Where Does My Dog Come From?
Map of the origin region of the Canis Lupus
From a training perspective, it can be quite useful to understand where our beloved pets came from to understand how they think, learn, and operate. Dogs evolved from a wolf species that is now extinct, the exact dates are hard to pin down but it’s estimated the processes of domestication started between 14,000 and 32,000 years ago. These dates are based on fossils found in the Middles East, across Europe, and northern Eurasia.
Our dogs' ancestors are wolves. What can we learn from that that can be applied to better understanding our dogs and how can this be applied to training? Wolves are large predatory pack animals that work together to survive. Wolf expert Daniel Johannes Weigend observed wolves for 22 years to get a better understanding of how things worked in the wolf society. He observed that the parents taught the pups. Our job as adopted parents would be to guide and teach our puppies as puppies are taken from their moms quite young. Mother dogs can only teach so much in the time they have them. We have to take over the role of provider and teacher. He also noted that there is a difference between “correcting” and punishment. Wolves would make a lot of noise to make a point and stop the pups (correct) but would not hurt (punish) them. To teach one does not have to dominate or punish in fact this suggests that building a parent/child relationship facilitates the instinct for a pup to learn from you. You then have to provide structure and guidance to show them what is expected from them.
Furthermore, Weigend observed that what had been perceived as a hierarchy and dominance was actually the result of stress. Wolves, as are many dogs, are quite shy creatures and need space to not feel stressed out. The phenomenon of a hierarchy he realized was only observed when wolves were kept in small cage-like enclosures with little place to hide but as more space and more places to hide were given this aggressive behavior disappeared and in fact the actual need for the place to hide disappeared as well, just having the space and the option to hide took away the stress and fear leaving a relaxed environment. This could translate to many practical problems we have today with our dogs. Dogs who are leash reactive given space until they are comfortable on their own with a situation can reduce a reactive outburst. Providing hiding spots (crates) and space to be alone in a multi-dog household can reduce the stress that can lead to confrontations between dogs. Introducing dogs in a place with lots of space where the dogs are given the opportunity to check each other out in their own time can reduce stress between them reducing the chances of a negative interaction.
At this point, you might be thinking “Ok so my dog came from wolf ancestors but my dog isn’t much like a wolf now so how does this translate into today’s dogs?” There are two main theories of how dogs were domesticated but because it was so long ago there is no concrete evidence to say how this happened but there is a common thread a relationship was built between wolf and man and that started with food then built to some sort of working together cooperatively to keep both species surviving and reproducing which is the backbone of evolution to evolve a species must survive and reproduce. Another component in both theories regardless of our ancestors the hunter-gathers knowledge of genetics or lack thereof they naturally selected through common sense based on the desirable traits as well as the growing wolf pups own free will that the more wolf-like wilder ones returned back to the wild and the wolves with more desirable traits like tamability, trainability, and tendency to affiliate with humans remained in the small human settlements and reproduced. This is where regular evolution started to end for this line of wolf and artificial section began, where humans started to select for trait and where successful traits became ones that increased the chances of surviving in a human environment as well as enticing humans to select particular animals for breeding.
Bringing us back to today the thing to take away from what we learn from how wolves became dogs of today is that the relationship was built around food and over time that as wolves became dogs they relied more on us humans for survival and guidance and our job as owners of today is to build a relationship with of dogs in a way that works for both parties and give them the guidance they need to live in today's world that they once learned from their parents but now must learn from us as we adopt them at an age that they still have a lot to learn about how to live in the home they’re in now. The idea of dominating a puppy to get it to learn from you doesn’t follow how they evolved, nowhere through the evolution domestication processes did the man go out to find a pack of wolves and try and dominate them to get them to work and live with them as pets. That is way as a trainer I teach dogs to work for food, it’s not a bribe dogs instinctively work for food. I also build a bond through walking with them and as we walk I guide them in how it is supposed to be done in a cooperative way interacting with others on their terms as well as the terms of the other party. And play games to learn and practice things in a fun cooperative way in which we both enjoy so that the dog is engaged in the activity. Then I teach you as the parent to build this relationship and work together to keep learning and building on skills.