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Understand your dog better for a successful relationship

With half the country in lockdown and more time on our hands than we'd like, maybe this is the opportunity to all take a collective breath and question what our dogs really need...

Dog trainer Mel Ritterman from Cooper and Kids reflects on why our expectations are at odds with the reality of owning of a companion animal including correctly identifying canine behaviour and meeting our own dogs' individual needs...

There is so much more to helping our dogs than just training new behaviours to “fix” their “problems”! 
It is not our dogs that are broken - it is our expectations that need to be adjusted. 
I know that people look at dog trainers as people that should come into the home and just fix their dogs' “problem” but more often than not, there are so many more pieces to the puzzle.

Yes, we can possibly “fix” that one issue by masking it with a new behaviour we prefer to see instead. But is this actually going to fix the underlying reason of why the behaviour is happening in the first place

So today I am going to help give you a little bit more of an understanding as to the WHY behind behaviour in order to help you to understand your dog better.

Why do we get dogs in the first place? We get them to be a part of the family. We get them to make us happy and to make them happy. 

So how do we do this? How do we ensure they are happy? Firstly we must realise that they are dogs. They are a different species to us
We get pet dogs and we just expect them to slot into our human world and know what to do and to be okay with it. 

So as their owner, their guardian, their person – you need to learn to understand your dog. Listen to your dog. Know how to meet your dog’s essential needs. Set them up for success and make them feel safe and loved in this world.

So many of the behaviours that people want “fixed” in their dogs are often very natural behaviours for a dog (digging, mouthing, chewing, barking). We just need to teach them how to have outlets for these natural behaviours that are acceptable in our human world.

If we don’t understand the underlying reason of why these “unwanted behaviours” are happening, they are likely to resurface later on...

✔️ A dog pulling on the leadYes, we can train them not to pull on the lead, but have you ever stopped to think, why is your dog pulling in the first place? What is the underlying reason? Are they totally stressed out and overwhelmed by the big wide world? Are they just too excited and don’t know how to control their arousal levels? Have they learnt that pulling gets them to the park faster?

✔️ A dog jumping on visitors at the front door: Yes, we can train the dog to sit instead of jumping or go and station on their mat when the doorbell rings. But why is the dog jumping in the first place? In this situation, more often than not people will mistake what they think is excitement for a dog who is actually struggling to cope and feels overwhelmed when new people come into the home. 

So instead of just teaching a sit or stay on a mat, how can we actually help them to feel better and less overwhelmed when visitors arrive?

✔️ Then when it comes to the more “aggressive” behaviours such as growling, barking, lunging, snapping, biting etc., have you ever stopped to think the dog might not be doing to this hurt you or the other dog… they might actually be doing it because they have been trying to express their fear, discomfort or pain in so many other ways that were missed? That weren’t understood or heard? So now they have escalated because it’s the only way they can be heard. 

There really is so much to think about isn’t there?
I recently read a book which got my brain ticking. It said so much of what I had been thinking and teaching but explained it in a really easy to understand way. 

The book [1] written by the amazing Kim Brophey - is called Meet Your Dog: The Game- Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior

Kim Brophey developed a revolutionary, comprehensive framework called the L.E.G.S model, a new way of looking at things based on modern science that allows owners to identify what their dog is struggling with, why, and how they can fix it. It explains the four aspects of a dog’s behaviour, whilst most others usually just focus on the Learning aspect, this model looks at the whole picture.

What does L.E.G.S stand for? 
Learning, Environment, Genetics and Self. All four incredibly important pieces to the puzzle. “When these four aspects are in balance, they work in harmony, but if not, they can create disruptive, even dangerous, behaviour or lead to the dog being surrendered to a shelter.”[1]

This is a model that helps both trainers and dog owners to be able to explain the WHY better and give a new understanding of what motivates and affects our dog's behaviour

Once we understand this model, we will be able to form more understanding, empathetic and realistic views of what is actually going on in the dog and how we can actually help them, rather than just “fix” the one “problem”. So let me break each one down for you...

1) Learning = your dog’s experience and education:

No matter what we “teach” our dogs, they are learning all the time. Learning is of course important when looking at our dogs behaviour but it is just one piece of the puzzle. Our dogs are forever learning that their behaviours will result in consequences

The behaviours that get them what they want, are the behaviours that are likely to be repeatedFor example, your dog barks at you and looks at his food bowl at 6pm every night, what do you do? You feed him. He learns that the barking is working so he will do it the next night and the next night and so on.

Our dogs also learn via association

Every time that toddler crawls towards the dog, you start yelling at the toddler to stop, the dog will learn to associate that toddler with you getting angry and in turn they may become fearful of the toddler approaching. 

So yes, training dogs is “important” but we must remember that our dogs are always learning!

2) Environment = the many aspects of your dog’s external world:

When looking at our dogs and behaviour it is always important to consider their external environment. 

A Bernese Mountain Dog in a really hot humid climate, or a Border Collie in a tiny boxed-in apartment, when you see dogs like these exhibiting “behavioural problems” how about first taking a look at their environment? Their external world. 

Even though we might think we are giving them “the best,” what we picture the best environment might not be ideal to them

I still remember so clearly taking my kids to the zoo a couple of years ago and seeing the one lion in a small enclosure just pacing up and down, up and down. I felt so sad for that poor animal. The environment and lack of enrichment was making the poor thing so incredibly stressed out.

So when you have a “behavioural problem” with your dog, have a think about the environment first - is there something in the environment that can be changed to help “fix” or at least help what’s going on? A dog living in a city apartment complex with banging and drilling going on all day is likely to be grumpier than the dog living in a nice big spacious house in the quiet suburbs. Why? Because of the environment. The environment is making it impossible for this dog to get proper sleep, to the able to unwind and actually decompress and relax. 

