Posts Tagged ‘Dog Sense’

To begin this discussion, I shall begin with an excerpt from Dog Sense, which can be found on NPR’s website:

The dog has been our faithful companion for tens of thousands of years. Today, dogs live alongside humans all across the globe, often as an integral part of our families. To many people, a world without dogs is unthinkable.

And yet dogs today unwittingly find themselves on the verge of a crisis, struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of change in human society. Until just over a hundred years ago, most dogs worked for their living. Each of the breeds or types had become well suited, over thousands of years and a corresponding number of generations, to the task for which they were bred. First and foremost, dogs were tools. Their agility, quick thinking, keen senses, and unparalleled ability to communicate with humans suited them to an extraordinary diversity of tasks — hunting, herding, guarding, and many others, each an important component of the economy. In short, dogs had to earn their keep; apart from the few lapdogs who were the playthings of the very rich, the company that dogs provided would have been incidental, rewarding, but not their raison d’être. Then, a few dozen generations ago, everything began to change — and these changes are still gathering pace today.

Indeed, an ever-increasing proportion of dogs are never expected to work at all; their sole function is to be family pets. Although many working types have successfully adapted, others were and still are poorly suited to this new role, so it is perhaps surprising that none of the breeds that are most popular as family pets have been specifically and exclusively designed as such. Thus far, dogs have done their best to adjust to the many changes and restrictions we have imposed upon them — in particular, our expectation that they will be companionable when we need them to be and unobtrusive when we don’t. However, the cracks inherent in this compromise are beginning to widen. As human society continues to change and the planet becomes ever more crowded, there are signs that the popularity of dogs as pets has peaked and that their adaptation to yet another lifestyle may be a struggle — especially in urban environments. After all, dogs, as living beings, cannot be reengineered every decade or so as if they were computers or cars. In the past, when dogs’ functions were mostly rural, it was accepted that they were intrinsically messy and needed to be managed on their own terms. Today, by contrast, many pet dogs live in circumscribed, urban environments and are expected to be simultaneously better behaved than the average human child and as self-reliant as adults. As if these new obligations were not enough, many dogs still manifest the adaptations that suited them for their original functions — traits that we now demand they cast away as if they had never existed. The collie who herds sheep is the shepherd’s best friend; the pet collie who tries to herd children and chases bicycles is an owner’s nightmare. The new, unrealistic standards to which many humans hold their dogs have arisen from one of several fundamental misconceptions about what dogs are and what they have been designed to do. We must come to better understand their needs and their nature if their niche in human society is not to diminish.

Our rapidly changing expectations are not the only challenge that dogs face today. The ways in which we now control their reproduction also represent a major challenge to their well-being. For much of human history, dogs were bred to suit the roles that humankind assigned to them — but whether their task was herding, retrieving, guarding, or hauling, dogs’ stability and functionality were considered far more important than their type or appearance. In the late nineteenth century, however, dogs were grouped into self-contained breeds, reproductively isolated from one another, and each assigned a single ideal appearance, or “standard,” by breed societies. For many dogs this rigid categorization has not worked out well; rather, it has worked against their need to adapt into their new primary role as companions. Each breeder strives not to breed the perfect pet but to produce the perfect-looking dog who will succeed in the show-ring. These winning dogs are considered prized stock and make a hugely disproportionate genetic contribution to the next generation — resulting in “pure” breeds whose idealized appearance belies their deteriorated health. In the 1950s, most breeds still had a healthy range of genetic variation; by 2000, only some twenty to twenty-five generations later, many had been inbred to the point where hundreds of genetically based deformities, diseases, and disadvantages had emerged, potentially compromising the welfare of every purebred dog. In the UK, the growing rift between dog breeders and those concerned with dogs’ welfare finally became public in 2008, resulting in the withdrawal of the humane charities — and subsequently that of BBC Television, the event’s broadcaster—from Crufts, the country’s national dog show. While such protests are a start, the dogs themselves will not feel any benefit until the problems brought about by excessive inbreeding have been reversed and dogs are bred with their health and role in society, not their looks, in mind.

Ultimately, people will have to change their attitudes if the dog’s lot is to improve. So far, however, neither the experts nor the average owner have had their preconceived notions challenged by the wealth of new science that is emerging about dogs. Much of the public debate thus far, whether about the merits of outbreeding versus inbreeding or the effectiveness of training methods, has amounted to little more than the statement and restatement of entrenched opinions. This is where scientific understanding becomes essential, for it can tell us what dogs are really like and what their needs really amount to.

