Knowing and understanding dog instincts.
“In the minds of dogs behaviour is not categorised as “good” or “bad”; they are just being dogs, acting on their instincts.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following definitions for “instinct”:
1. a natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity
2a. a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason
2b. behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level
Natural. Inherent. Impulse. Inheritable. Unalterable. Response to stimuli. Without involving reason. Below the conscious level.
Remember the key words above as you consider some of the dog instincts listed further down in this post. When dogs display behaviours based on their natural instincts it is not about you, it is about them; they don’t bark at other dogs simply to annoy you, they don’t chew your shoes because they prefer Prada to Adidas, they don’t dig because they just want a shower when they get back in – they do all of these things out of instinct.
Instinctual behaviours are not inherently problematic but unfortunately sometimes dogs’ instinctual behaviours, that is their impulsive reactions to environmental stimuli, are often viewed by humans as problem behaviours, not usually because the dog has a problem, but more often because we find the behaviour to be a problem, an annoyance, an inconvenience. In the minds of dogs behaviour is not categorised as “good” or “bad”; they are just being dogs, acting on their instincts based on the environmental stimuli of the moment.
Of course there are also those cases where a dog’s physical and/or emotional needs are not being met, and as a result the dog may start displaying certain instinctual behaviours in excess, leading to what would actually be considered problem behaviour; excessive barking or howling, excessive chewing, hyperactivity. But remember this – even in the real cases of problem behaviour, it is not the instinctual behaviour that is the problem, it is simply a physical symptom of a deeper problem, usually rooted in physical or emotional pain. If your dog is exhibiting instinctual behaviours in excess, your first thought should not be “How can I make this stop?”, but instead “Is there an inherent need not being met, which is causing this behaviour?”
“Expecting a dog never to bark or howl would be like condemning a human to eternal silence.”
Barking & Howling
Humans talk to communicate. Dogs bark and howl. Expecting a dog never to bark or howl would be like condemning a human to eternal silence.
Dogs also have an instinct to guard, protect and warn – this is one of the most common triggers for dogs barking. Dogs also have incredible hearing and smell, so it would not be uncommon for a dog to hear or smell something we cannot and to try and alert us to the fact that this noise or smell might be a threat or a problem.
Dogs also bark out of excitement, frustration or as a plea for attention. Whatever the reason for barking or howling at any one time is, the point is that the dog is trying to communicate something, not just to interrupt your favourite TV programme, cut you off during a teleconference, or give you a headache for the fun of it.
One of the most effective ways not to stop barking, but to reduce the incidence of barking is to acknowledge the situation and indicate to your dog that you are aware of it and have it under control. You could do this by using a hand signal as you go to the door or window to see what the source of the barking might be – it might be a passer-by or a squirrel getting just a little too close to your dog’s territory – and let them know calmly and clearly: “Thank you, I got it”.
Chewing. The bane of so many new dog owners’ lives. Think of all the shoes, electricals, toys, and pieces of furniture that have been lost to chewing.
During puppyhood chewing is largely caused by teething; milk teeth falling out and being replaced by permanent teeth is quite an uncomfortable experience for any mammal that goes through the process, and the discomfort triggers a need to chew in an effort to improve the situation faster. Just as we would buy teething toys for our human, teething, babies, we should ensure that we provide a wide variety (a variety of sizes, textures, materials, smells, surfaces) of chew toys for the puppies we bring into our lives. The more appropriate options for chewing you provide, the less damage your dog is likely to inflict on inappropriate objects (such as the shoes and furniture mentioned earlier).
Make no mistake though, the chewing instinct in dogs is not isolated to puppyhood – it is a lifelong instinct and need. Dogs’ ancestry goes back to wolves, and wolves hunt and eat wild animals; they tear at the fur and the flesh, and chew on the bones. Just because our pet dogs don’t have to hunt or work particularly hard at breaking down the kibble or the wet food most get fed into easily digestible chunks, doesn’t mean that they don’t still feel an innate need to chew. What’s more, chewing on raw bones has always been an excellent form of dental hygiene and maintenance for dogs. Certain types of chew toys have also been developed to help achieve this instead of always having to rely on raw bones…but we all know which the dog would prefer, don’t we?
Dogs young and old also use their mouths for investigation, exploration and understanding; they don’t know what a wooden chair leg is or how it might taste until they try it, and even if the taste isn’t all that great the simple act of chewing provides dogs with some sense of comfort and relaxation so they might keep going until told otherwise. Don’t scald or punish a dog for chewing; provide sufficient interesting and appropriate alternatives to take the interest away from the inappropriate targets, and should your dog choose an inappropriate target for chewing sometimes, get him/her interested in the other options – hide food in or smear some food on the chew toys, or play some games with those toys to make them the more desirable targets.
Digging & Scavenging
There can be many different reasons for dogs to dig, but all reasons lead back to their ancestry, their genes, their instincts.
