Your 130-pound mastiff, Franklin, is standing rigidly at your front door. You can feel his deep, low growl vibrating your hand on his collar as you talk to your landlord about the upcoming rent increase. You’re trying to stay calm and slow your breathing, because you know from prior experiences that things can go from bad to worse pretty quick with him if he senses that you are uncomfortable, and the news about the $400 monthly increase has you feeling a little panicky. As you say “goodbye” and close the door, you exhale deeply and cut a glance at ol’ Franklin. “What are you thinking, buddy?! What the heck is wrong with you?” You did everything right with this dog — socialization, training, the best food — and still he wants to save your life from the landlord, the mailman, or any other soul who dares to knock on that door. What are you missing?
The whole story — that’s what you’re missing. To be specific: the history of Franklin that would help you make sense of his behavior in this modern pet life that he’s living with you in the big city. There is nothing wrong with Franklin at all; he is doing exactly what he was designed to do as a guardian breed: protect his territory, resources, and social members. There’s nothing wrong with you either; this isn’t a “training” issue and it’s not, in fact, “all about how you raise them.” Dogs have unique genetic natural histories that must be told, if we’re to nurture and teach them in any meaningful sense. It’s the only way we can connect the dots, appreciate their rich history, and help them when they — and we — are struggling.
There are powerfully influential behaviors that our ancestors observed and valued in the first dogs of the world, behaviors we then capitalized on and genetically modified for our own survival hundreds, even thousands, of years ago — highly specialized functions developed and exaggerated into the hundreds of breeds of dogs that we have today. Herding dogs managed livestock for us. Terriers rid our homes and farms of varmints who would steal our stashes, spoil our food, and spread disease. Scent hounds tracked wild game for us and improved our odds on the hunt. Gun dogs flushed game birds out of hiding and brought them back to our feet for our dinners. And guardians, like Franklin, stepped up to the plate in the face of any potential adversary. These historical roots aren’t just fun stories to tell at dinner parties about the kind of dog we have; rather, they are the missing pieces of the puzzle in our understanding and stewardship of our furry friends.
Many of the behaviors that humans carefully, deliberately selected dogs to express for countless generations are the very instinctual behaviors we now abhor as “behavioral problems” in modern pets. We have kept the form of the hundreds of historical working breeds because we fancy them, and we have also kept the behaviors that are inextricably linked to those forms. No matter what a breeder tells us, there is no getting one without the other. Once highly valued traits are now nuisances, daily struggles, and lawsuits; chasing, jumping, biting, barking, fighting, and killing were all valuable behaviors in very specific circumstances in the past.
Dogs don’t choose to express instinctual behaviors. They have no idea why they respond to certain events the way that they do, because their instincts are meant to completely bypass any frontal-lobe decision-making. That made the job much easier for our ancestors, as they didn’t have to train the dogs to perform the jobs they were bred to do — dogs just “knew” instinctively how to do it. That’s all great until you put those working instincts into a set of conditions in which once-prized behaviors create massive problems. It’s not the dog’s fault that they still carry these now obsolete and troublesome instincts. They didn’t ask to be the way that humans bred them to be. They’re entirely confused by their own natures in the face of our contemporary conditions and expectations.
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The reality for most dogs is extremely complex because of a surprisingly simple problem: they are fish out of water in our modern pet environments. They are keys in the wrong locks, finding themselves captive in a strange new habitat that bears little resemblance to their ancestral homes. We’ve been told that dogs are perfectly fit for the pet lifestyles we provide them, and we have been raised to believe that dogs are pets, that this is their fundamental design and purpose in our lives. We expect them to adapt to every single condition of our lifestyles, which sometimes means long days confined indoors alone, unwelcome fondling from complete strangers, constantly changing schedules and routines, multiple moves to new homes, uncomfortable social encounters with other animals, and compliance with our wishes in the face of all of it.
We expect this because we have been taught to expect it by all of that culture and marketing influence, and we expect it because we have not been taught to understand the true natures of our dogs. It matters to them, just like it matters to us, that they have a meaningful life with a sense of purpose and belonging. It matters to them that they have relationships, experiences, and opportunities to escape the restrictions placed upon them. It matters to them that they can follow their instincts and meet their own deep emotional, psychological, and behavioral needs.
You’re born a certain way, designed to be successful in your evolutionary niche for a very certain set of conditions. Then you learn, as an individual, how to adapt and meet your body’s needs over the course of your life. You can’t escape the importance of any of it. You, and every other animal, are you because of all of these things: learning, environment, genetics, and your unique self. If any one of these elements doesn’t jive with the others, you will struggle to find balance and welfare, because they are designed by nature to work in tandem, in concert and cooperation with each other. So, a helpful and convenient way to think about these four parts for our four-legged companions is to think about the four L.E.G.S. that support your dog’s overall wellness: Learning, Environment, Genetics, and Self.
We definitely haven’t lost our way with our dogs because we fail to love them enough. We just need to step back and take all things into consideration for them in the face of both old science and new, and reconcile the true sources of the growing problems we face in our lives with dogs by getting to the heart of the matter. This is an invitation to join a new movement for our canine companions, a “canissance” that sees the revitalization of old world knowledge and the integration of new modern science. In the renaissance spirit, we can recoup the value of what we have lost in our history with dogs and bring compassionate creativity to solving the problems facing dogs and their families today.
Learn more about Kim and her book Meet Your Dog: meetyourdogbook.com
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