Hounded out: Why dogs are struggling to fit into modern life

Dogs are in crisis. We either treat them like rabid wolves, or furry humans. No wonder they're confused, writes animal behaviourist John Bradshaw. But the latest research can now reveal what our canine friends would tell us – if only they knew how

Saturday 09 July 2011 00:00

The first dog that 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. My grandfather liked to walk. He walked to and from his office in the industrial city of Bradford, on the Yorkshire moors, in the Lake District, or in Snowdonia. Whenever he could, he took Ginger. The family maintained that Ginger had acquired his longer than average legs through all this exercise. Actually, in the photographs he looks quite typical of his breed, and not unlike the Cairn chosen to play 'Toto' in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. I doubt many modern Cairns would enjoy the amounts of exercise that my grandfather evidently relished.

What amazed me the most was the freedom Ginger had been given. Every 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 lamp-posts, interact with other dogs and, in summer, try to persuade the occupants of the park benches to part with 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 across.

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 United Kingdom. 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. In short, dogs had to earn their keep.

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 anowner'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.

Shouldn't we treat dogs like wolves?

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 that this whole 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. Yet many old-school trainers and dog experts argue there lurks a savage wolf that could spring at any moment for the throat of any dog it meets.

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 – a stance that humans are supposed to be able to achieve by mimicking the way that dominant wolves control their packs.

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. As a whole, the terms 'dominance' and 'hierarchy' can, it seems, no longer be justified to account for the behaviour of pet dogs.

Rejecting the idea of dominance as a natural driver of dog behaviour is not the same as saying that dogs are never competitive – of course they are, when they have to be. But whether or not dogs understand hierarchy has a very profound implication for the way that we relate to them. In this view, the undivided attention that dogs give to their owners and families is unwavering surveillance for an opportunity to move upwards in the hierarchy. If dogs do understand hierarchy, then training methods based on 'putting the dog in its place' have a logical foundation. But if dogs have no concept of their own status, then such methods – many based on inflicting punishment – are likely to convey a different message.

Many dog trainers and behaviour experts still wholeheartedly support this concept – despite the fact that science has almost completely repudiated it – and have even come up with rules designed to thwart dogs' supposed attempts at domination. According to them, the 'dominant dog' constantly 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 therefore 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. Some trainers have even come up with elaborate lists of these 'commandments' such as:

Do not allow your dog to eat its meal until you (the top dog) have eaten first.

Do not allow your dog to peer into your eyes.

Do not cuddle or stroke your dog.

Do not greet your dog when you come home from work or from the shops etc.

Do not allow your dog to keep the toy at the end of a game; it will interpret this as winning.

If dogs do not have a concept of 'status', then some recommendations will be harmless or incidentally beneficial to the dog-owner relationship. For example, many owners will prefer not to encourage their dogs to sleep on their beds with them. Other 'commandments', however, such as the admonishment against cuddling or stroking the dog, seem aimed at taking much of the pleasure out of keeping a dog, turning dog-keeping from a joy into a challenge.

In one study by my colleague Dr Nicola Rooney, dogs were allowed to win tug-of-war games played with a person, over and over again; there were no signs indicating that any dog became 'dominant' as a result. In another of her studies, owners reporting that they always let their dogs win games were found to be no more likely to have disobedient dogs than owners who always insisted on winning, whereas dogs whose owners liked to play contact games, such as rough-and-tumble, were noticeably more attached to their owners than those that were usually kept at arm's length.

Why punishment won't work – but 'rewards' will

Currently, 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 a number of high-profile trainers and behaviourists promote the idea that dogs are pack animals and that many can be controlled only through 'dominance' and physical punishment, others emphasise that training should be based around rewards and abhor the unnecessary use of physical punishment.

Dr Ian Dunbar, one of the originators of this approach, says compliance is most often achieved through positive training methods, specifically treats and praise, as he pioneered. Dunbar, a veterinarian and dog and puppy trainer with more than 25 years' experience, bases his methods soundly on dog psychology, backed up by a doctorate in animal behaviour from the University of California, Berkeley, and a decade of research on communication and behaviour in domestic dogs.

