Animal care and behaviour: Dogs

Learning from Dogs and Wolves


See Also:

  • Dogs and diet
  • Designing a dog friendly garden
  • Multi-dog households: Enjoying life with more than one dog
  • Canine Cognition
  • Behavioural problems


Wolves, Dogs and Humans

Watching wild wolves is fascinating, because they look so like dogs, yet they’re clearly wild animals. Today's dogs and wolves had common ancestors, and, like humans, both species are social animals which survive through co-operation. Wolves co-operate in hunting, and in helping raise pups. Dogs aren’t always so good at co-operating with one another, but they’ve been more successful as a species than wolves, through learning to co-operate with humans.

Dogs have a built-in potential ability to bond with humans, an interest in human language, and a desire to do things with us. Wolves raised from puppyhood with humans may be friendly, but prefer the company of other wolves. Wolves will only accept the company of humans if they’ve met them during a short sensitive period in puppyhood. Dogs also need to meet humans during their sensitive period, or they can’t bond with us, but the 'window of opportunity' for dogs is longer, and exposure to humans has a stronger effect. Pups want to be with humans more than with other dogs, except their mothers, while wolves don't have this preference for humans. In short, wolves are wild animals which can be tamed, but dogs are domesticated animals.

Early hunters and their dogs formed co-operative teams. Dogs are capable of understanding the whole of a complex task, and working out some of the details of how to achieve it themselves, as happens with sheepdogs. In contrast to wolves, dogs may wait for permission before taking the initiative in problem solving, or get a human to solve the problem for them. Some dogs bond more easily with humans than others, some are more biddable, or have naturally better manners, but most dogs have a much greater potential for co-operation with humans than do wolves.

We can teach dogs to do what we ask, and teach them to stop doing something when we ask them to. Wolves don’t listen. Dogs can accept the authority of people in wheelchairs or who limp, and can be worried and also attentive when their humans fall ill. Wild wolves attaining maturity may try to 'take out' the leader of the pack if the leader falls ill or is wounded. Dogs are friendlier towards humans than are wolves. They’re also far better at checking us out and understanding our body language than we are at understanding theirs. It takes time and experience for us to understand canine body language, to learn skills that come easily to dogs.
We can learn from dogs how to be more attentive to non-verbal cues, and we can learn basic manners from wolves. Humans are often over-intrusive with dogs, picking them up for a cuddle, regardless of what the dog wants, or pulling them from resting places to get them to move. Wolves don’t do this unless a mother is moving small cubs. Usually, either a wolf moves of its own accord or is left in peace. Wolves don't usually try to take away meat that another wolf is eating, though a wolf may back away of its own accord as a senior wolf approaches. Wolves may 'steal', or take meat from another wolf, but they usually wait until that wolf is distracted and do it sneakily.

Being attentive tells us what dogs like and don't like, what makes them calm or overexcited, relaxed or spooked. That all helps with teaching basic rules that dogs need to survive in a human world, like respecting human space, crossing roads, or walking past strange dogs politely. Hoping that love will conquer all can create little monsters, like Curro, a peke-fox terrier cross. He not only growled, but bit his owners. He slept between two adult human sisters, nipping their legs if they dared move in their sleep. 'So we learnt to move carefully'.

Odin has one eye, one ear and one testicle, and is a highly successful street dog, who has fathered many litters. He sleeps in a human bedroom and is a source of warmth in winter.

When an aunt was ill, Curro tried to prevent the nurse and doctor from entering the sick room. Curro also controlled the kids by growling at them. He was a back-seat driver, and a brat, mainly interested in his own comfort and safety, because he’d never been taught to think of others.

Social animals, like humans, dogs and wolves, learn social rules from those around us. A well-mannered dog can be an ally in training a pup to behave well with other dogs. Humans can teach dogs to leave rotting carcasses, or to relinquish socks and other items willingly through trading games. Training is about more than teaching commands, then using them to get dogs to stop doing things. It's also about helping dogs learn how to share activities with us, and teaching them the manners they need to survive in human society.

