We humans tend to expect any animal living with us to conform to our ideas of proper behaviour. Let’s face it – we are a pretty demanding lot. Dogs are expected to be model citizens, not animals, not humans, but something in the middle. The problem is, they ARE animals. Thousands of years of domestication has not changed the fact that they are a predatory animal with strong instincts.
It’s worth thinking about before you get a puppy, or the next time your dog does something that makes you cringe (or want to yell), or when you get stuck in your training and can’t figure out why your dog just won’t stop doing a behaviour you find revolting. (Put simply: it’s not revolting to him!)
Here is just a sampling of things we expect from our dogs that really are unnatural:
Eating Harmoniously with others
I’ve had people tell me they can’t feed raw meaty bones because one of their dogs will attack the other one…. Of course, they do! Dogs, like most animals, have a very strong survival instinct which puts food at the very top of their basic needs and therefore is valued most. So, it makes sense that one dog would want to steal another dog’s food. It really is survival of the fittest.
(Of course, this can easily be solved by feeding your dog’s separately, in crates or different rooms of the house. This also ensures one of your dogs does not get overweight while the other gets skinny).
Along with this idea of stealing food, comes the idea that dogs should share their toys, beds, and even people. Yet, again, dogs value resources! Anything your dog sees as a resource she may be inclined to guard. This is natural instinct! In extreme cases, it can be a real problem, for example guarding their owners from other people in house, or not allowing people on the couch. However, in most cases, it’s just a dog that won’t share their toys or dog beds with the other dogs in the house or won’t let the others drink out of their water bowl.
(For the latter, a simple solution is to always have at least one extra of everything. So, if you have two dogs, you have three beds, three water bowls and several toys out. This way the resource guarder will always have “something.” For the extreme cases, it’s best to consult an animal behaviourist)
Co-habiting with other species
Dogs are predators and yet we expect them to live with other prey animals nicely – rabbits, guinea pigs, and whatever else we have as pets. Even cats, another predator, are prey to a lot of larger dogs. We expect the animal kingdom to change its way because it’s inconvenient for us, but the fact of the matter is, many dogs see these animals as dinner, not friends.
(One solution is to separate your dog from other pets if his prey drive is too strong. To prevent this situation, chose your breed of dog carefully if you already have other pets in the house or think you may want to down the road. Hunting breeds will be more likely to have a strong prey drive versus a dog from the non-sporting group. Young puppies need a lot of appropriate socialization with other species – and the help of a professional dog trainer can make the process more successful.)
Not chasing prey
Similar to co-habitation with other species, expecting a herding, hunting or terrier breed to not chase other animals is a big ask. Not only does their prey drive tell them to do it, humans have actually bred more of this instinct into them to better serve our purposes of hunting, herding, and retrieving over generations. But now that most of us no longer hunt or herd, we expect our dogs to give up it just like that. Not going to happen in most cases.
(A solution here is to again, choose your breed carefully before getting a puppy. If you don’t want to have to worry about a dog that wants to herd the cat or kids, chase every bird from the yard or endlessly retrieve balls, rule out those breed types when searching. Otherwise, you will need a lot of patience and a way to give your dog an outlet for this instinct – as you CANNOT remove the instinct or train it out of them. That’s like saying you can train your body to not react to a reflex test.)
Male dogs not marking their territory
Again, we are fighting against animal instincts here. Your male dog sees absolutely no reason why he can’t mark the house he lives in – after all, that is exactly what his instincts tell him he should do and no amount of shouting from you is going to make him understand that. Why some male dogs seem more prone to marking in the house is a bit of a mystery. Many people have male dogs that never mark, whether neutered or not. It could have to do with the dog’s confidence in himself – a less confident dog may feel the need to mark their territory more often.
(If you have a male dog that is a marker, a canine behaviourist may be able help you find out what is triggering the instinct – sometimes it’s something as simple as a change in your schedule or a move to a new house. Otherwise, you may be happier making him wear a belly band.)
Greeting every strange dog/person
For some reason, we have this weird idea that our dogs should LOVE to say hi to every dog, person, cat – whatever – they come across while out and about. But why? We humans don’t even do that! And we certainly don’t get all up in each other’s personal space upon first meeting! And neither do wild dogs, wolves, coyotes, or pretty much any other animal. In fact, usually in the wild animals only go up to strange animals for a couple reasons, including mating, fighting over a resource, or to eat the other animal. So, it’s no surprise many dogs – especially leashed dogs that cannot escape – do not want to greet everything that comes by, and some respond by getting reactive.
(The solution here is an easy one – if your dog doesn’t want to greet, don’t make him! If you are planning on having your dog be a therapy dog that visits hospitals and such, pick a breeder that breeds for temperament, especially outgoing and friendly. And, respect your dog if it turns out he is not suited for that type of work. If you don’t, it can lead to biting and other behaviours that are even worse than a dog that doesn’t want to greet.)
These are just a few things we expect of our dogs every day that go directly against their instincts. Being aware of this can help us be better dog owners. Instead of getting angry when our dog does something, we think is inappropriate, we can step back and ask “why did he do it?” and “what can I do to give him an outlet for his instincts that is more appropriate to me?” This will lead to a better relationship between dog and human.