Philosophy and high prey drive dogs

Today I want to talk about some of what philosophy has to say that can help if you are training a high prey drive dog. There are so many different views and ways to train dogs that it can be overwhelming at times.

To try and simplify some of it, when it comes to dogs, training approaches broadly mirror a philosophical debate that has been going now for hundreds of years. The debate is about what a natural human really is. There are loads of participants, but common comparisons are between the work of two philosophers:

Thomas Hobbes who was English and lived between 1588 and 1679

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher who lived between 1712 and 1778

They both spent considerable time considering what a natural life looked like for humanity and they had radically different views. For Rousseau, humans living in a natural state were mostly peaceful and lived calm lives where a sense of compassion for others prevented theft or attacks on other people. Hobbes had a completely different view. For him, human beings living without a powerful government to keep them in line would be constantly attacking each other – or worrying about being attacked. In his book Leviathan , he famously said that without government, life would be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

When I look at dog training views, I broadly see the same two camps. I see people with a view like that of Rousseau who focus on finding ways to train that are respectful of the dog, to improve welfare and bring enrichment to their dogs’ lives. These people generally assume that they and their dog want to get along with each other and that life can be peaceful and agreeable.

I also see plenty of people who are more in tune with Hobbes and who are concerned that without strict – and carefully enforced – rules and boundaries governing every aspect of life, dogs will become wild, out of control and often aggressive.

Each view strongly impacts on how dogs are trained, what they are trained to do and how they live.
They lead to lots of arguments between people about the best way to go about caring for a dog. Where behaviour that is instinctive for dogs like prey drive is concerned, the stakes often feel higher, and the arguments can be more impassioned with each side claiming that what the other is doing is risky for the dogs.

Here's the thing – whichever camp you fall into – it won’t be something you chose AND considering the other camp is likely to be deeply uncomfortable for you. More than that. No matter which camp you fall into, you will love your dog deeply and your dog will love you. Dogs love humans – there is no doubt about it.

It may be that you have happily spent your life with dogs not knowing that there is another camp to consider. It’s not like we get sat down as children and offered a choice. Each of us absorbs what becomes our view from parents, other important adults, the education system, and the media that we see as we grow up. It often happens so thoroughly that it’s hard to imagine any other way of looking at things.

Here's the thing, I know people from both camps who train and work with high prey drive dogs successfully. Since getting a cocker spaniel, I’ve been finding that more people want to talk to me about what I need to do to train her. I’ve heard lots of views. From advice that I must not give her food rewards, that she must have no freedom and must always be working with me or shut away from me to advice that treats are a great way to train dogs and that allowing them a choice isn’t a problem. The people delivering all that differing advice do so from the position of successfully training multiple cocker spaniels as working gundogs.

What I’ve taken from all of this is that how I go about training my cocker is up to me. The arguments that there is one true way of training dogs often comes from people’s underlying beliefs about what the nature of a dog is – and those beliefs will have been picked up from other people. More often than not, they are deeply rooted in beliefs about how important it is for humans to be controlled and managed by strictly enforced laws. Dog training views often boil down to whether or not the person would agree with Hobbes or Rousseau.

Here's the thing. You get to choose. Either method can bring you success so it you and your dog love cuddling on the sofa in the evenings, and nothing makes you happier than giving your beloved dog tasty treats, you can do that – and still have a perfectly well behaved and trained dog.

The hardest thing about change is that it feels really uncomfortable – and as if you are taking a huge risk. Before I had a dog I was firmly on the side of Hobbes. My dog was going to know strict rules and I was going to make sure they were enforced. No way was I going to risk my dog becoming out of control. My very first dog was a Bullmastiff – a huge, powerful guarding breed dog and really not the sort of dog you can afford to have being out of control.

So, before he moved in, I planned carefully to make sure that he knew and followed all the rules, no questions asked. I nearly called him Hobbes as a reminder to myself of the importance of strictly enforced rules. Then he moved in and when I looked at him, I just didn’t believe that he was biding his time waiting for any weakness on my part to pounce and become wild, out of control and aggressive. That was when I realised that I needed to find a way to change my view and move in a different direction.

I found people to follow who were comfortable taking an approach based on Rousseau’s sort of view. I spent time with those people. I watched them train and handle dogs. I listened to their stories of success. I became more comfortable that I didn’t need to worry so much about strict rules and instead that if I focused on connection with my dog – and on how to understand and adjust what I was doing to suit the environment we were in – that I would make good progress.

Now I’m a fully paid-up member of Rousseau’s camp when it comes to dogs. I dish out treats like they are going out of fashion, train in stages and carefully examine training environments. I understand that when dogs do behave aggressively, there are many many reasons for it and lack of enforced rules is almost never a factor. Quite the opposite.

One of the ongoing issues that people report with cocker spaniels is resource guarding. Cocker spaniels have been selectively bred for many, many generations to want to hold things in their mouths. They are small dogs who are often expected to carry big things like pheasants in their mouths over rough, difficult ground and not give up. They certainly must not put the pheasant down at any stage. To train that level of dedication in a dog who isn’t interested in holding things in their mouth would be hard so to make things easier, the dogs are bred to love to hold things in their mouths.

If they live with people who have strict rules about things like stealing household items then what can happen is that the dog repeatedly has the experience of being told off and having things they are holding removed from them forcibly. Eventually some of those dogs respond with aggression in their desperation to do something that they need to do in order to feel happy.

Taking a less rule driven approach allows for appreciation of why holding is important and that often results in people teaching dogs to drop – and then directing them to something that can hold and carry as much as they like. It just means taking that step to believe that our dogs want to live in harmony with us. I know first hand that it can be a scary step to take – but I have found it to be so worth it.

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Hi - I'm Tracey.

I am the founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd and the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion.

I want to show you how easy and fun it can be to have a high prey drive dog.

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