Is Training Your Dog Unnatural?
Recently, I was working with a lovely dog. A dog who is, and I will state this for the record, perfection. Sweet, cute, and dear, with a black button nose and an ever-hopeful gaze. The kind of dog who ambles up to guests to say hello and snoozes on dog beds in Instagram-worthy poses. He’s sheer perfection. Sheer perfection, that is, until some unsuspecting human puts him on on leash and walks him by another dog. At that point…sweet gourd of holy ablutions does that dog go bananas. He’s like the Tasmanian devil of cartoon fame: a blur of fur and teeth, with feet sticking out here and there. After one of our training sessions (during which the doe-eyed Tasmanian devil is learning to walk much more sedately past other dogs), his owner looked at me and sighed. “I wish we could just let dogs live a natural life.” She shifted her treat bag on her waist and looked wistfully out across the street. “You know, allow dogs to be dogs. None of this training, none of this making them fit into our lives.”
I understand why she feels this way, of course. When you’re training a dog using a good plan and good treats, the dog is so keen to work it feels almost criminal. But although I understand, I don’t actually agree. I don’t agree that there is anything unnatural about training (and I also don’t agree that there is anything unnatural about dogs cohabiting with humans, but that’s a conversation for another day). Humans didn’t invent training to coerce dogs into living one way or the other. As long as there is no coercion involved, dogs aren’t being forced to learn. They’re simply doing what they’d be doing in a magical human-free dog world: changing their behaviour to make good things happen for dogs.
Learning (and the resulting behaviour change) isn’t something that happens solely when the humans are around, treats in one hand and leash in the other. All animals, from snails to dogs to hippos, are learning all the time. In fact, the ability to learn—to change one’s behaviour based on information received in real time from the environment, and based on how things went in previous, similar experiences—is as natural as breathing. And what’s more, and I do not say this lightly, learning is just as vital to staying alive as is breathing.
It’s pretty easy to see examples of dogs learning all around us. They learn to lay on the couch in the mid-morning to catch the sun’s rays, they learn to lay on the floor by the back door to stay cool, they learn that the fire hydrant on 3rd Street always has the most interesting smells, they learn what it means when you pick up the leash, and they learn that when the TV gets turned off it’s time to head to bed. None of these were training protocols created by humans to change dog’s behaviour, and most don’t involve reinforcement or punishment from humans, either. Instead, it’s just dogs, working their environments. I repeat: it’s dogs, working their environments to get the best deal for dogs.
Dogs also learn to avoid things, and we can see this happening in real time, too. They learn to avoid the cranky cat, they learn to stay away from the couch mid-afternoon when it’s blisteringly hot, and they learn that the best place to get away from the vacuum cleaner sound is by hiding in the basement. They learn that if they play-bite too hard with their canine brethren, there won’t be any more play for a few hours.
Humans didn’t invent learning. Animals evolved with the ability to learn so they could make the most of their lives (and of course go on to make a bunch more baby animals). If an animal didn’t learn to avoid risk, or didn’t learn to obtain the things they enjoy and need to survive, they wouldn’t last long individually or as a species. All this is to say that if we look at training from the dog’s perspective, they’re working us for food, affection, access to spaces they enjoy, and so on…just like they’d work the environment food and all the good stuff. It’s all the same to dogs.
So, not only did humans not invent learning…it’s a bit of human hubris to suggest that we are doing something different to dogs than the kind of “learning” that dogs do to fit in with the other aspects of their environments. We just saw, then codified, and now use the way that dogs happen to learn, so that both ourselves and our dogs can share a peaceable, fun, cross-species lifestyle. And if you’ve spent much time watching nature shows, you’ve probably seen how the environment “trains” animals: it ain’t always pretty. If you’re committed to training in such a way that avoids painful and scary consequences, you’re a kinder trainer than nature, and by spades.
In the words of my mentor, Jean Donaldson, when we’re training dogs we’re just surfing a system that evolution created. Training, from our dogs’ perspective, is just learning. They like it, we like it, it’s enriching, and if done well and thoughtfully, it makes our dogs’ lives better…to say nothing of our own lives. A truly sad situation is a dog who isn’t getting the feedback they need (environmental or human-orchestrated, they don’t care) to live the most fulfilled and comfortable life they can. This is what happens to many dogs who don’t get training to change their house-training habits or their recalls or their jumping up.
Training, that is, learning, isn’t unnatural. A life without learning, without challenge, and without change would be the truly unnatural thing.