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BrainWork - a new perspective for dog training

From the desk of Mogens Eliasen - first published: January 02, 2008

Mogens Eliasen - the author of this article
on 'BrainWork'

Training of dogs has developed into many directions, also some that are far more considerate to the dog and its nature than the old-fashioned obedience methods that really had no other objective than making the dog conform to human standard demands, like a robot. However, even the "nicest" of most modern training practices still ignore the question "What Is In It For the Dog?" - or provide an answer that is too primitive for a smart dog.

Dogs need more than treats and praise - they need meaningful work.

If mental balance is a relevant objective…

Dogs still have most of the instincts of a wolf. Although it is hard to define "instincts" in a simple way, you can think of them as genetically controlled mechanisms that link behavior to fundamental needs and the satisfaction of those needs, typically through an external sense impression or stimulus. This is not philosophy. It is biochemistry.

The core of this is that needs do not go away, just because we ignore them or refuse to accept them. Nobody has yet ceased being hungry by not eating. Or quenched thirst by keeping away from liquids to drink. The same goes for all the dog's less "tangible" needs, such as those that cover behavior we don't really accept in our human society. The hunting behaviors are the prime candidate here. But other related behaviors, like those connected to travel and territory inspection, not to mention the sexual behaviors, are also often neglected or ignored. Sometimes even subject to harsh punishment or negative reinforcement.

It takes no genius to predict that if a dog (or a person, for that matter) suffers from serious depravation of satisfaction of fundamental needs of whatever nature, then this individual will be stressed and most definitely not assume any state of mental balance. Stress is an important part of getting action started that can lead to satisfaction of the needs that are not attended to. But with individuals in confinement, this action cannot take place - and the stress is accumulated and enhanced.

A stressed dog is not a nice pet. This alone should motive most dog owners to make sure that they avoid stressing their dog. And most make an honest attempt in that regard. They are just moving in the wrong direction…

The importance of "meaningful work"?

For people in a human environment that is characterized by them never having enough time to do what they like to do, most of their stress is caused by an overload of work. For them, "freedom from stress" means less work; opportunities to relax.

And they now transfer that standard to the dog, whose problem is the exact opposite!

Wolves are naturally "on the go" some 16-18 hours a day! Although most dogs can do with much less, then they cannot do with just 1 hour a day. NO dog can keep in mental balance on any less than 4 hours of meaningful activity per day, as clearly showed by the Swedish dog psychologist Anders Hallgren. The result of ignoring this need is a lot of behavior problems. In fact, Anders Hallgren's research shows that some 85% of all behavior problems are related to lack of adequate mental stimulation. My personal experience confirms that Anders Hallgren underestimates this number….

An important related observation made by Anders Hallgren (and certainly also confirmed by my experience) is that the behavior problems had a significant tendency to be worse, not milder, among people who were members of some kind of dog association, either a kennel club or a training club. In other words, people who apparently take their dogs more serious than average are prone to experience more problems!

It relates to the nature of the stimulation these people give their dogs.

Seriously: How does traditional obedience training promote the use of the dog's natural instincts? And confirmation training for dog shows?

The wolf's example

Again, even though we cannot assume that our dogs are simple copies of wolves (which they are not), then it still helps us bring some perspective into the picture by considering what the wolf does. How does he spend his day?

First, he travels a lot - some 20-50 km (15-35 miles) a day. He has to. He needs to find prey. And he needs to have about 120 encounters with potential prey animals before he can hope to get just one meal! Now, with 2-3 meals a month being sufficient, this still means about 10 encounters a day! It takes a pretty good hunter to reach that quota.

Most of those encounters end with the parties simply departing and leaving each other in peace. Wolves don't even try to kill healthy prey animals. They test their candidates very carefully through teasing and provocation before they risk a dangerous chase.

But we can now already see some very important behaviors:

  • finding the prey - tracking

  • stalking the prey

  • testing the strength and the fight preparedness of the prey (or its health, if you want to use that angle)

These are activities the wolf spends hours and hours on every day!

Yes, and then, once a day, in average, he gets one chase - with 9 out of 10 being given up quite quickly.

The big treason…

Modern dogs don't need this - for survival. But that does not mean that they don't NEED IT!

Remember, we talk about biochemistry in the body. And that biochemistry does not change because we feed our dogs…

This means that we need to provide those kinds of activities to our dogs that are crucial for the wolf. Maybe not in quite the quantity the wolf needs - but if we ignore them, we can expect trouble.

As you will notice, behaviors like tracking, stalking, and testing a prey animal is not work for dummies…. Neither are chasing and killing, but those last two do not occupy much of the wolf's time. The others do, particularly tracking.

