One of the things I remind people of constantly when they are trying to connect with their dogs is this: Honor instinct. It really should be a simple concept. If you want your dog to behave the way you want them to, then you have to honor their instincts to get that behavior.
The trouble is, people are not instinctual. They’re intellectual and emotional. But if you try to communicate with your dog through intellect and emotion, only one thing is going to happen. Your dog is not going to understand what you want, so is going to do what he or she feels necessary in order to take control of the situation.
You may think you’re communicating with your dog when you talk to her or appeal to her emotions, but you’re not. For one thing, dogs do not have the intellectual skills to understand complex ideas.
When your dog is scared, for example, if you approach her with baby talk and tell her, “It’s all right, everything is okay,” the dog does not hear you trying to make it better. Instead, the dog senses you accepting what is going on right now, meaning that the state of mind the dog is in at that moment is what you are reinforcing. If that state of mind is fear, what your dog hears you telling her is, “I want you to be afraid, okay?”
The same breakdown happens when we communicate with our dogs emotionally. For example, your dog starts barking at something outside. You don’t like the barking, it’s annoying, so you get upset and shout at your dog, “Shut up!”
In this case, what you’ve just done is barked along with your dog, and taught him that you like barking. Your dog doesn’t understand the meaning of the words, only the intensity of your energy. Your energy was angry and elevated, meaning that your dog gets the message, “I need to bark at more things because my human does too.”
I constantly have people ask me, “Cesar, come train my dog,” but that’s not what I do. I rehabilitate dogs by training humans, because what humans really want isn’t a well-trained dog, but a well-behaved dog. But there’s a huge difference between the two, as I’ve written about previously.
You can teach a dog all the tricks in the world, but when it comes to a situation where you have to redirect a dog to prevent something bad from happening, “sit” and “shake” may not be enough. The “well” in “well-behaved” comes from the connection you have with your dog, and that connection comes when you learn how to honor her instincts. Through this process, your dog will learn to trust you as Pack Leader, accepting your protection and following your direction.
One of the best ways to honor instinct is the walk, because this is how packs in the wild work together to find what is necessary for survival: food, water, and shelter. The pack moves forward together, following their noses to find what they need.
A lot of people think of the walk as just a necessary chore to keep the dog from doing his business in the house, but this isn’t the purpose of the walk at all. When we walk our dogs, we should be recreating that experience of the pack migrating together in search of survival. The dog “works” on the walk, and the reward at the end is returning home, to food, water, and shelter.
In your dog’s mind, the successful repetition of this process reinforces your role as the Pack Leader. She goes out with you, you lead the way, and you always bring her home safely. This is what creates her trust in you.
Beyond the walk, the other way to honor your dog’s instinct is by fulfilling the breed. While breed is only third on the list of how dogs see themselves — animal, species, breed, name — it can be very helpful for some dogs, particularly if they are high-energy, to engage in activities that fulfill the needs of their breed.
For example, if your dog is a herding breed, agility training will fulfill those needs. If your dog is a working breed, then wearing a backpack or pulling a cart will do the same. By fulfilling the breed, you allow your dog to focus his energy on satisfying his instincts, which will help make him a calm, happy, and balanced dog.
Our dogs are happiest when we let them be dogs. Honoring their instincts is the best way to do this.
Stay calm and instinctual!
We’d love to see your pack. Post a photo in the comments.