In Defence Of Dogs

November 8, 2011
Science dog

Science Dog is tired

by John Bradshaw

Those of us who live with small furry friends have a vested interest in understanding what our beasties are thinking. They don’t talk, they won’t use SurveyMonkey, and they sometimes act like they’re not human at all, no matter how we might like to think of them as little people in dog costumes. But never fear. There is a whole industry out there that promises to help you interpret your dog’s slightest ear flick and nose twitch, that will allow you to correct all “undesirable” canine behaviours back to the acceptable human norms, that will turn you into a veritable Dr. Dolittle.

Just one little problem. Most of what you read is wrong, and quite a lot of it is harmful. Dominate your dog! Tame the wolf in your home! Show your pooch who’s boss! All complete crap, based on romantic story-telling and what makes good TV, rather than on decent science.

In In Defence Of Dogs, John Bradshaw, a researcher in canine behaviour at the University of Bristol (although he has appeared on TV, including The Colbert Report!) presents some of the recent thinking on dog behaviour, based on, of all things, scientific research.

The first thing to know is that, despite being genetically near identical to wolves, dogs are not wolves from a behavioural point of view. A good parallel is the comparison between chimpanzees and bonobos: very similar genetically, completely different social organisation and behaviour. Dogs have been radically altered by the process of domestication, having been selected, albeit haphazardly, for sociability and friendliness to humans. From that perspective, basing dog training methods on the idea that dogs are wolves is just silly. What we really need is to understand what motivates dogs to act the way that they do, bearing in mind the long process of selection.

Second, the position of dogs in society has changed. Most dog breeds started out as working dogs, selected for features useful for herding or guarding or hunting. Dogs as companions, as pets, are a relatively recent development. That has two consequences: first, many dog breeds formerly spent most of their time with a human handler, working, rather than being cooped up in an apartment while their owner goes off to play their part in the knowledge economy; and second, behaviours useful for hunting, guarding or herding may not be so useful for life in the city. Dachshunds want to dig. Who knows? There might be badgers hiding under your tulips! Collies want to herd. Something, anything. No sheep available? No problem! Children are about the right size! Beagles love to run. Four hours, five hours, no trouble. Restrict your dog from following those inbuilt behaviours without providing some alternative outlet and they won’t be happy. And when your dog isn’t happy, you’re going to know about it pretty quickly. Gnawed furniture, holes in the garden, anxious barking, peeing and pooping misadventures, all are possible.

The third important thing to think about is how we might breed dogs that are better suited to this life. Current breeding strategies based on conformation to breed standards have led to terrible inbreeding and the production of dogs who, in many cases, just aren’t suited to life as domestic pets. Why breed for ear shape or coat colour when you could be breeding for even temperament, friendliness and calmness (or any other combination of desirable behavioural traits you might list)? Partially because it’s harder – you can tell quite quickly whether a puppy is going to grow up to be a good show dog, but it requires longer-term monitoring to track a dog’s personality. But there’s also a strong “nurture” aspect to the behaviour a dog exhibits as an adult. Managing that requires a lot more effort from breeders, and is likely to make commercial breeding economically unviable in most cases.

Bradshaw’s book is something of a (quiet, polite) call to arms, to try to establish better practices for dog breeding, to breed dogs that are more likely to be happy sharing their lives with us busy modern humans. His views are not universally shared in the dog training community (to put it mildly; some of these dog people can be a little catty), but what he says makes a lot of sense.