Many celebrity dog trainers claim to have studied wild dogs. Dog owners get eyes as big as saucers when they hear this proclamation. It imparts supernatural tendencies on the trainer. Very few people have the chance to see dogs in the wild. How can any owner question the observations of those who have seen what we have not?
Owners blindly follow the sage advice of those who have seen “real dogs”. The majority of the time, that advice goes something like:
By watching how the alpha reigns supreme, we can mimic these behaviours and the dog will obey. Instant sits, no more house soiling, no pulling when walking on leash. It is an “instant cure.” All behaviour problems will be solved if an owner is alpha enough. Owners mimic the bite of a mother dog. No food treats are allowed. Mother dogs do not reward a puppy with food treats. Throw the treats away. It is unnatural and humanizes the dog. Only coddling, permissive, passive, submissive owners would stoop to that level of bribery, something a real dog would not do. Instead, owners should adopt the corrections of a mother dog, rewards are limited to praise, chest massages and tug games.
Yes, I am one of those few people lucky enough to have seen dogs in the wild. There are some thoughts I would like to share on the matter.
I promise you these things:
Dogs do not do obedience in the wild. Yup, that is right. Obedience is a human idea. Dogs do not walk each other on leash, and they can wander off and do as they please whenever they like. Mother dogs do not correct puppies for lack of obedience. You can be the biggest alpha in the universe and your dog still has no clue what heel position means. I will not change my mind on this until I see dogs barking sit commands at one another.
Natural dog behaviour includes many things that I want to discourage. Dogs sniff each other’s butts to say “hi.” They lift their legs and mark vertical surfaces. Dogs dig holes to bury things and roll in things that smell. Mother dogs, or pack leaders (I will leave that discussion for another post) NEVER correct for these things. If you want natural dog behaviour in your house, then please warn me. I do not want to sit on your furniture. It has probably been peed on.
While it is true that mother dogs do not reward puppies with food treats, they do not use leashes, shock collars, prong collars, ear pinches, or slaps to the face either. A leash correction is just as unnatural as a food reward. Some people believe that dogs correct one another with a snap, growl and possibly some humping. So hop to it, or should I say, hump to it – if you believe in replicating wild dog behaviour.
The wild dogs I saw were not in the least bit aggressive. Aggressive dogs, they tend to get injured. Without veterinary care (another human idea), they die off. Nature does not like aggression in cooperative groups. It is evolutionary suicide.
Let us get down to rewarding these dogs shall we? Treats are obviously out of the question. In the wild, dogs have plenty of choices to emulate. Dogs create social bonds by licking at the mouths of other dogs. They groom one another, using their teeth to nibble at the fur and skin of others. What they do not use are praise (they do not talk) and chest massages (they have paws, not hands.) Dogs do not have tug toys in the wild either (They do not have money to go to the store). Proponents of emulating wild dogs should probably get a bunch of toothbrushes ready. Open that mouth and get grooming. Bet it will be hairy. At least it will eliminate another unnatural activity – dog baths and shampoo. Do not worry, your dog will love that you made the effort to speak their language.
Oddly enough, food does play a role in natural dog behaviour. Food teaches the dog how to break into a garbage can. Mother dogs regurgitate food to puppies, teaching pups to lick gently to get their supper. By searching for food, they find the fields of blueberries. Survival – finding food – is a large part of their daily life.
Do dogs use food to learn obedience? No. As stated before, obedience is a human concept for dogs living in a human world. You can be the biggest alpha in the universe and it does not change the fact that dogs do not come pre-programmed to sit on command.
As someone who has chosen to take a dog, an animal, and I have chosen to impose human rules on the dog, I owe it to the dog to be kind and considerate while I explain my language and my expectations.
Through research and through my observations, I know that my dog does not see me as part of its pack. Dogs differentiate. They are not stupid. How do I know they see us differently? Because dogs usually figure out on their own to sniff the butts of other dogs, and not of people.
Is my clicker natural? No. However, I am not the one claiming that my methods are natural or based on wild dog behaviour and pack structure. I fully expect those who criticize food rewards as being unnatural to throw away all training devices. They are just as unnatural. Those that want to use the argument that they emulate wild dog behaviour should really put their mouth where their money is. You cannot criticize treat-based training as being unnatural and use other unnatural tools yourself. I am calling that as a bluff.