Really understanding dog psychology can be a huge benefit to anyone who lives with one. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking to get a leg up on your dog training skills or you’re simply curious what your furry friend might think of your interactions. Understanding dog psychology helps us offer our pets the most happy and healthy life we possibly can.
How Dogs Think
Animal behavior has been formally studied since the early 1800s. It’s amazing how many different (and often conflicting) ideas we have about dog psychology. “Psychology” refers to the science of how the brain works and behavior. So “dog psychology” would include how dogs think, social interactions between dogs, and how dogs bond with each other and humans.
Some studies document and compare social interactions of wolves and dogs. Others comprise of experiments in dog training methods. As a result, animal behaviorists have a lot of perspectives on how dogs think and bond with their owners. Let’s explore some of the main theories of dog psychology:
- Schenkel’s pack mentality concepts
- Pavlov’s dog psychology with classical conditioning
- Skinner’s operant conditioning & positive reinforcement
Each theory comes with its own set of pros and cons and practical applications to dog behavior and training. So, let’s dive in!
Theory 1: Pack Mentality, Dominance, and the Alpha Dog Psychology Theory
The theory of dog psychology that compares dog behavior to that of wolves has been referenced, pored over, and scrutinized since 1947. This was when researcher Rudolph Schenkel released his observations of captive wolf behavior. Schenkel observed that groups of captive wolves established a social hierarchy through bouts of aggression. Typically, a male-female pair of wolves took over a leadership role and would use aggressive behaviors to keep the rest of the pack “in check.” Basically, the concept was established that wolves constantly compete to rank highest in the pack.
From this study came dozens more that shouted the same conclusions. What’s more, animal behaviorists began applying the findings about wolf behavior to domestic dogs as a way of understanding dog psychology. The earliest concepts of pack mentality applied to dog behavior, therefore, can be summarized by saying:
- Because dogs are genetically related to wolves, their behavior patterns and how they bond with each other are the same.
- Domestic dogs will bond with humans living together in a household in the same way: dogs consider the human members of a household part of their pack.
- Within a human-pet household, a dog owner should establish him or herself as the ‘alpha’ animal over the dog. This is in order to bond well with their pets and to create harmony in the home.
Then and Now
Today, probably the most widely-known application of these principles to dog behavior and training is the training techniques used by Cesar Milan. Milan’s training style reflects his self-labeled “Natural Laws of Dogs:” that dogs are pack animals and their behaviors are instinctive.
This older concept of dog psychology suggests the best way to bond with your pet dog would be to set firm boundaries and limitations. The idea being that you establish yourself as leader of the family pack. It also recommends learning how to keep your dog in a “calm, submissive state.” They believe that the best way to bond properly with your dog is to use intimidating, dominating body language and training techniques.
However, many modern behaviorists and trainers discourage teaching the concept of pack hierarchy in the home. This is due to many flaws in the studies from which the concepts were developed. For example, a wolf behavior expert named David Mech showed through several series of studies that there were problems with the observations from Schenkel and others’ research.
Theory 2: Pavlov’s Dog Psychology – Classical Conditioning
You may have heard of this school of psychological theory being referenced widely as the “Pavlov’s dogs experiment.” But, if your Psych 101 memory fails you, this was a series of studies conducted starting in the mid to late 1800s by Ivan Pavlov.
Pavlov was the first researcher to demonstrate that dogs can be conditioned to pair two completely unrelated events together in their mind, even subconsciously. By ringing a buzzer (or metronome) just before feeding the dogs every day, Pavlov “trained” the dogs to salivate at the sound of a buzzer. Even when food wasn’t present! Since then, there have been endless repetitions and variations that support this psychological phenomenon. Indeed, it happens with many animals and humans in many different types of situations.
The style of learning is now called “classical conditioning” or “Pavlovian conditioning.” The significance of Pavlov’s dog psychology to our understanding of dog behavior in general is that it led animal behaviorists to ideas like:
- Conditioning dogs to relax comfortably in their bed or crate by associating the space with calm experiences, delicious treats and fun toys.
- Conditioning dogs to learn with the use of clickers and whistles by pairing these “marker” sounds with treats.
- Once a dog has been conditioned to learn with the use of a “marker,” trainers can capture and shape a wide range of unique behaviors and then pair them with a cue (or “command.”)
- Dogs that have behavioral problems such as traumatic fear or aggression can be somewhat “retrained”. This is done using “counter-conditioning” which re-associates negative triggers with positive experiences/rewards.
