“My dog needs to learn how to behave.”

“My dog needs to learn some behaviors.”

On the surface, the previous two statements seem to be talking about the same thing. Both have a version of the word “behave” in them, so they must be closely related, right?

Actually, no. In fact, these two sentences are as far away from each other in meaning as Pluto is from Earth in light years. (Okay, maybe not quite that bad; I just wanted to say Pluto, ya know, the dog thing. Anyway, they are not closely related.)

This may seem a bit trainer-geeky, but it is soooo very important to understand the difference between behavior and Behavior (capitalization mine), whether you are teaching your dog to Sit or dealing with a problem.

Allow me to define both and explain the importance.


This is one of the newer ways of talking about what used to be called “commands” — Sit, Down, Come, No, Heel etc. — and also “tricks” like shake, roll over, etc. We think of “tricks” and “commands” as two different things, and we tend to teach them differently, but they are the same thing: single-event actions, generally taught with words. Say the word, the action is performed, and some type of reward is usually provided.

Anyone can teach behaviors, and any dog can learn them. I sometimes call them “circus tricks” because of the automatic/rote nature of them. To avoid confusion in this post, I will also refer to them that way here.


Thisis what happens between the circus tricks, and it occupies the vast majority of your dog’s day! It is the stuff your dog does when you are not specifically telling her what to do; it’s what you are expecting or hoping she already “knows.” Though we differentiate between Good and Bad Behavior, your dog doesn’t — to her, Behavior is simply how she conducts herself in our world. Behavior is what happens after the walk but before dinner, while you are working on your computer or running the vacuum, when you are helping the kids with schoolwork, when you are fixing a snack and leaving it on the counter. While you are doing other things, your dog is Behaving.

Why it’s important to know the difference

When our dogs fail to do what we want them to do, we jump to unhelpful human conclusions. Many of us like to say our dogs are “stubborn” when they don’t perform the circus trick every time or Behave the way we’d like. Let me be clear: Dogs generally are not being “stubborn” when they don’t do what we want. There ARE reasons for their improper response — and they can be very different depending on whether it’s a behavior or Behavior.

Your dog may not perform a circus trick/behavior reliably because:

• there have not been enough repetitions,

• rewards haven’t been consistently provided,

• there is too much else going on around the dog (ie distractions),

• the teaching technique isn’t sound (eg punishing your dog for not Coming will make him less likely to Come).

In this instance, cleaning up and committing to your teaching procedure should get your dog performing reliably (80-90% for most things; dogs aren’t robots!).

Your dog may not Behave because:

• he’s scared,

• he’s overstimulated,

• he’s confused,

• he’s learned bad things happen to him under these circumstances,

• it’s a new place/person/thing,

• he’s being bullied by another dog,

• it’s night,

• it’s day,

• it’s noisy,

• he smells something funny,

• his brain is tired,

• he’s sick,

• something hurts,

• he doesn’t trust you,

• he doesn’t feel protected,

• he’s learned how to get what he wants without doing it,

• he sees no benefit to doing it,

• Behaving a different way benefits him more,

• he is expected to Behave though no one has taught him how to Behave.*

In this instance, as you can see, it’s a wee bit more complicated. Which is why it’s fascinating for me and other pros, but so frustrating for many POGs!

Behavior is internal. It comes from within, not without. It isn’t created with a word. Behavior is impacted by personality, life experience, environment, nutrition, breed(s), etc. etc. It is where DogJoy can happen, where the true connection/bond between human and dog is formed and where understanding, communication and mutual respect blossom.

To impact Behavior, you need to understand your dog on a deeper level. To create Good Behavior, you have to understand Dog Behavior in general, and your dog’s Behavior in particular. If you take the time to do that, both of you will be richly rewarded.

For some good places to start learning about dog Behavior, visit my Recommended Reading page.


*For the record, despite thousands of years of domestication, dogs still have no clue how to operate in our world, and since they don’t have ESP or a chip in their heads that is preprogrammed before they arrive in your home, they need us to supply the missing information in a way they can understand and properly process.