Born Wild, Trained to be Free
"I don’t want to kill my dog," the man said. He was near tears. He stood in my office telling me that this should be the happiest time in his life. His newborn son had just come home from the hospital, but his dog was aggressive toward strangers and even worse, with children, and now he was torn between his love for the dog and concern for his child’s well being. His son was of course most important, but nevertheless, the man couldn’t bear to have his pet destroyed.
To his credit he accepted the fact that he had made every mistake in the book with his dog. But what had he done that is so different from the way most dog owners respond to dog problems? He thought that love meant hugs and kisses and that discipline meant a whack every now and again. He approached training by thinking that getting his dog to sit and lie down was all that had to be done. His dog was treated as most pets are, except that his dog, a Pit Bull cross, would tend to learn aggression, given these common handling errors.
As I studied the dog for a few minutes, the overwhelming message coming from the animal was one of fear. I moved my hand above his topline and his hair stood on end instantly, rippling along the spine in anticipation of my touch. It is commonplace to call such a dog a “fear biter”, for he is indeed afraid, but such a term misses the truth that lies beneath this dog’s potentially explosive reactions. When a dog lashes out, for one brief instant he feels free of his fear. While he may be compelled by stress to bite, he is motivated by freedom.
Biting, as well as the countless other behavioral problems which send ten million dogs to their doom each year, is completely avoidable. No matter what the temperament of the dog may be, genetics doesn’t mean that behavior is predetermined. All dogs can adapt to any environment if their wildness is acknowledged, appreciated, and then channeled into expressions of freedom that are appropriate. Such adaptability, broadened and deepened through domestication, forms what I call the dog’s “harmonic quotient”.
The Pit Bull owner in my office was deeply perplexed. Where had he gone wrong? Had he been too tough on his dog, or not tough enough? While there are a lot of handling errors to focus on, there is one simple answer to this dog’s problem that is also the common denominator in any other breakdown in the dog/owner relation. The owner had fallen into the usual trap: he had formed a pack with his dog. His mind-set had been to tame his dog so that he would be lovable. Since this approach ignored the prey instinct, the dog’s cooperative spirit was undeveloped and their home life revolved around the tension of a pack rather than the harmony of a group.
This man was not aware that a dog is biologically and emotionally designed to absorb and store stress, and that this occurs whenever the prey instinct isn’t fulfilled. In the wild, this behavioral mechanism ensures survival, which is why social tension is typical of pack life. In the absence of any prey, pack members have no target on which to vent their aggression. Thus inhibited, the stress level builds to a high pitch, finding its ultimate released when another individual acts out of place, causing a shift in the pack order. In this moment, all of the imprisoned passion in the pack is released toward the hapless pack member. Of course, the social tension of the pack may also find a release in an attack on a vulnerable prey animal and thus it becomes a group.
As I moved my hand toward the dog all the confusion he had experienced in his life with regard to his prey instinct surfaced merely by the extension of my hand. The possibility of a stranger’s touch made this dog go beyond his breaking point – were I to have gone further, I might have provoked an attack.
Interestingly enough, this dog’s stress level was directly proportional to the strength of his attraction to me. The more attraction a dog has, the more aggressive he’ll be if the harmonic pathways are blocked. Nothing in nature can occur in a vacuum – a dog’s behavior always has its reasons, but it can’t be predicated on a negative motivation, such as being afraid. A dog can’t dislike, he can only like; he can only be attracted. Therefore, the Pit Bull’s fear of me isn’t a motivation to bite me. The germ of his mood was one of longing, an uninhibited urge to be with me, its purity long since scarred by incorrect handling. This is why it is incorrect to say that, genetically speaking, Pit Bulls are problem dogs. Pit Bulls that experience flow along a harmonic pathway are wildly social toward strangers.
Wildness is an innocent, unabashed attraction to that which is positive in nature. In young pups this innocence is reflected in their every impulse, which is why they are so outgoing. But of course, such an undiscriminating attitude is not a successful survival trait in the forest, and so it is that wolves must live in packs and with stress. It is necessary that each member be made extremely nervous so that he won’t ever forget an unpleasant experience. With a tautly strung nervous system, he’s less likely to be surprised by a predator or be insensitive to any power shifts within the pack. Additionally, he will be highly charged to chase and bite a large prey animal.
