A guide to everyday psychology


Dogs – the wolf in your lounge?


I love dogs and cats – a sucker for the clever videos that people post online. And even though I’m a cynical old psychologist, I love to imagine human intentions and reasoning in animals.

But to get the best out of a relationship with a dog, you must see Champ as he really is – and understand how his relationship with humans works. Anything else will lead to a potentially unhappy dog and human – and, exceptionally, to outright danger.

However, this is not a dog-training manual! The aim here is simply to set out the psychological framework within which you can best understand Champ.

A dog’s behaviour, and its feelings about its world, derive from the things it inherits, and from the things it learns. And although we can outline these factors separately, it’s important to realise that they always interact – and often do so in quite subtle ways.


Dogs inherit some fixed responses and some general dispositions from their wolf ancestry.

The fixed inherited responses include, for example, salivating in response to food when hungry, tail-wagging when conflicted, growling in response to a perceived threat, and flinching in response to pain. These responses are in the proverbial DNA, and this means that it’s very difficult to train these responses out (or ‘train in’ responses that directly conflict with them). For example, you cannot teach a hungry dog to not salivate in response to food.

Champ’s inherited dispositions are more flexible. They shape and sometimes restrict what he can learn and feel comfortable with. It’s not impossible to train Champ to do things that clash with his inherited dispositions… But it’s much easier to work with them – as we will see.

So, let’s consider these dispositions. What dispositions does a dog inherit?

There are three main inherited dispositions that shape the behaviour of your pet dog. To understand these, and incorporate them in dog training, is crucial.

  1. A dog is a social animal (just like its nearest relative, the wolf). It lives cooperatively and competitively within a social group.
  2. Dogs are territorial.
  3. Dog societies are hierarchical with ‘pecking orders’.

Dogs share all these dispositions with their wolf ancestors – and modifying them sensitively and positively through training is key to having a ‘good’ pet dog.

The Social World of Dogs

Wild dogs and wolves live together in social groups (usually genetically related) of up to 30. As they grow up, they develop trust with other members of their pack – or, at least, they learn who is a ‘member’ and who isn’t a member of the group. In a pet dog’s world order, you and your family (etc) are its pack.

The innate disposition to be social is very strong indeed. It is so strong that a puppy can learn to have a lifelong social relationship with many different people and other species. These even include species that an adult dog would normally treat as prey or competitors (rabbits, deer, horses, other wolves, bears and cats). Learning has to take place early in life, though. You can teach an old dog new tricks – but new learning often requires un-learning of an older learned response!

We can argue about whether dogs inherit something like ‘loyalty’ to their group – or simply inherit suspicion and antagonism towards outsiders. But, either way, social involvement with members of their own species evolved because it has great survival value… Having many hunters improves the kill ratio, the scope of their prey, the defence of cubs, and makes individual injury less likely. In the wild, a dog/wolf rarely lives on its own – unless it is an ejected male looking for a new pack.


What this means is that your pet dog, Champ, does not like being left alone. Champ’s intensely social disposition makes him anxious when separated from his social group – and anxious to re-join his pack asap. Left alone for long periods, domestic dogs often experience anxiety and tension – and that tension often triggers displacement behaviours (such as chewing or calling/barking). Calling and barking has worked in the past in bringing you back – and so that is often what a dog does until you arrive home.

The problem with being social

Although Champ’s social disposition brings him the advantages of group living, constant contact with other members of his group also introduces potential for conflict and rivalry. Who gets to eat first, for example, in a circumstance where lots of hungry dogs are getting frustrated and snappy? The solution is not endless squabbling – which would weaken individuals and reduce their ability to hunt. So, in common with many other social animals, dogs have evolved a formula that allows them to establish a dominance hierarchy or ‘pecking order’ without a fight to the death… But more about hierarchies shortly.

Champ is – often desperately – a social animal. And we need to understand that innate disposition.