 The World of the Senses

Wolves have more acute hearing than dogs, and their sense of smell also works better. All the same, dogs' abilities are far superior to ours. My husband's favourite dog could tell when he was coming home by the sound of his car, when he drove into the car park by the house. Humans need machines to tell the sound of one car from several similar ones. It's no wonder that dogs can find traffic sounds overwhelming, when their hearing is so sensitive. We aren't as overwhelmed by sounds, we also know that traffic is fairly predictable. An untrained dog doesn't, and may see danger everywhere. When humans teach dogs rules, like stopping at zebra crossings, and waiting for traffic to stop, we help dogs to make sense of their world, and cope with a barrage to their senses.

Dogs tell us a lot about what they hear, like a cat in the garden, or a dog going past outside. Way back, barking was useful. Dogs warned humans of approaching wolves, or other humans. Today we may find it less useful, but often an effective way to get a dog to stop barking is to say 'thank you for telling me' and make a show of checking out the cause. Wolves don't bark, nor do strays until they become part of a home with humans. Wolves don't have as strong a desire to communicate with humans, while strays on the street have no human to talk to.

Some dogs have a wide vocal range and are vocally very expressive. Dogs also try to tell us what they want by nudging, pawing, or standing by the door, leash in mouth! They may tell us what’s happening by looking at us, jumping on us, and even grabbing our clothes if they sense danger. The first step in a dialogue is for each partner to listen to the other. If neither listens, what you have are two monologues. When each puts an effort into understanding and responding to what the other is trying to say, a real dialogue can begin. A danger may not be real to us, but if it’s real to the dog, then it’s considerate of the dog to tell us about it. So a dialogue can involve checking it out, telling the dog it’s OK, then saying there’s no need to be such a drama queen!

Understanding what’s in another animal's head isn’t easy, even another human. We can't fully know what dogs know, nor can they fully know what we know, all we can do is get better at guessing. The human sense of smell is almost non-existent compared with that of a dog, and likewise, our hearing is very poor. We often have no idea of what dogs are scenting or hearing. So how do they know what to tell us, and can they work out what we already know? Obviously dogs can't always tell what we know and don't know. They'll tell us about events that we can clearly see, hear and sometimes even smell. But dogs that have worked in a partnership with a human for a long time do seem to be skilled at guessing their human's awareness.

Humans who work together sometimes trust one another enough to alternate leadership, with whoever is most skilled taking the lead. This alternation happens with dogs that work closely with humans, for example, finding something by smell. The handler asks the dog to find something. The dog understands, and works out the details, taking the lead as to which direction to follow. Overall, the human is leader, and decides what’s to be found, but if the dog insists that a scent goes where the human doesn’t expect it to go, the human defers to the dog, who is better able to follow a scent. Humans and dogs become a team when we work together, each benefiting from the other’s skills. 

Caro, boxer-pit-bull cross, gets so many meaty bones it's no big deal to let a neighbour eat one of his.

 Wolves, Dogs and 'Packs'

A wild wolf pack is a group of wolves that has chosen to live and travel together as a group. The pack hunts and raises young together. Pack members are usually, but not always related. Packs tend to avoid each other, and fighting can be fierce if members of different packs meet. Wolves are quite flexible, though, and don't always group according to the 'ideal model' of the alpha pair and their offspring. Sometimes packs are much larger, with a complicated social structure, where the environment supports this. Elsewhere, wolves are under pressure from hunters, and packs tend to be smaller and comprised of younger animals. Members of decimated packs may regroup with unrelated wolves, forming a pack that doesn’t fit the ‘mum, dad and 2.2 kids’ model. When humans kill alpha wolves, they leave inexperienced, less savvy wolves in charge, so hunting wolves may actually be counterproductive, leading to more attacks on livestock, because the pack lacks the skills to hunt larger, wild prey.