Because life in the wild is so oppressive, we must recognize that there is really no such thing as real freedom in nature. Canine survival is intimately connected to all other forms of life, and it is as a result of this interdependence that life and death always hang in the balance. However, the incredible beauty of the prey instinct is revealed with the realization that freedom and harmony are synonymous. When the group is coordinated by the master prey instinct, that is the sensation of freedom. That is unity. That is life. In the wild, freedom is short-lived, for as soon as a kill is made, the group becomes a pack once again. Nevertheless, that fleeting spark of harmony is what bonds each member to the group.
Our task as dog owners is to capture that transient surge of freedom and expand on it until it occupies our dog’s entire range of reference. This is not hard to do, but it seldom happens because we’re constantly seeking to tame our dogs while under the misconception that their wildness is a destructive force. Although we don’t want our domesticated dogs to be wild-like, this natural wildness is not the problem. The problem is how to get a dog to open up and to be receptive to calming influences. Calming the dog through the prey instinct is how you gain access to his most innocent and vulnerable essence, arousing his spirit in such a way as to be channeled away from a survival instinct and onto a harmonic pathway. The purpose of a pack, however, is to make each individual nervous in order to catalyze the survival instincts. This brings me back to the central theme of this book. I wish to guide the dog owner in how not to be part of this instinctive plan.
We do not want to duplicate life in a pack. The stability of a pack is destined to falter, since balances are constantly shifting over even the smallest daily occurrence. One pack member might stumble onto an object that another one treasures; an adolescent might naively press against a bitch in estrus; a nursing puppy might nip his mother’s nipple too hard. These innocent actions are out of order in a pack and unleash the packs warehouse of stress. In the wild, this is appropriate. Each individual must become a prisoner to the survival instinct in order for the species to endure. However, in man’s world, such stressed or overly charged reactions to change spell disaster. Dogs, unlike wolves, need to learn to adapt more fluidly if they’re to live peacefully with modern man.
While stress is inevitable, it can also be an ally, because the ultimate function of stress is to implement the harmonic plan. Stress brings focus and intensity to behavior, and by using it carefully and creatively we can tune our dogs to our domestic specifications. But first our dog must have a clear mind. By being with his owner, at some point the dog will get to experience prey-making. In other words, prey-making and being in harmony with his group need to be defined as one and the same.
It is rare to find a good rapport between dog and human. Often I reach out to touch an excited dog, and he flinches as if I’m about to swat him. Or I see a dog whose face is so sensitized by repeated whacks, or hyper-charged by inadequate socialization, that whenever he’s around strange dogs his muzzle bristles. Finally, the saddest situation is when a child approaches a strange dog, or even a family dog, and the years of pent-up stress are unloaded on this innocent youngster. Such an incident is not evidence of an unpredictable or a mean dog; unknowingly, the child tripped a wire that had originally been set by an owner locked in a struggle with his pet. The child is merely the final domino in a chaotic chain reaction. The owner topples the first one with a confrontation, or blow, and the child ends up being the victim.
Dogs are not trying to test us, to dominate us, or to put one over on us, and handling a dog is not a matter of just getting tough. That’s an old-fashioned attitude toward discipline. All the social angst in a wolf pack is not evidence of a leader struggling to the top in order to bring peace and balance to the pack. What is actually going on is the transference of stress from one individual to the next in line. It is the timeless rule of instinct, the relentless reign of stress imposing order on its subjects.
While there must be order and balance in a dog’s life, we must recognize that it is through harmony that these are achieved. Without the flow of emotion released through hunting, these qualities by themselves serve no purpose and are merely suffocating. The reason wolves need to be in balance within the pack is to remain connected to the group. Only through hunting as a group can there be freedom.
Owning and training a dog affords us the chance to make contact with our dog’s wildness so that he can live free in our lives. The experience can only help us to be more human, more deeply connected to nature. To refrain from hitting a dog is not, in itself, enough. His prey instinct must also be actively developed, for it controls a valve within him that, once opened, makes him innocent and amenable to any group purpose. It isn’t how much love you try to give your dog, it’s how much of your love your dog is open to receive. A master’s role is to expand on that brief snippet of freedom that nature affords in life until it becomes fixed as a character trait.
A dog is born wild, he learns stress; he must be trained to be free.