The Behavioural Biology of Dogs

CAB International, 266 pp., 2007; $70
By Per Jensen, Editor
Reviewed by Karen B. London PhD, November 2008, Updated June 2021

Rejoice! In this new book, a long-awaited triumph of collaboration has been achieved. The Behavioural Biology of Dogs thoroughly covers canine behavior at all levels: genetic, social, physiological, ecological, evolutionary and physical. This is also a truly international effort—experts from Sweden, Austria, Germany, Italy, Australia, Hungary, the UK, Norway and the U.S. are represented—with each chapter written by a specialist versed in the latest studies and trends in his or her area of expertise. The result is a riveting volume full of up-to-the-minute research, new ideas, theories and observations. Read the book cover to cover, or focus on chapters that match particular interests and use the rest of the book as a reference—either way, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could be disappointed.

The first section (“The Dog in Its Zoological Context”) covers basic evolutionary trends, including explanations of common terms. The authors detail what is known and not known about canine domestication. A variety of evidence is examined and compared, including DNA, morphology and the archaeological record. This section includes a discussion of the ways different sources (e.g., information from mitochondrial DNA versus autosomal DNA) can lead to different conclusions about domestication and breed development, and a thorough explanation of potential problems with conclusions drawn from previous studies.

In the second section (“Biology and Behaviour of Dogs”), the authors explain physiology; brain/body systems; regulatory mechanisms; how behavior is organized within an individual; the role hormones play in a dog’s behavior; and some basic ethological principles, such as reflexes and modal action patterns. Genetic issues discussed include the ways modification of a single gene can produce profound changes in behavior, the almost identical nature of dog and wolf genomes, and the fact that dogs provide a unique opportunity for behaviorally related genetic analyses because they have been bred over several centuries for specific behaviors as well as for physical attributes.

Social behavior is more directly covered in a chapter that illuminates the scientific evidence underlying social rank, dominance, submission and conflict resolution. The treatment of canine learning is a tour de force—clear, thorough, loaded with examples, and relevant for anyone who has ever tried, succeeded or even thought about how to train a dog.


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The third section (“The Dog in Its Niche: Among Humans”) compares the natural history and behavior of wild canids, feral dogs and village dogs. The evolutionary aspect of breeding working dogs is placed in context, linking behavior to large-scale ethological theories and tying in biotechnology, the structure of DNA, quantitative genetics and natural selection. There is a discussion of how personality is defined and how behavior, along with other methods, can be used to assess it, as well as descriptions of the primary canine personality traits. Communication between dogs and humans is also covered, with an emphasis on the three possible sources of successful human–dog interaction: our common mammalian heritage, learning, and behavioral evolution that has resulted in both specific signals for use between humans and dogs (barking, for example), as well as dogs’ ability to cue in on human gazes and vocalizations.

In the fourth section (“Behavioural Problems of Dogs”), the need to professionalize the field of canine behavior therapy—which includes people from veterinary, bio-behavioral, and dog training backgrounds—is raised. The authors discuss changes in human lifestyles that have resulted in canine behavioral problems. The final chapter provides an overview of the many ways that physical problems and disease can have an impact on behavior, with particular emphasis on epilepsy, anxiety and pain.

This book is so valuable, so full of information, and so important that I hope every copy goes to a good home—its presence will mark a place where ideas live and grow, and dogs are treasured.

Image courtesy of the publisher

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 44: Sep/Oct 2007

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life