Do Dogs Have A Nature?

It’s interesting to read the reviews and comments on Neil’s DVD as well as the assortment of critiques offered on the web in regards to how other thinkers on dogs perceive Natural Dog Training. It strikes me that our respective arguments aren’t intersecting, that we’re not actually making intellectual contact. Some seem to be saying that since their way of training dogs has produced adequate if not amazing results, why is there any need to reinvent the wheel? Others say that since every dog is different, any systemic approach is misguided and we’re better off picking from this tool or that tool from those being offered and that it’s through learning what tools work with the various personality types of dogs that we advance our understanding. Some say that NDT is merely a rehashing of old ideas candied up with some new terminology that makes things unnecessarily complex. So I’m searching for the definitive question which would eliminate those questions that aren’t actually germane to the discussion, such as who-is-better-than-who at dog training. If our varied ways of looking at dogs and behavior can actually find an interface, a point of friction, then the argument can gain traction and be advanced.

To me, it seems the defining question is whether or not dogs have a nature, in other words, an irreducible makeup encapsulating the essence of the canine being. To put words in the mouth of a dominance proponent, I suppose they would say something to the effect that yes dogs do have a nature and it is a pack instinct  so as to find a way to contribute to the pack as a means of fitting in. I believe an R+ trainer would have to say that there is no nature; sociability and complex expressions of behavior are a function of learning. I feel this question might prove a good platform on which various schools of thought could engage. What do you think is the nature of a dog?

Published September 25, 2009 by Kevin Behan
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24 responses to “Do Dogs Have A Nature?”

  1. April Hannon says:

    I think the nature of a dog is emotion. What I mean is that dogs are conduits of energy. Their bodies, I believe serve as a place to hold pure emotion. Since dogs were created by nature, the way this question is worded is a little confusing to me, but I am basically saying that dogs are pure emotion, that is their nature. They are also predators, but I believe that they are emionally driven as predators in every aspect. I maybe a little confusing in my answer, but what I am trying to say is that I think dogs are nature, as in emotion, heart, and connectedness.

  2. K9 Awareness says:

    Very thought provoking questions–love it. Perhaps there does not need to be an intellectual answer–a dog just is. Their thought process is very much in the moment with response to the given situation they are in. Obviously historical events create reactions in the present moment.
    Raising and training a dog, just like raising children, there is no right or wrong way, if it works for you and the dog then is it wrong because our approach is different? (I am not talking about abusive, destructive approaches)A dog responds instincively to each situation and the personality of the person they are with.

  3. kbehan says:

    There’s much to be said about just being in the moment with a dog, in fact, there can be nothing more. So I agree that there isn’t an intellectual answer per se; however the intellect is our only faculty of articulation and it’s necessary that the nature of the dog be brought forward through our thoughts and words. Alas the human intellect is very strong. When we see a dog performing an act of intelligence and compassion we reflexively attribute it to thoughts. On the other hand if a dog responds instinctively, well then it seems that we’re talking about a machine. So I’m asking if these are our only options, either the dog is a thinking being or else it is a machine? Is there a canine nature that is spontaneous, creative, adaptive, loving, capable of learning, and yet is not due to thoughts?

  4. Trisha says:

    After 15 years of puzzling over the nature of the dog, I have concluded (not on my own) that dogs are group hunters and everything flows from this. All problem behaviors arise from not understanding the dog’s natural group hunting makeup and all the human concepts we pile onto them. Human beings are also group hunters; I think this is extremely relevant to explaining our deep relationship we have with the amazing canine.

  5. As a trainer who is coming from a behavior science theory background, sure, I’d say every dog has a nature or personality, that isn’t built just from learned behavior, but that is also developed from behaviors that were reinforced or punished historically, genetically. Different dogs seem to have sometimes subtly different natures, but I can also see a common “dog” thread, just as I can see a thread of human nature. The trick seems to be that it’s human nature to ask these sorts of questions and have these sorts of conversations and thoughts. I think of human’s as the great communicators. We are driven to communicate with each other, to reach out into each other’s brains and give and receive communicative feedback. Dogs have been with us a long time, so they share much of our nature, much of our patterns have been mutually reinforcing. The trick to understanding dogs is to avoid projecting our own ideas onto them.

  6. Sang says:

    Forgive me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t behaviorist science do exactly that? Project our own thoughts and ideas onto dogs? Because that seems to be the case based on my understanding of behaviorist science. I could be completely wrong about that, so if you could help me understand how that isn’t the case, I’d appreciate it.

