Know Your Pup: and no, it's NOT a wolf!

There are numerous variations on the theme of dog training, many based on misconceptions around wolf behaviour.  After studying groups of unrelated captive wolves, a study in the 1990’s by Dr. David Mech of the University of Minnesota concluded that much of what was widely believed about wolf packs was mistaken. He identified that the natural wolf pack is typically a family, with a breeding pair of adult wolves and their offspring and the terms "alpha" or "dominant" were less appropriate than "parent." However, the earlier misconceptions due to observations of groups of unrelated wolves in captivity had generated the dominance hierarchy / alpha leader version of dog training which sadly persists today.

Most wild canines have developed body language and behaviours that have a calming effect so they can co-operatively hunt for prey, raise their young, or resolve conflicts without violence. Violence leads to injuries, which in the wild are likely to cause death, so violence is not the optimal survival strategy.  

Although dogs are not wolves, both dogs and modern wolves are social animals, descended from a common ancestor. and they want someone to take charge.

Dogs want a calm, even tempered leader to deal with whatever situation arises in our (often scary) human world with confidence, and communicate to them that they are safe and secure – a parent figure rather than a tyrant figure.  A handler has to communicate that they are in control, are the source of the dog’s food, are in control of the space in which it lives and the resources it wants to access, and help the dog understand those actions that constitute acceptable behaviour through positive obedience training and building a close, trusting relationship with their dog.

Dogs learn very quickly and from an early age – both from each other and from humans.  Puppies can learn behaviours quickly by following examples set by experienced dogs.   Studies have also shown that dogs engaged in play with other dogs change their behaviour depending on the attention-state of their partner.  Play signals were only sent when a dog was holding the attention of its partner. If the partner was distracted, the dog instead engaged in attention-getting behaviour before sending a play signal (I suspect we have all seen attention-getting behaviour…)  Similarly, in a training environment handlers have to secure the attention of their dog before giving it an instruction.

To train any animal the behaviour of the animal must be understood and a bond between trainer and animal must be developed so that the responses of each become predictable.  The animal needs to learn that the trainer will respond predictably when the dog offers certain behaviours, i.e. the trainer will offer rewards.  Similarly the trainer learns that reinforcing the desired response makes the response more likely to be repeated in the future.   One of the aims of dog training classes is to train the handlers to be predictable so that the dog realises that responding in a certain way has a desirable outcome.