The Wolf in our Dog

Whenever I read another distorted anti dog story in the media, perhaps of a dog attacking and injuring somebody, I am reminded that the domestic dog, be it a pedigree or a mongrel, still has some wolf tendencies within. I also have to accept that there is a lot of ignorance among dog owners and the media, which will not help in the general understanding of the incident. Dogs are an accepted part of our culture, the faithful, loyal, trusted friend, defender of house and owner, nevertheless we recoil in disbelief at yet another tabloid story blaming dogs for being dangerous. We wish to perceive the dog as a stable companion from the wild, tamed by us, in our homes. For the most part, the breeders modern, but more importantly the ancients, have made a good job of domesticating the wolf and through selective breeding have produced the plethora of breeds we see in our homes and in the show ring today.

In this article I wish to explore the wilder side of our dog friends in the hope that by understanding why dogs behave as they do we can minimise the bad behaviour and serious attacks upon people. As dog owners, if we could truly understand the full repertoire of dog communication, including vocalisation, touch, hearing, smell and body language our ability to train and control dogs safely would be much better; unfortunately, we still know little about how the dog’s mind works. Many experts believe that they do know and can produce highly trained dogs as proof. That demonstrates to me how the trainer has skillfully learnt to train a dog and does not necessarily prove that he or she understands its subtleties and its instincts.

Show Time
Take the show ring, for example, though we have domesticated the wolf into an endless variety of breeds, pedigree dogs, unlike their ancestors, have to deal with a show environment and learn how to negotiate their way around it without altercation. The fact that we concentrate so many dogs in one small congested space is in itself a success story, which illustrates how breeders have managed to mellow the wolf’s territorial instincts into accepting the close proximity of other dogs who are not pack members. However, the wolf’s innate behaviour is still very much alive in all the show beauties whatever their colour, size or shape and it is this, sometimes unpredictable, innate behaviour that we often try to suppress rather than understand.

The wolf, when he meets other wolves, is generally not predisposed to allowing them into his territory, let alone get so close as to actually give him the once over. His dominant stance and marking of territory is evident on initial contact. Suspicion is high and the freeze or fight triggers are at maximum level. Of course the show dog is not necessarily in its own territory. A car journey miraculously changes the territorial boundaries and all the show dogs have to deal with is this new, electrically lit landscape without any known secure areas, which is quite a test of temperament or more to the point, the result of breeder selection and domestication over the centuries.

We could argue about temperament here and what is good and bad, however, I believe temperament is of arbitrary importance and relevant only to circumstances. Many of the wolf’s natural behaviours would make dog shows on the whole impossible and breeders have tended to breed from specimens that show tolerant tendencies. You may hear, occasionally, a breeder say “he’s a bad one, he’s ready to take on anything that comes near”. What they are really describing is the wolf in their breed specimen’s clothing and that their specific dog has retained strong wolf-like dominant behaviour – even after many generations of breeding.

Handlers know which of their dogs is likely to get them into trouble and what areas to avoid (normally congested ones) in order that dominant tensions do not get out of hand. I have watched, many a time, as handlers dash from ring to ring and drag their beauty past hundreds of others, failing to notice the intense communication the dogs are trying to display. It is somewhat comical to see the dogs doing their very best to impress their dog brethren at full speed ahead. Many of the more dominant dogs are eye-posing with ears erect and forward, this  even includes the droop-eared dogs (who think their ears are forward anyway). Many dogs are encouraged and trained by handlers to use their dominant display. It is no coincidence that when a show dog is centre ring the more dominant the display the better the dog looks, in my view, at least.

The lingering scents of females permeating the air, who have recently been in oestrus, are very powerful to all alert males. Dogs meeting for the first time generally try to establish the strict ranking structure of wolves, but it must be very confusing for many who, just as they are about to exchange status cards, are whisked off again to another ring to receive their reward perhaps a CC for the top wolf.

What fascinates me about this frenetic atmosphere is that, on the whole, the dogs actually get through this psychological turmoil without too many altercations. Through social conditioning breeders have adapted and manipulated the wolf’s social rules to the extreme. For a human to try and get a dog’s eye view of this it is worth imagining placing one’s self in a packed foreign city centre like Delhi. You would be lost, confused, nervous and suspicious of those who approached and spoke to you. You would not have the security of your home environment and you would be on full alert (flight or fight) and you may over react to an innocent approach by a street vendor. In the same way, an inexperienced show dog might snap at an approaching dog or human at a show. Some dogs just can’t stand the pressure and react aggressively or insecurely and breeders have to try to discourage it. This same dog probably shows a perfect temperament in its local park or home environment; unfortunately, it will not be judged on that as dog shows are about the day and what is presented before the judge. In the wild the wolf that displays less suspicion is unlikely to live long enough to reproduce the same genes in its future offspring and domestic dogs are bred for this non-suspicious reaction. An experienced breeder understands and will generally introduce their young pups to the show ring and ring craft classes as early as possible. The adaptable dog slowly gets used to all the mayhem and eventually becomes one of those well behaved show dogs patiently sitting on his bench waiting for the results.

The Dominant Dog
At Wolf Park, Pat Goodman, the resident biologist, has observed that trying to get a dominant wolf to roll over submissively and accept a playful touch depends on who is watching. The alfa wolf is less likely to obey if other wolves are present. Some dog breeders may remember a particularly dominant dog or bitch that was the alfa (top dog) in their breeding group and how they too may have resisted being told what to do, to roll over, execute a down stay position or have their tummy groomed in the presence of low ranking (status) pack members. My own black German Shepherd Dog, Ulrich, certainly did not like rolling over on his back when unknown dogs or humans were present. He was very sure of himself and did not enjoy such public, overt submission to me. Moreover, it was the wolf within him that knew the dangers of lower ranking wolves usurping his vulnerable position. For those of you who own dominant dogs or bitches, see if they perform any differently to your commands in private as opposed to in public with other dog or human onlookers.

