Dog Behavior 101 (Exploding some myths)

The domestic dog’s ancestors were carnivorous beasts that hunted and killed other animals for food. The behaviors associated with these skills are “hard wired” into our dogs to some extent. Without these skills they would perish.

The dog’s inherent social skills enable him to coexist well with humans

The fact that humans have developed, through centuries of selection, an animal that coexists with us safely and peacefully is testimonial to the adaptability of the canine organism and to the creativity and intelligence of man. We must never forget this basic prey drive of dogs; reversion to predatory behavior is more elementary to canine survival than the many more acceptable social skills we have selectively bred for and/or trained into them.

Our dogs’ ancestors were also social beings. This is evident in the behaviors and needs of wild canines today. They live in social groups, dependent upon one another to achieve their primary goals, one of which is to hunt and kill other animals for food. Thus canines have developed their own social skills. These skills are the foundation for human intervention; they are what made it possible for dogs and humans to coexist and form this inter-species relationship that is so remarkable.

… but they don’t have a “moral code” and often cannot meet human expectations

It is important to remember the basic needs of dogs: food, shelter, reproduction, and social interaction. Sounds a lot like our basic needs, yes? The intellectual capacity of our dogs is not as developed as it at times may appear to be. While dogs are amazingly intelligent and intuitive, their ability to reason is limited and their understanding of abstract concepts is minimal.

Contrary to what Lassie may have depicted, dogs have no moral code, at least not one that correlates with what most humans consider acceptable. They do not have an organized religion or other cultural influence to outline a behavioral code for them. They do what they need in order to survive. These skills are acquired from their mother, other pack members, and the environment. So it is not fair to assume our dogs “know better” when it comes to uniquely human expectations.

Dogs are not linguists. They don’t come out of the womb with an understanding of human language…verbal or otherwise. They also don’t have the brain connections for a complex verbal language and human/primate body language is not remotely similar to canines. They DO have the connections for a very elaborate canine language based upon subtle body movements. When we are successful in teaching cues using our language and signals, dogs demonstrate their willingness to adapt in order to survive in our “pack”.

Dogs can’t sue you. We should remember that the dog has few options when threatened, the primary ones being fight or flight. When we misinterpret our dog’s “language” or assume they understand ours beyond their capability, the probability for problematic behaviors to occur is high. It is best not to take our dogs’ abilities for granted or make demands beyond their grasp. Despite appearances, dogs are not little people in fur coats. For that we can be extremely grateful!