Keys to Understanding and Communicating With Your Dog, Part 1

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Isla Fishburn holds a Ph.D. in conservation biology and is a holistic canine practitioner who believes we need to conserve our canine companions
  • In Dr. Fishburn’s opinion, humans are interfering with the genes, diets, and behavior of domestic dogs, which is causing a well-being crisis
  • In her work as a dog behaviorist, Dr. Fishburn focuses on the fundamental needs of dogs, and works with clients to optimize their dog’s well-being

By Dr. Becker

Today I have a very special guest, Dr. Isla Fishburn. Dr. Fishburn holds a bachelor of science degree in Zoology, a master’s in Biological Science, and a Ph.D. in Conservation Biology. Her passion is creating coexistence between people and wildlife.

Dr. Fishburn’s research focus is on carnivore ecology and conservation. She has worked with wolves, wolf hybrids, and domestic dogs for many years. Her life’s passion is to work with megafauna (large and giant animals), and bridge the gap between animals and the humans they come in contact with.

Dr. Fishburn is especially committed to canine conservation. She wants the world to love animals, starting with the ones we live with. Toward that end, Dr. Fishburn works as a holistic dog behaviorist and owner of Kachina Canine Communication in Northumberland, in North East England.

Dr. Fishburn applies her knowledge of animal behavior, zoology, ecology, and conservation to teach a dog’s human guardian why their “hairy family member” must be understood to improve the life of their canine companion.

Canine Conservation Begins at Home

As a very small child, Dr. Fishburn wished for her own wolf and bear! And she wanted them to be small enough to fit inside her pocket so they could go everywhere with her! As she grew older, she realized the improbability of having a tiny wolf and a tiny bear as pets, so she ended up with a rabbit.

It was her fascination with animals that drove Dr. Fishburn’s interest in zoology. When she branched into carnivore conservation, her goal was to become a carnivore ecologist and work with large predators in the wild.

She didn’t envision working with dogs initially, but on completing her Ph.D. in conservation biology and wanting to work with wild Canids, she worked with two wolf packs for three years, and began meeting a lot of dog owners.

Soon after, Dr. Fishburn realized she wanted her conservation efforts to involve domestic animals.

And for her, that meant dogs. She thought, “We need to conserve our dogs.” Dr. Fishburn believes people do not consider a dog as a species and interfere with the genes of dogs, and many people don’t know what they’re doing.

We also mess around with their diets, another area she feels we should conserve, along with their behavior. “For me, conservation has to begin at home,” says Dr. Fishburn. “Hopefully, once we’ve mastered that, we can really focus on the conservation of wild animals.”

Dog Behavior From a Zoology Perspective

In her work as a dog behaviorist, Dr. Fishburn focuses on the fundamental needs of dogs, one of which is safety. She works with clients to help “optimize the dog’s well-being, maximize the dog’s well-being potential, and with that, help the dog align with its natural self.”

I asked Dr. Fishburn to explain how she approaches behavior problems in dogs. She has a fresh approach I find fascinating.

Dr. Fishburn responded, “First of all, I’m not a guru. It’s really hard work — it’s mentally exhausting. And that’s how it should be, because I’m working with another species — a live, intricate, complex animal.”

When she’s presented with a dog with a behavior problem, she views it from the perspective of a zoologist. She consults a mental list of causes of behavior, and the first thing she always looks at is, does the dog feel safe?

She also looks at the dog as an individual and a wide range of factors, including genetics, parentage, epigenetics, personality, development, diet, disease, trauma, environment, who the dog co-exists with, and the number of vaccinations the dog has had.

She also considers the nature of dogs with regard to competition, ecology, a natural diet, and group composition. Dogs are social animals, so it’s important to learn how the dog interacts with everyone he comes in contact with.

“What I really focus on is the emotion,” says Dr. Fishburn, “the emotional state of the animal, because that’s what drives behavior.”

Dr. Fishburn believes we should nourish different dogs differently. For example, one way a dog communicates is via scent and this is used for identity. Depending on the dog’s identity, some dogs should have a different scent to others.

This is one way conflict between two or more dogs may arise. She also believes the time of year a puppy is born and raised — spring, summer, fall, or winter — also plays a role in how and why certain behaviors come about.

The Role of Nutrition in Dog Behavior

Dr. Fishburn also has a very unique understanding of the role nutrition plays in a dog’s behavior, and how we can potentially enhance a dog’s physical and mental well-being with species-appropriate nutrition.

Dr. Fishburn explains that she loves the subject of dog diets, even though she’s a zoologist and behaviorist, not a veterinarian or animal nutritionist. She takes a very natural approach to dog diets, and believes what a dog eats affects behavior, the potential for disease, and dog-to-dog communication.

There are anatomical and taxonomic similarities between domesticated dogs and wolves. Wolves are classified as Canis lupus; domesticated dogs are Canis lupus familiaris. To Dr. Fishburn, that means dogs are a subspecies of the wolf.

Yes, there are some differences as a result of domestication, but there are so many similarities between the two, that to Dr. Fishburn, dogs are a canine species and have carnivore requirements, just as wolves do. Both can and do choose to eat plant material if and when it is needed for nutritional and medicinal purposes.

Dogs have the sharp teeth of carnivores. They are supposed to eat meat. They are supposed to have bones in the diet. Dr. Fishburn believes fresh food is very important to optimize a dog’s wellbeing.

In her work with wolves, Dr. Fishburn has observed that there are individual differences among them, just as there are with dogs. There are also differences between groups of wolves. For example, some wolf groups eat deer, wild goat and wild boar, while other groups eat just wild boar.

It’s important to know why those differences exist. Ideally, Dr. Fishburn would like to see dogs eat a diet of wild prey, because the quality of meat produced by factory farms is so poor. She uses a 7-year-old factory farmed cow as an example. The cow is slaughtered and winds up in dog food.

“What happens if that cow had 7 years of neglect … seven years of a hellish life?” asks Dr. Fishburn. “That negative emotion our dog is going to feed on is guaranteed to affect the health of our dog.”

She feels we need to focus not just on the well-being of the dog, but the well-being of the animals the dog eats. It’s her opinion that wolves prefer wild prey over livestock, and will only kill livestock when their preferred prey is in short supply. And why is that? Is it because wild prey is so much healthier for them than domestic livestock? These are the kinds of questions Dr. Fishburn feels we should focus on.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview with Dr. Isla Fishburn next week. She’ll be discussing what and how she feeds her own dogs, and the importance of giving dogs choices.