Canine Reflexes

The study of animal behavior is known as ethology. Ethologists investigate the mechanisms and evolution of behavior. Charles Darwin founded the scientific study of behavior, and showed by many examples that behavior, as well as morphology ( the study of the form or shape of an organism or part thereof) and physiology (the science of the function of living systems), is an adaptation to environmental demands, and can increase the chances of species survival.

Between 1930 and 1950, the Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz and the Dutch ethologist Niko Tinbergen found that certain animals show strong responses to specific stimuli. Once one of these type of behaviors is initiated, it continues to completion even if circumstances change. If an egg rolls out of a goose's nest, the goose stretches her neck until the underside of her bill touches the egg. Then she rolls the egg back to the nest. If someone takes the egg away while she is reaching for it, the goose goes through the motions anyway without an egg.

Reflexes are also innate. A reflex is a simple, inborn, automatic response by a part of the body to a stimulus. Reflexes help animals respond quickly to a stimulus, thus protecting them from harm. Learned behavior results from experience, and enables animals to adjust to new situations. Unless an animal exhibits a behavior at birth, however, it is often difficult to determine if the behavior is learned or innate. For example, pecking, an innate behavior in chicks, gets more accurate as the chicks get older. The improvement in pecking aim does not occur because the chicks learn and correct their errors, but is due to a natural maturing of muscles and eyes. Scientific studies have shown that pecking is entirely innate.

In the dog world, these reflexes would include all the behaviors dogs exhibit that seem to be instinctive - barking at strangers, wagging the tail, showing the teeth as a warning mechanism, etc.

Have you ever really thought of just why we can train and in so many ways influence a dog?

Dogs and wolves and other canids, began evolving somewhere around two million years before man. Dogs have evolved from the distant past to the present, surviving because of an ability and need to belong to a group. They need a group. They "pack" for survival and for hunting prey larger, and sometimes faster, then themselves. Because dogs have this sociability factor, they are more tractable and trainable than those animals that do not. That we can teach these animals is not so much a factor of their intelligence as it is what ethologists call The Socialization Factor.

This means that a dog needs you as a friend. It also means that when excluded, the dog will be stressed, and will most likely relieve the stress in different ways, usually into what we call unwanted behavior. Social deprivation (solitary confinement) is probably the worst thing you can do to a dog. It creates antagonisms that may make a dog mean. On the other hand, a dog who knows he is part of a group is more likely to be trouble-free and confident.

Almost all animals learn and are taught via "the copying effect." Herding animals like elephants, horses, and dogs, are prone to copying the actions found within the group. This means that a dog in the human world will quite naturally copy our actions and even our emotions and attitudes. Dogs learn what they see and experience.

You push and the dog copies and pushes back. You pull and the dog learns to pull.

Usually, humans who seem to do best with dog training are remarkably normal, well-adjusted and present themselves as mature and emotionally stable. Owners and trainers who do well with dogs have the following characteristics:

  • They usually seem happy and content and act like they are going to have a wonderful day--regardless of what other people say or do.
  • They don't yell, scream or get angry a lot.
  • They try to be a good neighbor and citizen.
  • They value opinions differing from their own.
  • Everyone pretty much knows what is expected of them and accepts responsibility.
  • They try to be flexible and non-judgmental when others fail to meet their expectations.
  • They try to be fair and admit mistakes.
  • They seem to relax through life and are not so serious all the time.
  • They usually live quietly without a whole lot of drama.

    The point is that nice, calm people often don't have a whole lot of dog behavior problems like some people do--because they don't have all the craziness, yelling and people and kids screaming making their dogs bonkers and neurotic.

    If you want your dog to be mellow and calm, you may face a formidable obstacle if you live in a funhouse or with screaming, wild kids. Many times when peoples' children have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) the family dog suffers from it too. Coincidentally, dog owners often going through marital or financial problems report that their dogs have become aggressive, edgy and/or defiant.

