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Dog Sense

How The New Science of Dog Behaviour can Make You a Better Friend To Your Pet

John Bradshaw

Dogs are expected to be much better controlled than they used to be. Up until 100 years ago most dogs worked for their living. In rural past it was accepted that dogs were intrinsically messy and needed to be managed on their own terms. In just a few generations they have had to change function, but they haven't been bred towards that goal - they've been bred towards arbitrary dog show standards.

Misconception that wolf packs led by an alpha male who has to continually fight to confirm his status. In fact, unless disrupted by humans, wolf packs tend to be peaceable family units. Dogs are indeed wolves - 99.96% DNA overlap. But chimps and bonobos share more than 99% of DNA and their behaviour radically different.

Economist Review

THE relationship between people and dogs is unique. Among domesticated animals, only dogs are capable of performing such a wide variety of roles for humans: herding sheep, sniffing out drugs or explosives and being our beloved companions. It is hard to be precise about when the friendship began, but a reasonable guess is that it has been going strong for more than 20,000 years. In the Chauvet cave in the Ardeche region of France, which contains the earliest known cave paintings, there is a 50-metre trail of footprints made by a boy of about ten alongside those of a large canid that appears to be part-wolf, part-dog. The footprints, which have been dated by soot deposited from the torch the child was carrying, are estimated to be about 26,000 years old.

The first proto-dogs probably remained fairly isolated from each other for several thousand years. As they became progressively more domesticated they moved with people on large-scale migrations, mixing their genes with other similarly domesticated creatures and becoming increasingly dog-like (and less wolf-like) in the process. For John Bradshaw, a biologist who founded the anthrozoology department at the University of Bristol, having some idea about how dogs got to be dogs is the first stage towards gaining a better understanding of what dogs and people mean to each other. Part of his agenda is to explode the many myths about the closeness of dogs to wolves and the mistakes that this has led to, especially in the training of dogs over the past century or so.

One idea has governed dog training for far too long, Mr Bradshaw says. Wolf packs are supposedly despotic hierarchies dominated by alpha wolves. Dogs are believed to behave in the same way in their dealings with humans. Thus training a dog effectively becomes a contest for dominance in which there can be only one winner. To achieve this the trainer must use a variety of punishment techniques to gain the dog's submission to his mastery. Just letting a dog pass through a door before you or stand on the stairs above you is to risk encouraging it to believe that it is getting the upper hand over you and the rest of the household. Mr Bradshaw argues that the theory behind this approach is based on bad and outdated science.

Dogs share 99.6% of the same DNA as wolves. That makes dogs closer to wolves than we are to chimps (with which we have about 96% of our DNA in common), but it does not mean that their brains work like those of wolves. Indeed, the outgoing affability of most dogs towards humans and other dogs is in sharp contrast to the mix of fear and aggression with which wolves react to animals from other packs. "Domestication has been a long and complex process," Mr Bradshaw writes. "Every dog alive today is a product of this transition. What was once another one of the wild social canids, the grey wolf, has been altered radically, to the point that it has become its own unique animal." If anything, dogs resemble juvenile rather than fully adult canids, a sort of arrested development which accounts for the way they remain dependent on their human owners throughout their lives.

But what makes the dog-wolf paradigm especially misleading, Mr Bradshaw argues, is that until recently, the studies of wolves were of the wrong wolves in extremely artificial conditions. In the wild, wolf packs tend to be made up of close family members representing up to three generations. The father and mother of the first lot of cubs are the natural leaders of the pack, but the behavioural norm is one of co-operation rather than domination and submission. However, the wolves on which biologists founded their conclusions about dominance hierarchies were animals living in unnaturally constituted groups in captivity. Mr Bradshaw says that feral or 'village' dogs, which are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than they are to wolves, are highly tolerant of one another and organise themselves entirely differently from either wild or captive wolves.

