How dog trainers view dogs has changed over time and so has our approach to dog training. Dog training used to be very harsh—today, it's much kinder. Some even argued that dogs don't have emotions—these days we know better. The following diagram outlines how we—at Happy Dog Training—view dogs and what we consider, when we train. We take a comprehensive view, including the current understanding of canine neurology and canine emotional systems. We aim to honor dogs and acknowledge their amazing comlexity, understand how they are similar to humans and how they are different. Old static models of conditioning—while not incorrect but incomplete—are getting a fresh look, and I am sure we will continue to learn more, in years to come.
We approach understanding of dogs from three dimensions: Genetics, Behaviors and Skills. What the components of these dimensions look like, varies by dog. We can also shape many of these elements through training but it is useful to understand which elements of a dog's makeup we are working with, to assess effort and feasibility of training goals.
- In the genetic dimension we distinguish: Emotions, Drives, Preferences/Desires and Stressors.
- In the behavior dimension we distinguish: Reactions, Personality and Play.
- In the skill dimension we distinguish: Innate and Learned Skills.
The Genetic Dimension
- Emotions: Dogs have emotional systems, just like humans do. In fact, all mammals have nearly identical, emotional brain systems. At a basic level, dogs 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: We generally distinguish three natural drives: Pack, Prey and Defense. Pack Drive is related to the dogs social view on 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 dog responds to threats in its environment through either fight, flight or avoidance. Training may shape additional drives like Fight and Play; those are however targeted, shaped combinations of the natural three.
- 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 dogs have nerves of steel and some tremble, when they hear the slightest sound. This is genetic. We can improve psychological resiliance through training but its genetics determine how psychologically sound a dog 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 dogs bark at bikes, some don't. Every dog 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 dog.
- Personality: Some behaviors are unique to your dog. They are what makes him/her your buddy. The way your dog wakes you up in the morning. They way your dog comforts you. These are personality elements. However, biting the mailman is another matter.
- Play: All play dogs engage in, are part of the predatory hunt sequence: search-stalk-chase-fight-celebrate-consume. Most dogs enjoy some elements more than others. The way your dog likes to play most, is want makes this dog specific.
The Skill Dimension
Many innate skills, dogs are born with, are refined through practice and learning better strategies for success. I.e. all dogs know how 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.
- Learned Skills: Skills learned through practice. This could be 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.