Humans have hunted, trapped and poisoned wolves, encroached on their habitats, and not given them much space for being ‘natural’. We’ve affected their evolution, especially as the human population increased and armed itself with guns. Today's wolves have less genetic diversity, and are probably much warier than their ancestors. Wariness is a good trait for survival for a modern wolf. This was probably less true for the common ancestors of modern wolves and dogs, which may have approached groups of humans for the foraging opportunities they offered.

Wolves are versatile, but there’s much greater variety in the social groups that dogs and humans form, and we’re capable of belonging to more than one group. Sometimes, dogs in the same household are related, other times not. They may have chosen to live together, as when the dog has the deciding say of which dog to pick from a shortlist at a rescue, or they may not get on especially well. They may carry out co-operative work together, as happens with sheepdogs, or there may be little interaction. Farm dogs are often related and work together, co-operating well as a social group. Pet dogs in the same household tend to be unrelated. If they’re kept separate and don’t interact, they can’t really be described as a social group. Dogs often have ‘friends’ from other households, such as walking companions they get on with.

When dogs from the same household do interact, they may develop a clear hierarchy, though this doesn’t always happen. Often there’s a ‘top dog’ which isn’t fussed if another dog corners a resource the ‘top dog’ doesn’t really want, but if both really want something, the other defers to the ‘top dog’. Hierarchies can be helpful. Wolves can both co-operate, and resolve their differences by respecting a pecking order. When two wolves want the same thing, if one wolf defers to another and agrees to give way, there’s harmony. Cub 'naughtiness' may initially be tolerated, but as they grow older, youngsters are taught to respect the pecking order. Youngsters also learn manners and hunting skills from the older wolves, from their aunties and uncles as well as their parents, while they may initiate hunting forays, if they spot prey first.

Social groups of dogs can be more peaceful than wolf packs, especially when the dogs are easy going and don't need to compete for food or a mate. Harmony is also enhanced if the dogs carry out co-operative activities together, or even just walk together as a group with their owner. So some groups of dogs are happily self-regulating, the dogs live quite peacefully with little need for intervention from humans. Peaceful groups don’t always have a clear hierarchy, because some easy-going dogs can share resources and live happily without one. Other households are less self-regulating. A youngster may be especially pushy and quarrelsome. An oldster may simply not want to have to cope with a pup. The whole group may be composed of quarrelsome individuals. Hierarchies can be helpful to reduce conflict, but they don’t always eliminate it, and aren’t necessary for dogs to live together peacefully.

There’s much more variety in how dogs in a group relate to one another compared to wolves. Some groups are are more peaceful, others less so. A group of wild wolves has to be able to co-operate to survive, but dogs in a household can be rude to one another, and gaze adoringly at their owner to obtain resources, so dogs can be more aggressive with one another than wolves in a pack. Where there’s more potential for disagreement, it helps to to manage access to resources aim for co-operative activities.

There’s a lot more variety in how dogs relate to one another partly because dogs vary more in size and general appearance, as well as temperament. True, wolves vary in terms of personality, but humans have deliberately bred behavioural differences into dogs. There’s also more variety among dogs in the composition of groups and the activities they share, with or without humans. This greater variety means it’s much less easy to generalize about dogs living together. Some people see ‘pack behaviour’ among their dogs, and some owners mention co-operative hunting and paternal care. Other people are adamant that dogs don’t behave like this! The answer is ‘it depends’, on the dogs and their circumstances.

The same is true for feral dogs, which can behave differently towards one another, and in how they forage and find shelter, even when they live in the same location. All one can say is that dogs, like humans, are socially versatile, and generally, though not always, more peaceful than wolves, especially with non-family members. Unrelated captive wolves are more likely to fight than are unrelated dogs – though there are of course dogs which won’t tolerate another of the same species.
Dogs and humans are also better able to tolerate others of the same species from outside their social group, like those they meet on walks. Again, there’s a lot of variety in how tolerant individuals are, but in general, we’re more peaceful than wolves.

