I’d like to share a secret with you – All Dog Training Works Eventually. Ok, it’s not really a secret but it is true. Just look around at all the happy well-adjusted dogs and rest assured that they were all trained using different methods, equipment, and approaches by people with widely varying degrees of skill as dog trainers. Clearly, these different approaches and skill levels work well enough. As humans, we can argue all day about which method is more effective, more humane, easier to use, etc. But the bottom line is that the dog always learns.
Recently I began to wonder why all of our various dog training styles produce results. At heart, I’m a science and technology kind of guy and many years ago I decided to look into the science of dogs, behaviour, and animal learning. Eventually I stumbled onto two interesting fields of study, Evolutionary Biology and Behavioural Ecology. They seek to understand why animals have the physical characteristics they do and how an animal’s behaviour is shaped in response to their natural environment. Both of these modern sciences owe their origins to the work of people like Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinebergen whose work had previously been called by a different name, Ethology. Looking at the dog through the lens of these sciences gave me some very interesting insights into what makes a dog a dog.
To say that we have a lot of “folk knowledge” about dogs would be a massive understatement. Dogs have been our companions for so long that we barely made the effort to study them in any detail until recently. Why would we? We live with them every day and we know all we need to know about them. Right? For hundreds of years, we just learned from the previous generation of dog owners who learned from the generation before theirs. It all seems to work out well enough.
But scientists are discovering that while some of the assumptions we have always made about dogs are correct, many are not. It seems to me a strange thing we humans can hang onto outdated and incorrect information even though we have evidence for a much better explanation of our dogs and their behaviour. What makes that “doggie folklore” so easy to believe? It appears that it may be the dogs themselves that are helping us fool ourselves about their behaviour, emotions, and how they think about the world.
Dogs have lived among humans for roughly 16,000 years. Common knowledge in the dog world says that the dogs we keep as pets evolved from the Grey Wolf somewhere back in the mists of time. And that is strictly true in a technical, biological sense. But “dogs” existed long before we had 400+ different breeds and obedience classes. Somewhere back in history there was a kind of generic “dog”, one that hung around human settlements and survived by eating our garbage and waste products. That generic dog still exists today in the millions. It survives in the dumps, back-alleys, and outskirts of our towns, villages, and cities.
It was that generic dog that somehow evolved from a wolf. The pet dogs that live with us in our homes were selectively bred relatively recently from specimens of those generic dogs. So when the original ethologists went looking for insight into the behaviour of dogs, they turned to what they thought of as the most immediate ancestor; the wolf. But it seems to me that they skipped right over the best source of information about the “natural” behaviour of our dogs; those surviving populations of free-ranging generic dogs. In his book, “What Is a Dog?”, behavioural ecologist Raymond Coppinger does a remarkable job of showing the behaviour, lifestyle, and life priorities of the most immediate ancestor to our pet dogs: the generic or feral dog.
Of all the areas Coppinger covers in his book, the one idea that stood out to me was his description of the dog’s natural habitat. It turns out that for all the diverse places around the world where dogs thrive, the primary common element that they need to survive as a species is – HUMANS. The research of Coppinger and many other scientists shows that it was the availability of human waste products that created available food sources in the environment for dogs to thrive. Strictly speaking, we can think of dogs as another form of vermin like rats or cockroaches or vultures. Like other vermin, dogs take advantage of the resources of human civilization to survive. The difference is that we find dogs attractive and pleasant to have around so some of us keep them as pets.
Evolution has had an interesting effect on dogs. In their transformation from wolves, they ceased to be the pack hunters that chased and killed game in order to survive. Instead, the dogs became scavengers; opportunists who learned to hang around humans and make use of resources they find in the environment. It is this opportunistic trait that makes the dog such an adaptable and sociable animal. The dog has learned to adapt and tolerate close interaction with humans and other species in order to gain access to the things that allow them to survive as a species – food, water, shelter, safety. Clever dogs.
Roughly 70% of all the dogs in the world are feral dogs who survive by pillaging garbage, begging for scraps, or living off of whatever food they can find. These dogs must perform very important calculations every day – is the risk worth the benefit. It should come as no surprise that, by their nature, these feral dogs are not fighters. It is far easier for one of these dogs to just move on and find another bone to chew on rather than fight with another dog over a bone they have. A fight would expend a lot of energy and risk an injury that would take additional energy to heal. To quote an old rock song, “Is the money you make worth the price that you pay?” That’s a formula that dogs are experts at working out.
Not surprisingly, our pet dogs have inherited this ability from their ancestors the feral dogs. They are highly adaptable and their instinct is to find the easiest path to life’s necessities. They are experts at figuring out how to get what they need and “going along to get along” in our human world. Selective breeding has made its contribution to the agreeableness of dogs as well. We prefer our pets to be cooperative and adaptable so we only breed the dogs that conform to our way of life. No one willingly breeds dogs that will be difficult or dangerous.
In the dog, we have a ready-made sidekick that evolution has created and that we have enhanced. One that knows how to read us and how to adapt to various situations in order to maximize their own survivability and comfort. One that we find cute and cuddly and eager to please. Even if they please us for their own selfish reasons.
All Dog Training Works
Given the biological and ecological realities of how dogs fit into our world, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that they can adapt to a variety of training from the highly technical and precise methods of professional animal trainers to the unsophisticated “No!” and “Good Boy!” of the average pet owner. Dog owners will have different goals for their dog’s behaviour and somehow they teach them enough to have happy compatible lifestyles.
Thousands of years of development has left dogs needing humans for their very survival. Failure to adapt and coexist with us would certainly mean the end of dogs as a species. In short, they are biologically driven to find a way to figure out whatever it is that a given human wants from them. We are their natural habitat.
Regardless of the particular dog training method, professionals claiming to have the “secret” to teaching your dog are all starting with a distinct advantage. The dogs NEED to learn from us. Their survival depends on it. Whether the training method uses punishment, rewards, or some combination of both, our pet dogs will look happy enough with their lives.
As far as I can tell, this is for two different but important reasons. First, our dogs are intelligent enough and motivated enough to learn the do’s and don’ts of our various requirements of them. But second and perhaps more important, they learn to look happy about it. One of the first lessons any dog learns is that an unhappy human is far less generous than a happy one. If they keep us happy, the food keeps coming. Simple.
So all training works. Shock collars, treats, clickers, leash tugs, “No!”, “Yes!” – everyone can point to their dog and say that their dog has learned to sit or stay. But I don’t think we can ignore how motivated our dogs are to figure out what we’re asking of them. Nature hasn’t given them much of a choice. We are their natural environment and they can’t just walk away from that. For as clever or skilled or humane as we think we are being with our training, we are working with animals that are biologically programmed to learn what we are trying to teach them. Their very lives depend on it.
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