Tag Archives: how dogs think

Picture of a Boston Terrier outside to illustrate Cause and Effect is meaningless to dogs

Cause and effect is meaningless to dogs

If X happens, Y follows. As a concept, it’s easy for people to understand. Consequences are the foreseeable outcomes of actions. It’s how we plan and it guides our actions. But cause and effect are meaningless to dogs. 

The way dogs live in the moment is, in many ways, wonderful. There are lots of lessons to be learned – how to be spontaneous, to meet new things/people/experiences with joy, to never hold a grudge, to always let the people you love know it. 

Picture of a Boston Terrier outside to illustrate Cause and Effect is meaningless to dogs

There’s also the flip side. Dogs completely lack understanding of cause and effect. Case in point: every time Booker (11-year-old Boston Terrier) eats grass, he throws up. It’s not always immediate, so he’s never going to put the two things together. He will never understand why we tell him “don’t eat grass.” And despite his actual Obedience titles, we still have to tell him every time we take him out.

Even when the effect is immediate, the learning process has a limited life span. And it can be a painful one. We had a Boston named Daemon who ate a wasp one Spring. He was intrigued by its buzzing, followed it around, and ate it. His mouth was stung and it hurt. He had a miserable few hours, but he was fine. He didn’t eat another wasp that year.  The following Spring we went through it again. Every year was the same darn thing. He had to eat that first Spring wasp to remember not to do that – this year. 

Don’t worry, be happy

Dogs don’t worry about what may happen in the future. Even if a dog is terrified of thunder, they don’t think about thunder unless it’s happening now. They don’t spend their days concerned about the next storm. That’s an admirable trait. No one ever changed the future just by worrying about it. It’s one thing to take some action to prevent future problems. But if something’s bound to happen, like thunder, and there’s nothing you can do about it, you may as well not even think about it.

If you ever find yourself threatening your dog with consequences (If you stick your nose in the trash, you’re in big trouble) you’re wasting your breath. If you leave temptation out in the open, even if your dog has been told a million times, they will succumb to the lure. 

Invariably there’s someone in our puppy training classes who complains about a puppy stealing and chewing on their shoes. Those people are usually a bit surprised by our complete lack of sympathy. If your dog got your shoes, it’s your fault. You should have put the shoes away. If you want to train the dog not to steal shoes, you have to be there when the dog is making the attempt. And make it worth their while to be “good.”

Be their fortune teller

Your dog can’t see the future, plan for it, or even realize that it exists. In many ways, that’s a blessing. They don’t worry about getting old. They don’t even have a concept of dying. Your dog is thrilled when you walk in the door, even if all you did was take out the trash. Because the moment we’re living is the only one that exists for your dog. 

Dogs do form emotional associations, but they’ll never tell us why. If a dog adopted from a shelter or rescue shies away from a person holding an umbrella, it’s natural for people to think someone may have harmed the dog with an umbrella. Humans want to know the cause of that particular effect. It’s how we think. But it could just be that the dog was startled when the umbrella opened. And when the dog’s person went into “poor baby” mode, the dog figured out that acting fearful got them attention. Dogs are extremely adept at reading us. And they’re absolute wizards at getting what they want from us.

Detangle the thread

Once people embrace the difference between how dogs think and how people do, they’re much better at arranging life so their dog always has the opportunity to be “good.” Realizing that dogs don’t have an iota of forethought lets you look at their actions a new way. Rather than “What did you think was going to happen?” ask “Why was that an attractive thing to do?” Now you know that cause and effect are meaningless to dogs.

If  there’s a tasty morsel in plain sight on the counter, your dog isn’t going to think about how much trouble they’ll get in for being up on the counter. The thought process doesn’t go any further than “Want!” unless you’ve trained your dog no to counter-surf. We’re the ones who understand cause and effect. So we have to be the humans in the relationship.

