Back in the late seventies I was, as my Uncle Eldon would say,. still wet behind the ears.
I decided that I no longer wanted to train dogs in the fashion that was prescribed by my Uncle, who was the dog trainer in the family.
I had become disillusioned with the practice of dominance based dog training, and began to form my own way of thinking about dogs and as it turned out my philosophy was the polar opposite of what Eldon believed.
Eldon was of the old school mind-set that said if the dog did not obey, or showed aggression to family members, he needed to be taken in a notch.
Which didn’t mean Eldon injured the dogs in any way, no, he was very careful about how he dispensed what he considered discipline,.because they were highly valued assets that required care and protection.
In his words, “ A well-trained dog that can hunt is worth his weight in gold.“
His go-to punishment for bad behavior was, if he thought the dog was being disrespectful, or willfully disobedient, he would give it a swift kick in the ass, and give the dog the veiled threat,
“If I have to talk to you again, I am going to let the ax handle do the talking.“
I had come to realize that what Eldon saw as respect in the dogs was really fear. The dogs always obeyed but they would come to him low to the ground, ears back, tail tucked in.
I could see the stress the dogs were under, and it made me feel bad for the dogs, and frankly pissed off at Eldon.
I did not voice my concerns, because to do so would have been an exercise in futility, and to my Uncles way of seeing things, disrespectful, therefore worthy of a swift kick in the ass.
At this point I had already trained a couple of my neighbors dogs to herd cattle, and I had brought home an eight week old , female Australian Shepherd pup, who I named Tiny, and had trained her to herd the cattle, my way.
Now back in 1978 my way of training a dog was not a method that could be named, and for the next 35 years remained un-named, and I was not even thinking about dog training philosophy, methodology, or even why dogs did what they did,. I was not that deep of a thinker,.. I just let the dog be true to his temperament, and I shaped behaviors, like come, sit, down, and stay.. as they presented themselves during daily life,.. and I based all this on those times when I saw that the dogs were their happiest and most dog like.
When they were hunting or herding.
The idea struck me one evening as we readied our weapons and moved from building to building, gathering traps and the supplies we would need to spend the night in the camp we had built at the end of the trap line, some eight miles up the stream.
I suddenly noticed the dogs were much more vocal than usual, with was not unusual, I just had never noticed it before, and then…
The thought hit me like a ton of bricks.
When my Uncle`s dogs were not working with either hunting or herding they would just lay around and never showed any what I would call enthusiasm for what was going on,.unless someone came in the driveway, or a deer would come out into the field., then they would light up like a Christmas tree.
I realized that the dogs seemed to know what we were going to do, that preparation for the hunt was happening, and they seemed to perk up in spirit, they had an anxious anticipation about them… their normally fearful nature seemed to disappear,..and they became more vocal in their attempts to communicate with us.. and it wasn’t until much later that I further realized that the dogs knew what we were going to do, even before we did.
Then the thought I had earlier suddenly solidified, and I understood.
The spirit, or heart of the dog resides in the hunt.
The next morning the dogs would be electric with energy and enthusiasm to get started.., they required a little coaxing to settle down enough to eat, and sometimes we just fed them by hand along the way.
They acted like puppies again, full of life and energy.
They would walk behind and then charge ahead searching for things to run up a tree or corner,.
They would respond to our whistles and calls, circling back, moving through the brush, and with every bound through the snow you could see the layers of stored stress melt away as they used it to organize themselves in concert with our movements,..reading us like a book.
I observed the dogs after the hunt and regardless of if it was successful or not, they seemed to be re-born, and the fear and stress that had burdened them was suddenly gone…at least for a short time.
I began to train my pups with the hunt in mind, I would take them to the woods and walk around, play with them, and let them be dogs, games like hide and seek, find the stinky cheese, tug of war, and I always let them win, because it made them so happy to run off with that old sock tied to a rubber hose.. I never considered that I should teach them that I am the boss.
I was not their boss, I didn’t want to be.
I was the one they depended on to provide outlets for their stress, by teaching them how to hunt, and to shape their behavior with the words I used to communicate my intentions.
All this I accomplished simply by playing with my dogs in a way that spoke to their true nature as hunters.
In return they give me love and life long trust.
I knew dogs lived in the moment, but I was missing some information that if I had know about it back then would have changed my perception about not only dogs,.. but myself.
I now know that what I was seeing in my Uncles dogs was stored emotional energy that manifests itself as stress in the dog’s body and mind, and that energy is jam-packed with information that is vital to the dog’s ability to learn, and they are only truly able to release it and connect with us when they are free to express their true nature as hunters, and work with us as team mates.
All the best,
Resource: Natural Dog Training