018, Oct 08). Pavlov’s dogs. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html
McLeod, S. A. (2018, Jan, 21). Skinner – operant conditioning. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html
McLeod, S. A. (2018, Aug 21). Classical conditioning. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/classical-conditioning.html
McLeod, S. A. (2018). Edward Thorndike. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/edward-thorndike.html