Understanding Your Dog – By Dr. Isla Fishburn

I would like to say a huge thank you to my wonderful friend Isla for the following post. Isla is the most dedicated person I have ever met when it comes to understanding our dogs behaviour. The time and commitment that she puts in to her work is second to none and I can not recommend her courses highly enough…..infact I would go as far as to sy they should be compulsory for all dog owners! You can find out more about Isla, the work she does and the courses she offers by visiting her web page


Exploring the natural behaviour of wild canines to understand dog communication.


Dr Isla Fishburn – Kachina Canine Communication (www.kachinacaninecommunication.co.uk)

I have long had an interest in understanding the conflict and coexistence between people and wildlife and I am keen to share the wonderful world of animals to anybody that is willing to listen. However, having spent a few years working with people and their dogs I have soon realised that many do not understand how to communicate with their dog let alone care about an animal that does not live with them. My interest in human-animal interactions has taken me on a wonderful journey of exploring how to engage people in nature as well as engaging them with their dog.

I am a strong believer that if you work in cooperation and communication with those in a similar field to you then your overall efforts and goals will be far more effective than if you worked in isolation. Yet, tell dog professionals that I adopt the principles of what I have observed from captive wolf packs to understand how to communicate with dogs and only a few will be interested in listening further.  The majority are of the consensus that wolf behaviour and dog behaviour share so few parallels that the two cannot be compared. Agreeably, a wolf is a wolf and a dog a dog meaning differences between the two exist, but these are subtle and few. When teaching or working with a client and their dog I always follow the knowledge given to me about wolf behaviour in order to understand the dog before I then implement a training programme.

When is an alpha not an alpha?

Lets start by looking at two of the nine different characters that make up a wolf pack. It is widely acknowledged that the alpha is the individual in charge of the pack. Consequently, read some of the older books on dog behaviour and you are constantly reminded that you must be this assertive, forceful, dominant alpha leader with a list of dos and don’ts about showing your dog you are the boss. What most people don’t realise is that the character being described to them in these books is not that of an alpha but of a different character all together.

The alpha is confident but also very calculated, calm and reserved. This animal is responsible for making good decisions in a calm and balanced manner; if the alpha was to become out of control it would cause panic in the rest of the pack. Naturally then, if an alpha is in charge of its pack then its life must be very valuable. So, this animal is very snob like, aloof and self-preserving – its life simply is too important to put itself at risk. With this in mind if we were to choose this animal as a pup it is typically (but not always) an animal that is picked for us. Why? Because the alpha tends to be the last pup left in a litter and the reason is simple. A family arrive at a breeder’s home to pick a new pup and, being human, they want an animal that they can instantly bond with. However, being self-preserving an alpha is not as keen as its other littermates to go bounding forward, bouncing on the lap of a strange person. It will, instead take a step back and assess the situation – is it safe and if so the alpha will then approach. The alpha has set itself up to be the last pup in the litter to be picked as each time the animal shows this reserved, almost hesitant behaviour to greet a human family, the family feel less attached to that pup than the others that they are surrounded by.

Typical position of an alpha pup or young dog (alpha is behind other litter mate)

alpha pup

Now lets take another character that can also place itself at the back of its littermates but is almost always guaranteed to be one of the pups to be picked by a loving family. So, why is this animal chosen unlike the alpha when they are both keeping a distance from the people coming to choose a pup? Again, the answer is simple. Unlike the alpha who displays somewhat regal qualities, this other pup is sat, cowering with big wide eyes looking incredibly scared and nervous. A family take one look at this pup and, listening to their heart, feel that no-one but them could give it a better loving home. They immediately feel sorry for the animal, whisk it up in their arms knowing that they can give all the love and safety that this nervous pup clearly needs. However, this character is naturally shy and nervous for a reason and is known as an early warner. It is designed to be the lookout and to alert the pack of any unusual sounds, smells or movements. For our dogs, it is a natural barker!

An early warner doing its job

early warner

How to stay in control?

So, if we want to be in control of our dogs and to be an alpha leader then how do we communicate this with our dogs? The alpha needs to show other pack members that they can trust her and her decisions. She will therefore spend time showing calm and giving trust to the pack and this is something that I apply when first working with a dog. Once trust is acknowledged the alpha will highlight to her pack that the decisions she makes are the most knowledgeable and will ensure pack safety. The alpha can therefore remain in control of the pack by giving direction.