Dogs occupy territories

Many animals create and defend territories against rivals. This is commonly true of predatory animals, like dogs and cats.  There are several advantages to holding territories, which include a food supply, some protection from diseases, and access to mates for reproduction. In the evolutionary terminology, holding a territory is ‘adaptive for survival’.

Not all animals hold fixed territories though… Fish, insects, herd animals and flocking birds are rarely territorial, except when breeding. In species that don’t hold territories, evolution has often favoured an adaptive strategy of safety in numbers… I don’t need to outrun the wolves; I just need to outrun slower members of the herd.

But for those animals, like dogs, who do hold territories, there is always work to be done to maintain them. Territories are often disputed at their borders, and they have to be marked and sometimes defended. Champ’s territorial disposition drives him to get out there with pack leader (you) to patrol the pack’s collective territory, place his mark on the territory, and see off intruders. He is not especially desperate for exercise or bored indoors!

So, an important part of understanding Champ’s aggressive behaviour – when he encounters strangers – derives from the fact that he is (and all other dogs are) very territorial. In the wild, almost every close encounter with a strange same-sex dog would be confrontational. And with domestic dogs, that underlying territorial tendency is often still evident.

Faced with strangers, dogs often confront them, or summon pack leader with barking. In many territorial species, especially birds, ‘pendulum fighting’ occurs. An animal is most aggressive at the centre of its territory – and more likely to flee when at the centre of another animal’s territory.

The postman often arouses aggression because he is a stranger at the very centre of Champ’s territory.

So why are some domestic dogs not aggressive?

In domestic dogs, their naturally hostile disposition towards outgroup dogs (and sometimes people and other animals) is modified by complex factors – and sometimes reduced.

These moderating possibilities are numerous, and they overlap and conflict with one another. Here are a few…

  1. Your dog might see itself as trespassing on another pack’s territory, when outside – and be fearful or submissive rather than aggressive (the pendulum aggression, noted earlier)
  2. Your dog (usually) sees you as its pack leader, and will often follow your direction and example – even when, bizarrely, you don’t seem to want to fight a stranger.
  3. The innate tendency of dogs to be wary of, and hostile towards, strangers can be overcome – in part – by effective training and learning: you must make Champ’s obedience to you greater than his innate urge to confront.
  4. Another important factor is the life-long ‘puppification’ of your domestic dog. In a way similar to domestic cats, we treat our pet dogs as puppies throughout adult life. We provide everything they need and determine everything they are allowed to do. ‘Puppies’ are more likely to seek out play games than a fight.

But are there specific inherited factors in aggression? Are some dogs innately more aggressive than others?

I’m always cautious about over-attributing inbred ‘personality’ characteristics to types of dogs. In my view, learning (or dog training, if you prefer) is a more important factor than genes in shaping behaviour and attitudes. And we will come to training and learning presently…

However, it’s important to recognise that the territorial tendency in dogs is always present, and it can lead to aggression towards strangers. It can be calmed and modified with training techniques and/or selective breeding, but it cannot be eradicated.


Many social animals establish hierarchies of authority – or a ‘pecking order’. In the wild, these are enforced firmly – and dogs have evolved a number of non-verbal signals to indicate submission or confrontation. Many are very well known… For example, a dog indicates submission to an obviously angry pack leader by holding its tail between its rear legs. It will avert its gaze and avoid direct eye contact. It will roll onto its back and – notionally – offer its vulnerable belly.

In dog societies, these ‘white flags’ of surrender almost always inhibit an attack within the pack (an outsider will still be attacked and often killed). The dominant dog accepts the surrender – in part because dogs do not have the human ‘brain-power’ necessary to be spiteful and vindictive! But the main reason for accepting surrender is its ‘adaptive’ value. An injured pack mate is of little value in a hunt.

In Champ’s world, once he surrenders to senior pack members, that is the end of the conflict. A dog has no capacity to understand punishment – or isolation – after it has ‘apologised’ and surrendered. The only effect of such punishment is to confuse and distress.