Science is an essential tool for understanding dogs, but the contributions of canine science to dog welfare have, unfortunately, been somewhat mixed. Canine science, which originated in the 1950s, sets out to provide a rational perspective on what it’s like to be a dog — a perspective ostensibly more objective than the traditional human-centered or anthropomorphic view of their natures. Despite this attempt at detachment, however, canine scientists have occasionally misunderstood—and even given others the license to cause injury to — the very animals whose nature they have endeavored to reveal.

Science has, unwittingly, done the most damage to dogs by applying the comparative zoology approach to studies of dog behavior. Comparative zoology is a well-established and generally valuable way of understanding the behavior and adaptations of one species through comparisons with those of another. Species that are closely related but have different lifestyles can often be better understood through comparative zoology, because differences in the way they look and behave mirror those changes in lifestyle; so, too, can those species that have come to have similar lives but are genetically unrelated. This method has been highly successful in helping to disentangle the mechanisms of evolution in general, especially now that similarities and differences in behavior can be compared with differences between each species’ DNA, so as to pinpoint the genetic basis of behavior.

Yet although the applications of comparative zoology are usually benign, it has done considerable harm to dogs, as one expert after another has interpreted their behavior as if they were, under the surface, little altered from that of their ancestor, the wolf. Wolves, which have generally been portrayed as vicious animals, constantly striving for dominance over every other member of their own kind, have been held up as the only credible model for understanding the behavior of dogs.1 This supposition leads inevitably to the misconception that every dog is constantly trying to control its owner—unless its owner is relentless in keeping it in check. The conflation of dog and wolf behavior is still widely promoted in books and on television programs, but recent research on both dogs and wolves has shown not only that it is simply unfounded but also that dogs who do come into conflict with their owners are usually motivated by anxiety, not a surfeit of ambition. Since this fundamental misunderstanding has crept into almost every theory of dog behavior, it will be the first to be addressed in this book.

I would argue that in dogs we have a popular canine culture that is as anti-science and anti-intellectual as anything that exists within the various forms of creationism.

People swear up and down, even when you show them the studies, that dogs are primarily focused upon “becoming dominant” and the way to get things under control is to be as violent back.

It doesn’t matter what the cognitive scientists, the anthropologists, and field researchers who observe dog behavior have actually discovered.

Dominance this and dominance that. That’s all you’re likely to hear on The Dog Whisperer and on other popular shows about “bad dogs.”

The truth is people like dominance models because it’s great for stroking one’s own ego. “I’m the boss, Doggy, and you’ll damn well like it. In fact, I know that you crave it.”  This is not to say that punishment has no place in training dogs to behave, but using bad scientific model or even pseudo-scientific models, such as the “energy” that Cesar Millan bloviates about, to justify unnecessary and possibly dangerous confrontations with aggressive dogs is simply stupid. I have no other word for it. It’s stupid. It’s as stupid as Kent Hovind or Michele Bachmann telling you to avoid vaccines for health reasons. It is stupid.

In rather perverse fashion dominance theory or what Bradshaw calls the “lupomorph model”– a term I slightly resist because this assumes that wolves normally behave in an extremely aggressive manner to all their packmates as they fight to become dominant. I know that Bradshaw rejects this model for wild wolf behavior, so I think we should call it the “prison wolf pack model.”

Because that’s actually what it’s based upon. In the late 1940’s and the 1950’s at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland,  a researcher named Rudolph Schenkel studied captive wolf packs. These packs were composed of mostly young adult male wolves that were not related to each other. They fought continuously until a very strict hierarchy was developed.

Never mind that this is actually a very unusual situation for wolves. Wolves don’t form packs of unrelated individuals.  Wolf packs are family groups.  The leaders of the pack are the pair-bonded breeding male and female. The rest are almost exclusively the pups of that breeding pair. In some packs, non-breeding pair females get pregnant and have pups. The litters are sired by outside male wolves that have dispersed from their natal packs– which most wolves do by the time they are three– that have not been able to establish their own territories. Some male wolves live entirely without territories and reproduce solely through mating with young female wolves that are not part of an established breeding pair in a pack– what are sometimes called the “lone ranger” or Casanova wolves. However, those females do not always have access to dens, and their own mothers may come by and steal or kill the puppies.  The most efficient way for genetic material to be transmitted to the next generation in a wolf pack is to be part of a breeding pair, which is why wolves reproduce through a breeding pairs.

Domestic dogs don’t need that structure based upon a breeding pair. Dogs largely live off the fat of human civilization, and from a gene-centered prespective, it is much more efficient to pass on genetic material through using a Casanova mating system.  All pups that are born are going to have about the same chance of survival within human settlements. Dogs can be competitive when they are breeding, but they are not wolf packs. A wolf pack would have a breeding pair that would would mate only with each other, and siblings in wolf packs don’t normally mate with each other.   Both of these issues explain why most wolves disperse from their natal packs. There is simply no one to mate with.

