Dogs: The different species in your living room

When owning a dog, it almost goes without saying that he or she becomes part of the family unit. Dogs sleep in our beds, join us at the dining table (whether they’re supposed to or not), and accompany us on all variety of errands and outings. Sometimes this assimilation into our lives becomes so seamless that we forget we are sharing our home with an entirely different species from our own.

So much of dog training gets misconstrued as a battle of control. Phrases like the dog “should do this” and “should know this” permeate the language, as does hypothesizing about what a dog is thinking without any scientific basis. The fact is, dogs don’t know what we’re thinking and they certainly don’t inherently know all the rules and regulations that come with living in our homes. What we perceive as the meaning of dog behavior, and what dogs are really communicating to us, are two very different things.

Richard Yahner, a professor of wildlife conservation at Penn State, explains this concept in this book Wildlife and Conservation  writing, “As humans, we consistently judge the behavior of animals (e.g., that pet is cute) or fellow humans (e.g., that new neighbor is friendly, etc.) based on their appearance and how they act from our perspective. In other words, we seldom look at the ecology of a pet or human or, for that matter, of an animal in the wild” (1).

He goes on to list four questions that are integral to those studying wildlife behavior, writing, “…1) what are the mechanisms that cause a certain behavior? (e.g., hormonal, genetic, learning, etc.), 2) how does a given behavior develop? (e.g. ontogeny, cultural transmission, etc.) 3) what is the survival value of a given behavior? and 4) how does a given behavior evolve?” (4).

Although Yahner was discussing wildlife, his statements are incredibly relevant to dog training. If we ask these four questions when it comes to communicating with our own dogs, we will be well on the path to actually understanding them – not just understanding what we think their behavior means from our human perspective.

In this post, I will explore the first of the four questions: What mechanisms cause a certain behavior?

Each behavior your dog performs, whether it be an obedience command, snarling at another dog, or dissecting a stuffed toy, has an immediate causation, or trigger, and an adaptive significance. Animals make changes to their behavior on a real-time basis through learning. They also live, as James O’Heare writes in Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, “within the context and constraints of their biology” (67). In other words, evolutionary history and learning influence dog behavior. And, due to dogs’ extensive history of selective breeding, they differ as to what behaviors they retain from their evolutionary history and when they perform these behaviors.

Take, for example, a dog who rolls over for a treat. He does so because he learned this behavior, likely through operant conditioning techniques. He didn’t come into this world as a puppy knowing that rolling over leads to treats and praise from other humans. He learned through repetition that this behavior is hugely rewarding.

Contrast this with a dog who vigorously shakes and dissects a stuffed toy given to her by her owner, mimicking dissection behavior. Stuffed toy dissection, otherwise known as a fixed action pattern, requires no learning on the part of the dog. FAPs vary across each individual dog. For example, some dogs will retain the dissection FAP. Some won’t. Some will only perform the behavior on a particular stuffed toy, leaving the others intact.

At this point, you may be asking why evolutionary history and FAPs are relevant. The fact is, FAPs are at the root many “problem” behaviors in our dogs. Resource guarding, stalking, urination marking, watchdog barking, chasing and biting moving objects, fear of novel objects or people, and mounting are all examples. Does this mean these behaviors are unchangeable? Not at all, but we need to understand where the behaviors come from in order to effectively change them. FAPs provide a context through which these behaviors occur. (Note that this context is not one of dominance or subversion, but one of nature and evolution. What a relief to know that dogs aren’t plotting and scheming our demise from their beds, as some trainers would have us believe!)

As humans, we are responsible for bringing dogs into our homes with the knowledge that they are a different species from ourselves. It is our responsibility to teach our dogs how to live in our world harmoniously, through means our dogs understand. Even though it can be frustrating when our dogs behave contrary to how we think they should behave, we need to step back and view the situation through a compassionate lens. After all, dogs aren’t furry humans. They’re dogs. And I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.