Inheritance – Summary

Humans do not always understand their dog’s inheritance ‘package’, or the signalling systems that dogs use.

Mostly, we over-sentimentalise our dogs, as we often do with our children. We also apply our empathetic powers to – often quite dangerously – see human intentions, emotions and reasoning in dogs.

So, it is important to see Champ’s hierarchical world through his eyes. To put it at its simplest, Champ does not follow your lead because he loves you, but because you are the boss. His inherited social inclinations cause him to follow wherever the leader goes. But it’s important to realise that dogs, like their wolf ancestors, do not see leadership and authority as necessarily for ever.

If you allow a ‘lower’ member of the pack to take liberties, it will not ‘learn’ that you are a nice, kind person but that you are weak. If your dog threatens you, you must not let it win.

Learning and Training

The vast majority of the differences between a ‘good’ dog and a ‘bad’ dog depend on the things it has learned and been taught. Champ interacts with his environment – the objects, humans and other animals he comes in contact with – and he learns from them. He learns many things, ranging from who is trustworthy to where his food and the dog-walking paraphernalia are stored.

I’m not a dog training specialist, so I won’t be over-specific here about training. I will simply set out some of the broad parameters – and explain the psychological mechanics of how they work.

Parameters of learning

  1. As noted earlier, it’s much easier for a dog to learn things that are consistent with its biological inheritance – rather than things that conflict with it.
  2. Problems often arise because the things that we think we have taught Champ are different from the things he has actually learned! For example, you cannot teach Champ that you love him, because love is not a concept that dogs understand (certainly not explicitly). You can, however, think that you are teaching him that you love him while actually teaching him that your authority is weak. You might, for example, allow Champ to growl at you while he eats because he’s ‘only a little dog and you love him’.
  3. Conversely, to punish Champ for reasons that he cannot understand (say, he chewed a chair leg two hours ago) will simply teach him to be afraid of you – and probably afraid of other humans too. If all you want is an aggressive guard dog, this is fine. But it is not the way to have a safe pet.

Champ expects to have a mutually beneficial and clear (in his mind) authority relationship with his pack leader. And learning should reinforce that, rather than undermine it. We have to constantly ask the question, ‘what lesson is he taking from this interaction?’

Mechanics of learning

Dogs learn mostly through the processes of operant and classical conditioning, which overlap to produce feelings and behaviour. It is likely that they also learn through ‘social learning’ – in other words, by watching how other in their group react to things.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning describes outcomes that result when Champ does things to (or, in the jargon, when he ‘operates’ on) his environment. So, if Champ stands in the kitchen, barks loudly and gets fed – he’s likely to repeat that rewarded action. For that reason, it’s important to only reward desirable behaviour – and barking is probably not one of them! This takes consistency, effort and great patience.

Equally, dog owners must avoid punishment that is not immediately connected to undesirable behaviour.

If you want to inhibit Champ’s tendency to chew a chair leg, for example, the punishment (ideally just a raised voice) must occur while the chewing is happening. If you punish a dog after the event, this will not teach the lesson (even if it relieves your anger). Dogs simply can’t connect doing past events with current suffering. Instead, Champ will focus entirely on the pain and fear – and simply learn to fear you and other humans.

Classical conditioning

Champ also learns things through classical conditioning. After a wasp sting, he might learn that flying insects are associated with getting stung. Similarly, after one bad experience with a cat, he might associate all cats with danger – causing him to avoid them or attack them.

Ideally, Champ will learn that all humans are ‘harmless’ – and also, in charge.

Are there good dogs and bad dogs?

There are no naturally ‘bad’ or ‘good’ pet dogs. A golden retriever can ‘go rogue’, and a pit bull can make a charming pet. The danger of a pit bull is not that it is more innately aggressive than other dogs, but that it is immensely strong. A healthy adult human would be able, just about, to fight off a golden retriever. Fighting off a raging pit bull or a Rottweiler is an altogether different challenge.