Not all wolves form large packs. Arabian wolves are usually just a breeding pair and maybe one or two of their grown offspring. Some wolves living urban environments, like this one in Braşov, Romania, raise their pups on their own. Wolves form packs when it is advantageous to do so– such as when they must hunt large prey to survive.  It would be wrong to say that wolves form packs as a matter of instinct, and that so-called dominance behavior, which is so manifest in Schenkel’s model, is an accurate portrayal of what drives a wolf.

And we know that if such a theory is hooey for wolves, why on earth would we assume that it works for dogs?

And we know that dogs have evolved to live with people and with our other domestic animals. Dogs may have evolved unique people reading cognitive abilities, which allow them to cooperate with humans more, or they may simply have a tendency to pay much more close attention to people than other animals do. Domestication has changed dogs from wolves, but we’re still trying to figure out the exact mechanism. Dogs are very easy for people to keep, but the vast majority of wolves are very difficult for the typical person to live with.

However, people continue to apply the Schenkel’s model from these captive wolf packs to virtually all dog behavior problems. If a puppy jumps up on you, it’s being dominant. If a dog chases and kills chickens, it’s being dominant to the chickens.  Never mind that the former is an attempt by the dog to lick a person’s lips, an appeasement gesture. Never mind that the latter is predatory behavior, which has, unfortunately, been deemed “aggression” in the eyes of too many experts. Predatory behavior has nothing to do with aggression towards social peers. If a lion kills a wildebeest, it’s killing it to eats and because its brain has evolved to reward itself through its own brain chemistry whenever it engages in predatory behavior. That’s why it is very hard to correct predatory behavior in dogs.

This whole dominance pseudoscience that has taken hold in the dog world reminds me of another pseudoscience that had even worse repercussions. This pseudoscience was actually used against human beings, and because of that matter alone, it was far worse than it would ever be for dominance theory in the domestic dog. So please note that my discussion here is not designed to trivialize human suffering under slavery. It is merely to make an analogy.

Slavery was big business in the United States. We don’t like to talk about it all that much, but the United States– not just the South– was heavily invested in keeping people in bondage.  I am reminded of my own home county in West Virginia, a place where there was only one slave owner before the war, and where the majority of the citizens backed and joined the union army, including my own ancestors. After the war, there was a big oil and gas and timber boom, and among the wealthy interests to buy up land in the backwoods was Godfrey L. Cabot, who eventually established the world’s largest carbon black factory in the middle of nowhere in West Virginia. The Cabots were an old Boston Brahmin, very Yankee family. Guess how they made their money?

Slaves. (And opium).

The idea that this institution was peculiar to South is simply wrong. The slaves were held in the South, but the bulk of American society was being enriched through slavery.

Now, America was also a fairly rationalistic society in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We were supposed to be a society based upon the enlightenment and rationalism. And in many ways we were.

We even tried to use those elements to rationalize slavery and to figure out how to better manage slaves. I know it sounds sick, but at the time, there were all sorts of rationalizations for keeping people in bondage. Religion was a commonly used rationale, but religion would often be mixed in with science.

In 1851, a Louisiana physician named Samuel Cartwright came up with a theory about why slaves ran away.

It had nothing to do with the simple fact that slaves don’t like being slaves.

No, that couldn’t possibly be that.


Well, the bible says that slaves are supposed to be obedient and accept their status, and Cartwright reasoned that only reason why they could possibly want to run away is that they had some sort of mental illness. He named this particular illness drapetomania, which means “runaway madness.”

Cartwright had actually performed scientific analyses of the causes of yellow fever and Asiatic cholera, so he was deemed a scientific expert at the time.

The bible was also viewed as a science book– something we would we not really accept at today.

Cartwright contended that because the bible said slaves should be slaves that any time a slave tried to run away, it was against nature:

If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity’s will, by trying to make the negro anything else than “the submissive knee-bender,” (which the Almighty declared he should be,) by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, the negro will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the sane time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.

Cartwright surmised that the reason why slaves ran away had nothing to do with their condition as slaves. Instead, he felt that the real problem was their masters were too kind to them. And as a corollary, the only way to cure it was to “whip the devil out of them,” quite literally:

According to my experience, the “genu flexit”–the awe and reverence, must be exacted from them, or they will despise their masters, become rude and ungovernable, and run away. On Mason and Dixon’s line, two classes of persons were apt to lose their negroes: those who made themselves too familiar with them, treating them as equals, and making little or no distinction in regard to color; and, on the other hand, those who treated them cruelly, denied them the common necessaries of life, neglected to protect them against the abuses of others, or frightened them by a blustering manner of approach, when about to punish them for misdemeanors. Before the negroes run away, unless they are frightened or panic-struck, they become sulky and dissatisfied. The cause of this sulkiness and dissatisfaction should be inquired into and removed, or they are apt to run away or fall into the negro consumption. When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.