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Picture of a one-eyed French Bulldog to illustrate don't let your dog know

Don’t let your dog know

Dogs don’t ever host pity parties. Don’t ever let your dog know you feel sorry for them. They won’t understand and they’ll think there’s something wrong.

We’ve been fighting the urge to pity Torque. Every time we look at him, it’s a bit of a gut punch, just a beautifully-healed scar and fur where his eye should be. But he doesn’t know he’s different. So it’s up to us to make sure he doesn’t think he’s broken.

Dogs accept

Picture of a one-eyed French Bulldog to illustrate don't let your dog know

One of the vast strengths of dogs is their ability to live in the moment. Torque doesn’t think about how much pain he was in when his eye ruptured. Or how scared he was. 

He only knows that he’s fine. Life goes on. He plays with his toys, his cousins, and his mother. He eats, enjoys treats, he goes for walks. He even goes to Rally class. Life goes on. 

Take a lesson

So we act like everything’s okay and normal. And because we’re living it, it’s becoming true. We consciously put aside whatever pity we have for him and appreciate what we have.

We’re not the only ones who should make a point of living in the now. Lots of people with dogs adopted from shelters or rescues feel sorry for their dogs. They’ll even expect less from these dogs because of their background.

That’s not fair to the dog. When those adoption papers got signed, that dog became one of the luckiest dogs ever. 

Stretch their potential

It does take a while for adopted dogs to realize they’re home for good and shed their “best guest behaviors.” After about three months, dogs know they’re home and safe. So they may start being naughty.

We’re actually surprised by how many people give their dogs leeway because of their background. The best security you can give your dog is to set rules and schedules and expect them to abide by them. Dogs love routine. They thrive on regularity. The best thing you can do for any dog is to establish consistent rules you all llive by.

Habit is everything

We start every morning’s activities with short training game sessions with each dog. The day after surgery, Hope was playing training games with Torque. 

Was he particularly sharp? Not really. But he was reassured that everything was okay because we stuck to routine. 

So don’t feel sorry for your dog. Or at least don’t act like it. You know the old saying: Fake it ‘til you make it. 

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Picture of a French Bulldog tilting its head to illustrate Dogs Don't Get Maybe

Dogs don’t get maybe

Even though dogs can actually see some colors, they only understand black and white. Dogs are binary beings. They understand yes or no, on or off, black or white. There are no shades of gray. Dogs don’t get maybe.

People understand that words can have more than one meaning. Even thouugh dogs are capable of understanding hundreds of words, each one is unique in their minds. If you tell a person “Sit down!” they’ll plant their butt in a chair. If you say it to a dog, they’ll give you a puzzled look and try to figure out which of the two you meant, sit or down. And because they want to get it right, they’ll do nothing rather than make a mistake.

Sometimes doesn’t work for dogs

This difference in the way dogs think can cause some issues unless it’s understood. If Fido is allowed on the furniture except when Aunt Agnes comes over, they won’t understand. People adapt their behavior for different conditions and circumstances. Dogs don’t know how to do that. Because they’re confused, when Aunt Agnes arrives, Fido may become anxious and misbehave.

Picture of a French Bulldog tilting its head to illustrate Dogs Don't Get Maybe

Any sudden change in the routine or schedule can cause confusion for your dog. If your regular routine is disrupted, even for a good reason, dogs can get anxious, even if it’s a good change. Say you have a regular sequence for getting ready to go to work on Monday morning. Your dog knows the routine, knows what to expect, and is comfortable with it. 

But then there’s a Monday holiday, like Memorial Day. Instead of the regular routine, you want to sleep in, relax, and have a pleasant day off with your dog. Instead of appreciating the mini-vacation, your dog may be stressed because they don’t know what’s going on. And sleeping in is a completely alien concept.

Be clear, patient, and consistent

Dogs can adapt to change, but it may take some time and patience, like all good dog training. One of the ways you can make it easier for your dog is to try to keep the regular routine even in changed circumstances. When we closed the physical shop and started to work from home, we kept our dogs’ routine close to what it had been.

