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What is an anthrozoologist, anyway? Turns out it’s someone who studies human-animal interactions, and John Bradshaw, who directs the world-renowned Anthrozoology Institute based at the UK’s University of Bristol (and founded it at the University of Southampton), is pre-eminent among them. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s investigated the behavior of dogs and their people, and his findings have been widely published. In Dog Sense — his best-selling, recently released book — he expands upon his belief that “the future of the dog does not lie simply with the blunt instruments of legislation and regulation, but with better public understanding of what dogs actually are, their needs and wants.” Recently, Bradshaw shared his thoughts on evolution, training (debunking the myth behind the “dog as wolf” model), changes in breeding practices in the UK and what lies behind dogs’ attraction and attachment to us, among other intriguing ideas.
Bark: Why do you think that a proto-dog — a transition from wolf to dog — evolved?
John Bradshaw: My theory — and I have nothing to back it up — is that something happened in the brains of certain wolves that made dual socialization possible. Humans developed a propensity to take in pets, and then these particular wolves came along — these would be the protodogs. They would have looked exactly like wolves. This was not an intervention on our part, but rather, a very different cultural environment.
B: Most researchers refer to domestication as a one-way street. Didn’t other species, including the wolf and proto-dog, also have an effect on our own evolution?
JB: Domestication was a long and complex process; speculatively, I would [say] that there were several failed attempts. Researchers who are studying human evolution and the human brain pretty much say that our own evolution — at the genetic level — wasn’t influenced by dogs. But, of course, our culture has been profoundly influenced by them.
B: Do you think it’s possible that we hunted together, or perhaps learned or honed our own skills by watching wolves hunt?
JB: I don’t think we were hunting partners, to begin with, but one of the versions of human evolution that I strongly subscribe to comes from Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory, who studies the evolution of the human mind and why we are different from the Neanderthal — why they died out and we didn’t. One of the key [dissimilarities] he points to is our ancestors’ ability to think like animals. They could put themselves in the place of an animal — that they, in fact, had a connection to the animals. So we would be able to think, “If I were a wolf, what would I be doing?” or, “If I were a deer, what would I do now?”
B: If scientists have concluded that wolf behavior is different from that of dogs, why do people still consider the lupomorph (wolf pack) model as a determinant of canine behavior?
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.
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.
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.”
B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?
JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?
JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?
JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?
JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?
JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.
Photograph by Alan Peters