Training Your Dog. What’s Breed Got to Do With It?
Should we modify our dog training based on what our dog is bred to do? This question was posted in my private dog group recently by a proud mom who realized her dog was using his brain to do what he was bred to do. It’s an interesting question that deserves some consideration.
A Dog’s Heritage
Let me open with this…
Although we haven’t conclusively nailed down when we began sharing our lives with dogs, it appears that they were domesticated well before any other animal. And yet, we often seem to be at odds in our daily lives. Dogs bark at things that we would rather they not, dig in areas that we wished they wouldn’t and chew on things we think they shouldn’t. After all this time together, why are they still getting themselves ‘into trouble’?
My intention is not to get into a lengthy discussion of evolution. Suffice it to say that we have played a significant role in influencing the dogs we live with today. Therefore, we should recognize ‘normal’ dog behaviour along with behaviours expected in specific breeds. In addition to chewing, digging and barking, many behaviours are motivated by breed specifically. Consideration of the things that make our dogs tick and that have been intentionally selected, should not be dismissed or ignored. Doing so is not only unfair to our dogs but can also lead to poor training. Rather than struggling against our dogs, why wouldn’t we want to find positive and constructive ways to work and live together?
Both natural and breed-specific behaviours can, at times, be inconvenient or inappropriate. Management often is required to prevent these behaviours from happening at the wrong time or under unacceptable circumstances. Herding the neighbourhood kids will always be frowned upon no matter how skilled and precise your border collie is.
It is vital to be aware of how these behaviours present themselves and not allow them to get out of control. Even working dogs have boundaries, so we shouldn’t let our dogs go down a behavioural rabbit hole.
We must help our dogs learn to cope and live with the inherited skills and behaviours we have given them. Providing opportunities for our dogs to partake in these inherited skills fosters a sense of well-being. APPROPRIATE opportunities. Finding safe and suitable outlets is invaluable. Whether that is a structured version of the activity or a close substitute, the positive effect can be profound.
Here are just a few examples:
Create a digging pit in your yard or go places where digging is safe and appropriate for your terrier or dog that loves to dig.
Join a herding class or Treibball with dogs that love to herd.
Find activities that encourage teamwork for sporting breeds designed to accomplish tasks with us. Cani-cross, agility and canine freestyle are a few popular examples.
Thinking and problem solving are beneficial for all dogs. Working breeds often especially enjoy tracking, scenting work and rally obedience.
You may be saying, but what’s that got to do with training? By offering opportunities for our dogs to indulge appropriately in their hobbies or specialties:
- these behaviours are less likely to manifest inappropriately.
- the dog’s overall mood is improved.
- they are happier and calmer because their needs are being met intrinsically.
- people often find other existing undesired behaviours or habits also diminish.
- and a dog whose needs are being met and who feels fulfilled mentally, physically and emotionally will not only be easier to live with, they will also be easier to train.
Getting Down to Training
So let’s consider training and the influence breed has on it. There are a few issues at play here, so let’s address each of them separately.
Proper socialization is imperative. Safely and gently exposing our dogs to the world is vital to developing a confident, well-adjusted attitude. This is even more important for dogs designed to interact in very specific ways with things in their environment. Guarding breeds kept as companions in the family need to learn that every person or animal is not a potential threat. Failure of adequate and appropriate socialization will cause a continual state of alarm and stress and can lead to inappropriate responses. Herding breeds without proper socialization will view all moving objects as ‘out of place’ and feel obliged to organize them. Good socialization will temper breed tendencies that can be inappropriate when acted upon in daily life.
Dogs are often labelled as stubborn or slow regarding their trainability. Doing so is not only unhelpful, but labels can also impede training. Typically, they create a bias that doesn’t favour the dog and negatively influences the way we feel and our approach. If you have chosen a dog that has been bred over countless generations to accomplish tasks independently, can you honestly expect them to be team players? That’s not to say that you can’t build a willingness, or even enthusiasm, to work with you. It’s not fair to expect the work style of a border collie if you have a terrier. Once you embrace that difference, then you can make training more enjoyable and successful for you both.
If we think about the activities that inspire any particular breed, specific skills or behaviours are required to perform or carry out those tasks. Training the related skills will be highly motivating and enjoyable for your dog. Take advantage! It’s a great way to strengthen your relationship and bond and show that training is terrific fun.
Traditional training often has a one-size-fits-all approach because the training is more about the trainer than the dog. The trainer’s agenda or maybe even their ego directs the training. The beauty of positive reinforcement training is that you can train or teach ANY animal because there is no reliance on control or intimidation to get results. Instead, learning theory and appetitive motivation are the basis of the training. These can be used with all animals effectively. And this is where individual considerations factor in – species, breed and personality. The way individuals perceive their environment, how they respond to it and what they find reinforcing can be vastly different. These factors need to be taken into account when training. It is also important to remember that every dog is an individual. Even though they have specific breeding, their particular tastes and interests may fall outside the norm.
Another important aspect of breed in training is motivation. You can use the dog’s special tastes to your advantage. Even if your dog is super food-motivated, nothing can compare to the chance to do what brings them joy. You turn those favourite activities into powerful motivators and reinforcers. Rather than always calling your dog away from what they specialize in, call them to you and THEN offer a chance to do that particular behaviour. You will give that recall a super boost! And offering the opportunity to do the behaviour will lower its distraction value too. That’s a win-win for you and your dog!
To sum up, understanding and recognizing the things that bring our dogs joy is essential to providing them with a good quality of life. Having options, including the chance to do inherited behaviours, is just as important to our dogs and their sense of well-being as they are to us. The good news is not only will your dog be happier for it, but you will also reap the benefits, including successful training and a harmonious life together.