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 or inconsistent 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], who have been bestselling authors of dog-training manuals for more than 30 years, 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 f 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, such as Dr Dunbar, regard this as both unnecessarily cruel and based on a complete misconception; they fundamentally reject that misbehaviour is motivated by a desire to have high rank. Instead, they say that many animal behaviours are simply because those behaviours have been rewarded many times in the past. Their concern is that punishment-based methods may initially suppress the behaviour, but can cause the dog to become depressed and withdrawn. Even worse is what can occur if the 'dominance reduction schedule' does not work: owners may come to think that they are not asserting their position strongly enough, and become more and more aggressive in their attitude. Eventually the dog may become so fearful of them that it bites them in self-defence.

One reason that domestic dogs fit into human communities so well is that they find human contact very 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 that the dog will think back to whatever that deed was. However, dogs do not do mental time-travel at all well. What the dog actually 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. Because it does not understand, the dog is unable to predict when its owner is going to come home angry and when not. It is like a rat in a cage, being shocked at random.

What really constitutes a reward to a dog?

For dogs, like all animals, food can be an important reward, but dogs also regard contact with their owner as rewarding in itself. A straightforward set of training methods has been devised from the science of reward-based learning, training methods that eliminate the need to strike a dog, even once. 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 that is 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 abruptly stopped. The dog is supposed to learn that picking up the object results in the cessation of pain. In the 'force-fetch' method, the dog is additionally beaten with a stick while the ear pinch is being applied – in this case, both are abruptly terminated when the dog performs the task.

There is no doubt that both positive punishment and negative reinforcement, if performed skilfully, can be highly effective in the very short term – if we put any ethical considerations to one side, that is, and ignore any long-term damage to the dog-human relationship. Things go wrong when the way that punishment works is not properly understood, or, worse, when punishment is applied as an outlet for the owner's anger, frustration or embarrassment.

Two separate surveys of dog owners have revealed that dogs trained with punishment tend to be less obedient and more fearful than those trained with reward. In the United Kingdom, 364 owners were asked about the training 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 the 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, such as barking at people and dogs, fearful behaviour and separation disorders. The other survey, conducted in Austria, has also concluded that frequent use of punishment is associated with high levels of aggression, especially in small dogs.

Does your dog love you?

Of course it does! It tells you, every time you come home, by the way it greets you. Your dog may be 'just' a household pet, but I would be very surprised if most owners could not bring themselves to say that they loved their dog, and that their dog loved them in return. Happiness – joy – seems to radiate from the majority of dogs much of the time. Happy dogs have relaxed, open faces, and bodies that wiggle from the shoulders backwards, including the tail, of course. Scientists now firmly believe that mammals such as dogs do experience happiness.

Love – that which biologists, nervous about being misunderstood, call 'attachment' – fuels the bond between dog and master or mistress. At the physiological level, love is distinct from other positive emotions in that it specifically involves the hormone oxytocin. Dogs experience f a surge of oxytocin during friendly interactions with people. In one study, researchers set up a series of friendly interactions between dogs and people. The dogs' blood pressure dropped slightly, as expected, oxytocin levels quintupled, and endorphins and dopamine doubled. Similar, though less dramatic, changes occurred in the people. Dogs have been programmed by domestication to have intense emotional reactions towards people. This lies at the root of the 'unconditional love' that many owners describe and treasure in their dogs. Such intense feelings are not easily turned off, as attested by the high proportion of dogs that hate being left alone – as many as one in five, according to one of my surveys. Since we humans have programmed in this vulnerability, it is our responsibility to ensure that our dogs do not suffer as a result.

How clever are dogs?

Some people treat their dogs as if they are as smart as humans, others, as if they were dim-witted children. They are neither! Dogs are as intelligent as dogs need to be – which means that their intelligence is not like ours. After decades of neglecting the topic, biologists and psychologists interested in canine intelligence are now examining the more complex things that dogs' brains can do.

