It's a dogs life

The latest research can reveal what our canine friends would tell us - if they knew how. Writes John Bradshaw.
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The Independent Online

The first dog I became attached to was one I never met. He was my grandfather's Cairn terrier, Ginger. Stories about Ginger were, for a while, the nearest I came to having a dog of my own. What amazed me the most was the freedom Ginger had. At lunchtime, when my grandfather was at work, Ginger was allowed to take himself for a walk around the neighbourhood.

Apparently, he had a routine. First he would cross the road into Lister Park, where he would sniff lampposts, interact with other dogs and, in summer, try to persuade the occupants of the park benches to part with their sandwiches. Then he would cross the tram tracks and amble to the rear of the fish and chip shop, where a scratch at the back door would usually elicit a handful of scraps of batter and some misshapen chips. Then he usually headed straight for home, which involved crossing a busy junction. Here, according to family legend, there was usually a policeman, directing the lunchtime traffic, who would solemnly stop the cars to allow Ginger safe passage.

About 70 years have passed since Ginger was allowed to roam the streets. During that same period, almost unnoticed, there have been enormous changes in society's attitudes towards man's best friend. After many millennia in which the dog has been man's closest animal companion, cats are taking over as the most popular pet in many countries, including the UK.

Dogs today unwittingly find themselves on the verge of a crisis, struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of change in human society. Until a little over 100 years ago, most dogs worked for their living. First and foremost, dogs were tools. Their agility and quick thinking, their keen senses and their unparalleled ability to communicate with humans suited them for an extraordinary diversity of tasks: hunting, herding, guarding and many others, each an important component of the economy.

Nowadays, the sole function of an ever-increasing proportion of dogs is to be a family pet. Although many working types have successfully adapted, others were, and still are, poorly suited to this new role. Dogs have done their best to adjust to the many changes and restrictions we have imposed upon them, in particular our expectation that they will be faithful companions when we need them to be, and unobtrusive when we do not.

However, the cracks inherent in this compromise are beginning to widen. As human society continues to change, and the planet becomes ever more crowded, there are signs that the popularity of dogs as pets may have peaked, and that they may struggle to adapt, especially in urban environments. In the past, when dogs' functions were mostly rural, it was accepted that they were intrinsically messy and needed to be managed on their own terms. Today, by contrast, many pet dogs live in circumscribed, urban environments, and are expected to be simultaneously better behaved than the average human child and as self-reliant as an adult. As if these new obligations were not enough, many dogs still manifest the adaptations that suited them for their original functions – traits that we now demand they cast away as if they had never existed. The collie that herds sheep is the shepherd's best friend; the pet collie that tries to herd children and chases bicycles is an owner's nightmare.

Although the new science of dog behaviour has the potential to put the dog's role in human society back on track, little of the research has been made available outside obscure academic texts, until now. My aim is to translate the exciting new developments in canine science. Doing so has required me to overturn a great deal of conventional wisdom about dogs and how we should interact with them.

For more than 50 years, the concept of a dog as a wolf dressed up in a cute package dominated dog training and management, with results that were – to say the least – mixed. Equating dogs with wolves allows trainers and owners to justify physical punishment of the dog, by the analogy that wolf parents achieve control of their offspring through aggression.

When I took on my second dog, a Labrador/Airedale terrier cross named Ivan, I was shocked to discover the approach adopted by the trainers of the day, such as Barbara Woodhouse, who seemed to see the dog as something that needed to be dominated at all times. This did not make sense to me – the whole point of having dogs as pets was for them to become friends, not slaves.

As I researched, I found this approach to training had stemmed from the ideas of a police officer and a pioneer in dog training who, more than 100 years ago, had decided that a man could control a dog only if the dog was convinced that the man was physically superior. He derived this idea from contemporary biologists' accounts of wild wolf packs, which were considered to be controlled by one individual who ruled the others through fear. Biology, by then my profession, seemed to be at odds with my gut feeling as to how my relationship with my dogs ought to work.

To my relief, this dilemma has resolved itself over the past decade. The concept that dog behaviour is little changed from that of wolves does not sit well with the self-evident friendliness of the large majority of dogs. Most dogs love meeting other dogs, and most love people. The dog's sociability is even more remarkable when compared to that of its ancestors.

The wolf pack, always the touchstone for the interpretation of dog behaviour, is now known to be a harmonious family group except when human intervention renders it dysfunctional. Wolves from different packs try to avoid one another; if they do meet, they almost always fight, sometimes to the death. Dogs are usually perfectly happy to meet when out being exercised by their owners.

Despite having being comprehensively discredited by biologists and veterinary behaviourists more than a quarter of a century ago, this idea continues to have a surprisingly wide currency. Many training manuals still emphasise the need for constant vigilance against the moment when young dogs begin their inexorable attempts to dominate or control all around them. The only answer, they say, is to make sure from day one that dogs know that their owner is boss.

