The Old Trainer: Demystifying the canine mentality

D ear Old Trainer: Last week you mentioned wolves again when describing how to train a woman’s dog. I enjoy your column, but I don’t understand why you continue to make that connection. Dogs are not wolves. What does a toy poodle have in common with a wolf? A dog is not a wolf, so why keep referring to wolves when it comes to training dogs?


Mill Valley

Dear Elliott: It is true that many breeds do not physically resemble the wolf, but a dog’s looks are irrelevant when it comes to training. We are concerned only with the mental side – how the dog thinks.

All dogs, including toy poodles, are descendants of wolves and, like wolves, are governed by canine psychology. The foundation of that psychology is that canines have always been, and still are, pack animals.

If all the pets in Mill Valley were turned loose into the wild, they would find each other and join into a pack. We know that for a fact because it happens all over the planet when dogs are abandoned to live on their own. They crave life in the pack, and once they join one they will either become the leader or obey the leader.

A dog introduced into a human family does not think, “Oh, look, they are all human and I am a mere dog so I will follow any order they give me.” They love their new pack, but it is just a pack as far as they are concerned, so they look around to see who is running the show. If they see a leader, they obey orders. If not, they take over as leader and run the pack.

So it is common sense to use psychology to train your dog. After all, it is the way humans train other humans. In every segment of society from advertising to sports to Navy SEAL training, psychology is used to influence behavior and get people to do what we want them to do.

Pet owners are surprised to find they can do the same thing to make training their dogs easy, but only because they do not realize that dogs are just as apt as humans to react to psychological impulses. Dogs have complex brains and master many tasks humans cannot match. Their psychological drives are just as strong as those of the two-legged members of the pack.

Once you realize these drives exist, it becomes logical to use them to make training easy. That’s why all dog trainers do it and why I always recommend it as the first step in training. But to use it you must first understand what it is and how it differs from the human variety. So the question becomes: How do you do that?

The best way I know is to watch the documentary “Wolves At Our Door.” That’s why I always recommend it. You learn what canine psychology is, how a leader trains the rest of the pack, and how similar the behavior of your dog is to that of the wolf.

The more you understand the wolf, the better you understand your dog. The better you understand your dog, the easier it is to train him.