Much of what is called dog misbehavior is rooted in genetic frustration. Most dog misbehavior is not that but simply a normal—and perfectly fine—behavior expressed in an inappropriate context.
If a frustrated herding dog that lives in a backyard and just gets a walk here and there chases squirrels or rabbits in his yard, no one cares. If it does the same thing with kids on skateboards, people start caring rather quickly. However, it’s the same behavior. In one context it's perfectly okay. In another context not so much. This generally applies to most so-called dog misbehavior. It seldom is the behavior we take issue with, just the context it occurs in. A dog that mauls an intruder is a hero. A dog that does it to a welcome visitor is a liability.
The behaviors of our dogs we take issue with are generally all normal behaviors. If they were expressed in an appropriate context, we wouldn’t care but they are often not. So why is this happening?
Dogs have genetic needs; desires they are born with. These drives need an outlet. If we don’t provide an appropriate outlet, our dog will find something to replace it with. These displacement activities serve the purpose of taking the edge off its built-up frustration for what is missing. We are most likely not going to care for what our dog comes up with. Some displacement activities are easy to understand and relate back like the skateboard chasing example. Others are less obvious to relate back but they have the same reason behind them. Common examples are eating sprinkler heads, digging holes in the yard, pacing fences, and so on. The dog is acting out of genetic frustration.
We have created different dog breeds for practical reasons, many are related to hunting, the prime desire of dogs. The six aspects of the predatory hunting sequence dogs crave are searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebration, and consumption. Let’s take a brief look at each of these components.
Components of Biological Dog Fulfillment
Searching: The predator has to first find the prey, so most dogs are good at searching with their nose. Bloodhounds are an example of a breed that can’t stop sniffing for things. It makes Bloodhounds whole to use their nose to find stuff.
Stalking: Once the prey has been located, the predator has to sneak up and get closer to make the hunt more likely to succeed. Pointers are an example of a breed that does this more intensely than anyone else.
Chasing: When the predator is close enough, it will have to try to grab the prey and that often involves chasing it to catch it. Most dogs love chasing. Dogs usually don’t chase squirrels because they are hungry. They chase squirrels because they are fun to chase. Sighthounds are an extreme example of master chasers.
Fighting: Once the prey is caught. It will fight back. It will be a struggle for the predator to get its meal. There are no suicide rabbits. A dog must be able to persevere in this battle. An extreme example of a dog breed, that won’t back down is pit bulls.
Celebration: The prey was caught and killed. Many dogs carry it around in their mouth proudly and have a swagger in their step doing it. That is a celebration.
Consumption: Time to eat. In the wild, survival depends on it. In a human household, other food is available. Some dogs will eat their kills, many domestic dogs won’t.
The best surrogate activity to fulfill your dog’s genetic needs is through play to fulfill the aspects of hunting your dog enjoys the most. If you want to understand how to fulfill your dog's genetics through play, I recommend also our article on Play and also Jay Jack’s lecture Tug: A Deeper Perspective.
I know walking with your dog is a popular activity. By all means, walk with your dog and have a good time. But understand, walking with your dog is also just a surrogate activity; just not the best one.
We Created The Breeds and Their Needs
All the breeds I listed as examples were made better at these specific activities through selective breeding by us over decades and in some cases centuries. We created breeds that need to engage in specific activities to be whole. If we do not provide an outlet for the drives we made stronger, we can’t be surprised if dogs become frustrated and engage in what we consider dog misbehavior. In reality, it is simply looking for an alternative outlet for what we failed to provide. These are displacement activities, not dog misbehavior.
Fulfilling your dog’s genetic drives is the most successful approach for curbing your dog’s choice of undesired displacement activity. Because it removes the need for the activity. Once that is accomplished it becomes fairly easy to suppress any bad habits that remain.
The Better Approach
Failing to address the genetic needs first, will result in a lot of frustration for all involved. Dog misbehavior can temporarily be suppressed regardless but without addressing the underlying cause you will play whack-a-mole forever. After you suppress one dog misbehavior, your dog will find a new one a few weeks later. Because the lack that led to it in the first place, still exists. Fulfilling your dog’s genetic needs is where all problem resolution must begin for lasting success.