You can take the dog out of the wild, but you can't take the dog out of the dog. No matter how hip his clothes or immaculate his pawdicure, your dog is a dog with all the instincts that come with. It's your job to know the difference between an instinct and a problem.
Dogs dig. This is the dog's natural denning instinct. In the wild, the holes dogs dig serve myriad functions: as sleeping quarters that are out of the elements and protected from extreme climates; as a warm, safe nest for the birth of pups; and as a storage place for hunted food so that other predators can't steal their loot. To dismiss a dog's backyard digging as mindless or as a spiteful revenge against you is to misunderstand one of your dog's deepest instincts.
Dogs bark. Another instinct, this one is derived from the need to communicate with other dogs and pack members. It's as natural as our need to talk to one another, to express our needs and desires. It also can be as annoying as that person yapping into a cell phone on a crowded elevator. But that doesn't mean your pup's barking should be met with a cold stare or a stern lecture on etiquette. Save it for the cell phone culprit.
Dogs jump. This instinct has its roots in love, war, play and the claim for dominance. You'd be surprised how much wild dogs do while standing upright. Canine courtship involves a hug-like position between a male and female wolf, with both standing on their hind legs. Dogs often rear up like horses when playing with other dogs. And wolves fighting over matters of mating, feeding and dominance will stand on their hind legs and paw at each other. In the end, the dominant wolf positions himself with his front paws on top of the opposing wolf's back.
Dogs also undergo natural bodily processes, such as teething and the elimination of waste. Recently a client called, distraught that her puppy was chewing her furniture and wouldn't stop. It sounded like a classic case of teething. She was shocked. "Dogs teethe?"
As dog owners, our job is not to work against our dog's instincts and natural processes, but to understand and prepare for them.
Basic research and obedience training help tremendously. If your pup is busy obeying your Down/Stay command, he won't be able to jump. If he's occupied with your Sit/Stay command, he is unable to tear out the front door and down the street as if he's chasing tonight's dinner across the frontier.
A child's wading pool or a dog run can help soften the effects of the denning instinct, which, like all instincts, will be stronger in some dogs than others. And some safe and effective products are now available to help you calm Fido's barking in your absence. The citronella collar, voice-activated and nontoxic, releases a citronella spray whenever your pooch barks. This is a decent peace-keeping option among neighbors, but should not substitute for training. Ideally, your dog is able and allowed to bark under certain circumstances. Many a barking dog has saved a sleeping human from fire, flood, natural gas leaks and the intrusion of ne'er-do-wells into the home.
Crate training teaches a pup where and when you'd like him to eliminate and prevents long-term housebreaking problems. With your diligence, your pup can be housebroken in as few as one to three days. And the natural pain of teething can be allayed with frozen washcloths offered as a chew toy in lieu of furniture legs.
We can curb canine instincts and teach them to live in our households and neighborhoods, but we can't erase those instincts entirely. A dog will always be a dog, and our expectations should be realistic. As Henry Pockett explained to Pip in Dickens' "Great Expectations": No varnish can hide the grain of the wood.
Dog trainer Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and host of the PBS series "WOOF! It's a Dog's Life!" Read all of Uncle Matty's columns at the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com, and visit him at www.unclematty.com. Send your questions to [email protected] or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619. © Creators Syndicate