The Dog in our Head

The Dog in our Head

The Dog in our Head

Sammy is an adolescent schipperke who is VERY smart, full of life and energy with a high drive (She stays ‘in the game’ despite adversity). She knows how to walk on a loose leash politely, we’ve worked on it a bunch in our own neighborhood and she listens really well! Today we went to the farmers market and it was really embarrassing. She was pulling towards everyone, barking until she could greet them and then jumping on them. Sammy knows better and never acts like this on walks but wasn’t listening to my cues (or commands). It was a really frustrating experience, she’s so stubborn! I’m not sure what happened, she knows better. I was doing what we always do but nothing was working.

This type of story is one I hear a lot in some way or another! Our dog normally does really well and then at some point they don’t, they struggle. Then none of our tools work in that situation! It can feel really overwhelming, defeating, embarrassing, scary, etc. for us, rightfully so, it’s a lot. Then it’s so easy when we’re upset or frazzled, to project our emotions onto our animals and see things like stubbornness in our dogs, when that’s not really an emotion dogs experience, it’s a human emotion. For every dog we’re training, we really are training two dogs; the dog in front of us and the dog in our heads. Sometimes we get lucky and they’re the same dog, but very easily they can become two different dogs.


You may be thinking, what dog is in my head? The dog in our head is the expectation of our dog or how we feel our dog should be behaving, what they should be feeling or doing. They are our expectations. Expectations can be gravely dangerous with other living things and can set us up to be frustrated or to miss the mark. 


Dogs are living beings with their own personalities, needs, emotions, understanding and their own way of perceiving and experiencing this world that is substantially different than our own. It’s important to be able to meet them where they are in that specific moment instead of where they were the last time or where we expect them to be. If we’re not training the dog in front of us, then we’re probably teaching in a way that is difficult for that individual to think and learn. 

How do we meet dogs where they are?

Meeting Basic Needs

First, we need to make sure that a dog’s basic needs are being met in order of priority before we can expect them to be able to think and learn. A lot of times when dog’s aren’t responding to us it’s not that they’re stubborn, again a human emotion. We can see dog’s being non-responsive when they’re scared, anxious, hungry, thirsty, they need to go to the bathroom, they don’t understand what you’re asking in the specific situation, they’re uncomfortable, they’re tired, they don’t trust the situation or the relationship involved in the interaction, the situation is too distracting, they’ve been working for too long, etc. 

There are a LOT of reasons why a dog may not be responding, which are all valid, but if we’re stuck focusing on the dog in our head and what we expect from them, instead of meeting them where they are, we can miss what’s happening from their perspective and in their world, preventing us from being able to teach them successfully. 


When trying to troubleshoot or figure out the dog in front of us, take a step back and make sure the dog’s biological needs are being met. This could be food, water, temperature of the surrounding, sleep, making sure medical needs are being met or ruling out any medical effects on the situation. This could be a sticker in their foot, allergies, soreness, joint pain, dental pain, GI issues, etc. 


Next, make sure their emotional needs are being met! Does the dog have bodily autonomy in the situation? Does the dog maintain choice and control? If not, are there ways that you could provide them with more choice and control? This can affect if the dog trusts you or the situation! Have we been consistent in how we have taught and communicated the behaviors we are hoping to get from the animal? Does the dog have experience in the specific situation or context? Utilizing positive reinforcement, force free methods can help empower our dogs for success; improving our relationship with them, their confidence, and their sense of security. 


Using methods or approaches that utilize pain, fear or coercion to solicit behaviors can jeopardize our relationship with our dogs, which can cause issues in the future as we continue to ask for those behaviors in the future. Finding ways to bond with our dog through play, enrichment, trust building games, positive reinforcement training protocols, etc. can be a great way to build up trust and confidence! One of my favorite, simple ways to build up our relationship is the SMART 50 protocol and consent petting!

Check out the Hierarchy of Dog’s Needs for a good visual and reference:

Understanding Body Language and Behavior

The better we understand our dog’s behaviors when they’re in a state of thinking and learning, overstimulated, stressed, scared, anxious, etc. the easier it is for us to adjust our expectations to be able to meet them where they are. When they’re not successful, it’s up to us to adjust what we’re doing. By figuring out their emotional state, the easier it is to do this!

Ideally, a dog that is thinking and learning is displaying loose, relaxed body language. They’re checking in with us frequently or they’re staying actively engaged looking for the next set of instructions. If they get distracted or make a mistake, it’s short lived and they recover back to the loose, relaxed state quickly and easily. They are listening to known cues easily and following training steps well. 

A stressed dog that may be struggling to think and learn may appear hypervigilant, they are spending more time checking in with their surroundings than you. Sudden changes in the environment have them looking away from you. They may have a delayed recovery, struggling to check back in and get back to the base line. We could be seeing displacement behaviors, this is a great indication of a stressed and conflicted dog. 