Groups and Outsiders

So, dogs are social animals but not in quite the same way as wild wolves are. Dogs are more like humans, in that we’re more accepting of strangers than wolves are. Most dogs can learn to walk past strange dogs and humans politely. What about dogs who are extremely rude to strangers? Well, humans can be rude too. We’re also group animals. We like being members of groups, and doing things together. We understand the concept of ‘outsider’, and vary in how we treat strangers. We may fear they’ll compete with us for resources, like jobs. We may be rude to strangers for fun, especially if they’re from competing groups, like sports teams, or political groups.

Sometimes this is the equivalent of canine ‘fence fighting’, and we don’t seek actual contact. Other times, it can get out of hand. If we’re ever very unpleasant to someone, we tend to rationalize it, try to make our behavior seem reasonable, telling ourselves they deserve it. When the 'fight' part of our brain is activated, other parts can shut down, like the ability to reason, or feel compassion, or connect to our 'conscience'. Playing dirty can feel justifiable if we're convinced we’re right, but can take us places we really don't want to go, or wouldn't want to if we were able to reason at the time we went there. There are mass graves from 1936 near the village where I live. The descendants of those who killed sometimes argue 'If they were shot it must have been for a reason'. After all, humans are rational. More thoughtful villagers realize that humans can get carried away, just as dogs can, especially when we’re in groups.

We may feel uneasy with people from another group after a previous bad experience. A French woman told me she could never feel at ease with Germans, however pleasant they were, after having lived through occupation by Germany. It was just something she couldn’t help feeling. Similarly, dogs may overreact when meeting others of a particular breed, if they’ve been attacked by an individual from that breed. With dogs, there’s a simple solution, to give the dog controlled, pleasant experiences with well-behaved dogs from the breed they overreact with. Then they learn to check out more than general appearance as a guide to danger. With humans it’s more complicated!

Our instant sense of what’s dangerous comes partly from past experience. We need that instant sense to react fast and stay alive, for example to get out of the way of a fast car coming in our direction. Experience can help us cope better with danger. We teach kids to cross roads at pedestrian crossings, or move away slowly from dogs telling us to stay away from their territory, without looking at them. Kids may panic and run screaming, triggering a chase. We can teach both kids and dogs to recognize danger and to cope with it. Even so, the best of us sometimes overreact, when we’re tired, for example. Overreacting means panicking or exaggerating the danger, and responding with excessive force.

Fear can partly explain why people can get carried away, though it’s also to do with our potential to stop thinking straight when we’re part of a group. Two dogs in pursuit of a stranger can behave far worse than one plus one, and may do things that neither dog would do alone. The same can happen with humans. One human may have inhibitions that prevent them from going over a limit, but two or more people can egg each other on, and think it's OK, because it feels OK. Then massacres can happen, especially in wartime when normal social controls break down.

Human 'groupishness' has its upsides, like co-operation which makes big projects possible, and its downsides, like collective nastiness. Groups also share skills and customs, which tend to spread faster if they’re adopted by individuals who are accepted as leaders. The upside is that the skills we learn may be useful. One of the downsides is that all too often, ‘gurus’ with oversimplified messages, are taken too seriously by followers, who prefer to repeat mantras rather than observe what’s going on around them.
Leaders can be a powerful force for the good. Humans can help keep the peace in multi-dog households. A well-behaved, confident dog can teach manners to a pup, and even an adult newcomer to a canine household. Back in July 1936, when rebel generals declared war in Spain, there was a short while before many villages were occupied. People tell me stories of mayors who kept villagers calm and prevented killings of rebel supporters. These mayors taught people from one group to use self control, and to be civilized towards people from another, though they were under enormous pressure. They strengthened the ability of a group to use self-control. They were leaders worth following.