    I’ll just give a simple example of why I have trouble coming to terms with the core principles of behaviorism as a cause and effect model. It’s a commonly held belief in the corporate environment that by increasing an employee’s awards, through a higher salary or increased benefits, the employee will then have more motivation to increase their performance on the job. But what typically happens is the exact opposite. By increasing the primary reinforcer in the job place, performance and motivation actually decrease. That seems to go against the basic premise of behaviorist theory that the bigger the reward, the bigger the motivation. Motivation and desire actually wane. Most people would describe it by saying that the employee’s hunger is gone. Then, after a while, even though they may have a great salary and great benefits, they start to feel the desire for something new and different. And it’s that FEELING that motivates them to want to move on.

    I stress the word feeling because I think that’s where behaviorism is missing something. Behaviorist science studies dogs through the lens of the dog as a thinking animal that weighs his options and pursues the option that is in his best interest. But if that were the case, then why would my 40 pound dog attack dogs that are 3 times her size? I’m 5ft 8 and weigh 140 lbs. I know better than to get into a fight with a 300 lb lineman, because that’s a fight I know I can’t win. I have the ability to weigh my options and see that yeah, this guy will kick my butt, and that isn’t the best option. But dogs don’t operate that way. Otherwise, my dog would be able to weigh her options and pick the best one. So if she can’t make that kind of conscious discernment when she starts to feel the fear triggered by seeing another dog, why would she operate any differently when offered a reward as a primary reinforcer?

    I definitely agree with you that humans have an amazing gift of communication. We have the luxury of being able to have these discussions because our brains operate in a way that allows us to do so. But our brains are in constant conflict. Since you study behaviorist science, I’m sure you already know this stuff, but indulge me so that I can make my point. There is the pleasure seeking, reward based circuitry in the limbic system, which drives our motivations and our desires, and the cerebrum that allows us to think and have discernment. That part of our brain allows us to weight our options, and pick the thing that is in our best interest. But think about how often our reptile brain can override our thinking brain, to the point that we will convince ourselves of all kinds of things to justify our reptile brain’s motivations and desire to buy that shiny new car, even though the car you have is perfectly fine. To eat that dessert, or have that burger at midnight, even though you know it’s not good for you. To buy the newer house with all the cool appliances and high end finishes, when you know the neighborhood sucks or that it doesn’t fit the criteria you originally created for what you need in your new house. Those are all examples of how powerful the pleasure center is, and how much it can drive a species with a much more evolved brain than a dog, that has the capacity to override it, yet rarely does.

    So if we can’t ignore and override our own pleasure centers, our desires, and our feelings, what chance do dogs have? They can’t override them. At least not through cognitive thinking, or weighing options. And that’s where I believe the notion of cause and effect dog training is flawed. Because if we humans don’t follow the notions of cause and effect in our own behavior, even though we have the ability and brain capacity to do so, then how can dogs? And that’s where I see behaviorist science projecting human thoughts and ideas onto them. Because behaviorism seems to still be looking at dogs through the lens of thinking animals that behave and interact with their environment the way we do, whereas Natural Dog Training is making an attempt to understand dogs through the lens of what they’re feeling, and their true underlying motivations.

    So I think this is actually an important discussion to have, and welcome your thoughts and insights into this so we can have an open dialogue about it. I’ll be honest, I know that you certainly would have a much stronger understanding of behavior science than I do, which is why I want to hear your thoughts on all of this as well. I’m incredibly curious when it comes to dog and human behavior, so I find these discussions fascinating.

  7. Have you ever heard of “Matching Theory?” It is a behavior science theory that says an animal will seek the most reinforcement available in an environment. So, if you already have enough money, the value of money goes down. If you’ve had enough hotdog, the value of hotdog goes down. Perhaps what would be reinforcing now is time, or freedom, or maybe a better personal reputation. So, you start working for time or freedom or reputation or relationships or whatever it is that is most reinforcing to you now, and not for the job.

