What is the Difference Between Training & Behavior?

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As someone who sees clients as both a trainer and a behavior consultant, I often get asked the question, is the behavior I see my dog exhibiting a training issue or a behavior issue?  I think it is a legitimate question and one that deserves a closer look, especially because it can help a client determine what type of professional would be best suited to help them work on and implement a training plan for themselves and their dogs. 



When I think of training, the first thing that comes to mind is giving our dogs the tools they will need to help them safely navigate our human world and expectations. Dogs certainly weren’t on the receiving end of a ten-page document on how to live harmoniously with humans in a home! They do what works for dogs because after all, that’s exactly what they are. They don’t come hardwired to understand that open doorways are not for dashing out of or that delicious turkey sandwiches left unattended by humans are not for their consumption. It is up to the humans in their lives to teach them the skills they will need to share our homes in a way that still allows them to be dogs but also addresses safety concerns and good manners from the human perspective. 

So how do dogs typically acquire these essential skills? Perhaps you’ve taken your dog to a group class like puppy kindergarten or beginning obedience. Or you’ve hired a trainer to do a remote training session or come to your home. Or you could have joined an online training forum. Through one of these venues, you have taught your dog some basic manners such as sit, down, stay, or to go to her “place” when cued. Are these acquired skills essential from the dog’s perspective? Probably not. It is highly unlikely that your dog finds it necessary to do a sit/stay or go to her “place” when the pizza delivery arrives. And yet, from a safety perspective, we humans know that these trained behaviors help to keep us, our dogs, and possibly the pizza safe! So, as responsible dog guardians, we train our dogs to respond reliably to these cues. 


Wait, There is More

Now, technically we know that trained cues are behaviors. In the textbook Learning and Behavior, the definition of behavior is as follows: “anything a person or other animal does that can be measured” (Moore, 2011; Reber, 1995; Skinner, 1938). The book goes further by saying that “anything an animal does might qualify as behavior, whether measurable or not, but for scientific analysis we are necessarily limited to those things we can measure” (Baum, 2011). A cued sit or stay is certainly something that a dog does and there is no doubt we could find ways to measure the behavior but it is very unlikely that a measurement is necessary for daily functioning. We just need to know that the cued behavior is reliable in a variety of circumstances. The predictability of our dogs understanding and performing their known cues is helpful for their daily functioning so that they can live cohesively in our homes with minimal stress for both species. 



Now that I have explained what might constitute a training issue, let’s take a look at what would more likely fall under the behavior issue category. When a prospective client contacts Pet Harmony with a concern about their dog’s behavior, we would typically be thinking about behaviors that are considered maladaptive behaviors. 

The American Psychological Association defines maladaptive behaviors as “a condition in which biological traits or behavior patterns are detrimental, counterproductive or otherwise interfere with optimal functioning in various domains, such as successful interaction with the environment and effectual coping with the challenges and stresses of daily life” (http://dictionary.apa.org). Bearing that definition in mind, typical behavior issues a dog behavior consultant might be contacted to help with could include the cluster of behaviors that help describe things like leash reactivity, separation-related problems, fear of strangers, and dog to dog aggression. In other words, if a dog is exhibiting behaviors that prohibit optimal functioning in their daily lives, a behavior consultation would better address these concerns than a training session. To help us further clarify the differences between training and behavior, I will provide some common scenarios that fall under each category. 




  • Your dog is jumping up on visitors as they enter your home as a form of greeting.
  • Your dog is counter surfing to retrieve food items during meal preparation.
  • Your newly rescued dog or a new puppy is house soiling or chewing or destroying household items.
  • Your dog is pulling you down the street on walks making it very difficult and uncomfortable to walk them.
  • Your dog is emitting a low growl or is barking and lunging at visitors as they enter your home.
  • Your dog took a counter surfed item and is freezing, growling, or air snapping your direction as you approach him to retrieve the item.
  • Your newly adopted dog is soiling in the house or destroying items whenever you leave her alone.
  • Your dog is pulling, lunging, and barking every time he sees another dog on a walk.


As you can see there are some similarities in the scenarios above. For example, in the first example of visitors entering the home, both reactions from the dog are not ideal. We don’t necessarily want our dogs to rehearse the behavior of jumping up on guests to greet them. However, I’m guessing that it would be way more troublesome to owners everywhere if their pet was exhibiting the set of behaviors (growling, barking, lunging) that are described under the behavior category. Both situations are the same in that the style of greeting isn’t well-suited for safe interactions with visitors but in the behavior example, the dog’s behavioral choices are much more likely to include the possibility of escalating to a bite if management and a good behavior modification plan are not implemented. 


Why Does Any of This Matter?

It matters because it’s important to work with the appropriate professional to help you reach the training and behavior goals you have for your dog. Whether you think your dog has training issues or behavior issues, hiring a trainer or behavior consultant who understands learning theory and the behavioral sciences can help you safely, effectively, and ethically address those concerns by providing you with a plan to help you and your dog. We at Pet Harmony are ready to help you address these concerns, whatever they be, because we believe that the relationship you have with your dog should be mutually beneficial to you both so that you can live the best life that is possible for you and your dog. You can find out about the type of services we offer by using this link: http://petharmonytraining.com/services/clients/all-services-comparison/

We are here to help and look forward to hearing from you, whatever your concerns may be. 


Now what?

  • Think about a behavior that your dog exhibits. Does it seem more like a training issue or a behavior issue?
  • Determine if you need to work with a professional (this blog post can help you do that.)
  • Choose a professional and start working with them.