Fighting is costly, so social animals use etiquette to avoid conflict. The Spanish word for teaching either a human or a dog to be polite and well-behaved is the same, 'educar'. It's both about learning rules within your group, and about getting to know and respecting people from other groups. Wolf packs also use etiquette, both to avoid conflict within the pack, and conflict with other packs. They’ll settle for a while to eat, and will defend a carcass, and also settle to breed. During this time they’ll defend the space where they’ve settled, but outside the breeding season, much of the time is spent travelling. They travel a lot, with different packs sometimes using the same paths. Packs will fight strangers if they meet, but usually try to avoid conflict by keeping out of each other's way, respecting each other's space.

Free-ranging and feral dogs can trot around peacefully without getting into fights because they respect one another’s space. Respecting another dog’s space is one of the social rules a pup needs to learn, and it’s usually up to humans to teach this. Owners sometimes complain that novices with pups often let them rush up off-leash to plague elderly and arthritic dogs. This is a particular problem with large-breed pups, which don’t know their own strength. A lot of 'dog aggression', when a dog fights a strange dog, is simply a failure of etiquette. Asking permission before letting one’s dog go close to a strange dog can help to avoid conflict. Pups need socializing, and this isn’t just about meeting other dogs, it’s learning to be polite with them. This is easier if the owner is polite and considerate with other humans and their dogs. If our dog does misbehave with strangers, apologizing tells the dog the rules have been broken.

Humans stand out in the animal kingdom as being able to co-operate with non-kin, and with strangers from outside our social group. We aren't the only animals who can do this. African elephants' social life can be very complex. Humans, though, are much better than wolves at co-operating with outsiders. We’re flexible enough to learn more than one set of social rules, as the saying goes ‘when in Rome … ‘. We’re also capable of learning new social rules as adults. Like dogs, we can be suspicious of outsiders if we aren't used to contact with them. Dogs that rarely meet strange dogs can be especially rude when they do encounter them. And socialization goes beyond just being relaxed about meeting strangers, it’s also about learning to be polite with them.

Humans, then are potentially more peaceful than wolves, but we can still learn from their use of etiquette in avoiding conflict. Dogs, like humans, are potentially very versatile socially, but we both need to learn social rules. And dogs just are, they don't rationalize, the way that we often do, to justify our irrational behavior!
Courtship, Mating and Bringing Up a Family
In a modern wolf pack, a dominant male tries to prevent other males from breeding, though this isn’t always successful. Dominant females may harass other females if they become fertile and try to mate, so they rarely have cubs. If they do, their cubs have less chance of survival. This strategy can help ensure numbers of wolves don’t outstrip food resources, and curbs inbreeding, since pack members tend to be related. Even so, large packs may have more than one breeding pair, while newly formed packs may have no cubs. Being in a group helps wolves to hunt large prey and guard the carcass, and to raise their families.
When early wolf-dogs could obtain food from humans, more individuals had a chance to breed, and females that came into season earlier had more chance of raising pups. Early wolf-dogs had an evolutionary advantage over wolves that stayed independent of humans. They could be more successful in the production of cubs per individual, and could have more cubs in a lifetime, so long as there was enough food. As both wolf-dogs and humans could co-operate on hunts, humans also gained an advantage.

Canine evolution probably began when wolves started eating our leftovers rather than hunting for their own food. They no longer needed to form a pack to hunt large prey co-operatively and to guard the kill together. Humans weren’t just providing food. Competing carnivores were less likely to approach a human-wolf camp. The two species provided protection for one another.

Contact with humans changed how early wolf-dogs organized themselves and raised families. Today’s dogs don’t usually live in family groups, but there’s a lot of variety among how dogs breed, because their environment varies so much. In some places, most dogs are prevented from breeding through confinement or neutering. Elsewhere, dogs may be owned, but still allowed to roam freely and choose a breeding partner, with humans deciding whether the resulting litters survive, and helping care for the pups if they decide to let them live. In other places, ownerless dogs may attempt to raise families, with varying degrees of success, depending on how much food is available, and how tolerant humans are towards feral dogs. In more favourable locations, more pups can survive to adulthood and in turn become parents.

