JB: They have a good excuse, which is that in terms of their DNA, dogs and wolves are so similar. However, that doesn’t mean there is similarity in their behaviors.
Confusion about how wolves actually behave comes from observations of wolves artificially grouped in zoos. A natural pack is based on a family, but those confined in zoos and so forth are not family units. So in a zoo their behavior looks like it is one of dominance hierarchy based on aggression. The whole basis of wolf behavior [in that context] is not natural. It’s like comparing all human behavior to the behavior of humans in refugee camps. In that kind of group, behavior is distorted.
The second reason is that proto-dogs, the wolves who became domesticated, were different than other wolves. The animal who was the common ancestor of wolves and protodogs has been extinct for at least 15,000 years. Wolves in the wild are getting wilder and wilder for at least 15,000 years, probably longer.
Recent interpretations of wolf behavior have emphasized cohesive, rather than aggressive, behavior as being essential to the stability of a pack. Wolves in different packs try to avoid one another, but dogs are extraordinarily outgoing. Dogs’ sociability is even more remarkable when compared to that of their ancestors.
B: If the wolf model isn’t appropriate, what is?
JB: The behavior of feral, or village, dogs in Italy, Russia and India has been studied recently, and results show that those dogs are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than wolves are. These are urban feral dogs, high-density dogs, dogs in large groups. Earlier studies [of feral dogs] were conducted in environments in which the dogs were being persecuted and are like the early captive-wolf studies: not reliable.
Research recently conducted in West Bengal (where feral dogs are more tolerated by the people) has found that feral dogs are a lot more tolerant of one another than wolves are. Family bonds form, but with less correlation. They do not hunt together, but rather, forage singly, and, unlike in a wolf pack, more than one female in a social group will breed at the same time. They aren’t a pack in the wolf sense; their “pack” structure is very loose and rarely involves cooperative behavior, either in raising young or obtaining food.
The studies of West Bengal feral dogs don’t offer the slightest shred of evidence that they are constantly motivated to assume leadership of the pack within which they live, as the old-fashioned wolf-pack theory would have it.
B: You write that there is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs — that dogs do not want to dominate us — but so many trainers (including Cesar Millan, as you note in the book) and others use this construct to explain dog behavior. Why is this wrong and what are its implications?
JB: Part of the problem is that confrontation makes good television, and attracts programmers, but having a confrontation in your living room with your own dog isn’t the best way to train a dog. The more effective way is to use reward-based training, which can be (by television standards) incredibly dull, since it may take hours or sometimes weeks. My colleagues and I are appalled by the popularity of this style of confrontational dog training. I don’t know what the situation is in your country, but in the UK, we have a new Animal Welfare Act, and that kind of training goes against its recommendations. The law reads, “All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.”
There is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs, either in their relationship with other dogs or in those with their owners.
And if some trainers believe that dogs only perceive us as if we were other dogs (or wolves), there is no logical basis for assuming that dogs [instinctively] want to control us. Domestication should have favored exactly the opposite: dogs who passionately want us to control them.
B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?