Dogs are not like nicely brought-up wolves, says the author, nor are they much like people despite their extraordinary ability to enter our lives and our hearts. This is not to deny that some dogs are very clever or that they are capable of feeling emotion deeply. But their intelligence is different from ours. The idea that some dogs can understand as many words as a two-year-old child is simply wrong and an inappropriate way of trying to measure canine intellect. Rather, their emotional range is more limited than ours, partly because, with little sense of time, they are trapped almost entirely in the present. Dogs can experience joy, anxiety and anger. But emotions that demand a capacity for self-reflection, such as guilt or jealousy, are almost certainly beyond them, contrary to the convictions of many dog owners.

Mr Bradshaw believes that it is difficult for people to empathise with the way in which dogs experience and respond to the world through their extraordinary sense of smell: their sensitivity to odours is between 10,000 and 100,000 times greater than ours. A newly painted room might be torture for a dog; on the other hand, their olfactory ability and their trainability allow dogs to perform almost unimaginable feats, such as smelling the early stages of a cancer long before a normal medical diagnosis would detect it.

The latest scientific research can help dogs and their owners have happier, healthier relationships by encouraging people to understand dogs better. But Mr Bradshaw is also fearful. In particular, he deplores the incestuous narrowing of the gene pool that modern pedigree breeders have brought about. Dogs today are rarely bred for their working abilities (herding, hunting, guarding), but for a very particular type of appearance, which inevitably risks the spread of physical and temperamental abnormalities. Instead, he suggests that dogs be bred for the ideal behavioural traits associated with the role they will actually play. He also worries that the increasing urbanisation of society and the pressures on couples to work long hours are putting dogs under huge strain. He estimates that about 20% of Britain's 8m dogs and America's 70m suffer from 'separation distress' when their owners leave the house, but argues that sensible training can teach them how to cope.

Dog Sense is neither a manual nor a sentimental account of the joys of dog-ownership. At times its rigorously research-led approach can be slightly heavy going. A few more jolly anecdotes might have leavened the mix. But this is a wonderfully informative, quietly passionate book that will benefit every dog whose owner reads it.

(London Times review)

Every dog lover, dog owner or prospective dog buyer should read this book. It will change how you feel about dogs and, likely enough, how you treat them, too.

Its author, John Bradshaw, is the director of Bristol University's respected Anthrozoology Institute. For more than 25 years, he has been studying domestic dogs and their relationship with us. To understand our dogs and to know how best to care for them, he argues, we need to start listening not to folk wisdom and TV 'dog experts', but to what canine science has to say.

It's a dense read, at times, but never chilly or unrewarding. Bradshaw is the kind of man who lets dogs sniff and lick his hand because to do otherwise "would be as unsociable as hiding our face from someone we are being introduced to". He is an empathetic dog lover as well as a scientist, and he always sees things from the dog's perspective.

As a result, this book sparkles with explanations of canine behaviour. Why are some dogs aggressive around children or, say, men with beards? Not just because they got a fright once, but because they may not actually recognise them as belonging to the same, friendly species as other humans. Why do guide dogs look forlornly at their empty bowls, when their owners can't see them do it? Because they don't understand that their owners are blind - and this is because no dog is really aware that its owner has a mind or senses at all. (Bradshaw admits that this notion will "seem like heresy to the majority of dog owners", but it's well established by experiment.)

Many puzzles of dog behaviour come down to the fact that smell, for them, is the dominant sense. We all know this, but we rarely appreciate quite what it means. Dogs can sense one odorous part in a trillion ( as opposed to the parts in mere millions of which we are aware), and we may

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abuse this sensitivity unthinkingly. When we redecorate the living room, for instance, do we consider quite how painful the smell of drying paint might be?

It's hard to imagine experiencing the world with a rebalanced set of canine senses, but Bradshaw's explanation of why few dogs care about television is superbly insightful. Dogs don't actually see in black and white, as most of us think, but they can't distinguish red from orange, and leaves and grass, to them, look like "similar muted shades of greyish green". This makes TV relatively dull - and the dullness is reinforced by the fact that their super-sensitive hearing perceives TV sound not as "real" but as the kind of low-resolution squawking and hissing you might find on AM radio.