Dogs, then, are very versatile, just as humans are. We tend to perceive what we know of as being ‘natural’ and anything else as odd, forgetting the influence of environment. In southern Europe, human offspring tend to spend longer in the parental home. This may seem ‘unnatural’ to a northern European or an American, but it reflects the scarce opportunities (jobs) for youngsters to set up independent households. It’s easy to forget too that just because dogs don’t usually do something, like provide paternal care, doesn’t mean they can’t, as a species.

When early wolves linked up with us, they not only changed how they related to one another, their very nature changed. First, we’d have driven away individuals that were especially aggressive against humans, so wolf-dogs became friendlier towards us. Dogs also adapted to tolerate more starch intake in their diet, and dogs that could adapt to starch were probably better able to survive when mostly starchy foods were what was on offer. Early on pups with some mutations, like shorter legs, could survive, while these mutations would have disappeared in the wild. However, it was probably not until humans ceased to be nomads that major differentiations became possible. Humans could more easily breed dogs for different characteristics if they were separated from other dogs. They could also breed for varieties in temperament, like very peaceful dogs which wouldn’t have survived in a free-for-all for food, or the opposite, dogs that were too aggressive with other dogs to live in groups. The Romans already bred dogs for a purpose, like lap-dogs and hunting dogs. 'Breeds' in this sense already existed in the Ancient World, though ‘breeds’ in the modern sense are a 19th century invention.

What is a ‘Breed’?

Dogs clearly recognize differences in the behaviour and appearance of different types of dogs. They have different playstyles and body languages. Sighthounds, for example, often like mad dashes and chase games, and play with other dogs that like those games. Long haired spitz dogs may be misread by dogs that don’t know spitzes, because of their erect tails and hair sticking out as though their hackles were raised. Border collies may ignore all dogs except for other collies. Both dogs and humans have preferences for different types of dogs, though it`s humans who think in terms of ‘breed’.

The Spanish word for ‘breed’ is ‘raza’, which also means ‘race’, and the meaning of both terms is difficult to pin down. For some people, the only breeds that exist are those recognized by kennel clubs, and a dog only belongs to a breed if it’s registered by a kennel club. Others, especially working dog people, have a looser definition. They’re mainly concerned with working ability, rather than appearance, registration or ‘purity’ of blood. Some working breeds, like Jack Russells, aren’t recognized by the Kennel Club. Border collies are recognized, though working collies tend not to be registered with the Kennel Club. To add to the confusion there are such major differences between working and show lines of some ‘breeds’, like Labradors, Border collies and Bassett hounds, that the two types are sometimes viewed as separate breeds. Then, there are landrace dogs, generic working dogs, like sheepdogs used in a particular area, and sometimes ‘breeds’ are created from these landrace dogs.

The term 'breed' in the sense of a dog registered with a kennel club was invented in the UK in the late 19th century, when breed clubs were set up, followed by the Kennel Club in 1873. Dog shows became popular, and were showcases for breeders. There were already comments on the exaggerated appearance of some breeds by the late 19th century. Why did breeders sometimes seek such extreme forms? Maybe just because they could, and because shows of extreme dogs attracted crowds. At this time, pet dogs were becoming more popular, so breeders no longer had to produce dogs that were able to work. Better-off owners also wanted to distinguish their dogs from ‘low class’ animals kept by lesser mortals. This was especially true for bulldogs, once bull baiting was banned. Breeding for extremes is effectively breeding for deformities that could affect the health of the dogs. In addition, once a breed was established from landrace dogs and crosses, regulations that insisted on ‘purity’ meant that inherited disorders were more likely.

Initially, only well-off people could afford pedigree dogs, but by the 1960s, most people in developed countries could afford to buy one. Puppy farms, which raised dogs like livestock, catered for this new market. So too did amateur breeders, hoping to make a little extra money. ‘Breed' was a marketing device, like a brand name, though there´s less guarantee of quality than with manufactured goods. Books on breeds, often written by breeders, can read like advertising brochures. Breeders of show dogs also sell show rejects as pets. So long as consumers were undemanding, breeders had little incentive to prioritize health and temperament. Indeed, show dog breeders have to focus on what appeals to judges, if they are to win prizes.

