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Dog Behavior:
An Evolutionary View

by Race Foster, DVM and Marty Smith, DVM
Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc.

If we are going to undertake to train this dog into the companion that we want him to be, then it is important that we understand what the animal is and what the animal wants to be. Remember that domestication of dogs is a relatively recent event in the grand scheme of their existence. They have been around for millions of years but only a few thousand of those years with us. By looking back with an evolutionary point of view, we can see they spent a long time forming a life style and the types of behavior that perpetuated their existence. In their world, before they teamed up with us, there were no food bowls setting on the floor always filled with a balanced diet. No individuals, except other pack members, guarded them from injury and there was no large pharmaceutical industry to protect them from disease. Through natural selection a canine model was formed that had the physical and mental abilities to continue their species. Their behavior patterns guided them through their day to day and year to year existence helping them to make the right choices to protect themselves and their offspring. If this wouldn’t have been accomplished they would be classified with the dinosaurs.

Their daily life was guided by behavior and interactions that occurred between them and other members of their group. Wild dogs choose to live in packs. This is a better way of guaranteeing a near constant supply of food if they work together. Being carnivores or at least high level omnivores, wild dogs are usually predators. To kill an adequate amount of food at one time typically means bringing down a large animal. This is much easier for a pack of dogs to accomplish than it is for a single animal. Not only is it easier to find food if many different sets of eyes are looking but they can then cooperate in the chase and kill. There is also safety in numbers. Almost every animal has some enemy that is trying to eat it and wild dogs are no different. They are able to gain additional protection from these larger or more efficient predators by banding together in a pack versus attempting to defend themselves as a single animal.

For dogs, being part of a group of dogs has provided them with many benefits. Much of their natural instinctive behavior revolves around learning how to deal with or interact with other members of the pack. Even as puppies their play with other members is important. It either teaches them hunting skills or how to interact with the other dogs. Young dogs jump up on each other or their parents in mock battles that imitate future hunts. In a controlled fashion, they snap and bite at each other just as they will at a prey animal.

To preserve some sort of order in the associations, a social hierarchy is established. To prevent constant and potentially harmful battles for who gets what or who is allowed to breed, the individual dogs learn their relative position in the pack. Rather than have vicious battles on a daily basis, these positions are maintained through behavioral interactions. Dogs soon learn what submissive and dominant actions are and how to play the game. Specific postures and facial expressions are used as signals to maintain this order. Still, because of their instinctive will to survive and do what is best for themselves as an individual, most animals constantly try to improve their rank in the pack and this can lead to brief skirmishes. This is their way of life, the best way for their species to survive.

Wild dogs do other specific things on a day-to-day basis that help them to survive. Dogs naturally dig holes for protection. This may be to cool their bodies on hot days or make dens in which to whelp and raise their litters. They bark at intruders to warn other pack members of a potential danger or, at other times, to signal their own location. They use their stool and urine as territorial-marking devices to show that the space contained within these boundaries is an area they possess.

The things we’ve described here are those that make a wild dog an effective being. These behaviors come quite naturally for the animal. However, many of these behaviors we will try to eliminate through training. Most things that a wild dog does in its day-to-day existence are unacceptable to us if they are going to be a part of our home and family. We don’t want them digging up our yard. We don’t want them to mark their territory inside our homes with urine or stool. We don’t want them to bark excessively. We don’t want them jumping up on us . We don’t want them to bite us. We don’t want them to attempt to dominate us or any other human members of the household, etc., etc., etc. Regardless of how politically incorrect it may sound, we are not going to let the dog be itself. It has to change. We just have to remember that we have to make all these compromises worthwhile for the dog.

Copyright © 1997-98, Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc. All rights reserved.

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