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Training the Devoted Dog - A Foundation in Animal Behavior and Domestication

Image Credit: Tim Fitzharris / Minden Pictures

My love for dogs began with a love for wolves. As many young girls who struggled with being contained and doing what they were told, I was fascinated by wild things. The free and untamed. Horses and wolves finding a special place in my heart.

I wanted to live with a pack. And I lived out this fantasy through my equal love for literature, reading greats like Julie of the Wolves, The Firekeeper Saga, and Wolf Woman. Non-fiction classics Of Wolves and Men, The Way of the Wolf, Living with Wolves, and The Wolf, the Woman, the Wilderness soon joining my lighter reading.

In learning about the behavior of wolves, I also started learning about the domestication of dogs and the closely intertwined history of human and canine. Ever the avid reader, I found more entertainment in Where the Red Fern Grows, Shiloh, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, Old Yeller, and A Dog Called Kitty. I read about the many different dog breeds, canine behavior and body language, and the many true stories of canine heros. This secured my interest in having a dog of my own, but my parents were not on board.

We were a military family, moving frequently as my father received orders for different locations across the nation, and they did not think a dog would do well with how frequently we relocated. So, I started volunteering at shelters and won from my parents the opportunity to bring home foster dogs.

By twelve, I had started my own business as a pet sitter and dog walker. And I was training. Not according to any particular method. I didn't think of myself as a trainer. With each dog I spent time with, I was winning their trust. Building a bond. And playing games. Through this process, I started seeing anxious dogs open up to me. I saw fearful and aggressive dogs look to me as a friend. And before long, I was correcting excessive barking, jumping, lunging, incontinence, and other problem behaviors that had made it difficult for dogs to find homes with nothing but a trusting relationship and positive reinforcement.

When I left for college, it took me some time to settle on my direction, starting off as a pre-veterinary student, switching to Environmental Education, and then finally finishing with a Bachelor's in Wildlife Management and Conservation. During my undergrad years, I continued to work with dogs, and I volunteered in raptor and wildlife rehabilitation, working with birds of brey and orphaned small mammals, training and handling education birds used in public programs.

Many of the same techniques I had used with dogs carried over to my work with birds of prey, though there was a major difference in that these birds of prey never bonded with me the way dogs bond with people. Everything I taught them required food rewards, because food was what they were driven to pursue. And that is the key difference between wolves and dogs. Between wild animals and domestic animals.

Wolves may be pack animals capable of team work and cooperation, but they do not consider humans part of their pack. They don't look to humans for assistance or companionship. Dogs do. Over the thousands of years of domestication and selective breeding, dogs developed a bond of trust and cooperation with people.

They developed an entirely unique language specifically for communicating with us, reading our emotions in our body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice and expressing their own needs and desires with a variety of barks used to signal excitement, distress, warnings of danger, fear, and more.

In my continued graduate education in Animal Behavior and Neurobiology, I sought to understand how dogs and other animals perceive the world and how those perceptions lead to patterned and habitual behaviors. And I trained dogs to assist handlers with autism and PTSD.

Dogs are very intelligent animals, the average pooch capable of learning as many as 165 words and understanding how to structure simple sentances such as "I love you" and "Let's go outside". They have amazing problem solving skills, able to maneuver mazes and find ways around obstacles to reach a goal, and recognizing how to seek help for a handler in distress.

With this immense capability and desire to please, the key in training any dog is to build with them a trusting bond and to ensure they understand what you expect of them. Trust, not dominance. Cooperation, not obedience. Because dogs love their pack and desire purpose and validation for a job well done. And that is the foundation of all Devoted Dog training.

Kai Murphey - The Devoted Dog founder and trainer

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