Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I'm writing this because it's what Lucy would do


The discussion about good science- vs. bad science-based dog training over at Retrieverman's got me thinking.

We're (and I mean me, too) constantly talking about dogs as if they were not just descended from wild wolves thousands of years ago, but as if each and every puppy emerges into this world with some kind of species memory of what it's like to be a wolf. I'm not talking instinct; many pet owners and trainers act as if each dog has a literal memory of everything a wild wolf is and they way they're supposed to act. And what's more, it's like we think all dogs long for that imaginary state of wolfness in a conscience way.

How many times have you looked at a content dog and said something along the lines of, "oh look, she's happy because she's with her pack."

When my dog barks out the window, we say, "oh look, she's warning her pack of danger!"

When dogs play, we constantly evaluate their technique, and the meaning behind every move: "Oh, Dot sure was the dominant bitch, there."

Puppies don't just play, they 'play fight'. When dogs dig, they're either 'digging a den' or 'hunting'.

I'm not trying to argue these things aren't accurate. Most are to varying degrees. But you don't see humans constantly comparing ourselves to our ancestors of thousands of years ago, or to our wild cousins. It does pop up a lot in our culture (nearly everyone knows basically what 'fight or flight' instinct means, for example), but we don't burden ourselves nearly as much with ancestral baggage as we do our dogs (probably partly because many of us, even if we don't outright disbelieve in evolution, like to pretend we're above its influence).

When my husband makes the bed, I rarely say "Aw, how cute, you're building your nest for the night so we can be safe from predators". When I'm preparing to cross the street, I (usually) don't try to find analogies in the 'natural' world ("is the speeding car a predator trying to kill me, or a mindless hazard like a falling tree?") I certainly don't use those analogies to make a decision about when it's safe to cross. I'm not constantly thinking, "what would Australopithecus do in this situation?"

So these sorts of ideas are based in fact (unless you're basing your philosophy of dog behavior on old, outdated misinformation about wolves, of course, then you're really just making sh*t up) . But I guess my question is, why the rhetoric? Why the CONSTANT need to compare our dogs to wolves? They may be very closely related genetically, but their lives and social structures and expectations are very different. We call them dogs to differentiate them from their wild cousins for good reason. Although there is a lot of grey area around the edges, most people know a dog vs. wolf when they see one. Why constantly load each and every twitch of the tail, and flicker of the eye with that wolf-baggage. Why can't we just let them be dogs?

Or better yet, individuals.

Some individual dogs would be perfectly happy hunting their food in a pack and living outdoors 24/7. Others, if let feral, would prefer scrounging human garbage dumps. Many dogs wouldn't make it a week without humans. Some dogs prefer the company of humans, and indeed seem to understand them better than other dogs, some only thrive when other dogs are around. Some dogs respond strongly to food, others to affectionate touch. Some can't stand eye contact with a human, some could stare in your eyes all day. Some dogs bark at everything, some never bark at all. Some dogs grow to 100lbs, have erect ears and a shedding coat; others never reach 10 lbs, have floppy ears and a snout so foreshortened they can't chew or breathe properly.

With all the flexibility in physical form and personality that dogs show, why would people try to constantly fit dogs into a sort of generic Wolf-with-capital-W stand-in.

There is definitely value in learning about dogs' and humans' evolutionary past. But I think it gets over-used as a philosophy. Much like evolutionary psychology. There's got to be a balance between seeing a dog as an individual, and as a Wolf . I think the best dog trainers understand this.


Retrieverman said...

Great post!

I always wonder what my inner Australopithecus would do.


Not really.

But I do sometimes wonder what my inner Cro-Magnon would do...

Probably kill a European wild horse, a reindeer, caribou, or seal.

Not that there are too many of those running around in West Virginia.

I will say this: Even wolves themselves are individuals.

Some wolves will kill dogs as soon as they seem them. Others will try to join up with dogs and desperately want them to be their friends (Like Romeo:

I don't know if you've read The Wolves of Mt. McKinley, but in that population, the wolves didn't kill red foxes. They more than tolerated them. Murie thought it was because the wolves would use abandoned fox dens and the foxes were much better a digging them than the wolves were.

Yet, we know that the decline of wolves has been bad for arctic foxes because wolves no longer keep red foxes in check.

Wolves and dogs are just complex animals.

Feral dogs will eat garbage, but they can pack up and hunt. Hunting behavior is mostly learned with these species, so if you turned out a bunch of socialized captive wolves, they would starve as fast as any dogs would. Most European wolves live on garbage (as strange as that sounds.)

