Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Some common behaviours in dogs and wolves.

The wolf, Canis Lupus, has exactly the same number of chromosomes as the sub species Canis Lupus Familiaris or domesticated dog. These amount to 78 and, after studies comparing the DNA of dogs and wolves, it has been found that dogs possess 98.8% of wolf genes. The closest relative is the Grey Wolf (can be spelt Gray) with DNA differing by only 0.2% (Temple Grandin, 2009). The colour grey is something of a misnomer as there are various shades of black and white also with the potential to include red and blue. The point is the Grey Wolf is neutral, able to blend into the background! There are 37 sub-species of canis lupus, all potentially able to cross breed. It is conceivable that the more wolf like the dog’s appearance, the more wolf like its behaviour, for example the German Shepherd Dog and Malamute. However, we know that dogs are not wolves – would you let a wolf sleep on your bed?

Food is the most important resource for both wolves and dogs. Unless our pet dog is trained from an early age, he/she may become aggressive when guarding this most valuable resource, in spite of it being readily available; it is a hard-wired reaction. Wolves, in the wild, hunt in packs bringing down large ungulates and smaller prey. They have no alternative. Conversely, feral dogs appear to live in packs of unrelated animals but will scavenge as loners, very often from humans. This is unsurprising as, almost certainly, this is how dogs became domesticated in the first place. 
Wolves love to play and this is undoubtedly also true of dogs. Wolves will eventually mature whereas our companion dog will retain puppy like qualities well into adulthood and appear to never grow up! Perhaps, subconsciously (even consciously) we have bred for neoteny. Our pet loves human contact and at the same time is territorial, defending his/her property along with the family. This is a known trait in wolves which, like the dog, will alert vocally rather than risk injury or death by conflict. Body language and communication of the two species is almost identical and, as luck would have it, is easily interpreted by humans as some facial expressions are alarmingly similar to ours. We all know the appeasing gesture and ‘cow’ like eyes (or is this our imagination?), play bow and tail wagging, assuming a tail is present. It is possible that dogs, if not properly socialised at the optimum age - from birth up to approximately 14 - 16 weeks - will not develop these communication skills and will struggle for the rest of their lives.
Like wolves, dogs have a strong prey drive and this, if not satisfied, may cause problems when out walking by chasing other dogs, cars, joggers, cyclists, squirrels or cats. It should not be our intention to placate this but to redirect it in other ways; for example canine sports involving balls, herding, scent work and many others. If this need is not met then the dog will, almost certainly, become psychologically frustrated, potentially leading to behavioural issues such as aggression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), repetition syndrome, hypertension, depression, separation anxiety and others.
In conclusion, a study of wolf behaviour will inevitably help us understand dogs, but only up to a point. Comparative zoology helps scientists understand a particular behaviour by comparing it with another, but similar, species. This method has helped disentangle the plethora of evolutionary questions but has science unwittingly over complicated matters and done a disservice to the domesticated dog? Only a few decades ago wolves were portrayed as vicious animals intent on dominating the pack at all costs. Studies were done on captive animals rather than animals in the wild, thus showing false results. As a result it is possible that the average owner, to this day, misunderstands their pet. Whilst the domesticated dog prefers to live as a group member (indeed it would not survive outside a group) and is without doubt descended from the wolf, this does not mean it thinks or behaves like a wolf, nor is it intent on dominating its owner. To understand dogs we must surely study dogs rather than wolves!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Do Autistic People Make Better Dog Trainers than Non Autistic People?

I recently came across a fantastic book 'Animals In Translation' by Temple Grandin. This should be compulsory reading for all dog trainers.

Her theory is that autistic people, like animals, think in pictures rather than words. Animals see detail that most humans miss. This is because humans THINK too much; in other words they are 'abstractified'. They cannot see the wood for the trees and very often miss the obvious.

Is it possible, therefore, that autistic people will make better dog trainers than non-autistic people? I am of the opinion that most people are autistic to a greater or lesser degree but this goes unnoticed or undiagnosed. I know I sometimes stumble to find a word, phrase or definition whist seeing clearly in my mind what needs to be said - or is that plain forgetfulness? I also know that I become extremely frustrated when I see things at work, home etc that other people simply miss, or are they plain LAZY?

NB: Dictionary definition of autism: psychiatry - a developmental disorder whose symptoms include difficulty in responding conventionally to people and actions and limited use of verbal communication.

Picture shows American Miniature Shepherd, Heidi with rosette for first place in agility.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Can Dogs Really Sense Changes in Our Mood?

Not only will our pet dog pick up minute changes in its olfactory environment but also on tiny, almost indiscernible changes in our body language and general demeanor. As a means of survival, dogs have developed this ability as a primitive instinct. Some will call this intuition but this is when it all starts to get philosophical! Responsible dog trainers and behaviourists do not think philosophically but scientifically. Dog training is firstly a science and secondly an art. Some people have the knack, others don’t. Animals think in pictures; they simply don’t have the vocabulary to express themselves. Humans have turned this to their advantage leading to the many breeds (I am thinking specifically about working breeds) we have today, not least of which are assistance dogs. 

One branch of this is the training of dogs to assist war veterans and others suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Returning to the original question, can dogs indeed gauge mood; are they capable of feeling empathy, even sympathy? In his 2012 blog, Stanley Coren cites an example of a dog reacting to a baby’s cries. The dog is clearly moved and seeks comfort from its human. Coren goes on to suggest this may be mood contagion and that the dog is comforting himself, as the result of a cortisol boost, rather than showing empathy or sympathy for the baby. However, later in 2012 Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer from London’s Goldsmiths College conducted research involving not only dogs’ owners, but strangers in the same room. In turn they would fein crying and the dogs would actually approach the strangers appearing to offer solace. 

Just this year, Dr Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, Atlanta, trained dogs to go inside an MRI scanner. There are striking similarities between a dog’s brain (and mammals generally) and a human’s. The caudate nucleus is rich in dopamine receptors. (Dopamine is a neurohormone and may be described as the ‘pleasure’ or ‘addiction’ hormone). This part of the brain is responsible for the actions of an individual when in a state of anticipation – the information is received and a decision has to be made about the course of action. The interpretation is that dogs are capable of feelings similar to that of humans and are indeed sentient*. It would appear we have bred our dogs not only to show empathy but also sympathy. The more sceptical might suggest that the dogs are actually responding to the slightest changes in body language or curiosity at a person’s reaction. 

After some 15,000 years of co-existence with dogs, it is unlikely that we share no emotional similarities – after all we are able to read their facial expressions and body language, as they can ours!

*As part of the EU Divorce Bill the UK have narrowly voted that animals are in fact NOT sentient beings – thus setting back their welfare by at least 20 years!

Picture shows Miniature American Shepherd pup - Bilbo Beutlin (Baggins) from Lords Fairy Tale.