Canine behaviour can be highly stressful, frustrating and terrifying at times for both you and your dog.
We should not anthropomorphise our dogs. It is unfair of us to treat them as if we would another human, as we may expect too much or misunderstand the intention of our dogs. Dogs do not have the same sense or right and wrong as humans. They are dogs at the end of the day. Something like licking a dead fish on the beach is disgusting to a human, but to a dog, it is a potential tasty treat. It is also important to remember, that even humans do not know their standard of do's and don't, unless they are educated in this.
But, to make it easier to understand a dogs level of thinking, we can cite research performed by Dr Stanley Coren, a psychologist and a leading canine researcher, of the university of Columbia. His findings show that a dog has a similar mental and emotional capacity of a 2.5 to 3 year old human. (Of course, this most certainly differs from dog to dog).
Knowing this makes it easier for us to understand why a dog can learn how to appropriately behave (when taught correctly), is able to learn approximately 150 human words and at times, or can trick another dog or human to gain additional food or love. But contrary to the many online videos claiming it, they cannot feel vengeance or guilt. These emotions are too complex. For example, when you see dogs acting guilty it is due to the dog having learned that punishment is not dished out as harshly, if they behave in this manner.
It is important to understand where canine behaviour then comes from. Behaviour, is usually due to one or a combination of three reasons: genetics, learned behaviour, or socialisation.
Genetics Genetics impact all animal behaviours. It is part of evolution. However, the difference with dogs, is that people have picked the traits (both behavioural and physical) to pass on to the next generation.
It is also important to understand that there is no bad behaviour, just behaviour that we may deem unsuitable. Much of the behaviours dogs show us are perfectly normal for them.
Sadly, humans have bred some dogs for aggression, most notably the Pitbull, who were bred for dogfights. These humans deliberately selected dogs who were willing to fight with other dogs, over generations, this behaviour was instilled in the breeds gene pool.
Other breeds were bred for the exact opposite quality. The Beagle, Bloodhound, and Foxhound were bred to be exceptionally amenable to pack life. Other breeds fall on a continuum, from the relatively gregarious sporting breeds like Labrador and Golden Retrievers who are generally good with other dogs, to the guard-type dogs like Rottweilers and Chows, who have a greater tendency to be protective.
To make it more clear, I am going to use the Border Collie as an example. We have lots to think about with herding breads. With Collies living in an urban environment, we don’t like uber alertness, which may result in lunging or anxiousness, continual barking, snapping or getting the ‘Stare’ from them.
But think of how the Border Collie has been genetically bred:
Uber alertness is required for herding breeds to see a sheep out of place, or limping. This would mean they need to be brought back in line, or be separated and brought to the farmer.
Continual barking is an essential part of protecting the flock from predators, or alerting the farmer of danger.
Snapping is one of the many tools used by the Border Collie to keep sheep or cattle in line during movements.
And the ‘Collie Stare’, is another of the tools used to direct and herd the flock without even moving.
Owning any dog means we have to be aware of their behaviours and where they came from. With a Border Collie, it means thinking of these behaviours and ensure that you are moulding your dog’s brain to become an ‘Urban Sheepdog’, rather than a herding dog lost in the city. We must be aware, that some dogs will not appreciate the ‘Collie stare’. We may need to remove our dog from potential disagreements over this, for the safety of both dogs.
But, what about rescued mongrel street dogs? Well, as a proud owner of 3 rescued mongrel street dogs (so fondly known here as Singapore Specials), this is something I have looked into and thought about at length. It is also why I use the Border Collie as my pedigree example.
Knowing that our beloved Singapore Specials come from a stray or feral background can tell us a lot about their genetics.
As there may have been multiple generations of dogs living on the streets, the genetic traits may show even in young puppies who have been rescued. As such, you may experience all of these from an ex-street dog:
The uber alertness is required to survive in the streets or industrial zones. “Is there another group of dogs in the area that we need to know about. Are there humans coming too close that may cause us harm. Why is that truck coming towards us?” Being able to see potential threats or opportunities could mean the difference between life and death.
Continual barking is an essential part of protecting themselves and their family from predators and humans, or alerting the other dogs of danger.
Growling and snapping is one of the many tools used by dogs to communicate and warn of their unhappiness of a situation. It is similar to us telling someone to stop doing something before we get angry.
You can see the similarities between the ex-street dog and herding dogs. Effectively, we have taken a dog whose genetic building blocks are made for a different environment. And, taken them in as house pets. As pets, they do need need to have this same level of pessimism, or the same reactions to their surroundings.
With an ex-street dog we must think of these behaviours and ensure that we are moulding their brain to become a ‘home-dog’, rather than a ‘street-dog in a house’.
Learned behaviour This looks at the argument of nature Vs nurture. To some extent, the natural tendencies of a dog’s genetics can be influenced by learning. Labradors can be made to be dog aggressive if the circumstances mould them to be so. A Pitbull can be raised peacefully with other dogs, providing care is taken to avoid exposing the individuals to incidents that might turn on their fighting “lightbulb”. And a skittish ex-street dog can be taught to be optimistic and focus on you, rather than everything going on around them.
When you hear the many stories of people whose dogs bit them out of the blue after many years of subservient obedience, it is normally due to the learned behaviour taught by humans during training or the tools they use.
This is why it is critical to raise and train your dog in an environment that doesn’t show conflict and aggression. For example, shouting, striking or tying a dog up in a location where other dogs can agitate the confined one, is a classic recipe for dog aggression.
Socialisation By far the most common cause of dog reactivity or undesired behaviour is the lack of proper socialisation. This is why early socialisation as puppies in a controlled environment is a good idea.
However, socialisation does not mean to put your dog together with many different dogs and people without control. Some dogs require a level of optimism to be built so that they feel that they are able to socialise. Putting a dog in a situation they are not prepared for would be like you being put into a game of rugby without being taught the basic skills needed. You'd be terrified, likely be hurt and not want to go back into the game.
Giving your dog, puppy or adult the confidence building opportunities and skills to calm down when needed before entering them into the proverbial rugby game is the best way of ensuring successful socialisation.
The most common behaviour problems manifested in dogs stem from anxiety, fear and a lack of confidence which can result in reactivity. If this is the case, you will need to evaluate the severity of the situation and start with behaviour modification by reaching out to a canine behavioural specialist.
Dogs don’t automatically know how to live in the human world – we need to teach them properly. For effective dog behaviour modification to take place, they need to feel safe and happy within their modern lifestyle. They need proper optimism/ socialisation, ongoing training, and opportunities to engage in typical “doggie” behaviour.