Bradshaw denies that his book is a manual, but you'll find more advice on training here than in most guides. Take that most basic of commands: "Sit!" Dogs don't actually understand language, of course, so they take command cues where they find them. One dog will respond to the "t" sound in "baguette" as readily as in "sit". Another may refuse to sit at home because it thinks the order only applies in the park where it was first taught.

The perennial issue of leg-mounting is dealt with adroitly. Dogs do it not because they are sex-crazed, Bradshaw explains ( although self-stimulation may provide the initial motivation), but because it elicits an embarrassed response from their owners - it provokes attention, which is a reward. Even a smack on the nose may become part of a wonderful game. The answer to legmounting, then, is to ignore it.

Bradshaw identifies "separation distress" as a particularly acute problem. Almost one in five owners reports that their dogs struggle when left at home alone: they defecate distressedly on the carpet, anxiously tear up cushions or scrape desperately at the front door. Another study filmed 20 dogs whose owners were confident that their pets were happy when left alone. The footage revealed, however, that three of the dogs panted with distress, paced about anxiously or whined with misery. ( Bradshaw offers a solution, thankfully: you have to train your dog to associate leaving with eventual return, which means repeatedly performing the sequence of actions that mean "leaving the house" but breaking off at every step - picking up the car keys, getting your coat, going through the door etc - to offer praise and reward.)

Dogs definitely suffer anxiety, but they do not experience the range of emotions we ascribe to them. Take the 'guilty' dog who has torn up the curtains - and some 70% of owners believe their dogs experience guilt. Close observation shows that dogs only perform the 'guilty' behaviours after their owners have reacted to their misdeed, and they're really expressing anxiety or attempting to soften anger — by, for instance, rolling over, looking miserable or raising a guilty paw.

Tellingly, the guiltiest-looking dogs are those that are regularly physically punished. Bradshaw has little time for punishment techniques, but he gets especially hot under the collar when discussing the theory that owners need to assert their dominant, alpha status in the 'pack'. ( Owners are told never to lose a wrestling or grabbing game, never to let a dog eat or go through a door first, and so on.) This approach, he says, is based on outdated and discredited surveys of captive wolves. Real, wild wolf packs, he points out, are co-operative family groups based around a parental pair. Dogs, similarly, see their owners as quasi-parents, not rivals.

In any case, dogs are not wolves. They have evolved to live alongside us, and probably see us as a kind of special-status companion species. (They don't believe they are little hairy humans, however. Dogs apparently play differently with people and with other dogs; they let us win at tug-of-war, for instance, because experience has taught them that we otherwise lose interest in the game.)

Unfortunately, we have not repaid our dog's companionate instincts well. Poor training is one problem, but breeding, for Bradshaw, is easily as important. Almost all pet dogs are descended from animals that were bred either for their “ working” traits or for appearance, based on pedigree standards. ( Either that, or they are born of the accidental combination of more than one breed.) The pedigree ideals that have bequeathed wobbly hips to golden retrievers and eye disease to Welsh corgis are well publicised. Other 'insults to the welfare of dogs' require a scientist's eye to see.

Bradshaw describes, for instance, how wolves communicate superbly with their bodies and how dogs would, too — if their pedigrees would let them. But stumpy tails can't wag, floppy ears won't prick up and faces wreathed in cutesy folds of skin can't make expressions properly. At the extreme end, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel is actually "incapable" of displaying any of the 20-odd visual signals employed by a wolf; about the only way it can "talk" to another dog is to shove it out of the way.

Bradshaw concludes by urging a radical shift in dog lovers' attitudes. We need to stop breeding and buying collies and spaniels and pit bulls, with all their attendant specialist behaviours, he protests, and start focusing on loving, obedient and companionable pets. If dogs are to survive as more than "a barely tolerated minority interest", he says, they need to be defended from breeders and owners - from those that love them most. It is likely to be a controversial point of view.

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