Consistently undesirable dog behaviour and attitudes usually arise when the inherited dispositions that we don’t want (especially territorial or hierarchical aggression) are accidentally encouraged by training and encouragement. It is very easy to tolerate – and thereby encourage – Champ’s tendency to be territorial, to contest your authority, and to be hostile towards strangers.

Unpredictable pet dog behaviour typically arises when we think we have taught Champ one thing, but he has actually learned something else. And we sometimes realise that far too late.

Are male dogs different from females?

There are some basic inherited differences – but it is better to understand these differences as quantitative rather than qualitative.

It is probably fair to say that a female dog, with all other things being equal, will be less aggressively territorial than a male. It will probably be less assertively competitive than a male. But gender is a marginal factor – accounting for perhaps 10% of the variability. In the end, training is the crucial factor.

These gender observations apply to neutered pet dogs. In non-neutered dogs, the behavioural differences are likely to be greater.

Reading (some of) the signs

Dogs signal to pack members in dog symbols. And it is important to avoid reading them with a human dictionary!

Tail wagging

A dog’s tail-wagging is not ‘happiness’ but simply tension release.

A dog wags its tail in conflict situations, like when it re-bonds with pack leader. You are both a source of joy to Champ, and also a source of discipline. Approaching you causes conflict because Champ isn’t certain what you will do. The result is approach-avoidance conflict, which demands tension release – causing tail-wagging. A tail-wagging dog is both happy to see you – and nervous about what you will do.

Why do adult dogs do ‘play-bows’? The notion of puppification.

The play-bow describes a dog with its backside in the air and its head lowered. It’s often accompanied by stereotyped jerky movements and obvious excitement.

In the wild, play-bows predominate in cubs and puppies, who signal that chasing and jumping about is a mere game, by using a play-bow. In domestic settings, it’s also common to see play-bows in adult dogs, because we retain our pet dogs in a state of eternal playful ‘puppification’… We provide everything they need and micro-manage almost everything they do. Neutering also increases their status as non-adults.

Eye contact

It is often said that looking a pet dog straight in the eye is understood as a challenge, or an assertion of authority. This is not entirely true. Direct eye contact is only treated by a dog as ‘assertive’ if there is already a ‘disciplinary’ situation. So, if you are talking nicely to Champ and ruffling his fur, he will comfortably look you in the eye. If you’re still whanging on about that bloody chair leg, he will probably avoid your gaze.


There is an old saying that ‘the barking dog never bites’. And this is largely true. A dog bark starts with a low growl (confrontational) but rises to a yelp (fear) – ‘urhwoof’. Broadly speaking, a dog barks in order to summon pack leader or gain pack leader’s attention. Dogs learn to bark in many situations – when they want to go out, or play or be fed. And this means that, with patience, rewards and with discipline, it is possible to control barking.

Rolling on its back

A dog rolls on its back to indicate submission to a dominant dog. In the wild, the dominant dog will not rub its tummy. And, like cats, dogs do not necessarily like it when humans rub their tummies. But the adult pet dog is still a mental puppy. And belly-rubbing is usually accompanied by other bonding signals from humans – so the dog accepts it.

Summary – the take away…

Dogs inherit a range of dispositions that we can often modify through training. We cannot remove them completely though. Attempting to completely ‘train out’ a dog’s instinctive behaviours and feelings is difficult and stressful (for you and Champ). And it is almost certain to fail. For example, you cannot train a dog to be a solitary animal; all you end up with is a stressed animal, on its own.

It is important to avoid ‘anthropomorphising’ your dog – which is to say, attributing human characteristics to them. Dogs do not feel such emotions as pride, guilt, honour and shame. Love and loyalty? Well, that depends on how we define them.

What is certain is that dogs feel anxiety and pleasure when they interact socially.

Training is mostly about using conditioning techniques to reward ‘good’ behaviour and discourage ‘bad’ behaviour. We do this quite intuitively, but we are fallible. We sometimes accidentally teach dogs one thing, while imagining we are teaching them another!

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