It seems like we focus so much attention on what a dog’s behavior should or shouldn’t look like. If a dog’s bark has a high pitch we assume that he is barking in a friendly manner. Conversely, if the pitch is low, we assume that he is barking in an unfriendly manner. We watch a dog’s body to guess whether the form is friendly or unfriendly. If a dog’s body is loose, we assume he is friendly. If stiff, we make the assumption that he is unfriendly. The unfriendly postures are then labeled as offensive or defensive. Dogs that engage in offensive behavior are thought to be more likely to bite than those who engage in defensive behavior.
These assumptions are based on the dog’s body posture or form, which refers to what the behavior “looks like.” Individuals often need hours upon hours of training to give an educated guess about what the form is communicating. And even then, it is simply an educated guess. A further complication lies in that many dogs flip body postures from one moment to the next.
I am not suggesting that form is completely irrelevant. In fact, one behavior (or set of behaviors)- called precursors-can often predict another behavior. I just don’t believe that it is where we should stop.
There are problems with relying on form that arise with dangerous and even less serious behaviors as well. Take jumping for example. Is the dog jumping for attention, to get food, or to avoid a situation? Suppose a trainer devises a training program to address jumping, but only focuses on form and ignores why the dog is jumping. The program may be great to reduce jumping for attention. But, if the dog is jumping to avoid a situation, then that same program could be detrimental. The same might be said for jumping to get food. A one-size-fits-all treatment isn’t appropriate for the same form of behavior.
Instead of focusing so much on the form of behavior, I like to put emphasis on the function of the behavior. What exactly is function? Function basically refers to the purpose for the behavior. It’s what the behavior produces for the dog in the moment. I encourage you to resist the urge to think the purpose is to gain dominance or because the dog is insecure. Function considers the consequence that the dog actually receives for the behavior, not necessarily the one we intend for him to receive. What does the behavior produce for the dog right now while the behavior is occurring? Examples might include tasty treats, petting, or being removed from a scary situation. The consequence can be added and removed almost in an instance.
Determining the function of behavior requires an assessment, which might provide proof to back up an educated guess. We don’t have to make assumptions about what the dog is thinking or feeling. We can identify the function through an assessment and develop a treatment procedure based on the function. We avoid creating a one-size-fits-all treatment that could be potentially harmful to a dog’s behavior. When a dog’s problem behavior is of concern, let’s focus on function, not form.