But they do not occupy much of the daily life for any of our modern dogs…

The responsible solution

Of course, as responsible dog owners, we cannot just let our dogs run around on their own, chasing whatever other animals they encounter. But we can certainly let them use their brains on tracking and search. Fortunately, their instincts don't care about what is being tracked, so human foot prints are as good as animal foot prints.

Also stalking and testing prey is really a matter of exercising good judgment as a result of measured provocation. This involves judging a situation and making a decision. Can we provide that? Absolutely! It comes completely naturally when we do NOT make the dog perform in accordance with a predictable program, but let it use its skills under unpredictable circumstances!

I know - this does not leave much room for standard performance programs of any kind, not even the standard police dog training programs that do involve some use of the dog's hunting behaviors - but not of its brain…

Dog need this stimulation of their brains, just as the wolves do. Wolves get it naturally, but dogs can only get it when we arrange adequate opportunities for them. I am tempted to call that "training", but I don't want it messed up with traditional training of any kind, so I will refer to it as BrainWork.

What makes BrainWork different from "training" is the fact that we do not know the specific outcome - and we have no desire to control it in detail either. This, of course, makes BrainWork totally useless for the person who aims at obtaining a well-defined performance at a competition trial of some kind.

But it makes it perfectly adequate for the dog's natural instincts and needs, so we can obtain a very effective mental balance that impacts the dog's behavior on all other frontiers, creating a much calmer, happier, and observant companion.

With BrainWork, the dog still needs results - and rewards. Otherwise, the behaviors are unsustainable. And we also want to be able to push the degree of challenge all the time. The simplest way of enabling this is by teaching the dog some fundamental communication and performance tools, which we then can use repeatedly in constantly changing environments, providing new and, for the dog, unpredicatable challenges all the time. So, we are not eliminating the need for training. We are just changing the scope of it, so it becomes a tool for our ability to provide meaningful work, not for obtaining robotic performances.

And the best part?

BrainWork is much more fun than "training", also for the owner!


Mogens Eliasen


Mogens Eliasen holds a mag. scient. degree (comparable to a US Ph. D.) in Chemistry from Århus University, Denmark, has a extensive education also as military officer and in business management. He has been working with dogs, dog owners, dog trainers, and veterinarians since 1970. A large part of his dog work has been in the area of education and education planning, and as consultant for dog owners and dog training associations. He is a strong advocate of treating the dog with respect for its nature as domesticated wolf, and has published several books and videos on topics related to dogs, dog training, dog behavior, and responsible care of dogs. He publishes a newsletter "The Peeing Post" containing lots of tips and advice on all matters pertaining to dogs.

For more information about Mogens Eliasen, including links to other articles he has published, please send this e-mail to or visit or

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Titles available from K9joy®:

Anders Hallgren:
"The ABC's of Dog Language" (140 page book - 1996)
Understand what your dog is telling you - and communicate with it on its own terms. A must have for all dog lovers. Easy to read. Easy to use as reference.

Mogens Eliasen:
"The Dog's Social Behavior" (2.5 hr. video - 1998, updated on DVD 2006, with support materials on a CD)
How the dog's behavior is linked to its instincts and needs. What you can change and what is "for life". How you use this information to dramatically improve your relationship with your dog.

Mogens Eliasen:
"BrainWork for Smart Dogs" (380 page e-book - 2003)
How you get a happy and well-behaved dog, stimulating its brain with 15 minutes of fun per day. Dogs need to work and use their instinct in order to be in mental balance. Everyone can do it with these instructions. More than 40 exercises to choose from!

Mogens Eliasen:
"Don't Pull on the Leash!" (40 page e-book - 2005)
The 5 simple steps in this complete training manual will effectively stop any dog from pulling on the leash, with no pain or abuse and no special equipment - and make the start of a much better relationship with the dog.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Is Your Dog's Drinking Water Safe?" (30 page e-book - 2005, updated 2006)
A layman's overview of how and why drinking water gets contaminated - and what you can do about it.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Feeding Your Dog - the Natural Way" (1 hr. video - 1998)
The fastest introduction to get you started on feeding your dog a natural diet. It explains the dog's physiology in simple terms, so you also understand why you should do this.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Canine Choice - by Nature" (80 page e-book - 1999, updated 2005)
The simple "how-to" about feeding a natural diet for optimal health.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Raw Food for Dogs - the Ultimate Reference for Dog Owners"
(340 page e-book - revised/expanded 2006)
Everything you need for making your own informed decisions about what to feed your dog, and why and how. Includes numerous examples of feeding plans plus two chapters on how to work with your vet, also if he/she does not approve of your feeding...

Mogens Eliasen:
"The Wolf's Natural Diet - a Feeding Guide for Your Dog?"
(125 page e-book - 2004 updated/revised 2006)
What we know and don't know about the wolf and its natural feeding, and about the dog and its domestication, and what we can and cannot conclude from wolf to dog... this is the big "why?" behind any responsible approach to feeding your dog.

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