Now, relying upon scripture to tell us the ways of nature and man is probably not the most scientific way of relating to the world, and today, we all correctly attack these precepts, as well as the unbelievably cruel supposed cure.

However, we are doing something very similar when we use the prison wolf model to explain dog behavior. These studies never actually looked at natural arrangements between wolves. It was all contrived. Further, we ignore the simple reality that domestic dogs don’t live like wolves– captive or otherwise. They have been living for perhaps tens of thousands of years with people, and they operate within a mode of high domestication. They are open to learning many things from us.

But when we say that within every dog there is a wolf trying to take over a family, we are talking total pseudoscience. Dogs show aggression for lots of reasons, and it has never been shown in any study that dogs work hard to dominate people. There has never been a study that has confirmed the existence of a dominant dog– as if dominance were its personality trait. There are merely dogs that use aggression to get what they want– and the dog learned that behavior at some point in its life. The idea that there is some kind of instinctive drive that makes dogs want to control people simply hasn’t been found, and the behavior is more easily explained with the previous sentence than this commonly pronounced bromide. When we can apply a simpler mental process for an explanation for a behavior, it is more likely to be correct. This rule is called Morgan’s canon, and anyone who has studied any animal behavior will know that Morgan’s canon is a very important principle. It keeps us from making great errors from excessive anthropomorphism.

It is also interesting that the cure for dominance problems in dogs is actually pretty similar to the cure from drapetomania– as ol’ Cesar clearly shows here.  He doesn’t beat them. He just chokes them down, which is actually an old technique that trappers would use to get a dog out of a steel trap. Choke ’em down so they won’t bite you. Usually they collapse from lack of oxygen, just as this dog clearly is.

Cesar Millan almost never comes up with scientific reasons for why he does what he does. And to be fair, he’s been promoting very different training methods– at least in his last book.

However, there are still plenty of people who quote these wolf pack hierarchy studies and then use violent methods to establish themselves.

And sadly, they are all over the blogosphere.

They don’t realize that they aren’t much better than Rick Perry, Kent Hovind, and Michele Bachmann. They are denying science. It’s that simple.

Yes, there are scientists you can find who will say things differently– just as you also can find scientists who have actually published studies that are in total contradiction of what the bulk of the experts in any given field are saying. That’s a great way to create a niche for oneself, and niches are a very good way of staying alive in academia.

It doesn’t mean that these naysayers are right, and the others are wrong.  It just means they are naysayers.

When the public tries to consume scientific findings, it is better to look at what the majority of any experts in a given field are saying. Yes, they will disagree on some of the finer points, but when they agree on something, it’s because there is overwhelming evidence.

The evidence is overwhelmingly against the prison wolf theory as applied to dog behavior.

Unfortunately, the dog trainers and self-styled experts out there haven’t received the memo.

They continue to project all of these supposed dominance behaviors onto dogs without really thinking about what we now know from a scientific perspective. And that’s really all these people are doing, they are looking for dominance behaviors, and when they see them, they categorize behavior as dominant. It becomes a very self-fulfilling system of inquiry, and one that can never be falsified.

Which is probably why people advocate that people train their dogs with a more scientific understanding of dog behavior sound so nagging. These people have created a dominance cult, and if you say otherwise, you cannot break through.

Remember, man is a creature of reason. He will always find a reason to justify what he’s doing.







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Dog Sense by John Bradshaw:


Dogs don’t feel guilt.

But my guess is they feel love much more profoundly than we do, and I would contend that they are much more social than humans are.

Check out his website.

When he says “dogs are not wolves,”  he means that they are not the cartoon version of a pack in which every member does nothing but fight to become the leader, a notion that is derived from studies of captive packs where no dispersal can happen. Dogs in terms of genetics and phylogeny are wolves, but they are special kind of wolf. This is a wolf that has evolved to live with humans, which requires several specialized adaptations that other wolves don’t necessarily have. In this way, a dog is a specialized wolf in the same way an arctic wolf is specialized to living on the tundra and hunting in large packs to bring down muskoxen, and an Arabian wolf is specialized at living in very small family groups and hunting smaller prey in the scorching deserts of the Middle East. We can think of them all as being part of the same species, but they are not necessarily interchangeable. An arctic wolf would die in the desert heat, and if it survived the heat, it would likely have a very hard time finding enough prey to nourish its large body.  A little Arabian wolf would freeze to death.  It might do okay in terms of finding prey. There are often lemming booms that it might take advantage of, and there are usually ptarmigan and arctic hares to hunt.

I think that he means that dogs are wolves in terms of species, but they are not in the same subspecies.

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