Behaviour isn’t a number

It’s easy to add 2 and 2 together, and come up with 4. When we are talking about adding numbers together context doesn’t come into it. But behaviour isn’t a number. Behaviour always depends on context. In the enrichment group I run, I see many people concerned that allowing a dog to rip open a box will teach the dog to rip open all boxes, including boxes not intended for the dog. I have seen similar assumptions made time and time again. For example, the claim that scatter feeding will teach dogs to scavenge. Recently I saw an enrichment video of a dog searching through items placed in a bag; the video received lots of concerns that this would teach the dog to raid other bags, maybe belonging to guests.

The most extreme of these assumptions is probably the one I was told many years ago: if a dog tastes blood it will turn them into a killer. It’s laughable now (if it was true then every dog who ever had a raw bone would be a killer) but today’s assumptions are not far removed. When we look at animal behaviour we must also look at the context in which it is happening. If we are partial to giving the dog a few leftovers after taking our dinner plate to the kitchen for washing, the dog learns (very quickly) that the context in which this happens often results in a tasty treat. Without any intentional training, as soon as you attempt to stand up, following your meal, the dog springs into life and enthusiastically follows you to the kitchen. They don’t get excited about plates at any other time and they don’t follow you to the kitchen quite so enthusiastically at other times. It’s not the plate, or the human walking to the kitchen which causes the dogs behaviour; it’s the context in which it’s happening, and dogs are experts at picking up on context.

Daily, I will place treats in a cardboard box and let the dogs have fun ripping it open to get to them. But I can receive parcels and leave them in the hallway without the dogs showing any interest. They have not learned that all cardboard boxes are to be ripped open; they’ve learned that when I behave in a particular way, preparing the box, then giving it to them as I say, there you go, means rip open the box. Of course, we still need to ensure that dogs don’t have access to anything which may be dangerous, and some dogs will obsess over boxes (just as some humans may obsess over things), but that doesn’t make it the norm, or even likely.

Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read

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