More basic misunderstandings
WE HAVE BEEN STUDYING THE RIGHT ANIMAL THE WRONG WAY
Some people have actually studied dogs. Most of them have studied dogs in laboratories. When you look at dogs this way, you are taking them out of their natural surroundings and studying them as collections of parts. This is probably a good way to understand isolated pieces of behavior. Pavlov succeeded in discovering that dogs can associate a bell or the sight of a caretaker with food. Skinner discovered that rewarding behavior will make it more likely to occur in the future. These are examples of discoveries about how parts are interacting inside the dog (ears, nose, brain, salivary glands, stomach juices). These are certainly pieces of the puzzle, but they only tell us about the dog on one level.
Some have studied dogs in groups in laboratories. Scott and Fuller’s dogs were kept in pens, each breed together with others of its own kind. The dogs had very limited contact with humans, and they were allowed to live for only six months. This is because Scott and Fuller’s focus was on the dog as a collection of parts and how these parts develop at the beginning of a dog’s life. They wanted to look inside the dogs and see how the parts differed according to their differing developmental histories. Scott and Fuller discovered that dogs have a primary socialization period, which is related to the part called “brain”, and that breeding (i.e., the parts called “genes”) can affect behavior in certain ways. At the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, donated adult dogs were kept in kennels and occasionally put together in a larger space to watch how they behaved. Again, these dogs had limited contact with humans and were observed together for only short periods. The University of Utrecht focused on dogs as black-box parts in fleeting canine social systems. One of the discoveries they made there is that even when they are suddenly confined in a space with a bunch of strangers, dogs don’t fight and certainly don’t try to kill each other. These discoveries are also pieces of the puzzle, but they still only tell us how dogs behave in laboratories for relatively short periods of time.
A few scientists decided to go out and study dogs in their “natural surroundings.” They went out and looked for dogs that weren’t living with humans — stray dogs, feral dogs, sylvatic dogs. They watched dogs behave among themselves. The dogs were seen as finished products, black-box wholes whose history you didn’t need to know. These studies led to the conclusion that most dogs live in open groups (if they live in groups at all). They are scavengers, dependent on the presence of humans for food. They have a very hard time surviving, with a maximum life span of six years and a puppy mortality rate of about 50 – 95%, then another 80% dies in its first year. Some studies were done in cities, others in rural areas. Those done in rural areas fail to take into account that only a single breed of dog was present in the area, generalizing their findings to all dogs. All of these studies suddenly draw conclusions about the dog’s relation to man (it’s a health hazard), without providing any data to support the conclusions. (More on this in Reviews, which is still under construction.) All of these studies are very confused about which level of organization they want to study. Either they forget to account for the parts that humans had influenced (genes), or they forget to account for the fact that all these stray dogs did start out living with humans (parts in a larger social system that included not only dogs), or they suddenly say something about the dog as part of an ecosystem (a species in relation to humans as a species). Despite tables and statistical analyses of what they counted, none of these studies really have more than anecdotal value: this is what a particular population of dogs did at the particular moment I watched them.
All of theses studies want to tell us something about how dogs behave if they are free of human influence. None of them succeed in this. This is because dogs are always under human influence and always have been.
All of these studies try to tell us something universal about dogs by observing dogs for short periods at some time in the dogs’ lives. This also doesn’t work, because behavior doesn’t come out of a vacuum and it isn’t static. It changes as a dog’s life history progresses. If you want to discover general laws about their behavior, you have to look at how changing events change their behavior.
There is no such thing as the static, generic dog. Once you do get studying dogs, you have to study them in their natural habitat (near and among humans) in a way that takes our influence into account. You also have to watch them for long periods of time, so you can understand what role experience and circumstances play in their behavior.
- Beck, AM, The Ecology of Stray Dogs: A Study of Free-ranging Urban Animals, York Press, Baltimore, 1973.
- Coppinger, R, Coppinger, L, Dogs: a startling new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution, Scribner, New York, 2001.
- Donaldson, J, The Culture Clash, James & Kenneth Publishers, Berkeley CA, 1996.
- Semyonova, A, The social organization of the domestic dog; a longitudinal study of domestic canine behavior and the ontogeny of domestic canine social systems, Carriage House Foundation, The Hague, The Netherlands, 2003. Read it here.
- Serpell, JA, The Domestic Dog: The Biology of Its Behavior, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.
- Sidman, M, Coercion and its Fallout, Authors Cooperative, Inc, Publishers, Boston, 1989.
- Skinner, BF, Contingencies of Reinforcement, Prentice-Hall inc, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1969.