Why Can't a Dog Be More Like a Dog?
The wicked witch of Wycombe paused to howl at the full moon before ripping another mouthful of flesh from the freshly killed rabbit. Lycanthropy: The temporary transformation of witch into wolf? Or perhaps, a form of madness, wherein the patient imagines himself as a wolf and develops a growly voice and a depraved appetite for raw red meat. Unbelievable? A person becoming canine? Not necessarily. Many dog owners do the opposite and habitually imagine domestic dogs to be people, whereas many trainers imagine domestic dogs to be wolves. In fact, some trainers go the whole lycanthropic hog and imagine themselves as wolves inflicting wolfy-punishments to convince their doggy charges tow the line.
Consider Moose The Magnificent (name changed to protect the innocent): The Mastiff puppy dog was just sooooo cute and cocked his head just like he was listening to every word that was said to him. The kids talked to him endlessly and told him numerous little stories about Mowgli in the jungle and green Italian ersatz turtles which thrived on pizza. Jane discussed more practical issues, such as household manners. She told Moose where she wanted him to eliminate, where she didn't want him to eliminate, what she wanted him to chew and what she didn't want him to chew. Even John would sit down and have lengthy discussions with Moose about soccer, tying flies, engine capacity, the finer aspects of aeronautical navigation and other male-bonding topics. John also informed Moose, he required absolute obedience at all times; he wanted Moose to always come when called, to sit instantaneously (with panache) and to remain obediently in down stays for the duration. Certainly, Moose listened to everything his owners said. Unfortunately, he barely understood a single word. Moose's owners were being anthropomorphic - attributing human characteristics to the dog. Family Moose viewed their pup as a person in a furry suit.
Now, before I am accused of being a killjoy, I hasten to add, not all anthropomorphism is bad. In fact, it is often fun to chat to a dog, asking it questions, sharing secrets, telling it about your day. I mean who else is going to listen to what you have to say? When ever I return from a trip, I always have quite lengthy conversations with my malamute Phoenix about the decline of the human condition and airline meals, about crushed baggage and imploding petrol tanks on Alamo rentals. It's good to vent a few grievances and get things of your chest, but we also discuss other topics such as, the pros and cons of the pillory and pilliwinks for decimating delinquency in Medieval Europe and of course her favorite, should she get one welcome home cookie, or two? Well, no one else greets me at the front door in the early hours of the morning. But then I digress.
But... she does seem to hang on every single word and I feel certain, dogs also benefit greatly from the closeness and attention of human conversation and that they no doubt glean a lot of what is going on from context, body language and the tone of our voices. However, the dog will only precisely understand the meaning of words it has been taught, or learned by itself - words like 'walkies', 'dinner' and 'on the couch' and all the rest will be naught but Larsonian "Blah blah blah".
On occasions though, anthropomorphism backfires, causing both owner and dog to suffer unnecessarily. Even though people normally attribute good human qualities to their dogs, especially the powers of human understanding and reasoning, problems tend to occur when people assume dogs understand more than they do. Often, we expect more from dogs than they are able to give. We expect dogs to read our minds and understand household rules and regulations without us necessarily explaining them all that well. And we become annoyed when the poor dog breaks rules it did not even know existed. It is vital to explain rules in a manner the dog can understand. This means we must teach the dog the meaning of each word we use; we must teach it our language. This process is called training.
Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, when the dog-owner relationship starts to go awry, the owner's anthropomorphism tends to assume a nasty negative hue and now bad human characteristics are attributed to dogs, in fact particularly pernicious human characteristics. Dogs are frequently accused of being spiteful, vindictive and vicious. Rather than even considering our 'poor learner' might actually have a poor trainer who never effectively taught the dog what was expected, most owners insist the dog misbehaved on purpose. In fact, Jane thought Moose urinated in the house because he was jealous of her time spent with another dog, so Moose was confined to the kitchen, whereupon he exacted his revenge and chewed the kitchen chair legs So Moose was isolated to the great outdoors, where he vindictively ctively dug up her flowers and barked out of spite.
Assuming dogs have an human appetite for spite and revenge is a convenient excuse for the dog's obvious lack of elementary education. A flagrant advertisement that the owner neglected to teach the dog where to eliminate, what to chew, where to dig, when and for how long to bark, and when and upon whom to jump-up. It is conveniently simpler to blame the dog than train it. Personally I would never insult a dog by even suggesting it has fallen foul of these especially execrable and exclusively human foibles - spite, revenge and viciousness. Whoa! So, a lot of you disagree. But of course we disagree - this is a moot point: None of us will ever know for certain what a dog is thinking, what are its motives, or why it does what it does. What we do know however, is what the dog did. And if for example the dog soiled the house, let's just housetrain the dog and then the owner will no longer be annoyed, the dog will no longer be punished but instead, it can be happily reintegrated into household living and therefore, will no longer be chewing, digging and barking whilst in solitary confinement in the garden. (Or, if you prefer your interpretation, the dog will no longer have any reason to exact revenge.) And once owner and newly-housetrained dog are living in harmony, then, and only then, would it be profitable to engage in moot debate of the differential etiology of housesoiling. Even so, it is still unlikely we'll reach agreement. Luckily though, this is not important because few owners are interested in the etiology of problems which no longer exist.
