Where the Wild Things Aren’t: Understanding and Embracing Dog Domestication
Brittney Frazier, Found Chicago Boarding and Training
“Man’s best friend” wasn’t an easy title to earn. Our dogs truly are everything from our playmates, to our protectors, to our partners, to our sleeping buddies. They help us raise our children, make friends with people we may have never met otherwise, and alert us of disaster. We feel safer, more loved, and accepted in our dog’s presence and it is no accident how far back our historical relationship with dogs goes.
From a dog training standpoint, we often evaluate how we can create favorable behaviors in our dogs that fit into our lifestyle. However, less often we investigate the possibility of using natural behaviors already domesticated into our dog to motivate what can be the same desired result. We seldom think that the reason our dogs pick up on our basic routines and language comes from centuries of living alongside our social systems and benefitting from our lifestyle. It is only natural for our dogs to communicate easily with us, even if it is not always what we have in mind.
Barking, for example, has served an evolutionary purpose in our domestication of dogs, but excessive amounts of it has become one of the prime reasons our clients reach out for training advice. Where barking previously served as a useful behavior to alert our ancestors of predators, it now only appreciated if there is a true concern or “bad guy” to worry about. Perhaps if we could understand what our dogs are trying to alert us of when the doorbell rings, we could effectively communicate to our dog that there is no threat. However, when our voices raise and anxiety rises, we are often communicating the exact opposite and are unable to calm the situation like we would like to. In no time, our dogs are conditioned to understand the sound of the doorbell as the end of the world, making it miserable to entertain guests at all.
Begging at the dinner table could be viewed as a demonstration of one of the most evolutionary traits present in our pet dogs to date! It’s no wonder dogs have followed us around for so long being that they need to eat and we have historically been the givers of food. Unquestionably, dogs’ ability to “wager” or offer behaviors in the hopes of earning from us has truly benefitted their survival. Possibly the most valuable training-related characteristic, “begging” is usually frowned upon if we are looking to teach our dogs manners in the home. However, if we view this as an evolutionary benefit, we are able to ask what alternative behavior we would like to teach as “begging.” Instead of whining, looking deep into our eyes, and wagging their tail furiously, maybe we should focus on what we would like the dog to do. It is then easy to reinforce the correct “version” of begging that will earn a reward for the dog.
A final example of our domesticated relationship to dogs is the physical contact they so readily elicit from us on a regular basis. There is simply no replacement for the excitement that ensues upon your entrance to your home where a furry blur of slobber meets you at the door. While we may not always appreciate the clobbering of a jumping puppy, and, if allowed into our space without any boundaries at all, serious separation anxiety can develop. But, if we can interpret our dogs as constantly yearning for interaction from years of adapting to living alongside us, we can see it as an advantage in training the dog to do anything. By turning interactions into a teaching experience where the dog earns our approval and learns what makes us happy, we are able to effectively communicate using a highly efficient motivator, which is us. The fact that a simple pat on the head or “good boy” after a sit means that our dogs will truly do anything for our acknowledgement, which makes that bond a powerful tool in the world of training them.
While it is the job of a dog trainer to dispel the “dogs will be dogs” mantra, as we do believe dogs should be held to a certain level of expectation in their behavior, we should also be aware of what actually makes a dog the loyal companion we have grown to love. The more we are able to appreciate the relationship we have developed over the evolution of our dogs, the more effectively we can train them to be even better best friends.
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