Recently, primatologists have come to realise that domestic dogs can outperform even chimpanzees in some very specific ways. I have a good reason for delving into the dog's actual intellectual capabilities. If we overestimate their ability to reason, we are led into the trap of making them accountable for their actions in situations where they are actually unaware of what they are doing. Our actions are of such importance to dogs that they cannot but become confused and distressed when unable to understand us.

Dogs are also very sensitive to what goes on within relationships – not just those in which they are directly involved, but also those they observe between people. In one recent study, a dog was allowed to watch three people performing: one person acted as the 'beggar', one gave him the money he was asking for (the 'generous' person) and the other refused (the 'selfish' person). Once the beggar had left the room, the dog was released, and allowed to interact with the other two people. The dogs preferred to interact with the 'generous' person; most went to her first and chose to spend more time interacting with her than with the 'selfish' person. It seemed to be the actual act of handing over the money that was important to the dog, because when the whole scenario was repeated without the beggar, and a mimed transaction, the dogs showed no preference for the 'generous' person.

What is the future for dogs?

I predict that in coming years, dogs will need all the help they can get, from scientists and enthusiasts alike. Dogs in the West will never be able to return to the freedoms they enjoyed in the first half of the 20th century, when many were allowed to roam city streets during the day, returning to their owners in the evening. Society requires much more of dogs, and dog owners. The public's attitudes towards hygiene in particular have hardened in the past 20 years, with poop-scoop laws becoming almost universally adopted. Dogs are now expected to behave well at all times, especially in public, and the number of places where owners can exercise dogs off-lead has been considerably reduced.

There was a time in the early years of this century when it looked as though the dog populations in the United Kingdom were beginning to shrink, as though every dog had, indeed, had its day; the best estimates now suggest that the dog population may be at least levelling off. Cats are now at least as numerous as dogs here, mainly because they suit modern lifestyles whereby all members of a household work, and the time and space for exercising a dog are restricted. 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. The new science of dog behaviour has dramatic implications for humans, and for our choice of the best and most humane ways to train our dogs. If these aims can be achieved, they should go a long way towards sustaining and reinforcing our relationship with our beloved companions as the next decades unfold.

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

Canine body language: A guide

Body low to the ground

The dog is worried about the outcome of an encounter and is trying to look as unthreatening as possible.

Standing tall


Low tail

The lower the tail, the less confident the dog; dogs in retreat will usually tuck their tail forward between their hind legs. Precisely where 'low' is will vary from one dog to another, because selective breeding has affected where the normal, relaxed tail position is.

Upright tail with a wagging tip

This indicates interest.

Relaxed tail

If it is being wagged from side to side using movement of the whole back end of the dog, this indicates excitement and/or a desire to play.

Slow tail wagging

Some dogs perform an exaggerated slow swish of their tails when they are contemplating aggression.

Rigid back

This can indicate a low level of fear or anxiety, although some breeds have naturally stiff backs.

Rounded-up back

This may indicate indecision – the dog looks as though its back legs are trying to move forward while its front legs are trying to stand still.

Ears pricked forward

Ears are easy to read in some dogs, harder in others; but even in breeds with rather rigid ears the muscles at the base of the ear may show what the dog is trying to say. Ears pricked forward suggest alertness and interest.

Ears pulled back

They are an indication of anxiety, and, if flattened as well, fear.

Tense eyebrows

Indication of threat, often accompanied by a fixed stare. In some dogs, this tension will also result in the whites of the eyes becoming more visible.

Looking away

A dog wishing to dissociate from an interaction will often turn its head away so that it is at a right-angle to the other's.

Loose mouth

Relaxed dogs hold their mouth slightly open when interacting with other dogs.

Shut mouth

Indicates a tense dog.

Bared teeth

This can mean both fear and anger alike; the rest of the dog's body language, from the ears backwards, should provide clues as to which.

Friendly 'grin'

Which looks like a 'smile', with teeth slightly bared. This is the position of the mouth in the affiliation display, though many dogs will use it as a signal in its own right when interacting with people, presumably because it has been rewarded by extra attention.

Head on side

This 'cute' pose is likewise not a species-typical signal but, rather, a posture that some dogs learn because it evokes a rewarding response from their owner.

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