Displacement behaviors are normal behaviors displayed out of context. They indicate conflict and stress. The dog wants to do something, but they are suppressing the urge to do it. They displace the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too.  They are not sure what will happen next. They want to jump on you or run out the door, but instead they yawn. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes their bone, but instead bites furiously at their own foot. When we see these signals the dog is stressed but trying to regulate themselves. I want to try to identify what is causing it and try to figure out a way to de-escalate the dog's emotions. Potential, common displacement behaviors to look for: 

  • Licking their lips or nose
  • Yawning when not tired
  • Suddenly scratching
  • Suddenly biting their feet or an object
  • Suddenly sniffing the ground or an object
  • Shaking like a wet dog when not wet
  • Repetitive behaviors

A scared or anxious dog could be showing some of the above signs. They could also be avoidant from avoiding eye contact, keeping their head turned away or trying to take space away from what’s happening. We could see barking, lunging, teeth displays or other aggressive behaviors. We can also see physiology changes like their hair standing up, pupil dilation, excessive salivation, an erection in male dogs, diarrhea or urination.

The 3 D’s

Duration, distance and distractions can all change the intensity of the situation and can change the context for our dogs. Like for people, when we’re building up a skill, the context matters. I may know how to drive cars, but if I haven’t learned how to drive in snow before being put in that situation, I could really struggle. Just like Sammy did great in the neighborhood, if she hasn’t learned how to transition that skillset into a busier environment like a farmers market, she could really struggle. She is being exposed to people and dogs for a longer duration, she’s closer to them than on a walk and there just so much MORE happening. 

It’s important to build up a dog's skill sets in a way that they can be successful. We can do this by managing the duration, distance or distractions around us when working without dogs. If they’re struggling, try to make all three of those as easy as possible, then systematically expand one at a time to teach your dog how to process and handle those situations. For Sammy, we could have stepped away from the farmers market, and once she’s calmed down, maybe done some parallel walking to the farmers market and practiced at a distance. Then either gradually getting closer in that one trip or take several trips gradually working on skills as we get closer and build up longer sessions of exposure. 


Is the length of time that is required to hold the behavior. Not all behaviors require duration but for those that do, the longer it has to be held the harder it is. 


Is how far away you are from the dog during the behavior. The further the distance, the less reliable the behavior will become. Return before rewarding to prevent anticipation for reward.


Anything else that is going on around your dog. If they find it exciting, stressful, or disrupting, it’s a distraction. Be sure your dog can handle duration and distance before you start adding distractions.

Let’s put it together and revisit how we can meet Sammy where she is! 

Sammy is an adolescent Schipperke who is VERY smart but is still learning and that’s normal. She knows how to walk on a loose leash politely while in our neighborhood and now we’re ready to work on her leash manners in new environments. We tried working with her at the farmers market but it was really challenging for her. Before we go back to work there, we’re going to work in some different neighborhoods, then do some practice at the park, then at home depot, then the pet store so it really helps her understand leash manners in different environments. 

Today we went to the farmers market after a couple weeks of practice in different environments and it was really successful. We worked around the farmers market for a bit and then would go into the market for 2-5 minutes, then would leave and take a break. After a while she started getting fidgety and started barking, we promptly left, on her way to the car she went to the bathroom. She then slept in the car and took a nap on the way home. It felt great, next time I may just go for less time so she doesn’t burn out.

Adjusting Training to meet our dogs where they are is the key to success! Dogs and animals live in the world we create or provide for them. That means that we have the responsibility to change our approach, our thought process or their surroundings in order for the dog to be able to change. We can’t expect our dogs to change without being willing to change ourselves. That can feel like a lot of weight but that also means we are empowered to actively create the change we want to see. Learning to do all of this can be a lot, it’s okay if it feels overwhelming, it is sometimes. It’s okay to take smaller steps for ourselves too! The best rule of thumb, if you feel like you can’t think and learn anymore or if you’re feeling frustrated, just end the walk or the training session or go home. The dog probably is also overwhelmed or frustrated too at this point. It’s okay to take a break! It’s important to set ourselves up for success as well and that can look different for all of us. 

Both sides of the leash matter.

My best advice when training an animal, is to go in with a fluid plan based on the prior work you’ve done with them but expect that the plan will change based on where they are in that particular moment. That’s the key to successful training, being present, mindful and adaptive.

Written by; Allison Daack (She/they)
CPDT-KA and Certified Fear Free Animal Trainer
Founder, Canine Behavior Consultant

Photo credits: Schipperke on leash, Dog drinking water , Humane Hierarchy of Dog’s needs, Dog flicking tongue, Schipperke running
Liquid error (layout/theme line 182): Could not find asset snippets/tuecus-social-share.liquid Liquid error (layout/theme line 182): Could not find asset snippets/tuecus-rewards-widget.liquid