    Feelings are physical, such as feelings of warmth or coolness, and similarly, if you’re already warm, I won’t be able to reinforce your good behavior by turning up the heat. In a classroom full of chilly children, I could definitely reinforce them for getting seated by turning up the heat as soon as they all sit. If by “feelings” you mean things like “love” or “loneliness,” I would say those are ideas, or abstract thoughts, and dogs don’t think in those terms. From my point of view, my dogs love me, but from their point of view, they don’t have the word “love” in their brain. They have lots of feelings that are generated when they see me, that might be excitement, playfulness, relaxation, or hunger, or they might have itches or tensions in their body that they want me to pet them or take them for a walk. They don’t think in words, “gee I love her.” They just feel good feelings, and want to be near me.

    Our pleasures our desires our feelings are all accounted for in behavior science. You are absolutely right that dogs cannot and should not be expected to override their feelings. In agility, training is all about getting the dog so that he WANTS to play agility. We do that by recognizing what the dog likes and wants to do (that means, recognizing what is reinforcing behaviors for the dog in any given moment), and making satisfaction for the dog contingent on satisfying a behavioral criteria. IE: Say the dogs learn that when they lay on the mat, I deliver food. This is how we transfer value from one reinforcement (eating food for example) into another behavior (laying on the mat). My dog Dandylion practically GLUES himself to the mat, he LOVES the mat much like I love my 1995 Chevy Astro van. We weren’t born loving things like that, but they come to represent fulfillment of our desires.

    Behavior science today is all about creating win win scenarios for the animals. Everybody gets what they want, is the idea. Of course, when you have a dog who wants to kill a cat, then you either have to change what the dog wants or else live with a dog who is frustrated because he can’t get what he wants.

  8. To Kevin Behan,

    Hello there, I was just reading a magazine article in a New York Sunday magazine about Jung, and his journal that is being published. Did you see it? It made me think of you. I think your approach to me seems just a little bit more Jungian somehow, or that the rift between Skinner era behavior science and Freud and Jung during that time, is similar somehow to the rift between contemporary behavior science and your “canine nature” approach.

  9. Also, one more for Sang, have you ever heard of vicious cycle behavior? That’s when a punishing behavior (getting drunk) becomes a reinforcing behavior (getting drunk). It’s created by punishment, and the drive to escape punishment, where the escape behavior (getting drunk in this case) becomes a self-reinforcing behavior that continues even after the animal has escaped. I think that theory is super interesting and complicated, just thought with your examples that it might be something to think about. Other examples: nail chewing, fur pulling, cribbing in horses. Originates in an escape from an aversive, but continues even after the initial aversive is gone.

    I like Natural Dog Training quite a lot, I think it’s really quite interesting, but it doesn’t happen outside behavior science, but can be explained with behavior science, and so why not explain it that way? What is the point of arguing whether gravity exists or not? There is no point. Behavior science is called “science” because it’s main theories are provable.

  10. Sean says:

    The question still remains, why is there a ‘want’? Why are creatures endowed with a ‘want’?

    If we can work with and reinforce certain behaviors, those are indeed in deference to that ‘want’.

    The root of the question isn’t being addressed by behavioral science. It is just taken for granted that it is innate and we can work with it.

    Nature Dog Training attempts to explain this ‘primary’ motivator, this ‘want’, as a function of energy rather than as an expression of complex, rational calculations being performed by the organism.

  11. Sang says:

    Thanks for the info Jenny, I’ll look into those things for sure.

    I totally get what you’re saying about motivation and reinforcement. But I guess what I was trying to say, and forgive me if my example didn’t state my thought clearly, was that all those motivators, like money, hot dogs, etc…..are those all things that are intrinsic to our deeper desires, or are they just things masking our deeper, innate desires? Know what I’m getting at? Those are all things that are more peripheral objectives, goals and motivators, but they’re all driven by a deeper need and desire that uses those peripheral reinforcers to try to fulfill that deeper desire, but those things never can. Does that make sense?

    We are all born with desire, but how we end up fulfilling that desire ends up being different for everyone, based on their environment, their parents, their friends, the media, etc….For dogs we channel that desire into things like agility, tug, frisbee, fetch, and so on. But just like us, they are born with desire. So the thing I’m trying to understand, as is Natural Dog Training, is why that desire exists in the first place.

    I totally agree with you that using positive motivators and reinforcers works to make things appealing. But, in behaviorist science, it seems that different motivators are used for different dogs based on their different likes and dislikes. One dogs likes food, another likes to play fetch, another likes the tug toy, while another loves to play frisbee, which is great. But those are all outlets for the same desire that all dogs possess. Certainly, that desire will manifest in a unique way based on each dog’s personality, but the thing they all have in common, is the desire they are born with.

