I spoke at an international dog trainers conference a couple of years ago, and it featured an indoor, fenced area where dogs could romp and play. While having lunch, I watched my dog, Tuggy, play with the other canines. A particularly pushy Belgian Malinois (pronounced Mal-ehn-wa) took exception to Tuggy and exploded into a threatening attack. In a convention center filled with dog trainers, it was only seconds before the fight was broken up with no harm to either dog. A man sitting next to me asked: "Why
did that dog attack Tuggy?" My simple yet accurate answer was: "Because he's a dog."
It amazes me that after thousands of years' experience with dogs, we humans seem to be baffled by their behavior. When a dog bites a running, screaming child, we want a detailed explanation. If a dog guards its food, we are puzzled by its behavior. When a dog digs a crater in the flower bed, we act as if we never heard of such a thing. As my small effort to alleviate this universal blind spot, here are a few hints about what dogs do.
What we usually refer to as their nature is really a description of what is typical or normal. Dogs have no nature because they are not natural creatures. We created them over several millennia through a process of unnatural selection. For instance, wolves breed once a year, but almost all dogs breed twice a year. We changed the natural timetable of wolf reproduction by breeding animals that came into season more often. That allowed us to breed dogs more frequently, so we could change their genetic makeup more quickly.
This breeding issue brings up the second major point of understanding what dogs do. The second rule of dog behavior is that there are exceptions to every rule. In the case of our only breeding twice yearly rule, you can easily offer Basenjiis as an exception. Basenjiis, a breed from central Africa, follow the old wolf schedule of mating only once a year.
For most dogs, barking is normal behavior. They bark when frustrated, happy, bored, threatened and asleep. A study of barking demonstrated a humorous canine clich.
What do you call a Cocker Spaniel that barks 900 times in 10 minutes?
Dogs bite, which may have been the most important reason humans had for keeping dogs. Hunting large animals was dangerous in the Stone Age. If a dog attacked wildebeests in exchange for the promise of scraps, the humans were satisfied. Dogs that failed to attack were not kept as breeding stock, so it shouldn't be surprising that dogs bite. Today's dogs bite intruders, fast-moving objects (especially screaming children), people who want to take their possessions and veterinarians who want to poke and prod them which is like the Stone Age, mi nus veterinarians.
Along with the chasing/biting behavior of early hunting dogs, scent detection was also important. A dog could detect prey far better than a human by using its highly sensitive nose. Today they use this trait to find delectable garbage, goose humans and locate decayed animals. If your dog drags some roadkill through the doggie door or tries to get too friendly with Aunt Polly, don't be surprised.
Much is made of the fact that wolves live in relative harmony because of pack dominance. This implies they have a hierarchy and a number of behaviors to reduce violence between pack members. As long as you say wolves, you are mostly correct. But this isn't the case with dogs, which are significantly different from their ancestors. The study that counted how often Cocker Spaniels bark also looked at how dogs live when not exposed to humans. The scientists isolated family groups of five breeds in their own small fenced areas. The dogs were observed but had no contact with humans other than for food and water. Beagles wee even more passive that wolves while Fox Terriers had regular, bloody fights.