Calling dogs "dominant" suggests that their relationships can be fitted into hierarchies. There is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs. Such hierarchical behaviour is not readily apparent in natural wolf packs, and studies of feral dogs have also failed to find hierarchical structures.

However, many dog trainers and behaviour experts still support this concept – despite the fact that science has almost completely repudiated it – and have come up with rules to thwart dogs' supposed attempts at domination. According to them, the "dominant dog" gives himself away by his body language. If he puts his chin or paw on his owner's knee, it means he thinks he is taking control of his owner's behaviour, and is on the road to becoming the pack leader. To forestall this attempt at "domination", owners should always move the dog's paw or chin off their leg. Owners are urged always to go through doors and gates in front of their dog.

Dog training has a high profile in the media; evidently it makes for good television, as evidenced by the rise of celebrities like Cesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer", and Victoria Stilwell, presenter of It's Me or the Dog. But there is tremendous disagreement among dog trainers about the best approach to shaping dog behaviour. While some high-profile trainers and behaviourists promote the idea that dogs are pack animals and that many can be controlled only through physical punishment, others emphasise that training should be based around rewards and abhor the use of physical punishment.

These differences of opinion have real effects on the welfare of dogs. Every year, many dogs are abandoned, even euthanised, because they behave in unacceptable ways. In many cases, these behavioural problems are the result of inept training.

The widespread use of punishment-based dog training is usually traced back to Colonel Konrad Most, whose highly influential book Training Dogs: A Manual first appeared in 1910 (in German) and was translated into English, thanks to popular demand, in 1944. Most was emphatic that the relationship between man and dog was not only hierarchical – with only one "winner" – but also could be established only through physical force, by an actual struggle in which the man was instantaneously victorious.

The Monks of New Skete, an American monastery where the community breeds and trains dogs, are very specific in turning this principle into practice. For instance, for aggressive dogs they recommend the "Alpha-wolf roll-over". This is a disciplinary technique nicknamed for the way the lead wolf is supposed to punish misbehaving members of the pack, where the dog is grasped firmly by the scruff of its neck and vigorously rolled over on to its back. For puppies, they recommend the "shakedown method", which they claim resembles what the mother does to her pups to keep order: the puppy is grasped by the loose skin on either side of its neck, lifted off its front feet and shaken.

Dog trainers regard this as cruel and based on a misconception; they reject that misbehaviour is motivated by a desire to have high rank. Instead, they say that many animal behaviours exist simply because those behaviours have been rewarded many times in the past.

One reason that domestic dogs fit into human communities so well is they find human contact rewarding and become anxious when separated from their human companions. They are strongly motivated to do things that please their owners. It is crucial to appreciate that dogs live in the here and now to a much greater extent than humans do. For example, many owners punish their dogs when they come home to find that the dog has done something wrong. They assume the dog will think back to whatever that deed was.

However, dogs do not do mental time-travel at all well. What the dog does is to associate the immediate situation – the owner's return – with the owner's angry words, and physical punishment. It does not understand what has caused the punishment, nor has it had any warning that punishment is imminent.

For dogs, food can be an important reward, but dogs also regard contact with their owner as rewarding in itself. A set of training methods has been devised from the science of reward-based learning, which eliminate the need to strike a dog. Such techniques are especially easy with dogs because there are several types of reward available – food, attention, play.

A different approach is "negative reinforcement". This is the principle that teaches the dog to perform a behaviour in order to stop pain being inflicted by the trainer. For instance, the traditional method of teaching young gundogs to retrieve: the trainer presents an object a few inches in front of the dog's nose while at the same time pinching the dog's earflap tightly. The dog cries out in pain, opening its mouth and allowing the trainer to insert the object into the dog's open mouth. At that instant, the pinch is stopped.

In the UK, 364 owners were asked about the methods they used for training seven basic tasks, including housetraining, coming when called and giving up an object upon command. Vocal punishment was reported by 66 per cent of respondents, and physical punishment by 12 per cent.

Rewards were also commonly used: 60 per cent used verbal praise and 51 per cent used food treats. The owners using rewards reported much greater obedience from their dogs than those using punishment predominantly, whereas those using mainly punishment reported a larger number of behavioural problems.

I predict that in coming years, dogs will need all the help they can get, from scientists and enthusiasts alike. Society requires much more of dogs, and dog owners. At the start of this century it looked as though the dog populations in the UK were beginning to shrink, as though every dog had, indeed, had its day; the best estimates now suggest the numbers may be levelling off. How popular will dogs be at the end of the 21st century? Addressing the poor understanding of canine psychology is crucial to ensuring that dogs remain as significant a part of human life as they have been for the past 10 millennia.

Extracted from 'In Defence Of Dogs' by John Bradshaw, published on 28 July by Allen Lane, priced £20. Copyright © John Bradshaw 2011.