Today consumers are much more aware of the need to choose wisely. There are efforts to improve the health of pedigree dogs, such as more health testing, and fewer matings between very close relatives, such as father and daughter. Even so, in the UK, progress has been slow compared with Finland and Sweden. Selection for healthy individuals to breed from is also becoming more difficult in breeds where serious problems are common. More people are considering careful out-crossing with dogs from different breeds, to help to improve the health of breeds they love. This means that many breeders are having to rethink their ideas about what ‘breed’ means.

A Well-bred Dog

There’s no general agreement on what characterizes a well-bred dog. Show people go for the look of the dog, while working dog owners want to see the dog work. Working dog and pet dog owners want dogs that stay fit until old age. All breeders claim to emphasize health. However, show dogs can win prizes in their youth, and then succumb to an inherited disorder in middle-age, so breeding from a dog that has won prizes for appearance is no guarantee of healthy pups. On the contrary, when show judges award prizes to dogs with exaggerated features, such as extremely short legs, flat faces, or a lot of skin folds, they encourage breeders to breed for those features, and put show dogs’ health at risk. A pet owner’s ‘well-bred dog´, then, isn’t necessarily a dog with a lot of prizewinners in its pedigree, nor is it a dog that looks exceptionally cute due to enormous eyes and a flat face, which come at a cost. As a general rule, ‘natural’ looking dogs tend to be healthier.

A 'good temperament' is also high priority for pet owners, though what people want from pet dogs varies a lot. Some people like active dogs to go jogging with them, others prefer couch potatoes. Some like 'velcro' dogs', others prefer more independent dogs. Some people are horrified at the idea of a dog jumping to grab a ball, seeing this as a defect in temperament. Others say 'What a nice, keen retriever, though he does need to learn to sit before a throw'. There's no such thing as a standardized 'perfect temperament' for a pet dog. Pet owners are human, and human temperaments, skills and interests vary. Dogs with 'behavioural problems' often just have the wrong owner for that sort of dog, like a sensitive dog in a house full of noisy children. Even so, some choices, such as high-octane dogs for human couch potatoes, are clearly not sensible, nor are wolf-hybrids. Wolves are wild animals, even when they’re tame. Dogs are domestic animals, with an inbuilt potential to be with humans, which wolves lack.

Much of what dog people say about good breeding reflects our prejudices about human social classes, yet it’s quite possible for a cross-breed or even a mongrel to be ‘well-bred’, and sometimes better bred than the pedigree dog ancestors. The issue isn’t so much ‘purity’ as the quality of the mix; whether one parent’s contribution can help offset any problems from the other parent’s contribution. Clearly, this doesn’t happen when both parents share the same ‘bad genes’, despite being of different breeds. Mixes aren’t necessarily healthier than their parents, they’re just more likely to be. Accidental mixes can be a problem for working dog people, when the pups are unable to do the work of either parent, but they can make very good pets.

Adapting to Survive

A Victorian experiment brought us breeds which many people have come to love, yet many of those breeds are at risk from exaggerated shapes or inbreeding. Caring about a breed is compatible with caring about that breed’s health, and using whatever means, including out-crossing, to save the breed. Good breeders care about what happens to the pups they produce. Breeders and breed rescue organizations often co-operate, with breeders fostering and helping to find suitable homes for dogs whose owners have given them up. For breeds to survive, humans need to adapt by recognizing problems, and co-operating to solve them.
Where strays and abandoned dogs are a problem, there’s sometimes a call for compulsory neutering. Yet Norway, where neutering healthy dogs is frowned on, doesn’t have a major problem with unwanted dogs, while the US, where there's a very strong drive to neuter, still does, though the situation is improving. (The UK is in between on both counts.) If too many adolescent dogs are given up to shelters, it's because too many people took on pups with little idea of the commitment involved. Educating consumers before they take on pups, and discouraging impulse buying, can help prevent problems later.

