Dog Training: From Prehistory to the Modern Era

By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT-FLE

Gaby Dufresne-Cyr training a wolf

Dog training is an integral part of human history, showcasing the enduring bond between humans and their canine companions. This relationship has evolved significantly over thousands of years, reflecting changes in human society, culture, and knowledge. Let's embark on a journey through time to explore the fascinating history of dog training, from its prehistoric roots to the present day.

Prehistoric Beginnings

The story of dog training begins in prehistoric times, long before written records. The domestication of dogs is believed to have started around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago when humans began agriculture. Less fearful wolves began to exploit human garbage sites and humans, seeing the potential for protection from other predators, started rewarding wolves with bigger and better pieces of meat (Coppinger, 2001). 

Wolves domesticated themselves, transforming into dogs in a matter of a few generations. This formed mutually beneficial relationships between man and canine. Evidence from archaeological sites shows that prehistoric people buried dogs with care, indicating their importance in early human societies. Cave paintings and artifacts also suggest that early humans trained their dogs for specific tasks, such as hunting and guarding.

Ancient Civilizations

As human civilizations developed, so did dog training techniques. In ancient Egypt, dogs were highly valued and trained for hunting and guarding. They were often depicted in tomb paintings and even mummified with their owners. Ancient Greeks and Romans also had a deep appreciation for dogs, training them for various purposes, including hunting, herding, and as war dogs.

The Romans, in particular, were known for their sophisticated training methods. They bred and trained dogs for specific roles, such as the Molossus, a breed used for guarding and combat. Roman soldiers often marched with trained war dogs, demonstrating the early use of dogs in military applications.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, dog training became more specialized. Hunting with dogs was a popular pastime among the European nobility, leading to the development of specific hunting breeds like the Greyhound and the Bloodhound. Training manuals from this period, such as Gaston de Foix's Livre de Chasse (Book of the Hunt), provided detailed instructions on training hunting dogs.

In medieval England, dogs were also trained for herding and protection. The role of dogs expanded beyond hunting to include guarding livestock and property. Training methods varied, but they often relied on a combination of instinct, observation, and trial and error.

The Renaissance and Enlightenment

The Renaissance brought a renewed interest in science and exploration, influencing dog training techniques. Dogs continued to be bred and trained for specific roles, with an increased focus on selective breeding to enhance desired traits. The Enlightenment further advanced our understanding of animal behaviour, leading to more systematic approaches to training.

In the 18th century, the publication of works like A Treatise on the Art of Teaching and Training the Canine Species by Captain Thomas Brown marked the beginning of more formalized dog training methods. This period also saw the rise of dog shows and the establishment of breed standards, which emphasized both appearance and behaviour.

The Modern Era

The 20th century brought significant advancements in dog training, driven by scientific research and the development of new training philosophies. The advent of behaviourism, pioneered by scientists like Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner revolutionized our understanding of animal learning and behaviour.

Positive reinforcement, a concept rooted in behaviourism, became a cornerstone of modern dog training. Trainers like Karen Pryor popularized clicker training, a method that uses a distinct sound to mark desired behaviours, followed by a reward. This humane and effective approach shifted the focus from punishment to rewards, making training more enjoyable for both dogs and their owners.

Today, dog training is a well-established profession, with a wide range of techniques and philosophies. From obedience training and agility to therapy and service dogs, training methods continue to evolve, incorporating the latest research and technology.

The history of dog training is a testament to the enduring partnership between humans and dogs. From the earliest days of domestication to the sophisticated techniques of today, this relationship has been built on trust, mutual benefit, and a deep bond of companionship. As we continue to learn more about our canine friends, the future of dog training promises to be as dynamic and enriching as its past.


  • Coppinger, R & Coppinger, L. (2001). Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution. Scribner. 

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