I often start training consultations by explaining that “I believe dogs are born perfect, and we are the ones that mess them up.” As intended, this gets a laugh and lightens the mood; it’s a blunt way of stating what I believe to be true. I use this line as way to introduce dog owners to the idea that their job is to provide the framework to ALLOW their dog to become the “perfect” dog that they are, rather than to TRAIN them to be that way. In today’s blog post we will dive deeper into the idea of providing the framework for a dog to be the “perfect” dog that it already is.
Let’s consider the idea of teaching our dogs to “come.” One of the most common complaints that dog owners have is that their dog will not come when called. This complaint arises from the fact that traditional “recall” is not a natural behavior that is ingrained in a dog's DNA and therefore needs to be taught, like any other trick. It turns out there is a more reliable way of eliciting this behavior that involves utilizing an innate behavior your dog was born with.
Let me explain. Never in the history of the world has one dog said to another (in dog language, of course), “I need you to come here right now” or “come to me and I’ll give you a treat”. But somehow, a pack of wild dogs can stay together for a lifetime without running off in opposite directions. How do they do this?
One of the reasons that canines are among the most adaptable species on the planet, is their pack structure. They, like us, survive as part of a pack and not alone. A single wolf would have a hard time bringing down full-sized prey, but a pack of wolves can get the job done easily. Thus the desire to stay with the pack is strong in dogs, as it is in their wild cousins. So, rather than teach a new behavior to a dog, such as “recall”, I prefer to tap into the behavior that is already there: “If I don’t stay with the pack, I will not survive.”
With this in mind, think about your own dog’s behavior. Have you ever noticed that when you move from one room of your house to another, your dog goes with you? This is your dog’s desire to stay with the pack in action! Did you teach your dog to do this? Probably not. Your dog was born with this desire. Of course, most dog owners don’t have any problem keeping their dog “with the pack” at home, it’s when you go out into the world, with exciting smells and other distractions that the problems begin. This is because the dog has lost touch of it’s instinctual side, likely because the humans in it’s life haven’t provided the framework to allow it to stay in touch with these instincts.
I’d like write about how to bring out this natural behavior and others in more detail in another post, what I’d really like to convey today is the difference between bringing out a natural behavior versus teaching a new one, “stay with the pack” versus “recall.” It sounds like a subtle distinction, but it’s a huge part of my philosophy and this is just one example. The same concept applies to the leashed walk, setting boundaries (i.e. stay off the couch, stay out of the kitchen), socialization, basically everything.
I should say, that I don’t NOT teach recall, and traditional recall isn’t a bad training method, but it is secondary, and it’s important that we know the difference. If your goal is for your dog to live it’s best, most fulfilling life, the foundation of your training philosophy should be built on bringing out natural behaviors, and behaviors that have been taught, such as recall, should be used as a back-up, I like to call these “crutches”.
Like I said early on, there are ALMOST no behaviors that we need to teach dogs in order for them to live a good life, but there is one exception. In order for dogs to live a good life in the human world, they need to be left alone from time to time. There is no version of this in nature, and it’s the reason why separation anxiety is such a problem. Again, I’ll go into the topic of dealing with separation anxiety specifically in another post, but right now I’d just like to point out that there is no being alone in nature for dogs and it’s the one exception to my “dogs are born perfect” philosophy. Their desire to stay with the pack is so strong that if not properly trained, they can howl, destroy furniture, and get you kicked out of your apartment in an attempt to get back to the pack and still be what I consider a “perfect dog”. I feel that this is the only behavior that our dogs need to learn that doesn’t come naturally to them.
So, in the coming days, start looking for all of the natural behaviors that your dog exhibits that you did not teach it. Think about the way that it paws at the carpet and spins in circles before lying down and imagine a wild dog pawing at leaves and making a bed. Our dogs are more instinctual than we think, and these instincts are powerful tools that we can use to help them to live fulfilling lives and to bring out the “perfect” dog that they already are. Understanding that our goal is not to TRAIN our dogs to be a certain way, but to ALLOW them to be the best version of their natural selves, is one concept that has made a huge difference in my understanding of dog behavior.