    The moral here is that if you want your dog to be happy, calm and friendly, the first thing to do is be a happy, calm and friendly person yourself. Hopefully, you can get family or housemates to be happy, calm and friendly people too, if they are not already so.

The Opposition Reflex

In the dog training world, “Opposition Reflex” is a term used to describe why a puppy first resists the tension of the leash by stopping, fighting, or pulling away.  When tension is applied, a dog’s predatory instincts of fight, freeze or flight kicks in.  Many people don’t realize dogs have this reflex or they believe a dog stops or pulls out of spite or challenge.

To see opposition reflex in action just put a leash on a cat. That’s opposition reflex! It’s stronger in most other animals, probably the more wild or the more predators they are the stronger the reflex, Thankfully, dog’s have been domesticated and puppies are fast learners and through conditioning, patience and trust, this reflex diminishes.

Opposition reflex plays a role initially, but the main reason dogs continue to pull is that the owner allows it and the dog is greatly rewarded for doing it.  Dogs that pull on a leash think the harder they pull, the more they get, even if it means choking themselves in the process. The other reason dogs pull is owners never showed them, in a language they understand “how to” walk on a loose leash. And the final reason dogs learn to pull the leash is because they go faster then we do. Our fastest walk is to them a very slow waltz. It can be frustrating for a dog to stay at our pace.

People make the mistake initially when getting a new puppy by placing it on the ground and following it around. Once the puppy can tolerate the collar and leash, the owner then allows the puppy to pull them everywhere. As the puppy grows and gains more pulling strength, most owners make the mistake of putting these nice, humane,  harnesses (that you see on sled dogs), along with a tightly held leash or retractable leash (that causes dogs to pull) allowing opposition reflex and the pulling behavior to really kick into gear.

Leash pulling can easily be avoided or stopped altogether with a little time and knowledge.Pulling back or jerking (to correct the dog's forging) only makes thing worse, increasing or reinforcing the opposition reflex. The more you pull, the more the dog pulls. The more the dog pulls, the more you pull.

Mouth - eye coordination

Dogs have teeth. Dogs use their teeth for just about everything that we use our fingers and hands for. A dogs mouth-eye coordination is much better then even the best we can do with hand eye coordination. When you hit at a dog or wave something near it's face you are stimulating his this reflex. His response is always going to be a "bite" movement. This is a highly developed natural reflex in dogs, allowing them to catch a fly right out of the air.

Stimulating this reflex is how professionals teach dogs to attack. In other words, it is because of this close eye-mouth hook-up that most any kind of fast movement can make a dog want to grab or bite at whatever is irritating it or being waved in it's face.


Barrier Frustration can occur if a dog is behind a window, fence, or on leash and is not allowed to interact with the environment. After a while, she may get frustrated and aggressive. One indicator of Barrier Frustration having a part in aggression is if a dog barks behind barriers and is calm around dogs when off-leash, but is very aggressive behind a barrier or on-leash. Dogs, of course, can also show aggression no matter how much they are being contained as well. 

Understanding this behavior-affecting syndrome can be most useful to the dog owner. In varying degrees it is found to be the basic cause of unwanted behavior. This syndrome has three factors:

  1. The barrier itself frustrates the dog.
  2. The teasing element, is usually some activity, or a simple attraction on the other side of the barrier, and usually stimulates the dog to the point of frustration.
  3. The dog's anxiety behavior is his physical release from the frustration: barking, jumping, chewing, pacing, etc.

We’ve all experienced frustration, a suite of emotions and behaviours in response to externally imposed limits. Psychologists studying frustration usually refer to concepts like the blocking of goal-directed behaviour or the cessation of expected rewards. A car that suddenly won’t start, a photocopier that jams when you’re in a rush and a spouse who changes the channel in the middle of a critical moment in your favourite TV show all might elicit acute aggression in you.

Research on a wide variety of animals has shown again and again that frustration can elicit aggression. One psychologist in the 1930s went so far as to suggest that all aggression was frustration-related.


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