(The following is from part of my ongoing coursework for the ISCP Diploma in Canine Psychology. The question was about how recent research into the evolution of dogs has influenced how we view canine behaviour today. You may find it informative).
It was believed for many years that the domestic dog evolved from wolves, and thus a dog is essentially a tamed wolf. It has recently been established by DNA testing that dogs do indeed come from wolves, however the split in their evolution happened between 14,000 to 140,000 years ago. Because dogs and wolves have evolved along separate lines since the split, it is not realistic to view dogs as merely tamed wolves. Dogs and wolves share as much as 99.8% of their DNA, however we cannot simply confer the same attributes towards dogs as we do towards wolves. That would be like saying that human beings are just tamed bonobo monkeys or chimpanzees, just because we share 98.7% of our DNA.
Early studies comparing wolves to domestic dogs were conducted in unnatural environments, such as in zoos, or by observing animals in captive enclosures. Confined together, with nowhere to escape and behave naturally, wolf packs often fought for supremacy or formed uneasy alliances that constantly changed, leading scientists to believe that domestic dogs also vie for the position of “Alpha” when in a pack. Such studies did not take into account that in the wild, many of these wolves would practice avoidance rather than confrontation, and those with familial ties would often work together cooperatively, sharing with the hunting and looking after pups. This would ensure the survival of the pack; juvenile wolves would look after their younger siblings, in exchange for the protection and security that belonging to a pack provided. This sort of behaviour is not observed in wolf packs comprising unrelated wolves that have been simply thrown together into the same enclosure.
Toni Shelbourne’s book “The Truth about wolves and dogs” (Hubble & Hattie, 2012) explains in great detail the differences between wolves and domestic dogs. Not just in terms of physical attributes, but also in how wolf hierarchies differ from dog hierarchies, and how to decipher the body language of both dogs and wolves. There are also dozens of photographs clearly demonstrating each canine behaviour in detail.
The “Alpha” or “dominance” theory in domestic dogs has been debunked and has fallen out of favour amongst canine behaviourists. If your dog insists on going out the door ahead of you, it isn’t trying to dominate you, but rather intends to scout ahead of you to make sure the coast is clear. If your dog jumps up excitedly when it sees you, it isn’t trying to assert its dominance or welcome you back to the pack; it’s simply behaving like a juvenile dog – puppies jump up on their mother and nuzzle her when they see her, for food. If a dog inserts himself between a human couple about to embrace or argue, he isn’t trying to oust the competition by asserting his position as the “Alpha” male of the pack; he’s trying to defuse a situation that he feels might be threatening to his humans, he’s trying to protect them.
Some “dog whisperers” advocate using the “Alpha Rollover” to dominate an unruly dog. This basically entails pushing the dog down on the ground and standing over it, in a show of aggressive dominance. This style of dog training runs off the premise that the owner must assert his or her dominance over the family dog, and be the “Alpha” of the pack. This practice has also fallen out of favour; instead many dog trainers now advocate a more positive approach to training, in getting the dog to cooperate willingly, rather than being cowed into submission by threats or aggressive behaviour.
Victoria Stilwell’s book “Train Your Dog Positively” (Ten Speed Press, 2013) advocates using only Positive Reinforcement for training dogs. She mentions that humans find it hard to believe that dogs are not like us, trying to outdo each other at every turn. In reality, our dogs’ priorities are not about dominance or rank, but about who gets the higher value resource, and how to get it. So, for a dog to resource guard its bed/food/owner, it’s not because it wants to be the “Alpha”, but because it feels threatened that another dog may steal what it considers valuable to it. By growling, snarling, barking or nipping at trespassers going near his valued resource, the dog is merely indicating that it will do anything to protect the things that make him feel good and secure.
Holding a carrot in front of a donkey’s nose provides more motivation for it to do what you want, than beating the donkey with a stick. The same goes for dogs – rewarding a dog’s good behaviour with treats and praise works much better than
punishing it for bad behaviour. A dog cannot be expected to fully understand how we humans work, what we expect of it, what behaviours we condone or condemn from it, if we don’t teach it properly.
We as humans like to anthropomorphize dogs and give them human attributes, however we must also remember that dogs do not understand our language or customs until we teach it to them.
It’s important that we recognise the difference between past and present thinking about canine behaviour. If we continue to treat dogs as tamed wolves, we would be doing dogs a great injustice, and failing to understand them correctly. It would be like tarring both wolves and dogs with the same brush, attributing characteristics to both the same way when clearly they are two very different species.