This is where many people begin to create conflict between them and their dog. Ask any dog trainer and they will tell you they frequently hear the same comment from a new client about their dog; when in the house the dog listens to them most of the time but as soon as they are out in the woods the dog doesn’t listen to a word that the person says. Now, think about the role of an alpha animal; to be a good decision maker for the survival of the pack that has the most knowledge and is calm, balanced and trusting. Naturally, in a domestic realm it is the person that has more knowledge about the environment and the dog responds to this. However, when out in the woods, field or park the dog realises that you are not so in control of your environment and the dog will begin to ask questions of you.

So, how do you stay in control of your environment and of your dog? The answer depends on the type of character your dog is, as different characters can display different behaviours and, therefore, a different approach to training may need to be applied. For instance, an alpha will see situations as a puzzle in which to solve (particularly female alpha’s). The alpha dog will listen to communication and direction given to it by an owner but, being independent, they have an attitude of “I will do it your way for now but I know there is a better way and then I will do it my way.”

If you are training or working with an alpha you can be in a constant battle with the animal’s level of independency. Thus the owner or instructor needs to work with making the alpha more dependent. Alpha’s are not difficult to train in terms of them understanding what you are asking them to do (or, better said, how and what we are communicating with them), but an owner or instructor will battle with the mental exhaustion that alpha’s can create simply because they will be assessing and asking about your ability and quality of making decisions; if bad decisions are made by the owner, the alpha will find it uneasy to forgive and you will have highlighted the opportunity for the alpha to make its own decisions.

So, how do we overcome the alpha’s natural ability to be independent? The answer is: to bluff the animal to show that you have more knowledge and that you are good at making decisions. The alpha will then become an alpha in waiting but will never get to be an existing alpha because the owner will outlive the dog’s life.

An early warner, on the other hand, is a follower who will be the first to alert the rest of the pack. So, if you select a dog that is an early warner and live on a nice, quiet country estate then this will not cause too much concern. However, if you live in the middle of the city do not be too surprised that the dog barks continually.

Unlike the alpha, an early warner is not a confident animal and is very dependent on others around it, making this character prone to separation anxiety. Being a typical barker, the time of year you select an early warner is important. It is more difficult to familiarise the dog with outside sounds and smells in the wintertime. This is because there is not enough light during the day and we do not want to socialise the animal correctly. This means when the pup is put in the garden to go to the toilet etc it is left on its own and is exposed to all the noises, smells and movements that it will assume are dangerous or a problem.

There is a reason why wolf cubs are born in the spring and it is not just because there is plenty of food around. Most importantly, there is plenty of daylight too. With lots of daylight the mother has enough time in her day to introduce the pups to unfamiliar places, sounds and smells. This means that she bonds with her pups and they learn what noises and smells are safe and familiar and which ones aren’t. With this time of year the owner is more dedicated to going out into the garden with their pup and spending time with the animal. The pup therefore learns what local noises are not a cause for concern.

Training an early warner can be time-consuming. Training may need to be done slowly and methodically as an early warner can struggle to understand what communication you are asking. An early warner will make more mistakes if you become frustrated or aggravated by the slow speed at which an early warner may learn and will then look for and give calming signals that you should respond to. Unlike an alpha that can jump from one to five to ten, an early warner may need to be taught through smaller steps. So, you may need to do 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and back to 1.2 again.

In addition, from my experiences, behavioural problems can occur if an early warner is allowed to breed for two reasons. Firstly, for wolves breeding is an earned right and it would not be expected for an early warner to breed. If an early warner does breed then it may have increased dominance when meeting other dogs, or, you may find that dogs that are naturally more assertive use more discipline towards the early warner that has been allowed to breed. I have certainly seen this in both wolves and dogs.

Second, if an owner of an early warner selects that dog to breed, her pups will develop the qualities of their mother as they will be exposed to her shy, nervous, suspicious nature and will show this in their characters as they mature. This is why I am of the opinion that an alpha female is usually the only female in the pack to breed (although an alpha can allow other females in her pack to breed but she will then take those pups and raise them as her own). As the alpha is confident, calm and balanced her pups will have the best start in life compared to developing in to shy, nervous animals taught to them by their shy, nervous mother.

