Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals

by Dr. Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2009
ISBN 978-0-15101489-7

(In United Kingdom, book title is "Making Animals Happy" and ISBN is: 978-0-7475-9714-8)

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An Excerpt from Chapter 2: A Dog’s Life

Dogs Need Parents, Not Pack Leaders and Insights into Dog and Wolf Behavioral Genetics

What dogs probably need isn’t a substitute pack leader but a substitute parent. I say that because genetically dogs are juvenile wolves, and young wolves live with their parents and siblings.

During evolution dogs went through a process called pedomorphosis , which means that dog puppies stop developing earlier than wolf cubs do. It’s a kind of arrested development. That’s why dogs — especially purebred dogs — look less “wolfy” than real wolves. Baby animals have “baby faces” the same way human babies do. Newborn wolf puppies have little snub noses and floppy ears just like newborn dog puppies, but the wolf puppy grows up to have a long, pointy nose and tall, pointy ears. Most dogs grow up to have shorter, snubbier noses than wolves, and a lot of dogs have floppy ears like a puppy’s ears, too. Purebreds are especially young-looking. A friend of mine says they have “toy faces:’

Thanks to some really interesting research done in England, we know that dog facial features and dog behavior generally go together. Dr. Deborah Goodwin and her colleagues found that the more wolfy a breed looks, the more grown wolf behaviors it has. To study the connection between wolfy looks and wolf behaviors, she chose the fifteen most important aggressive and submissive behaviors wolves use to communicate with each other during a conflict, and then observed ten dog breeds to see which breeds expressed which behaviors. Aggressive behaviors included things like growling, teeth baring, “standing over” (one dog puts its head over the other dog’s body), and “standing erect” (the dog stands as tall as it can, with its back arched and its hackles up). Submissive behaviors were things like muzzle licks, looking away (the submissive dog averts its eyes and very slowly turns its head away), crouching, and the passive submit; where the dog lies on its back and exposes its anogenital area.

Dr. Goodwin found that Siberian huskies, which of the ten breeds look the most like wolves, had all fifteen behaviors, whereas Cavalier King Charles spaniels, which look nothing like wolves, had only two. The correlation between looking like a wolf and acting like a wolf was pretty strong across all ten breeds, with some interesting exceptions. Three of the four gun dogs — cocker spaniels, Labrador retrievers, and golden retrievers — had somewhat more wolfy behaviors than their appearance predicted, and two of the sheepdogs — German shepherds and Shetland sheepdogs — had somewhat fewer wolfy behaviors than their pointy noses and ears predicted. The German shepherd and Shetland sheepdog are probably the exceptions that prove the rule because their facial features were deliberately bred into them starting with sheepherding stock. The German shepherd was intentionally bred to look as much like a wolf as possible. Dr. Goodwin says that may mean that once a breed has lost a behavior you can’t bring the behavior back just by changing its appearance. So although looks and behavior go together genetically, they can also be separated genetically. She thinks the reason the gun dogs kept as many wolfy behaviors as they did might be because hunting dogs need “a fuller range of ancestral behavior” to do their job.

Even with the exceptions, the overall order supported her hypothesis:

  1. Cavalier King Charles spaniel: 2 wolf behaviors out of 15
  2. Norfolk terrier: 3 of 15
  3. French bulldog: 4 of 15
  4. Shetland sheepdog: 4 of 15
  5. Cocker spaniel: 6 of 15
  6. Munsterlander: 7 of 15
  7. Labrador retriever: 9 of 15
  8. German shepherd: 11 of 15
  9. Golden retriever: 12 of 15
  10. Siberian husky: 15 of 15

It would be interesting to do Dr. Goodwin’s study using mixed-breed dogs. Mutts revert to a somewhat wolfy body form fairly quickly, but do they also get some of the wolfy behaviors back? No one knows.

When you think about dogs being wolves that haven’t finished growing up, people who treat their dogs as if they’re children might have the right idea after all — although that doesn’t necessarily make them good “dog parents.” Also, people who buy lap dogs and treat them like babies are probably right for at least some of the highly neotenized toy breeds that have retained puppylike behavior. Dr. Goodwin says that a King Charles spaniel never matures mentally beyond the stage of a puppy. It even looks very much like a puppy after it is full grown. I saw an adult Cavalier at the airport once while I was waiting to catch my flight. Everybody was coming up to pet this darling, puppylike dog.

If dogs need parents, does this mean people should throw out their guidebooks on how important it is to establish themselves as the alpha dog?

I think it depends on the book. Some of the guides have probably been right for the wrong reason. Dog owners do need to be the leader, but not because a dog will become the alpha if they don’t. Dog owners need to be the leader the same way parents do. Good parents set limits and teach their kids how to behave nicely, and that’s exactly what dogs need, too. Dogs have to learn good manners and their owners have to teach them. When dogs don’t have good human parents, they get crazy and out of control and take over the house the same way an undisciplined, spoiled child gets crazy and out of control and takes over the house. It probably doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as the alpha or as the mom or dad so long as you raise your dog right. And because a dog never does grow up mentally, you have to keep on being a good parent and setting limits even after your dog is grown up physically.

One way or another, the human has to be in charge. Whether you think of yourself as mom, dad, or pack leader probably doesn’t matter as long as you’re handling your dog right.

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