Let Dogs Be Dogs: Why a Dog’s Natural Instinct Is Your Most Powerful Tool
By Mike Gould
Thousands of years ago, humans domesticated the gray wolf and began tweaking and perfecting the species that would eventually become man’s best friend. Fast forward to today, and we now have nearly 200 AKC-recognized dog breeds that have become an integral part of our everyday lives. They are so important to us that we often treat them like human children— dressing them up, feeding them vegan diets, and entering them into shows and competitions.
As much as these actions are born out of love, it seems humans have lost sight of what their dog truly is…a wolf. While humans have evolved rapidly over the years—changing the way we think, what we prefer and how we act—dogs haven’t. The Goldendoodle down the street has the same natural instincts and behaviors as the gray wolf it descended from all those years ago. And those instincts need to be manifested for the dog to live a well-balanced life.
But oftentimes, as owners, trainers and caretakers, we don’t think of dogs that way. We anthropomorphize them and project our own needs and wishes upon them. Neglecting a dog’s natural instincts can create tremendous anxiety and other behavioral issues, because what the dog is being asked to do simply feels unnatural for them. These issues are then seen as problems with the dog when it really stems from the owner or handler.
It’s time that we, as dog professionals, get to the root of the issue and take a more basic approach that appeals to the dog’s natural instincts.
Where Natural Instinct Comes Into Play
Dogs can be the greatest and most loyal family members you will ever have, but they will never be human. We need to recognize that and stop treating them as if they were, asking them to do things that are unnatural or setting unrealistic expectations. Instead, if we cater to their most basic needs, set boundaries and recognize they are dogs rather than people, we can much more effectively interact with and train them.
Oftentimes, we overstimulate and over communicate with our dogs, which confuses them and can result in them learning to ignore us altogether or demonstrate more severe behavioral problems like aggression and separation anxiety. By fully understanding what it means to be a dog and using that information to our advantage, we can create a functional environment for dogs.
The philosophy at my facility is simple: We let dogs be dogs and try to avoid inserting ourselves into their interactions with one another or projecting what we think they need. When I’m training staff or dog owners, I do a simple exercise to show them just how accustomed they are to interfering. I bring them into the playroom or training space and tell them not to look at, touch or talk to the dog for 10 minutes. It is virtually impossible for everyone, but it’s what is required for this method to work. This allows the pack, and the dog, to remain balanced. That’s what we’re after.
We also let the pack do most of the work for us at our facilities. Dogs are pack animals, and these packs are self-regulating. If a dog is exhibiting a behavior that is unacceptable to the pack, the pack will correct that dog naturally. The pack will establish a structure and hierarchy completely on their own, and that will regulate everyone’s behavior. They’ll play when they want to play and stop when they want to stop. We let them be and try not to impose our human rules on their experience.
Training Using Natural Instincts
Dog training is like daycare. If you ask five different people what training means, you get five different answers. But it’s really simple. We never train dogs for people. We train dogs by treating them like dogs.
Our first step in training is to coach the owner on how to let the dog be on his or her own and stop themselves from constantly interfering with the dog’s actions. We show them what a dog truly needs and simplify the amount of communication they have with the dog to make it more effective. Nine times out of ten, this “fixes” behavioral issues because the dog is free to act on his or her own instincts and knows exactly what the owner expects.
Setting boundaries, of course, is crucial for the dog’s wellness and the owner’s lifestyle. Doing so will become much easier as things are simplified and there is less stimulation.
Enrichment and engagement training is also very effective for a variety of issues. Dogs like to work. It’s natural to them. It’s what they were bred for. So, we create scenarios where the dog has to use his or her instincts to perform a task like hide and seek or fetch and retrieval. This stimulation and exercise does wonders for a dog’s mental state.
At the end of the day, I’m an advocate for dogs. When I see humans overindulging, it’s sad to me because I know what the dog is capable of. As trainers and handlers, it’s our duty to understand them, even if we have to unlearn some of our tendencies to provide them with an enriching and fulfilling life. Embrace their natural instincts, and let the dogs be dogs. You’ll be amazed at the results.
Michael Gould is a founding member of the NYPD canine unit, retired US Navy veteran, scent detection dog trainer, and former Commanding Officer of the Nassau County Canine Unit. Michael began his canine career in 1982 when as a New York City Police Officer he was selected from hundreds of candidates to become one of the first members of the Department’s elite Canine Unit. In 1984, he became the Department’s Canine Training Officer, and went on to have a 40+ year career in canine management.