Canine Learning: Instinct vs Learned Intelligence

Can you 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."

To Ryan O'Meara, 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. In the wild it would be highly unusual for young puppy to be attacked in this position; it is against the laws of nature.

This habit is a great hindrance in training, 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.

instinct vs intelligence dog

Dogs are guided a lot by instinct, but a lot more by smell, and smell can vary considerably with individual people, 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, dogs sense nervous people yards away.

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 been.

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.

Do Dogs Learn By Trial And Error?

The belief that dogs learn by trial and error presumes they have a mental ability to link elements together through their experiences that gives logic to their behaviour. Dogs are presumed to explore one way to approach a situation and then record the consequence as to whether they were successful or not.

Then it is assumed that in a similar situation they can recall their experience and opt for a different approach if they're looking for a higher dividend. This theory presupposes that dogs, like humans, have the ability to deduce and make choices and that they can project into the future to predict a possible outcome based on a previous experience.

Dogs perceive through their prey instinct. A dog can only respond to stimuli that are of relevance to this instinct. Therefore, problem solving for him has to do with ascertaining whether something is pertinent to this means of perceiving and experiencing. This basic information is what dogs are after when they smell.

There is so much in man's world that dogs have to deal with that is not at all straightforward in terms of the prey instinct. Trying to come to terms emotionally with these and tie them together into a unified order is the main scope of the dog's learning process in our world. The stronger the attraction, the more direct the dog's response is going to be, and the more relevant his response to the problem in question.

When we see a dog trying several different approaches before taking a successful one or giving up altogether, it isn't that he's practising. In his first impressions of a situation, he perceives several variables that aren't connected. This dilutes his ability to solve the problem. If the desire to find a solution grows, the variables eventually merge into one coherent entity enabling the dog's instincts to take over.

By contrast, a dog that fails is exhibiting a lack of stimulation in that moment. This is because the elements of what he sees before him are disparate. Instead of having one problem to solve, he has many problems to deal with; the variables never get tied together into one order. He tries, and then he stops, and then starts over again without making any real progress because he's faced with a new problem on each attempt. Each time his emotional reserves are drained lower.

The dog learns by association whether he's on the right track reacts based on instincts sensation and his actions are very often effective or not. v simply because he's responding to the way nature is organized, his instinctive reflexes mirror this same organization. On the other hand, if the situation is completely foreign and irrelevant to the prey instinct, no amount of practice will allow the dog to benefit from his experiences.

Ryan O’Meara is the author of Clever Dog: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Successful Animal, available online here.

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