Communicating with your dog in its own language

Being in control of your dog is not about force or dominance but about being in control of your environment and educating and communicating with your dog through trust, balance and guidance; each time you take your dog out you are saying that you are great at making decisions so the dog doesn’t have to. With a wolf pack the mother will always be a good role model for her young cubs and then select appropriate role models within her pack for her cubs to meet. We can apply this theory of using role models when getting our dogs to meet other dogs or new people; your dog does not have to meet all other dogs and all other people in a 50 mile radius, but if you select a handful of good role models you will again demonstrate to your dog that you constantly make good decisions for him/her and their survival.

From my experiences there are many examples where we can use wolf behaviour to understand and communicate with our dogs before we then apply training principles. Here, I will discuss the communication of discipline and defence used by wolves and how I apply this knowledge passed to me to teach a young pup or adult dog.

During a cub’s early development and before it is educated about discipline the cub will be shown trust and a series of calming signals from its mother. During this time the young animal learns everything that is good whilst receiving warmth from its mother by lying with her. At times when the pup does something wrong, the mother will get up and move away. The cub learns that an error on its part causes the warmth to be denied, and so the steps of discipline begin to be put in to place. The first principle of discipline is to deny another animal warmth. So, the cubs are taught right before wrong and good before bad. Discipline is therefore used to educate the animal and not used as punishment;

A hybrid receiving trust and calming signals

hybrid trust

At about four to five months the wolf cubs will be at an age where they can now begin to be educated about discipline. There are three passive levels of discipline; the final level is a physical discipline. The first level is described as a low rumble and is of little threat. This is equivalent to us saying “no.” The second level of discipline, which is a throaty growl is stronger, more assertive and longer. It is similar to us saying “nnnoooooooo” which sounds like a rumble. Often, with this discipline a wolf and dog will curl the lips to expose the teeth.

The third level of discipline is a snap. It is best described as a dog attempting to take a bite out of another dog but missed. It is the snap that most dog owners panic at, believing their dog to be aggressive or the dog that has shown the snap to be aggressive. However, wolves and dogs communicate with their mouth, and for the animals, the snap is seen as communication. It is how we respond to the snap that causes this level of discipline to become out of control. For us, the snap is equivalent to giving a short, sharp and loud “NO.” The final level of discipline is known as the contact which involves a wolf physically showing another that it has done wrong.

The levels of discipline are never used as punishment and the animal disciplining will then move down the levels of discipline so that when the animal receiving the discipline hears these again s/he should respond to the passive levels and not the contact. So, from the fourth level of discipline, the animal will then go to the snap, the throaty growl and then, finally, the low rumble.

Second level of discipline includes exposing of teeth (area of weaponry)

level 2 discipline

Discipline is more detailed than what dog owners think. Usually we are poor at teaching our dog the correct way to communicate discipline resulting in our dogs to use excessive discipline, incorrect discipline or even force. As role models for our dogs, if we use excessive discipline or force to teach them about how to use discipline then it teaches our dogs

that contact or a snap must be used every time. This does not allow for

any correction, to accept trust and can often cause our dogs to be unbalanced. If, however, we communicated with our dogs correctly through the four levels of discipline then our dogs would respond to and use the first two levels of discipline more effectively.

One area of discipline on a wolf is the back of the neck. The principle of disciplining the back of the neck is an extension of the communication that should have been given to this animal when it was young; receiving and giving trust. There is a set pattern used when a wolf disciplines this area. The wolf will hold the back of the neck and the wolf receiving the discipline will then turn on to its back exposing its front. The wolf disciplining will then hold the throat then calmly sniff and/or lick the abdominal area. The wolf that has rolled on to its back acknowledges the discipline and asks for trust in return, which the other wolf now gives. This is an important point for two reasons. First, when a dog rolls on to its back many people give a frantic belly rub – this can be a bad idea if the dog is asking how trustworthy and balanced we are. Second, due to the different sizes of breeds present today a large dog may discipline a small dog on the back of the neck but the small dog is unable to roll over and give trust.  This often gives the impression that the large dog is aggressive (although some dogs that are aggressive do show this ragging behaviour to other dogs). In reality, the size differences meant the small dog was in the air and was not able to turn over, causing the big dog to discipline even more as it is asking for the small dog to show trust having received the discipline.