    So it seems to me that behaviorist science tries to tackle dog training by addressing a dog’s personality, which is developed over a period of time as a way to fulfill his desire, rather than going right after the desire itself. Which is what Natural Dog Training is attempting to do.

    So in my example of the corporate employee, the point I was trying to make but made so poorly was that none of those external motivators like salary, benefits, vacation time, a new job or career, can ever satisfy the employee, because those things only fulfill the wants and needs he’s developed over his life that developed based on external factors. Just as a dog’s love of agility, fetch or tug, all act as motivators that are aimed at fulfilling the needs of a dog’s personality, which manifested over time based on external factors.

    So what Natural Dog Training is trying to understand, is why it feels so good to dogs to do those things in the first place, since the things we use as motivators in and of themselves don’t really mean that much. What is it about dogs that makes them find joy in running an agility course? What is it about them that makes playing tug and fetch so fun? Why are those things motivators at all?

    I know it may sound like semantics, and that we’re saying the same thing, but I think this is where the differences in underlying philosophy becomes more apparent. Because Natural Dog Training doesn’t say that other training methods or techniques are wrong. What it does do though is try to look deeper at why any of those positive reinforcers and motivators are actually motivators at all.

  12. Sang says:

    Thanks Jenny, I’ll check that out. I’m research obsessed:)

  13. kbehan says:

    I tried to access this article but couldn’t. On the web “matching theory” was discussed in terms of economic theory which leads me to my complaint with mathematical models if this is what it is. They are another form of description rather than explication. For example, there are all kinds of mathematical rationales for the statistical benefits of cooperative behavior, such as why ravens call for other ravens and they all end up alerted to the presence of a carcass, just as there is a statistical analysis to gas molecules vibrating in a flask. But there isn’t math going on inside the raven that’s calling or in the ravens that are responding to the call. And yet there is indeed something going on inside the ravens just as there is some energetic phenomenon going on inside a gas molecule, and I maintain this is knowable (at least to a more profound level) if we push what we do know to its logical extension. So while math is interesting and helps us find or understand that there are interrelations between things, it can’t possibly be fundamental and so I don’t treat it as if we’ve arrived at bedrock.

  14. Alec says:

    I think URL should not have the period added to it. Try using:

    http://seab.envmed.rochester.edu/jeab/articles/2007/jeab-88-01-0131.pdf

  15. Alec says:

    I don’t think the URL should have a period on it. Try using:

    http://seab.envmed.rochester.edu/jeab/articles/2007/jeab-88-01-0131.pdf

  16. Valerie (KS) says:

    Oh! it looks like the period at the end of the sentence accidentally became part of the link so here it is again or just delete the final period (not sure if this will make a link or if I need to do the html for the link but here goes): http://seab.envmed.rochester.edu/jeab/articles/2007/jeab-88-01-0131.pdf

  17. That article is about “contrasting” behaviors, which was thought provoking, and it kind of speaks to that question, “why does an animal want something or anything?” in a way that goes beyond just needing it for survival.

  18. kbehan says:

    So, in the pigeon’s mind, what is in contrast with what?

  19. yah.. i agree that dog do have a nature and some of it is having a pack instinct i guess..

  20. bk says:

    Sure dogs have a nature, they even have nature amongst breeds in my experience.

  21. kbehan says:

    I’m interested in people’s definition of a “nature” and bear in mind I’m always grinding my ax, but please feel free to expand on your definition of the nature of a dog and/or a particular breed. Thanks

  22. April Hannon says:

    I came across the most amazing book called ”The Nature of a Dog”it was a photography book, it had amazing pictures of dogs, no fluffy hats,halloween costumes or funny captions, just sepia pictures capturing the wildness in a dog, and beneath the dog they had quotes about the dog from different cultures, most of them I had never heard.Between the sets of pictures there were chapters written by different people that talked about the old myths from different cultures about dogs,they talked about the cynics an their phylosophies, and they talked about we try to mask and tame the dog,while trying to mask and tame ourselves.That book, unlike any other I’ve ever read, sparked an interest in me to search out those old myths, and legends about dogs they could hold more truth about dogs than we could imagine. As for the nature of a dog I believe they are messengers, that is their nature to carry what we are afraid to carry, to tell what we are afraid to tell,soul messengers.

  23. kbehan says:

    I’m sure this will prove to be an enlightening quest.

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