If you haven’t heard of natural dog training, you’re not alone. Natural dog training is a new technique that uses dogs’ emotional awareness of the world around them as well as their prey drive to help develop a deeper emotional connection between dogs and their human companions; teaching obedience and solving problems like dog aggression, anxiety, and hyperactivity. Expert dog trainer Neil Sattin recently released a DVD set that teaches the basics of natural dog training. This two-disc set is an excellent way for the average dog to learn basic obedience at home, without having to hire a professional trainer. I recently spoke with Sattin to get an understanding of what it means to teach your dog using natural dog training.
Sattin became a dog trainer by accident. He told me that he began studying natural dog training after he was told by a prominent trainer that his dog Nola should be euthanized because of her aggression. Sattin began looking into other options and came across Kevin Behan, a dog trainer in Vermont, who founded the natural dog training techniques. After an apprenticeship with Behan, Sattin applied the techniques he learned and almost immediately noticed a change in Nola. Sattin then embarked on a career of private dog training and recently decided to produce a series of DVDs that would help dog owners learn the techniques of natural dog training at home.
What is natural dog training?
Proponents of natural dog training strive to make the human the most attractive object in the dog’s emotional universe, by answering a dog’s most important question: “What do I do with my energy?”
The main philosophy in this training is for humans to focus their dog’s energy toward them, a role Sattin metaphorically refers to as “be the moose.” Sattin tells me to imagine a group of kids in someone’s fenced-in backyard with no swing sets, balls, or toys. Soon the kids will get bored, not knowing what to do with their energy. Someone may become the leader and organize activities, but most likely fights will break out. In comparing himself to Caesar Millan, Sattin states: “in Caesar’s world, you have to be the leader in this situation. With natural dog training, you become the swing set, the balls, and the toys.” Since a game is simply coordinated behavior with a common purpose, if you become that “game” or that “moose” for your dog, your dog’s energy turns to you. According to Sattin, a moose is the largest prey; it’s the ultimate prize for a carnivore.
Sattin goes on to explain that when dogs hunt or chase a moose, they automatically interact in perfect harmony. They perform what we might call “obedience” but do it naturally. For example, when hunting/chasing a moose, dogs will start running alongside the moose (“heel”), then if the moose stops and stares them down, the dogs will drop down (“down-stay”) while waiting to see what the moose will do. It’s always the moose that controls the behavior of the dogs. Sattin says that during this situation, even if some other animal runs right in front of the dogs, the dogs will remain focused on the moose. If your dog sees you as “the moose” even in the most extreme circumstances, your dog will remain responsive to you. During the natural dog training process, one of the ways to train your dog to see you as the moose is to give treats-just as your dog would be eating prey. There are many other ways to “be the moose” for your dog, which Sattin explains in his DVDs.
I was curious to get Sattin’s opinion about the tragic situation that happened at Hendry’s beach last month where an off-leash dog approached an on-leash dog repeatedly and the on-leash dog eventually attacked and killed the off-leash dog. Although Sattin wasn’t present during this occurrence, he was confident that had the off-leash dog been trained with natural dog training techniques, he would have stopped pestering the on-leash dog immediately and come to his owner when called. Sattin says that a dog can be trained to recall (“come!”) even when the dog is extremely interested in something else.
I was a bit skeptical of this recall training, but Sattin explains that dogs are emotional beings out in the world having emotional experiences. He says that rather than processing those experiences before reacting, many dogs can’t handle the energized state and release the energy in an unconstructive way. However, if you channel your dog’s energy into the behaviors that you want, you can get your dog to relax and be attracted to you even at increasing levels of energy and stimulation. For example, at an off-leash beach, even if your dog takes off to chase something, once you call your dog, they will recall that when they feel energized the best way to resolve that energy is to direct their focus on you.
When it comes to playing a game of “tug-of-war” with your dog, the difference between standard dog training and natural dog training is apparent. In standard dog training, owners are told that they should always win at tug-of-war. It’s a game of dominance, so the owner must establish dominance by winning that game. Sattin does not believe that tug-of-war is in the context of dominance and submission. He explains that when dogs get energized, they feel the need to hunt. During tug-of-war, dogs get physical and emotional satisfaction from chewing (the release of endorphins and the feeling of hunting) and we want our dogs to feel that satisfaction. By letting the dog win, they experience the release of winning the game, which builds their trust in you. He asked me if I when I was a child, would I continue playing tug-of-war with an older sibling who always won? Of course not, how much fun would that be?
Sattin even feels that tug-of-war should be played intensely. He says that the more intense the tugging, the higher energy release and satisfaction your dog will feel. Your dog will associate this satisfaction with you, and want to be around you more and play again. Even if you are walking your dog and your dog sees another dog he’s attracted to, if you have a tug toy with you, you can redirect that energy into the tug toy. Sattin states that many dog owners have noticed radical changes in their dog’s behavior simply from letting them win at tug-of-war.
According to Sattin, natural dog training teaches your dog to relax even at higher levels of energy. It gives owners a consistent way to teach, no matter what kind of dog you have. You can run with your dog and he may get physically exhausted, but when you use natural dog training your dog becomes more mentally and physically calm and content.