Updated: Nov 21
What the ancients had to say about dog training will surprise you.
Xenophon, the Athenian philosopher and historian, lived in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE and is famous for his writings on a wide range of subjects, including history, politics, and philosophy.
One of his lesser-known works, but probably of great interest to dog lovers, is the "Cynegeticus," a treatise on hunting with dogs. The word "cynegeticus" comes From the Ancient Greek κυνηγετικός (kunēgetikós, “of or for hunting”).
The Cynegeticus is considered one of the earliest and most comprehensive ancient works on the raising and training of hunting dogs. In this fascinating text, Xenophon draws on his own experiences and observations to provide valuable insights into the world of hunting dogs and their handlers. His writing is not only practical but also philosophical, touching on the ethics of hunting and the human-dog bond. Whether you are a hunter, a dog lover, or simply interested in ancient Greek culture, Xenophon's Cynegeticus is a must-read.
Or it would be if it weren't so dry! Fortunately I read it for you. Here are some things that I found pretty surprising.
Some of it is going to surprise you too.
Breed and Behavior
Xenophon was a keen observer of canine behavior and was well aware that different dog breeds had unique characteristics and dispositions. In his Cynegeticus, he stresses the importance of selecting the right breed of dog for hunting based on their natural abilities and instincts. He believed that a dog's natural disposition was a crucial factor in their success as hunting dogs.
In addition to breed characteristics, Xenophon also recognized the importance of understanding canine body language and behavior. He believed that dogs communicated through their body language, and that a skilled handler should be able to read and interpret their dog's behavior. This understanding of canine body language allowed Xenophon to communicate with his dogs more effectively and to train them more efficiently.
Xenophon's emphasis on canine behavior was reflected in his training methods, which were designed to encourage natural predatory behavior. He believed that a well-trained hunting dog should be obedient but also allowed to use their instincts to track and hunt game.
In the early parts of the treatise he goes on in extreme detail (for the time) about breed characteristics and natural behaviors to observe and respond to.
Not one to dismiss the importance of training on problem behaviors he comments after a list of such traits:
"The majority of these defects are due to natural disposition, though some must be assigned no doubt to want of scientific training.” (III, 32)
Of course his exact notion of "scientific" training may have differed from the modern one. But perhaps not as much as one might think!
Overall, Xenophon's focus on breed characteristics, canine body language, and behavior underscores the importance of understanding dogs as individuals with unique traits and dispositions. His insights into canine behavior and training techniques are just as relevant today as they were in ancient Greece and serve as a testament to the enduring bond between humans and dogs.
Dog trainers caught up in the debate over equipment may find Xenophon's comments on the topic interesting. Or perhaps just amusing. He lists appropriate equipment for dogs and criticizes what we in the modern day call slip-leads very specifically:
"...the leash should have a noose for the hand and nothing else. The plan of making collar and leash all in one is a clumsy contrivance for keeping a hound in check." (VI, 3)
Ouch. Shots fired.
Food in Training
While Xenophon clearly favors functional reinforcement (in the case of hunting dogs the predatory behaviors themselves) he mentions food in training at least briefly.
While training puppies he suggests that they be allowed to consume the prey on practice hunts so that they learn what their ultimate target is - however he cautions that once the pups begin treating said animal as prey this must stop.
From that point on he advocates hand feeding dogs. He argues that this is an important part of bonding with your dogs in addition to allowing you to carefully regulate how much they eat and discourage them from taking food from others.
Further, he suggests always feeding hunting dogs near your nets so that they will automatically seek out your camp later if they become lost.
Technical Training Bits
While I don't have much commentary on it Xenophon details methods of training and operating hunts on a technical level to a fine degree. He discusses methods for hunting hare, deer, boar and other animals all with the use of dogs.
What surprised me most about what I read was just how modern much of his advice sounded. He may not have known terms like "positive reinforcement", "functional reinforcement", and "markers" but he makes frequent reference to the concepts in his own language.
"Trigger stacking" wasn't a term then but that's exactly what he is talking about when he discusses the impact of wind on dogs.
Empowerment and Ethics
One of the biggest surprises in the Cynegeticus was where it lands in terms of the debate over ethics in dog training. I was expecting a lot of harsh punishment based training methods.
I was dead wrong.
Xenophon repeatedly stresses giving hunting dogs lots of verbal direction and near constant praise while on the job. The way that he describes the training for hunting shows a big focus on natural behaviors and what we would today call "functional reinforcement" - that is being rewarded by the very thing your behavior was seeking. In the case of hunting dogs the natural predatory behaviors which they find strongly self-reinforcing.
Far from an advocate of harsh treatment of dogs Xenophon also puts great emphasis on care of his dogs. For example he states that when the dogs show signs of fatigue (remember his focus on watching their body language) that they be rested and the hunter continue the job on his own.
When he wrote of equipment he suggested the collar be wide and soft so as not to damage the dog.
He even goes so far as to caution the reader to be careful they not forget about the heat of the sun when returning home so the hot stones of the road don't hurt a dog's paws. Seriously. Read for yourself:
"...and return home from the hunting-field, taking care, if it should chance to be a summer's noon, to halt a bit, so that the feet of his hounds may not be blistered on the road." (VI, 43) And once the dogs get home? Xenophon suggests that every dog get a massage.
Was Xenophon an ancient example of an ethical force-free dog trainer?
No, probably not.
While he may not have written about it, it is very likely that at least some force-based techniques were used by him. It would have been the cultural norm at the time and his writings elsewhere mention physical corrections with horses making their use with dogs very likely as well.
But after careful examination of the text I find a lot of focus on positive reinforcement, natural behaviors, and humane treatment of dogs.
The only punishments I can find reference to in the actual text involve verbal corrections.
Xenophon's Cynegeticus is a fascinating read that offers valuable insights into the world of dog training and hunting. The treatise emphasizes the importance of understanding canine behavior and body language, as well as the individual traits and dispositions of different dog breeds.
Xenophon's training methods are designed to encourage natural predatory behavior while still maintaining obedience, and his focus on functional reinforcement, praise, and verbal direction remains relevant to this day.
Furthermore, his emphasis on the ethical treatment and care of hunting dogs serves as a testament to the enduring bond between humans and dogs. Despite being written thousands of years ago, the Cynegeticus offers valuable lessons and perspectives for modern-day dog trainers and enthusiasts alike.
Quotations in this article come from the translation by H.G Dakyns.
Robin Wong is a certified dog trainer, a graduate of the prestigious Victoria Stilwell Academy, and a Certified Behavior Adjustment Training Instructor (Knowledge Assessed). He founded Holy Sit to provide trauma-informed behavior work and positive dog training in London Ont.