The clever trainer will mainly use the reward based methods and contrary to the opinion of popular book taught weekend course experts (nouveau trainers) it is not new. Successful trainers have always known that it is quicker to teach what you want a dog to do rather than punish it for the negative action. Working Trials trainers are an excellent example of this training genre. They teach scent discrimination and tracking, always using inducement reward methods to encourage nose work – you cannot force a dog to track.

Wolves have little tolerance for physical punishment and restraint if a handler tries to enforce their will by trials of strength. The wolf becomes aggressive or shies away as it finds the human approach alien to its pack communication system. Because of domestication our pet dogs do appear accept a much higher degree of physical punishment and rough handling without too much complaint, but the wolf still lurks within them and on many occasions the rough handler is attacked, bitten or threatened by the dog. Such dogs are often categorised as dangerous, untrustworthy or badly bred when in fact they have retained a little too much of their wild ancestry for the bully’s liking. The truth is that if the handlers knew more about the dog/wolf’s mind then the confrontations would take place with less frequency and the same animal would be described as good tempered and with good breeding lines; so the way a dog is reared and treated will determine its temperament not just its breeding.

A large number of dogs returned to breeders as rejects, because of temperament are actually perfectly good specimens; unfortunately the owners have failed to socialise the puppies wisely and as we live in a blame culture the breeder becomes the whipping boy.

In my consulting rooms in Hertfordshire I am regularly presented with aggressive dogs; if the aggression is directed at me I have found that by pretending to engage is some nondescript activity like typing, reading or fiddling with some paperwork, during which I engage in no eye contact with the dog, the aggressive behaviour is quickly defused. I normally say to the owner ” oh you’ve brought your dog” or some other daft, irrelevant comment. Why? Because this is what dogs and wolves often do when they are encountering other high ranking dogs they are unsure of. Many, like me, play the pretending game of not noticing the other sniffing this and that – all of which is a procedure to convince the other that no intent to attack is imminent. They weigh up the opposition and providing both dominant dogs are socially skilled they keep a respectful distance. Humans often interrupt the meeting in a panic, shouting commands and the like causing a greater problem. The dog’s eyes flicker as they try to read all the confusing, half-baked signals from the owners and the sudden pulling or grabbing of one or more dogs sparks off a fight. This rarely happens with wolves.

When wolves interact with each other the main authority they use is psychological not physical, but to the novice observer it can appear to be the opposite. Teeth flashing, growling, snapping and squawking – all seems to be chaos, but if you observe closely, muzzle clamping by one wolf to another may seem like biting; in reality, however, the inhibition not to bite the fellow pack member is working well. The dominant wolf may appear to be forcing the other wolf down to the ground by strength, but in fact this is not usually possible as they tend to be equally matched. The lower ranking wolf goes down through its own wish to show deference to the dominant wolf, which uses its mouth to push and direct the lower ranking wolf downwards. This is not the same as a trainer forcing a dog down by pure physical strength.

Sexual Behaviour
Unlike domesticated dogs wolves only come into oestrus yearly; from November onwards the entire pack becomes involved and is stimulated by the various hormonal changes as well as an abundance of pheromones – scent signals – that the bitches give off. In this heightened and very reactive atmosphere, the staff at Wolf Park take more safety precautions as the aggression in the pack is fueled by competition and can cause displaced aggression onto the staff. This is a dangerous situation for the unwary and has an interesting analogy with the domestic dog.

What I find fascinating about dog sexual behaviour is the fact that many breeders, including myself, have known for years that though most stud dogs behave in a gentlemanly way, there are individuals who behave more like wolves. These males will growl or threaten humans they are familiar with when a bitch in oestrus is ready to mate. The handler may try to discipline or control the stud dog, which increases the tension and the dog sees the handler as a pack member and a challenger for the bitch. As most stud dogs mate regularly and only the top wolf mates regularly in the wild, the domestic stud dog by definition behaves like a top dog and as a consequence may on occasion challenge the handler or nearby perceived rivals. So does that dog have a bad temperament or is it just behaving like a dog? Most breeders will know the answer.

Young Children
When dogs are sexually aroused, children in their company can become a target for displaced sexual attention, sometimes arousal and out of character aggression. We must remember that these individual dogs are reacting to their deep down innate behaviour. It is not personal or hate driven; it is as normal as men and women fancying each other and fighting off the competition. Experienced breeders who have witnessed these aggressive sexual behaviours probably take precautions and children are not generally present during mating sessions. However, if we move the scene to a public park and a pet male dog picks up the strong, highly stimulating scent of a bitch, I have seen a dog begin to mount a child nearby due to their size and approachability. I believe the dog confuses the child for the bitch, as odd as it might seem and as there is no organised pack order, the resulting sexual behaviour is confused and erratic. When I have seen people try to remove the dog, it grips onto the child in a sudden burst of competitive aggression, though normally a few sharp commands tend to bring the dog back to its real world and the child can be separated. Again we should learn why the dog acts in the way it does instead of describing the dog’s temperament as defective.

The ongoing work at Wolf Park will hopefully help all domestic dog owners and breeders to delve into their dog’s mind to find out how it truly works. After all it was man who invited the wolf into our alien environment. I have an image in my mind of a lady living in Mayfair, London, who will read this, probably lying on her four poster bed adorned with silks and tapestries. She will be looking at her little Lhasa Aphso stretched out in ostentatious comfort and she is saying “Darling, can you believe it, that Mr Tennant thinks you’re in an alien environment”.

by Colin Tennant