A Question On Dog Instinct

To what extent are dogs guided by instinct? Can one train dogs to forget their natural instincts and just obey without question?

The relevant meaning of instinct given in a dictionary is as follows: “The natural impulse apparently independent of reason or experience by which animals are guided.” This sounds very sensible. Take a puppy: every time he is asked to do something he doesn’t want to do, or if he fears the approach of a bigger or fiercer dog than himself, he quickly lies on the floor with his legs in the air and tummy exposed to the enemy. This attitude has come down through generations of domesticated dogs; yet it is the remains of an instinct of the wild. For in the wild no young puppy would have been attacked in this position; it is against the laws of nature. This habit is a great hindrance in training, for when a dog does it and you try to put his lead on, he just waves his legs in the air and bites, especially if you try to get hold of his collar. Therefore we must train these dogs to understand that this position will not save them from being made to do what we wish them to do.

Dogs are guided a lot by instinct, but a lot more by smell, and smell can vary considerably with individual persons, according to their state of mind. For example, why is it that dogs take instantly to some people and won’t go near others, especially when those they don’t wish to know want to be friends with them? I think each human being has a friendly or unfriendly smell, which dogs can always detect. Fear, I believe, sends out an unpleasant smell, for dogs sense nervous people yards away.

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Why do dogs go and sniff at the base of another dog’s tail? It is the old instinct to find out whether that dog belongs to his pack or another by the scent from the anal glands. Why do dogs roll in something dirty, in spite of knowing quite well they will get beaten or bathed for their sin? Because in the old times of wild dogs they wanted to show their enemies they were about, by leaving their own scent on something not carrying it. That is also why they lift their legs where any other dog has lifted his leg; a dog’s particular scent indicates to his pack where he has gone.

Certainly one cannot give in to instinct when training a dog to be obedient. A dog must do as he is told without question, providing the thing he is asked to do is fair and reasonable. For example, I do not think jumping through fire is fair or reasonable, and I hate to see animals made to do it as a trick. Animals have an instinctive fear of fire from the old days of forest fires, and to train them to do this trick must involve a certain amount of cruelty.

Wherever possible we use the dog’s natural instincts if they can be guided into the right channels. Take tracking, for example. A dog’s natural instinct is to find food by using his nose, and most trainers agree that food at the end of the trail is a great incentive when teaching a dog to track. That is the ancient instinct to stay free.