A Brief History of Dog Training

Fortunately for dogs, in the last few decades the scienctific study of canine behaviour has taken off dramatically, and there has been an explosion of new knowledge available to us.

This comes mainly from two fields, ethology and psychology.

Ethology, a branch of zoology, is the study of animals in their natural habitat, without human intervention. Probably the most famous canine ethologist is Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz, whose work has led to a profound understanding of the dog’s social and individual behaviour.

Health ethology focuses on the study of domesticated animals in their manmade environment, and has led to a greatly deepened understanding of the dog’s physical, environmental and social needs when kept as a domestic pet or working animal.

The other important field which has contributed to our understanding of animal behaviour is psychology, and in particular behaviourism. From this field, and in particular from the work of Pavlov, Skinner, Breland, the Baileys and, more recently, Karen Pryor, we have obtained an elegant and accurate theory of how animals learn. The application of this theory has given rise to modern, leading edge training methods such as clicker training, which relies on precisely-timed delivery of rewards rather than clumsy and inappropriate punishment, and is rapidly becoming the method of choice of serious competition handlers because of its extreme accuracy. This is without doubt a long-overdue and very welcome revolution.

One of the most important realisations to be made from all this research is that much of the dog behaviour that owners regard as problematic is in fact completely normal for dogs. Barking, jumping up, digging, rolling in dung, fighting, urine marking…the list goes on. It’s often a great relief for frustrated pet owners to be told that the terrible things their dog is doing are in fact just what dogs do and nothing to be concerned about.

It becomes clear, though, from the above that getting our dog to behave appropriately in our home is usually an issue of training, that dogs don’t come with basic obedience commands pre-installed, and that we have to put a fair amount of effort into overcoming what comes naturally if we want a well-behaved, well-mannered dog…

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