Moose was becoming a bit of a pain following his headlong collision with adolescence. He would no longer willingly go outside for hours of solitary confinement. John thought Moose was being stubborn and so off they went to training classes. Jane was happy to go along as well because she thought some manners would help control Moose and stop him from rambunctiously jumping-up and mouthing her whenever she would visit him in the yard. The trainer said Moose was a dominant aggressive dog, as evidenced by his urine marking in the house, his refusal to obey commands and his dominant paws-on posturing and mouthing. John and Jane were instructed how to reassume leadership via dominance-downs, stare-downs, scruff shakes, alpha-rollovers and hold-downs. Moose got fed up with the constant manhandling and physical abuse and eventually, both his tolerance and jaws snapped. And we can all write the rest of the story.
How on earth did this folly happen? Presumably, the lukomorphic reasoning assumes:
Dogs are descended from wolves and should therefore be treated like wolves.
Wolves are pack animals which have a linear dominance hierarchy with a pack leader (or alpha male) which calls all the shots, maintaining control via physical dominance - Ha! I'd like to see you explain that one to my butch malamute bitch.
To learn its place, our best friend the domestic dog should similarly be physically dominated in a wolf-like manner, presumably because the 'naturalness' of wolfy-punishments makes it easier for the dog to comprehend.
When carried to this extreme, lukomorphic tendencies have bizarrely erupted into full-blown Lycanthropy - whereby trainers assume ersatz wolfiness to punish puppy dogs in wolf-like fashion by stares, scruff-shakes and alpha-rollovers - transformation of trainer into wolf. Or perhaps, a form of madness? Do these people eat raw rabbit? Before long trainers will be growling, jaw-wrestling, scruff-biting and urine-marking trees in a quest for the natural reprimand.
Oh No! No! Nonononononono NO! NO!! NOOO!!! This is the Disney version. It is so simplistic it makes my twelve-year-old rescue dog laugh. Heavens! It makes chew toys chuckle. Now certainly... dogs are descended from wolves, but their behavior has numerous differences, especially in terms of interaction with people. Consequently, to extrapolate from a ludicrously simplified version of wolf-wolf interaction to dog-dog interaction is quite unfounded, but to further extrapolate from wolf-wolf interaction to dog-human interaction is just plain silliness.
Like wolves, domestic dogs are social animals (and hence should not be socially isolated) and they have an hierarchical social system. However, the hierarchy is neither created by, nor necessarily maintained by physical domination, nor is it strictly linear. If anything, the hierarchy is created and enforced by psychological control, and the peace of the pack is maintained by active appeasement rituals of lower ranking individuals. In fact, the famous Cambridge and Berkeley zoologist, Dr. Thelma Rowell has suggested that the status quo of social groups is better termed a subordinance hierarchy - a much more precise and descriptive term.
Yes, most groups of male dogs generally have a surprisingly stable linear hierarchy, but females tend to show significant day-to-day variation and male-female interactions can be extremely unpredictable, with rank-reversals being the norm rather than the exception. Indeed, bitches have virtually rewritten canine hierarchical law with the First Bitch Amendment which states, I have it and you don't. Moreover, individual members of a domestic dog pack have special friendships, alliances and bodyguards. And truly confident top dogs are more than willing to share and even allow underdogs and buddies prime access to bones and favored sleeping places. To say one alpha male rules the roost is an oversimplification to the point of ridicule. In fact, in most domestic canine social groups it is not a single male, but rather a group of females which decide what's what.
Like wolves, dogs do need a leader - but not a dictator who physical dominates, frightens and hurts. And certainly not a human fool who tries to imitate wolves. To allow myself a soup can of anthropomorphic license, most dogs are probably howling with laughter at the pathetic wolf-impersonations by their owners. (Perhaps that's why dogs howl?) It would indeed be laughable, if the consequences were not so sad and serious. Yes, dogs must be taught to show compliance to all family members, but to suggest novice owners physically manhandle and frighten their dogs is both inane and inhumane. And how exactly are children meant to gain respect from the dog? By physically pushing and pulling it around? The very thought is as potentially dangerous as it is stupid. For goodness sake, let's wake up and smell the coffee! Or, wake up and smell the urine, if you're still bordering on virtual Lycanthropy
Dogs need a leader who will first teach and then, enforce the domestic rules. Perhaps 'educator' is a better term. Dogs are dogs; they are neither human nor lupine, so why don't we just treat them like dogs - to try to understand and respect their doggy ways at the same time as teaching them to understand and respect ours. Furthermore, we are human; we are neither lupine or canine, so why don't we act like the intelligent folk we are meant to be and teach dogs what is expected? If we want dogs to like people, let's socialize them. If we want dogs to have soft mouths, let's teach bite inhibition. If we don't want dogs to mouth or jump up, let's teach "Off" and "Sit". And if we want dogs to adhere to house rules, let's teach them.
Ian Dunbar Ph.D., BVetMed, MRCVS
copyright 1992 Ian Dunbar