How trainers view dogs has changed over time and so has our approach to training. Dog training used to be very harsh—today, it's much kinder. Some even argued that dogs don't have emotions—we know better. The following diagram outlines how we view dogs and what we consider when we train. We take a comprehensive view, including the current understanding of evolutionary psychology and dog's emotional systems. In addition, we aim to honor them and acknowledge their amazing complexity. As a result, we understand how dogs are similar to humans and how they are different. Old models of training are getting a fresh look. I am sure we will continue to learn more in years to come.
We approach the understanding of canines from three dimensions: Genetics, Behaviors, and Skills. These are not totally separate from each other. Obviously, genetics impacts everything. But some distinction helps to break things down more clearly. How the components of these dimensions look, varies by individual. We can shape some of these elements through training, but not all. Understanding the animal's genetics and aptitudes helps assess the effort and feasibility of training goals.
- In the genetic dimension, we distinguish between Emotions, Drives, Preferences/Desires, and Stressors.
- The behavior dimension distinguishes between Reactions, Personality, and Play.
- In the skill dimension, we distinguish between Innate and Learned Skills.
The Genetic Dimension
- Emotions: Dogs have emotional systems, just like humans do. In fact, all mammals have identical, emotional brain systems. At a basic level, they have the same brain areas humans have for fear, panic, rage, play, nurture, mating, and seeking. These core systems are called blue-ribbon emotions. You can read more detail about these in this article: Understanding Fear and Anxiety in Dogs
- Drives: Historically we distinguish three natural drives: Pack, Prey, and Defense. Pack Drive is related to the social view of the family and its role in it. Prey Drive is related to food procurement and is the reason dogs enjoy chasing small things that move—"Squirrel!", need I say more ;). Defensive Drive determines how a canine responds to threats in its environment through either fight, flight, avoidance, or appeasement. In training we often refer to additional drives like Food, Fight and Play. Essentially, a drive is anything genetically encoded.
- Preferences/Desires: The most common question we get asked is "Why did my dog do that?". The answer is usually "Because it wanted to." Dogs have preferences and desires just like we do? Why do you prefer one flavor of ice cream over another? Or don't like ice cream at all (in which case you are weird)? You just do. Your DNA wired you or your experiences shaped you in a way to just prefer some things over others. Dogs are no different.
- Stressors: Some canines have nerves of steel and some tremble when they hear the slightest sound. This is genetic. We can improve psychological resilience through training but its genetics determine how psychologically sound a dog ultimately can become.
The Behavior Dimension
Many behaviors are of course also driven by genetics but other behaviors are learned. This is why we feel it is valuable to separate certain elements of behavior from genetics. We distinguish:
- Reactions: Some dogs chase cats, some don't. Some bark at bikes, some don't. Every animal is different as to what they react to and what they ignore. Of course, training can reshape reactions but natural reactions exist and vary by individual.
- Personality: Some behaviors are unique to your dog. They are what makes him/her your buddy. The way your friend wakes you up in the morning. The way he comforts you. These are personality elements. However, biting the mailman is another matter.
- Play: All play dogs engage in, are part of the predatory hunting sequence: search-stalk-chase-fight-celebrate-consume. Most enjoy some elements more than others. The way your dog likes to play most is what makes her unique.
The Skill Dimension
Many innate skills, dogs are born with, are refined through practice and learning better strategies for success. E.g. all canines know how to run and chase but getting good at it and catching things are skills learned through practice.
- Innate Skills: Skills available from birth. I.e. sniffing, rough-and-tumble play.
- Learned Skills: Skills learned through practice. This could be a refinement of innate skills like sniffing for specific scents or completely new skills like diabetic alert dogs or simply sitting on command or heeding to leash pressure.
Based out of Corona in Riverside County, we currently offer in-person and board-and-train dog training in the following areas: Riverside County, Orange County, San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County, and San Diego County. We offer our virtual training and coaching services worldwide.
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