Giving trust after receiving discipline


So, what about those people who discipline their dog by hitting, kicking or tapping the dog in side of ribs? Ever seen an owner do this and the dog’s response is to immediately go into a prey/play bow which adds further frustration to the owner. This is because the rib area is not seen as an area of discipline but an area of prey defence. Here is how it works. When a wolf is chasing a large prey animal just as a dog would chase a deer, the prey animal will kick out using its back legs in an attempt to injure the wolf. The area that this kick hits is usually the side of the ribs (but can be the jaw) and the wolf or dog will learn to duck and dodge these blows and continue to chase the prey animal. That means if you discipline a dog in the rib area the dog will assume they are being taught prey defence and will begin to jump from side to side in the play/prey bow.

I have seen many examples of when a dog has been given the incorrect communication about discipline from their owner. In addition, we can inadvertently cause miscommunication between us and our dogs simply by what we wear.  Have you ever seen a dog unsure of people that wear hats, caps, hoodies, sunglasses etc? It is my belief that this is down to understanding the natural defence of a wolf (although I acknowledge for dogs that have suffered trauma from a person who was wearing a cap, for example, can have a negative association to all people that wear caps).

When a wolf is born it spends the first few weeks learning from its mother. It is this time spent with its mother in the den site where the young animal is in its first natural learning circle. The cub needs to learn that this circle is safe and a place where the animal can go if ever vulnerable and in need of protection.

             A wolf leaving the den site is similar to how a dog uses its domestic environment to feel safe

wolf dentunky den

Domestic dogs will replicate the use of a den site and its advantages to ensure the dog’s safety. This can be seen when a dog feels vulnerable and will go behind the back of furniture, under a coffee table or behind the back of its owner’s legs.

The den site provides several safety advantages for the individual using it due to it shape. First, the entrance is a small round opening just big enough for one wolf at a time to squeeze through. This opening restricts the size of other large predators to enter. This can be a cause of separation anxiety in our dogs (particularly for an early warner) because when we leave our dogs on their own they have to contend with a large doorway. To a dog an animal the size of a bear could get through this doorway and tear them apart. Second, a natural den site has a long narrow passageway. This passageway allows an animal to feel safe because only one enemy can come down the passageway at a time. Due to the shape of the den site the wolf can sharply enter, turn around and the only part of its body exposed will be its muzzle (i.e. area of weaponry). Exposing the muzzle allows the dog to use this to defend itself and snap and bite anything that is trying to enter.

Baring this is mind there are two instances where we may cause a dog to feel threatened by us. If we were to approach a strange dog when wearing a hood, hat or cap, expose our teeth and smile we are actually given the impression that we are defending ourselves by exposing our teeth when in a small, narrow opening. This can often lead to dogs becoming defensive. Equally, we teach young children to smile and open their arms wide to offer a hug to a family member or friend. The child assumes that they can make the same action when meeting a dog. However, the child is actually exposing its teeth while in a long narrow passageway which can, again, communicate to a dog that you are being defensive.

There are so many parallels between the behaviour of our Canid friends I now offer courses that explore these similarities and how we can apply them to understand our dog before we put in the necessary steps to training; from scent rolling, food choice and selection, prey drive, communication, early development and role models to name but a few.  Quite simply, we need to be able to communicate with our dog. This means understanding its world as much as our dog needs to understand ours.

The way I see it is that I have met many wonderful people who share the same passion and interest to understanding canine behaviour. From a retired Australian shepherd, animal shelter manager, dog breeder to experienced military dog handler, each person has allowed me to develop my portfolio of knowledge and skills. I hope I have been able to do the same here by sharing my experiences with you.

izzy and wolves

9 Replies to “Understanding Your Dog – By Dr. Isla Fishburn”

  1. Thank you so much Isla, very interesting read. Wish we could attend one of your courses, sadly we are at opposite ends of the country.
    Thanks to Steph too for a fab blog, ps Is the 9th June ok with you guys for pack walk in New Forrest?

  2. Superb article, very interesting. I’ve always described my Seb as a protector but ‘early warner’ defines him to a T!!!

  3. Very interesting. I could read about canine/wolf behavior 24/7. I would like to hear more about the pups in a litter as I do temperament testing and find it to be fascinating. The differences in puppies is amazing.

  4. Brilliant article Isla. Just had an amazing weekend seminar with you and would recommend it to anyone who has or is thinking of getting a dog .So many light bulb moments to mention. Fantastic, thank you.

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