But, if you’re thinking that the way humans and animals learn is way more complex than that, you’re not the only one. So, let’s explore some other research to reveal deeper levels of dog psychology.
Theory 3: B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning & Positive Reinforcement
In the 1900s, B.F. Skinner decided to study dog behavior in a more complex way. So he set up a series of studies. The aim was to take our understanding of human and dog psychology to a whole different level. The results of Skinner’s experiments revealed another way animals learn. It became known as “operant conditioning.”
Operant conditioning is the concept that the behavior of an animal (or human) can be “trained” by applying positive or negative stimuli after specific behaviors. The idea is that if a reward always comes after a certain behavior, the animal will repeat that behavior to earn the reward. The opposite is also expected. If some punishment happens after a certain behavior, the animal will avoid the behavior to avoid the punishment.
Operant conditioning is applied to dog psychology in the following way. We know that in addition to instinctive and subconscious behavior, dogs also do things in order to earn/avoid reward or punishment. Application of operant conditioning in how we bond with our dogs include:
If we want our dog to act in a certain way, we can reward those behaviors with treats, toys, or affection. For example, let’s say we want our dog to sit for us to put his leash on him. We can train him to do so by giving him a treat every time he sits. We repeat the behavior/reward system every time we get the leash out. (Positive reinforcement) If a dog experiences something negative after doing something, he will try to avoid that situation again. Such as if his owner purposefully hits him on the nose with a newspaper when she catches him eating out of the garbage can. (Positive punishment)*
Important Note on Training
*We never condone inflicting pain on our pets. Furthermore, there have been recent studies that show that dogs that experience this type of interaction from humans can develop serious behavioral problems and aggression. Therefore, we do not condone these behavior shaping methods.
For a more thorough understanding of why we promote positive training techniques and the science behind them, visit our article on Dog Training Methods.
Pros and Cons of the Different Theories
It’s important to understand that there are pros and cons to various theories. It’s also important to understand that most of these behavioral studies involve captive animals. These are often in a laboratory setting. So, some of the flaws in building your whole concept of dog psychology on one study or theory include:
- Captive animals and wild animals don’t always act the same.
- Wolves and dogs are not the same animal. We cannot assume that the behavior patterns of dogs mimic those of wolves.
- Domestic dogs and wild dogs have different behavior patterns as well.
- Humans are not dogs. We cannot assume that dogs view us as members of their ‘pack.’
- We cannot assume that pet dogs act the same as dogs (or other animals) in laboratory settings.
- Even within the domestic dog species, there is a wide range of personality traits and instincts from breed to breed and individual to individual.
- It’s not scientifically reasonable to attribute human behavior traits to any animal, including dogs. It’s called anthropomorphism, and it’s one reason why dog psychology discussions can get so controversial.
Overall Concepts of Dog Psychology that Most Behaviorists do Agree On
There are a few things that are great to know about our furry friends’ cognitive abilities:
- Dogs have adapted many behaviors unlike other wild animals as a result of living so closely with humans for so long.
- They have adapted an extremely strong ability to observe and learn from gestures and verbal cues from humans – even more so than primates!
- Dogs are remarkable (relative to other animals) at copying behaviors from each other to learn new tasks.
“It was suspected that dogs are more socially skilled than primates and wolves because they (dogs) are heavily exposed to people throughout their lifetime. In a surprise finding, young puppies with little exposure to humans are as skilled at using human gestures as adult dogs are.” (Kaminsky 2009)
Dog psychology has exploded in the past few decades. There have been more studies of domestic dog behavior in the past 20 years than in the past 200 years combined! This means we have more and more access to understanding dog psychology each year so that we can better serve the health and livelihood of Man’s Best Friend.
Hare, Brian & Vanessa. The Genius of Dogs Published by Plume, 2013.
Schenkel, Rudolph. Expressions Studies on Wolves. 1947.
Milan, Cesar. Dog Psychology
Mech, David. Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs. Canadian Field Naturalist, 2000.
Stillwell, Victoria. “Pack Theory Debunked.”
Kaminski J. Dogs (Canis familiaris) are Adapted to Receive Human Communication. In: Berthoz A., Christen Y. (eds) Neurobiology of “Umwelt”. Research and Perspectives in Neurosciences. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg 20-09.
Mattinson P. How Does Clicker Training Work? The Happy Puppy Site.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website