The Canine Connection
Bryan Bailey, owner of Taming the Wild/ProTrain Memphis, speaks on a dog's thought process
Interview by Casey Hilder
Archaeological records indicate that the bond between humans and dogs goes back nearly 15,000 years, possibly more. For renowned animal trainer and canine expert Bryan Bailey, this seemed like a good place to start. Bailey, the author of 2015’s Embracing the Wild in Your Dog, brings a lifetime of wolf behavior research to the table to help understand the evolutionary impulses that drive our four-legged friends. As the owner of ProTrain Memphis, Bailey works to rehabilitate some of the most behaviorally challenged dogs in the Mid-South and beyond.
Click Magazine: What got you into training?
Bryan Bailey: I grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, which was my first exposure to wolves. My father was stationed in the military up there, so we spent many years in the area. I was fascinated. Eventually, I left Alaska for the lower 48 and joined the military like my father before me. For a few years, I worked in the marine mammal projects training sea lions and dolphins for the Navy. After that, I began to get drawn into biology, earned my degree from Cornell University, and started packing in a lot of wolf research. At that time, I was very into competition — shooting sport, AKC obedience, that sort of thing. After a while, people started asking me to train their dogs and here I am today.
CM: How do you analyze a dog?
BB: I always go back to wolf and start from there. We often forget that our modern dogs still share a perfect pair of 39 chromosomes with their ancestors. There’s a 2 percent difference on a mitochondrial DNA sequence and anyone who studies this will tell you that it’s impossible to separate behavior from biology. All dogs are driven by that phylogenetic ratio back toward wolf, not toward human. I always tell people that if you treat your dog like a human, it will treat you like a dog.
CM: What does it mean to “embrace the wild” within your dog?
BB: I try to educate people about what they really own. It means understanding that your dog is still wild to a degree. Embrace it, don’t be afraid of it. Dogs have undergone a great degree of morphological changes over the years — that’s why we have the Bassett Hound and the Poodle existing alongside the Shih Tzu — however, instinct is the last thing to change. And its changes are nowhere near the physiological changes. It’s psychological. The instinct is still there. Consider a Border Collie who herds sheep. The hunt sequence for a wolf is this: locate, stalk, chase, catch, kill, ingest, digest. Of course, you don’t want the Border Collie doing all seven steps. Locate is good, stalk is good, you can chase it over here. The rest, not so helpful to us. Through our own genetic engineering of these dogs, we have convinced dogs to stop this sequence early. It’s why you have pointer dogs that go after birds.
CM: Would you say your most recent book veers more toward understanding canine biology than a traditional training manual?
BB: Embracing the Wild is not a training book. It’s more about understanding the creature that you are about to train. Why does it jump on you? Well, it wants to be at head level. Why is calling a dog so difficult? Because wolves never call each other in the wild. You don’t just announce to the whole grocery store that you’ve arrived. It’s about teaching and understanding the roots. Say I want to repair a watch. It would behoove me to have at least a basic understanding of how a watch works before I attempt to start turning all these dials and taking it apart. The training part doesn’t begin until two books from now.
CM: What is the subject of your next book?
BB: My next book deals with aggression, titled The Hammer: Understanding and Preventing Canine Aggression. In it, I talk about fatalities and the nearly 400 Americans who have died in the past 10 years from aggressive dogs. That book is more urgent than the usual “come, sit, stay, heel” training book you see on shelves.
CM: What is the biggest problem associated with dog ownership today?
BB: The pet industry is a $65 billion a year industry. It’s not based off of the notion that you own a wolf. It’s based off of the notion that you have a family member. We’ve been imprinted since we were kids that the wolf is a villain. After all, who tried to eat Red Riding Hood and the Three Pigs? Even in the Bible, Jesus refers to the wolf as a metaphor to describe evil and greed. Nowhere is the wolf painted as a hero. We’re often made to think of them as people, and that’s an erroneous thought.
“From the wild wolf who is perfectly suited for its world, she created a wolf that is perfectly suited for ours. But, like a wonderful gift that has been left unopened, our imaginations have fabricated something inside nature’s gift that we humans desire and not what was given. If we would only find the will to open the box, we would discover something far greater. Staring up out of the box would be a domestic wolf born of a rich heritage and carved from the wild. With its behavior wrapped in the trappings of steadfast predictability, this creature would provide us with trustworthy companionship and the tranquilitythat comes from understanding and accepting it for what it is and not for what we wish it to be. In a paradoxical way, we would actually get what we really desire.”
Excerpt from Embracing the Wild in Your Dog by Bryan Bailey (2015)