The differences between the animals are complex and nuanced than many would admit. I'm counting dogs and wolves to be member of the same species, but just as an Arabian wolf isn't an Arctic wolf, a domestic dog isn't a common wolf or a "Buffalo" wolf.

I sometimes wonder what we'd be like if our own species had this ability to be this diverse.

Retrieverman said...

My guess is that dogs and wolves have a desire to be part of a group, much like we do.

However, beyond that, I don't think they are born with an innate knowledge of the society they might live in.

I think horses probably are, because all wild equines have harem-based system, as do all feral horse populations.

I just realized it: dogs are the only large animals that have been domesticated that typically have a mated pair breeding system.

I don't know if you've known any dogs to pair-bond, but when they do, it's really not dissimilar from wild dogs.

When I was very young, we had a free-roaming farm collie that pair bonded with an English shepherd. She had puppies with him, and he would get in the box with his babies when she left.

He also vomited food for her.

Most dogs don't get a chance to pair-bond, and they really don't have a need to.

But they can under certain circumstances.

Jess said...

The biggest difference between wolves and dogs that people fail to see, is that wild wolves are always reared in the perfect situation. Always have a proper relationship with their parents, always get to do all the things that satisfy their instincts, always develop normally as wolves. I'm sure there are exceptions, but they are probably very, very few. Such wolves would likely never reproduce, reducing aberrant behavior in the gene pool.

Dog, OTOH, are frequently raised in such a way that their normal instincts have no outlet, their social development as dogs is horribly hindered, dogs are no longer selected for 'normal' behavior, reproductive or otherwise, producing animals with behavioral aberrations that would take them right out of the gene pool in the wild. Dogs are not raised under the same selection pressures wolves go through. Dogs are not wolves.

I have three generations of dogs living together right here, and they act remarkably like a 'normal' wolf pack, except for the hunting. Those behavioral similarities do not make them wolves. They are dogs, of breed types, btw, that is considerably older than most.

People tend to regard dogs in a highly romantic way (some large sighthound enthusiasts will spout absolute unprovable nonsense at me that makes me just want to slap them), and having a 'wolf' in your living room is very romantic. People are, for the most part, 'a bit stupid about their pets.'

Jess said...

That evolutionary psychology bingo is priceless, btw.

Retrieverman said...

Well, my only contention with this classification is that factory farm pigs are considered the same species as the Eurasian wild boar.

But they clearly are different animals.

I have no problem considering them the same species.

If the large white or Yorkshires that have little hair on them and live their entire lives on concrete slats are the same species as the heavily furred grizzly creatures of the Russian forest, then dogs and wolves have to be the same species.

It's just a simple taxonomic convention. If you know the wild ancestor of a domestic species, the domestic species is placed as a subspecies of that wild ancestor.

Yes. There are differences, but keep in mind it's a mosaic of differences. About the only truly cut and dry difference I can come up with between wolves and dogs is the supracaudal gland is active in wolves. Even the estrous cycle stuff gets screwy when wolves are in captivity. Some wolf bitches cycle before they are a year old. And some dogs don't cycle twice a year. A had a golden that never cycled twice a year. It was more like every 8 to 10 months.

I think the real issue with wolves and dogs is that there is still this inability to fully accept the wolf. It may not be conscious, but it's there.

I also think that some people can't get around the fact that the old theory about golden jackals as a potential ancestor has simply been falsified.

So they come up with dogs are derived from shit-eating street dogs. I find that interesting because that type of dog doesn't appear until after the Bering Land Bridge disappeared.

How did dogs get to South America?

It's simple.

Dogs were domesticated a long time ago and are the result of the relationship Paleolithic man had with wolves. They are simply derived from those wolves that developed a kind of culture in relying upon these people for food.

Retrieverman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Retrieverman said...

Another gem:

I got a pingback from this, and I've been trying to synthesize it for a post.

I don't think dogs are 135,000 years old.

But 40,000-60,000 is a possibility.

CyborgSuzy said...

"I think the real issue with wolves and dogs is that there is still this inability to fully accept the wolf."

Right, many people can't accept it the way it is; wolves are either lamb killing monsters or mystical new-age-y spirit guides that are more symbol than animal.

Retrieverman said...

Spiritual guides?


I remember a Simpsons episode where Homer has a red coyote (voiced by Johnny Cash) as his spiritual guide.