How to train your dog is a question I often am asked. Before we can address the question of how to train your dog, we must first ask, "What is a dog anyhow?" The answer to that question comes when you begin to think like a dog. Once that happens, you become the pack leader and training is much easier.
Last March I found myself, once again, asking just that question. I was bringing in my 12-year-old cockapoo for cleaning his teeth. The vet noticed a possible heart problem. Hearing something like a heart murmur she thought anesthesia might harm him. With referral in hand, I marched him to the doggie cardiologist only to find that the murmur is common. "Absolutely nothing to worry about," he said.
That got me to thinking about how we, as a culture, view our pet dogs. I suppose that the same may hold for cats and parakeets but I don't have either so I can't say for sure. The fact that I spent over $500.00 at the doggie cardiologist to find out that a murmur is common in cockapoos over 10 years of age says something. This was, in the end, the most expensive teeth cleaning ever.
When he was around two years old the vet noticed his overbite. "We can fix that," she gleefully announced.
My response was somewhat sardonic. "You do know he's a dog," I asked rhetorically. "Doggie braces are simply out of the question. He has no complaints about his teeth and he eats well. When he starts to complain, we can talk about braces."
I know so many people who see their pet dog as a member of the family. They assign human emotions to the dog. Many owners think of the dog as an extra child in the home. How many of you refer to themselves as Mother and Father when they talk to the dog. We share our deepest secrets with the dog as if they were father confessor. All the while we are talking or referring to a wolf.
The Wolf in Dog's Clothing
Over years of breeding, from the original wolves that seemed to have less fear of humans as they hung around the camps, dogs emerged. Reported in Science (2002), an analysis of dog DNA shows that all dogs are descended from wolves. Even more surprising, they seem to have descended from a rather small group of Asian wolves. Your dog is not a human being, it is a wolf dressed up to be a dog. Bred over 15,000 years, dogs serve many more functions for people than just being their pet. To think like a dog, it is necessary to think like a wolf.
The functions that dogs perform began long ago when ice covered much of the Northern hemisphere. The wolves that wandered into camps looking for food had less fear of humans than others. They likely displayed an ability to communicate successfully with the humans they encountered, a trait that remains true even today.
Think Like a Dog: Behavior Is Telling
A dog, no matter how old, how big or small, can make puppy eyes at their human and we melt. But there is more to the dog than his eyes. They served to warn and protect those they followed. They provided a means for transporting household goods, pulling sleds, and even working as animal handlers. Even today there are sled dogs, sheepdogs, hunting dogs, and security dogs.
Yet at the core of every single breed of dog beats the heart of a wolf. Dogs, like wolves, are pack animals. They live in social groups with a well-established pecking order. To understand your dog you must begin to think like s/he does. Learn how behavior represents your dog's motivation. S/he will tell you when to play, to go out, to snuggle, and to ignore. But, unless you think like a dog, you'll likely miss all the signals.
Think like a Dog: All About the Alpha
In modern urban life, dogs are less functional than they were even 100 years ago. I think this is due to the trait of loyalty and companionship dogs provide us. They are social animals, pack animals in which the alpha male is the king. This is something so misunderstood by many of us living in large cities. Training your dog begins when the dog recognizes you as the alpha male. Before you jump all over me, the dog can't make a distinction between a man or woman in the house. The alpha could just as easily be a woman or even a child. The point is, dogs need the security of being part of a pack. If you aren't the alpha, your dog will take on that role and training becomes difficult at best.
Think like a Dog: Good for the Dog and You
In the pack, the alpha is firm. He gets his way until he is challenged and loses the challenge. The new alpha takes over and is just as firm over the pack. But training adds one more component, compassion. We don't want the dog to revert back to wolflike behavior. While much of the wolf has been bred out it still lurks in the background. Being firm and compassionate as you begin to think about how to train your dog is the first step on the road to making your family the dog's pack. He'll never forget it, nor should you.