Dogs might dig to get to prey or something delicious or interesting they can smell underground, they might dig in order to bury a precious toy or valuable piece of food that they want to keep safe from potential thieves, they might dig to create a nice little resting place for themselves or a den for their young. Whatever the reason, let’s remember once again that it is about them not you – they don’t have anything against the orchids you planted, nor would they rather have you grow cucumbers instead of courgettes, they are not landscape artists or fond of showers, they dig out of instinct, without much thought to how you might feel about the effects on your garden. If digging is ruining your plans for the garden of your dreams, then you might want to re-think those plans, provide more walks instead of time in the garden, or divide part of your garden into your dream garden and another part into the dog’s playground.
Scavenging, i.e. finding, picking up, and often eating rubbish, discarded food, dead, rotting animals, or other less pleasant items dogs come across. So gross…at least to us, the fortunate humans who have constant and plentiful access to fresh food and nutrition (often to excess). What would often be disgusting for us might be irresistable to our dogs, but more than that dogs are hard wired to scavenge whatever they might find that could be edible because scavenging is intrinsically linked to an instinct to survive – scavenging is a way to survive when pickings are slim. That’s not to say that whenever a dog eats something off the ground outside it means we’re not feeding them enough, pet dogs are generally well fed, sometimes even overfed, but it’s instinctual for a dog to eat when the opportunity arises.
Dogs are curious, opportunistic and experimental; if something smells like they might like the taste of it, and they can get close enough to get a taste, the chances are they will take the opportunity to try that hors d’oeuvre of rabbit poop, discarded sandwich, or gone off food from the garbage. Your role as the dog owner is not to stop scavenging altogether (my dogs love rabbit poop, so I let them have some rabbit poop snacks on our walks), but to ensure your dog’s safety – keep your eyes peeled for anything that your dog might try to eat which could be dangerous, teach your dog to drop things he might pick up so you can still intervene if you don’t spot the dangerous items first, and make sure your dog can’t get into anything at home where you don’t want him finding snacks.
“A dog that is never allowed to freely engage in play with other dogs will never truly learn the skills, the social intricacies, or the enjoyment of play, and that would be a real shame.”
Sniffing, one of the greatest joys of a dog’s life, as well as one of their most important survival instincts. Smells tell a dog more about their environment than any other sense so it would be a real crime to not allow them to use this extraordinary skill they have. Sniffing is also calming for dogs; studies monitoring the heart rate of dogs in different situations have shown that sniffing consistently lowers the dog’s heart rate*, therefore sniffing has the added benefit of having a calming, almost meditational effect on dogs.
Whenever possible, allow your dog to indulge in this instinctive, calming behaviour, the effects of which could be far more wide-reaching than just the odd walk; you might find that allowing more time for sniffing helps a hyperactive dog become calmer, a nervous dog become more confident, or an aggressive dog become more mellow. Sniffing is also a calming signal, so it is particularly important that you allow this behaviour to occur, especially when or if it occurs in the presence of other dogs.
Allowing your dog to give in to the instinct of sniffing is one of the easiest and most beneficial things you can do for your dog, allowing your dog to sniff on walks is an obvious one, but you can create engaging sniffing activities for your dog also at home – hide dog food or treats in sniffing mats, in activation toys or in every day items like an empty kitchen roll tube, and just sit back and watch as your dog has the time his/her life sniffing out those treats!
Chasing & Hunting
It should not come as a surprise that dogs have an innate desire to chase and hunt. Without a prey drive wolves would not survive, and although our dogs don’t usually need to chase and hunt down their food anymore the instinct to chase and hunt is so integral to survival that it is inbuilt.
As with all the other instincts discussed here there is no getting rid of the instinct to chase or hunt, and again, as with all the other instincts the dog owner’s job is simply to ensure safety. In this case that means ensuring that your dog won’t chase anything that could harm him/her or others, and unless you have impeccable recall with your dog it would not be advisable to let your dog off leash anywhere except in a safe, fenced off area. Of course there will be differences in the intensity of certain instincts between dogs, but as a general rule looking out for the safety of your dog becomes much more difficult off leash in an open space, and the risk is always the owner’s to take…it’s one I never take.
There are plenty of ways to harness your dog’s predations instincts without allowing the dog to chase and hunt down anything or anyone. Simply searching for “predation substitute training” on the internet will bring up some interesting options to try. I will also list a couple of resources at the end of this post.
Playing is not just limited to puppies or young dogs. Playing is a life skill that all dogs, young or old, would benefit from engaging in and enjoying every now and then. Through play is how puppies learn about social skills, about boundaries, about body language and communication.
Play is not a learned skill, it’s an instinct, and as much as possible dogs should be allowed to engage in dog-to-dog play without interaction or interruption from humans. Of course we must intervene if we see that play is clearly starting to get too aggressive or one or more dogs are starting to become uncomfortable, but in general dogs are much better at communicating with each other than we are at interpreting their communications with each other. A dog that is never allowed to freely engage in play with other dogs will never truly learn the skills, the social intricacies, or the enjoyment of play, and that would be a real shame.
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