So yes, the external environment is incredibly important when looking at a dog's overall behaviour and wellbeing

Using enrichment can be a beautiful way to help set up the environment for the better too.  Enrichment is ways of making your dog’s days more exciting.

Giving them things to do. 

Helping them to use their brains, their noses and to enjoy life. Think about this, really think about it. Think about their environment. 

Think about how you can make their environment more enriching, so it actually helps to set your dog up to get it right and to enjoy their days.

3) Genetics = the DNA that designed your dog inside and out:

Genetics also play a big part in helping us to understand a dog's behaviour. It is such an important piece of the puzzle. I mean look at dogs, how different is each breed: their size, their shape, their coats, temperaments and personalities, the list goes on. They really are so different. And why is that? Whether we like it or not, for generations and generations different breeds were bred for actual reasons. 

Specific traits were bred into our dogs to help mankind in so many different ways. It is important to know what kind of job your dog was bred to do. It will help you to understand your dog SO much better.

What are the 10 different dog breed groups?

1. The natural dogsSiberian Husky, Samoyed, Shar-Pei...

2. The sighthoundsGreyhound, Whippet, Irish Wolfhound...

3. The scent hounds – Basset Hound, Beagle, Bloodhound...

4. The guardian dogs – Bernese Mountain Dog, German Shepherd, Great Dane...

5. The toy dogsCavalier King Charles Spaniel, Toy Poodle, Pug, Maltese, Shih Tzu...

6. The gun dogsGolden Retriever, Weimaraner, Labrador, English Cocker Spaniel, Hungarian Vizsla...

7. The Terriers – Miniature Schnauzer, Airedale Terrier, West Highland Terrier...

8. The BulldogsBoxer, Bullmastiff, Bull Terrier, English and American Bulldog...

9. The herding dogsBorder Collie, Australian Shepherd, Blue Heeler, Kelpie...

10. The world dogs – no specific breeds

In Kim’s book she goes through each of these groups in amazing detail. So many "
Aha!" moments when reading through each one. I literally had a dog in mind for each group and her explanations literally explained them to a tea. 

Once you understand this and understand more about the importance that their DNA, their genetics play in shaping their behaviours, the more understanding you will be of your dog. And the more you will be able to help them and ultimately the better relationship you will have with your dog.

4) Self = the unique interior world of your dog e.g. health, development, age, sex and individuality:

Have you ever thought to stop and look at the individual in front of you? Let’s try and look at each dog. Each dogs is its own self! 

Malinois Porthos & Aramis are littermates but
have very different personalities
So often I talk to multi-dog families and they will often say: "I wish dog A was more like dog B". Unfortunately, just like humans – dogs are all different - even if they are from the same litter or even if they live in the same home and had the same upbringing

It’s just like human siblings. When looking at the self, we need to realise that internal factors such as the dog's health, age, nutrition, discomfort, pain, nausea, hormones, energy levels, can in fact play a big part in our dog's behaviour. 

When looking at behaviour, you also must consider, how are they feeling within themselves? Look at the age of the dog, the health of the dog? Could it be possible that they are slightly losing their hearing or their eye site as they get older? Might they have started developing some arthritis and might have some degree of pain. When in doubt and a behaviour really does change out of the blue, always check in with your vet

Dogs can’t talk to us to tell us when they’re in pain or something is wrong so you must be their biggest advocate. We must always look at each dog's individual personality. 

Learning to read your dog’s body language to me, is one of the most important things in pet dog ownership. Once you understand your dog’s body language, you can help them when they are feeling worried, nervous, anxious and you can see when they are happy so you can start to do more of those things. Each dog will also have its own set of likes and dislikes and through their body language, you will be able to learn this and help them. Each dog will have its own quirks.

Plus, just like humans, dogs will have good days and bad days

For those in the dog industry, we need to realise that we can’t come up with the same plan for each dog we work with – because each dog is different, each dog is its own self.

Understanding your dog is so much more than just “training” your dog. Meeting all of your dog’s needs is what matters. As hard as it might be, as dog owners, we need to stop comparing ourselves to others. Seeing a dog down the street and wishing your dog would “behave” like that dog. Just like people, we are all different, for so many reasons, and so are our dogs. The quicker we realise this, the quicker we can help them. 

The quicker we lower our expectations and make them realistic expectations and stop trying to use “quick” fixes, the quicker we will be able to help them. So let’s start to look at the bigger picture, let’s look at the WHY. 

Let’s take into consideration all the pieces of the puzzle: Learning, Environment, Genetics and Self

Then let’s help our dogs by being kind, caring and compassionate. Build that trust and respect. And ultimately work to help your dog so you can both living a happy, safe and fun life together.

If you live in Australia, the Pet Professional Guild Australia (PPGA) and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) are two great resources to find a force-free trainer in your area.

written by Mel Ritterman from Cooper and Kids, June 2021 for Australian Dog Lover

About the Writer

Mel Ritterman is an IAABC accredited dog trainer, a Family Paws Parent Educator and a busy mum to three young children and her Golden Retriever, Cooper

Mel has a psychology background and has always had a serious love for dogs as well as a love for learning about the science of behaviour. Mel uses force-free, positive, science-based training and loves helping to educate families on this too.

Mel’s business, Cooper and Kids specialises in creating safe, happy and positive relationships between babies, kids and dogs.


1. Brophey, K. (2018) Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior.

Disclaimer: Cooper and Kids will not be liable for anything that happens to you, your dog or children by following the advice and tips in this article. If you have real concerns or worries about your dog and/or safety of your children, please seek out a professional to come and assess the situation asap.

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