Decoding the Canine Mind


Dog behaviorist, author, and advocate Aaron McDonald has spent more than 10,000 hours studying dog behavior to improve dog-human relationships. 

Written by Rosalind Fournier

In 2006, Aaron McDonald found himself boarding a flight that would eventually lead him to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to carry out the most unlikely job he had ever undertaken. In his care was a rare dog—a boerboel from South Africa, which is an ancient breed of South African mastiff—that McDonald had raised and trained himself for a high-level government official in Kurdistan.

McDonald, who co-owns McDonald Canine Academy with his brother, Kevin—both are experienced dog behaviorists—says the unusual assignment came through one of their clients, a retired Army colonel. “He had called up with an opportunity to work with what they call a very special client in Northern Iraq,” McDonald recalls. “After working through some non-disclosure agreements, we finally got the name of our client, which was Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdish Prime Minister of Southern Kurdistan. The family was interested in having a personal protection guardian dog trained and taken to them.” And there began the adventure of traveling with a boerboel to meet the Barzanis and help integrate the dog into his new role.

“It was very surreal,” McDonald says. When he first arrived, he found his client had closed the entire airport in honor of their arrival, and there were seven SUVs lined up outside filled with government ministers and militia forces. McDonald got full VIP treatment; he was issued a firearm for personal protection, provided with his own driver and house to stay in (the dog, named “Ripper,” lived in his own, hand-built marble kennel). For a while, McDonald made a 8,000-mile commute back and forth between Kurdistan and the United States, working to maintain McDonald Canine Academy with his brother and then returning to Kurdistan to work with the family on how to interact with their dog in keeping with his training.

“I went from a dog trainer in Birmingham to the highest level of government access in the Kurdistan regional government,” McDonald says. “It was mind blowing.”

While there are experts all over the world with experience training dogs for government officials and other high-level protection needs, what McDonald brought to the job was thousands of hours spent working with all kinds of dogs, learning everything he could to understand canine behavior down to the smallest detail. With his high rate of success, he has developed an impressive reputation for what he does.

In the time since his experience in Kurdistan, McDonald has started a second company, Three Dimensional Dog, which provides in-home diagnosis and hands-on instruction for pet owners. He has also written a book, Three Dimensional Dog: A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior, which explains his theory of why dogs do the things they do.

McDonald says he decided to write the book to help as many dog owners as possible understand the complexities of their pets’ thinking and in the process develop better behaviors and relationships.

“I noticed that every dog I worked with—regardless of the age, the gender, or the breed—seemed to have certain behaviors that are similar, or they respond to a challenge or new training technique in a similar way,” he explains. “So if we introduced a dog to a new expectation, like waiting in a doorway, and showed them how to do it, there would be this sequence of behaviors that would occur and eventually cause them not to wait in the doorway.

“So in looking at when these sequences happened, where they happened, and in what order the behaviors occurred, over time I formulated a vision that if I could log a few of these behaviors, maybe I could log a lot of different sequences of behaviors and come up with a kind of map or model of dog behavior that would be predictive.

“Dogs plan everything that they do before they do it,” McDonald continues. “They do a cost-benefit analysis before they make any choice. They think in advance about how good the payoff will be or what the consequences will be for their choice. And it’s semi-visible. If you present a dog with a challenge you can see these thought processes go on.”

In the simplest terms, McDonald believes dogs are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. “Dogs map and profile the human life,” he says. “They memorize every aspect of your life at home (including) all your cognitive blind spots where you don’t pay attention. Then they begin to operate in all the little gaps.” Not surprisingly, “I find a lot of my clients are shocked by that.”

McDonald believes that if owners better understand their dogs as thinking beings, and how misbehavior shows their need for structure, they can work toward a vastly improved relationship.

“We take an inside-out approach” he says, “which is that if a dog is misbehaved, it’s because an attachment or emotional need is not being met. There’s trouble with how they feel about being a member of the family. So we teach them boundaries, like a parent does for a child. They need structure, they need a sense of belonging and a sense of family, and once they’ve achieved that, you’ve laid the structure for all kinds of cool skills development.”

McDonald says the stakes are higher than quality of life issues for dog and dog owners. Dogs with behavioral problems, he points out, are more likely to end up in shelters, and many won’t make it out. “Around 1.2 million dogs and cats are euthanized every year in the United States,” he says. “It’s so sad, disgusting, and unfortunate that no one even wants to talk about it. And one of the primary reasons it happens is due to misbehavior in dogs…people abandon these relationships, because they say something went wrong. The training didn’t work. The dog won’t listen. And so they send the dog to the shelter, where there are just too many of them.

“So our mission is to catch these failing relationships before they reach that point. We want to knock the heck out of that 1.2 million statistic and revolutionize how people see these dogs.”

Moving forward, McDonald says his primary goal is take the three-dimensional-dog philosophy into mental-health initiatives. Through McDonald Canine Academy, he has worked with his brother and Dr. Joseph Schumacher, a PhD in clinical psychology, to co-develop a program called Transitional Partners to help people with mental illness at East Side Mental Health Center. “It was essentially a vocational rehab pilot program teaching people job skills—how to handle dogs so they could be employed as dog walkers at veterinary facilities or doing similar work. When we did the post-training surveys, the thing that most stood out was the participants said it increased their feeling of worth and accomplishment.

“Moreover, the dogs are always accepting. They don’t see mental health issues and physical disabilities.”

McDonald has also served as the investigator for a therapy dog intervention study for traumatic brain injury patients for the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and he trains dog/handler teams for Hand in Paw to prepare them for therapeutic visits to hospitals, hospice care facilities, and other settings.

“So we’re really interested in moving more into the area of mental health and creating new initiatives there,” McDonald says, adding that even in everyday life, the therapeutic benefits of having a healthy relationship with a dog is often immeasurable.

“The love of a dog and companion,” he says, “unlocks a whole pharmacy of chemicals in the human mind.”

 

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