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The Wolf in Your Living Room: How Wildlife Husbandry Informs Dog Training

Updated: May 16

Before becoming a professional dog trainer, I worked in ecology, animal husbandry, and wildlife conservation. While dogs were one of the first animals to be domesticated, there are still many similarities to wild animals. Here are three easy, practical lessons for dog owners from the field of wildlife husbandry.

While most dogs don't look like wolves anymore, they still share 98.8% of their DNA

Use Positive Reinforcement

Like dog trainers, wild animal behaviorists in wildlife refuges, zoos, and Hollywood use positive reinforcement to encourage the behaviors they want to see more of. Positive reinforcement means rewarding animals when they do what you want. A reward may be praise, a treat, or a favorite game. You must use a consistent marker in positive reinforcement. This helps the dog figure out what you are asking for. Read more about positive reinforcement techniques from the Humane Society of the United States.

Positive reinforcement is the best way to build a healthy, happy relationship with your pet. Trying to scare your dog into good behavior can backfire and in fact, it can make the dog reactive and aggressive. If your dog has problem behaviors from past experiences with people, an expert trainer may be able to help.

Understand the Species

While dogs and wolves share 98.8% of their DNA, there are still big differences. Obviously dogs have been bred to look different! They also eat an omnivorous diet like the humans they've been living alongside for thousands of years. Dogs are friendlier, more docile, and easier to train than wolves.

There are still some ways dogs reflect their wild heritage, however:

  • They share information by smelling

  • They are pack animals who like to be around other dogs and establish a clear hierarchy

  • They love to dig! Many behaviors that are problems in an urban environment were adaptive for wolves, who dug to make dens, stay cool during hot weather, and find food.

Respect your dog's underlying nature. This might include taking them outside, letting them stop and sniff, and socializing them with other dogs. It's also important to consider their safety and keep them leashed in potentially dangerous environments. Remember, it's natural for them to investigate snakes, but not natural for them to be afraid of cars.

Observe the Individual

Each dog is unique, and early life experiences have a big impact on personality. Temperament may vary by breed. Golden Retrievers are famously friendly, Border Collies are active, and Chihuahuas can be naturally shy. But there is a lot of variation even within a breed. One Beagle may prefer a food reward, while another is more motivated by a quick game of chase. You get to be the detective in figuring out what motivates your dog!

Animal behavior specialists know how to get to the bottom of an animal's behavior by observing and figuring out what is driving the behavior. They can then address problem behaviors through changes to the environment, routines, or training. If you are struggling with unwanted canine behaviors like play biting, chewing, or barking, reach out today for expert help.

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