The dogs were accustomed to having our attention at home. Even though we weren’t always actively engaged with them, they were close and knew they could count on a free hand reaching to pet them. That can’t happen while we’re at work. 

The change was gradual. They got used to the idea that if we were sitting at our desks, we wouldn’t pet them. It was really difficult at first, for everyone. They just look so darn cute curled up in a dog bed next to us. But we knew that consistency was key. Because dogs don’t get maybe.

Dogs don’t think like people

Dogs are complex creatures with sophisticated thinking ability. But dogs don’t think like people. They can solve problems/puzzles. They can understand hundreds of words, if taught to do so. MRI brain studies also prove they experience many of the same emotions as people, including love, joy, happiness, and grief. It’s only natural that most people assume their dogs understand cause and effect. Those people are wrong.

Picture of a Boston Terrier tilting his head to illustrate Dogs Don't Think Like People

If dogs could put the two things together, they’d never do most of the stuff that gets them in trouble. For example; Simon (Fran’s 4-year-old Boston Terrier) likes to eat grass. Every time he eats grass, he pukes. Every single time. He doesn’t like that part. Not at all. It’s obvious to any human that eating grass makes Simon throw up. It’s never crossed Simon’s mind that maybe, just maybe, eating grass isn’t a good thing to do. 

The link between “cause” and “effect” is missing in dogs’ brains.

There’s only now

At least part of the reason is because dogs don’t seem to have the same kind of memory that people do. If the grass consumption was further ago than “now,” it’s slipped from his awareness.

A more classic example is the case of dogs and house-breaking. If a dog had an accident in the house while the people were away, very old conventional training had you rubbing the dog’s face in it and screaming “No!” even if it happened hours before. Fortunately, that nonsense has gone by the wayside. The only thing it accomplished wasn’t the goal. It taught dogs that people “finding” a mess was bad. So they learned to hide it, instead of learning not to do it.

Instant gratification

It’s crucial, when teaching your dog anything, to react instantly. Don’t let any time elapse between action and praise/reward. If your dog drops the wad of grass when you say “Leave it!” his reward has to come right away. If you’re late with the reward, he’s already grabbed another tuft and is merrily chewing away. So you find yourself rewarding chewing grass, instead of rewarding the drop. And because he’s so darn fast grabbing it, that’s why Simon’s on leash, even in his own yard.

Cause and effect is missing in dogs’s thought processes. And, adaptable and trainable as they are, so is generalization. People generalize all day, every day. Once you know how to use a spoon, you know how every spoon works. Everywhere. No matter the size, shape, color, texture, or material. All spoons work the same, and every person can use every spoon everywhere. But a dog’s “spoon” in the kitchen is different from the “spoon” in the dining room. They can be taught to generalize, but it’s not part of the original package. 

And that’s why your dog doesn’t know “Sit!” when you’re at the vet’s office, or the groomer, or at Grandma’s house. Just a couple of minutes “training” your dog to sit wherever you are will do the trick. It’s kind of funny to watch, because you can almost see the light bulb turn on in their brains when they get it. “Oh, you mean this sit? Really? That’s all I have to do?”

Try it at home

It’s easy, and fun, to try with your own dog. If there’s something you always do with your dog try changing it just a little. Friends of ours had a routine where each of their five dogs went with “dad” to the pantry every night to get an M & M candy before bed. They would all sit politely in the same order and wait for their piece of candy. (Despite what you’ve heard about chocolate being poisonous to dogs, one M & M won’t matter to most dogs.) It would have blown their little minds if Dad had moved the routine over by the fridge. 

We’re not advocating confusing your dogs on a regular basis. What we are saying is that trying familiar things in new surroundings will expand your dog’s thinking and let both of you have a little bit of fun. Change up your routine and let us know how your dog reacts. It can be eye-opening for both of you!

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