Change has also come from non-dog owners, who, quite rightly, object to stepping in dog mess, and being jumped on or otherwise inconvenienced by strange dogs. We can ‘police ourselves’ - where I walked dogs in England, regular walkers would socialize people who let their dogs 'perform' and didn't pick it up. by handing them a bag. Trainers of all persuasions can explain to kids how to interact with dogs safely, and the benefits of teaching basic commands and using them.
Changes in human lifestyles mean that dogs have had to adapt because changes that affect us also affect them. Our homes are now often empty during the day, except for a dog. Absent humans, combined with leash laws and more dangerous roads, mean that dogs have become more confined, and learn a demanding set of rules. They’re meant to behave well during walks, the most exciting part of their day. We can look back at the past with nostalgia, a time when dogs could exercise themselves. But dogs are more confined at a time when humans are leading much more sedentary lives. We can walk more, benefiting ourselves and our dogs. The past was in some ways a more dog-friendly country, but the mutts people took on weren’t always the most suitable of pets, and life was riskier for them. Today we expect dogs to live longer lives, and we have dog sports and other activities which weren’t available for pet owners back in the ‘good old days’. Adaptation is something that humans and dogs are good at, even if at times we make mistakes as we learn to cope with change. Dogs allow us to carry on a dialogue with another species, a dialogue that we have been enjoying for thousands of years.

Alison Lever

Further Reading

Axelsson, E., Ratnakumar, A., Arendt, M.L. Maqbool, K., Webster, M.T. Perloski, M., Liberg, O., Arnemo, J.M., Hedhammar, A., Lindblad-Toh, K., (2013). The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature 495, 360-364.

Csanyi, V. (2006) If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the canine mind. Sutton Publishing. A chatty book by the man who started the Hungarian canine research team now headed by Miklosi. It’s written from the heart, and Csanyi’s anecdotes of his own dogs are interesting, though you may disagree with his conclusions. His writing on breeds needed a more critical editor!

Coppinger, R. and Lorna Coppinger (2001) Dogs: A startling new understanding of canine origin, behavior and evolution. Scribner. An easy read, and interesting, though some ideas are speculative.

Hare,B., Brown,M., Williamson, C., Tomasello, M., (2002). The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298,1634-1636.
Hare, Brian and Vanessa Woods (2013) The Genius of Dogs, Oneworld Publications. A very accessible book which focuses on canine cognition and differences between dogs and wolves.

McCaig, D (2007) Dog Wars: How the border collie battled the American Kennel Club. Outrun Press. Interesting on the history of breeds, and the different perceptions of working dog and show dog people.

Mech, L.D. (1981) The Wolf: The ecology and behaviour of an endangered species, University of Minnesota Press (first published in 1970) A classic, which needs to be supplemented by more recent work.

Mech, L.D. (Editors) (2003) Wolves: Behavior, ecology and conservation. University of Chicago Press. Well worth reading, despite being quite heavyweight.
Miklosi, A., Kubinyi, E., Topal, J., Gacsi, M., Viranyi, Z., Csanyi, V., (2003). A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Curr Biol13, 763-766.

Miklosi, A (2008) The Dog, Biology behaviour and cognition. Oxford University Press. An interesting source for information comparing dogs and wolves, as well as bringing together research on dog behaviour

Range, Friederike, Caroline Ritter and Zsófia Virányi. (2015) Testing the Myth: Tolerant dogs and aggressive wolves. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI:10.1098/rspb.2015.0220.

Ritvo, H. (1987) The Animal Estate. Harvard University Press. Very interesting on the dveleopment of breeds in Victorian England.

Scott, J.P.,Fuller, J.L. (1965) Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Well worth reading for genetic influences on behaviour, and differences between breeds, as well as a discussion of the sensitive period for socialization.