Updated: Nov 6, 2020
What is instinct? Merriam-Webster defines instinct as "a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason." Read that a few times and let each part of the definition really sink in. What we can take from this is that instinct is 1: inheritable, 2: unalterable and 3: doesn't need a reason to happen.
1: Inheritable. Your dog is born with instincts. Think of your dog's brain as a computer; every computer has basic programming that it comes with. Now, you can download other programs on to it, but you can't re-write it's original coding. That original code will always be there. Your dog's instincts are always going to be there, you can't erase them.
2. Unalterable. Not capable of being changed. You can not change your bird dog's instinct to retrieve in to an instinct to make him protective. The very basic natures of your dog are what they are. That does not, however, mean that you can not shape your dog's instincts. An Australian Shepherd will always have an instinct to herd. Although you can't change their desire to herd, you can teach them how and when it is appropriate to herd. Think of it as updating your dog's programming.
3. Doesn't need a reason to happen. Instinct is not a learned behavior. There is no "what caused my dog to act like this?" reasoning to be discovered. Once you understand that you're working with a dog's instincts, and not trying to train out a learned behavior your job will get easier. Understanding what you're up against is the first step in creating a successful training plan. For example, why did my dog attack my cat that was running by while in the yard even though it's fine with my cat inside? Prey drive is why. Instinct kicked in and the dog started chasing the cat.
So, why is it important to understand instinctual behaviors?
Short answer: Understanding your dog's instincts will make you a better dog owner.
Firstly, you need to realize that there are no good instincts, and no bad instincts. There are simply instincts, and how you as an owner shape them will determine if the resulting behavior is good or bad. For example, Rottweilers are a naturally protective breed. It is instinctual. Shaped correctly with proper training and socialization, you can have a dog who is great in crowds and walks past people without batting an eye, but when the dog recognizes a threat to you, it will suddenly become a threat to that ill-meaning person. On the opposite end of the spectrum, protective instinct left to develop without any guidance from an owner can result in a dog who recognizes all people as threats. This type of dog is dangerous.
Prey drive is another great example of how an instinct left unshaped can result in poor behavior. Prey drive is incredibly beneficial in many breeds. Long in the past, dogs were expected to hunt for their own food. Imagine you're watching an old western and watching a cowboy trotting through a valley with his faithful dog bounding along beside him. When you had that image in your head did you picture a bag of dog food strapped behind the saddle? Of course not. A dog with low prey drive didn't make for a very good hunter, and if they couldn't feed themselves they'd starve. In today's world, our dogs don't have to find their own food, but prey drive is still alive and well. In some breeds it's stronger than in others. Some breeds were designed to be rat hunters, others to herd cattle, and their prey drive is high. Other breeds, such as Maltese, have been bred with the intention of being a companion, and have little to no prey drive. Left unshaped, a dog with high prey drive can be an absolute menace to the neighborhood; cats gone missing, chickens being killed, children being chased on bikes. However, prey drive in your dog can also be used to your advantage in training. You can utilize your dog's desire to chase things as a reward or an incentive. Every dog has a different level of prey drive, and prey drive can also manifest in several different ways, but that is a topic for another article.
So we've learned that instinct is a natural behavior, ingrained in to your dog, and how we shape and develop their instincts plays a huge role in their behavior, and whether they will be deemed a "good" or "bad" dog. Your dog's instincts are the foundation of who they are, and what gives them the ability to be good at their intended purpose. The training you provide to develop or manage their instincts are absolutely vital to their wellbeing.
In the following weeks I'll be doing articles on each instinct that Rottweilers have. In each article I'll discuss how each instinct presents itself, what their uses are, and how to manage or develop them. If there is a certain instinct you'd like to hear about, please let me know in the comments below!