Social Behavior

Throughout the dog’s twelve thousand-year relationship with man, its behavior has been carefully molded to distinguish the dog from its wild ancestor, the wolf. In the first installment of this series, we saw how aggression, a trait seldom seen in the defensive behavior of the wild predator, has been developed in the modern dog to serve man. The second installment examined prey behavior and concluded that the natural predatory skills of the dog have been honed so it will just as naturally pursue hot dogs, balls and sleeves as it will a running rabbit. We now examine an area that, to the dog trainer, is the single most important part of dog training, the relationship between trainer and dog. The often easy description of this relationship is a throwback to the pack instincts of the wolf. Writers describe the trainer as the alpha, meaning that the dog takes a subordinate role to the trainer, just as it would to the highest ranking wolf in a pack. But is this an accurate description of the relationship between dog and trainer?

It is an attractive description for in all of dog behavior, nothing seems so identical to a dog’s interaction with people and other dogs as does the wolf’s in the pack setting. In the wolf pack, ranging from only a few to over twenty members, the lines of authority are set within a strict hierarchy. The pack contains two distinct lines, male and female, with each line seldom interfering with the other. The top male and female, called alphas, maintain control and priority in feeding, mating and the social behavior of subordinates. Below the alpha position is a line of animals with each submitting to the animal above it and dominating those that are subordinate to its authority. It is not as stable a situation as this simple explanation might imply. There is a constant process of each animal attempting to gain dominance over its immediate superior, while fighting off the attempts of subordinates to dominate it. If this situation seems unstable, it is; but, the pack is able to maintain sufficient peace to hunt and protect the pack without serious injury or anarchy resulting. Because of its small size, no single wolf is capable of surviving for long, instead requiring the joint efforts of the pack to bring down a deer, caribou or moose. Therefore, pack social behavior is a constant process of challenging, confrontation and reconciliation among the members.

I am fortunate enough to live near a captive wolf pack of six members. During the winter, just before breeding, this pack becomes extremely active and it is one of the most enlightening experiences for the dog trainer. The social interaction among these wolves seems so identical to what we humans see in dogs that within only a few minutes the observer forgets he is watching wolves and starts thinking of these beautiful animals as dogs. But, it doesn’t take long before the differences become apparent.

The most marked difference is the intensity of the wolf’s responses around other pack members. The alpha wolves, in particular, are always showing their authority, sometimes in the most seemingly innocent ways. One will drop a piece of meat on the ground and then lie down a few feet away, defying any other wolf to even show interest in the master’s property. No fight needs to follow; the message has been loud and clear. This process goes on constantly, with each wolf attempting to find a weakness in its competitor’s social position. While fights and serious injury can result, this is not the normal course of events and all of the subtle and, even, unsubtle signs given by each wolf are designed to prevent serious injury. No pack can survive and procreate if all of its members are maimed or killed, so the wolf’s social behavior is designed to create lines of authority and preserve them, while allowing the pack to continue.

One reason it is popular to compare the social behavior of dogs to wolves is that the interactions we see between dogs seem identical to that between wolves. Dogs will posture, bluff and even fight in much the same way as members of the wolf pack. Dogs will mark territory, guard food, submit to and appease other dogs in the same way of wolves. If the behavior is similar, it is certainly much less intense than with its wild counterpart. The more important question is does a dog’s pack like relationship with other dogs extend to that which it has with the trainer?

It is my conclusion that while the relationship of dog and trainer can appear to be like the alpha relationship between groups of dogs or wolves, the real relationship between dog and man is pack member and super alpha. Without this important distinction, I question that we could ever train our dogs to the level of reliability and skill that working dog trainers require. One of the reasons that wolves don’t work too well as pets is that they may constantly test the human owner for dominance. Over the time that man and dog have been together, there have been certain characteristics of the wolf’s social behavior that man has had to modify or eliminate. Imagine the problems of getting to the nightly dinner table if we had to fight through a canine contender. How long would any of us last if, upon giving a correction, the dog would perceive this as an attempt to dominate it and fight back? Some might argue that this is exactly what happens to many people, so the vestiges of the pack social behavior must exist. I cannot disagree with this conclusion, but when the behavior reaches a point where the owner has to fight constantly for dominance, there is something fundamentally wrong with the relationship. Either the dog is poorly temperamented or the owner has taught the dog it can attempt this type of reaction.

The concept of the super alpha is the result of thousands of generations of breeding where the dog has learned that while it can fully exercise an unrestrained social attitude towards other dogs, it can never show these same attempts to dominate against man. Sure, a large person can always give the dog a lesson by beating it into physical submission, but the heart of the super alpha concept is more subtle, relying on building and strengthening the relationship between man and dog that our ancestors worked so hard to create.

While the word bonding has become a popular and sensitive word for the 1990’s, it has a much richer and long standing significance in the study of animal behavior. The Nobel Prize Laureate, Konrad Lorenz, studied bonding and determined that some animals go through a period during their early life when they must bond to some other animal. In his studies with Greylag Geese, he was able to bond the gosling to his voice before it even left the egg. Dogs are among the most social animals we know and their bonding requirements are little different. Subsequent researchers have determined that at a time of about seven weeks of age the puppy must bond to something. If it is allowed to only be around other dogs, it will bond to those dogs, just like its wolf ancestors. If it is exposed only to a single human during this critical social period, the puppy will bond to that person. On the other hand, if the puppy is isolated through this period, not being allowed to bond to anything, it becomes the human equivalent of anti-social.

It has been the philosophy of many breeders not to remove a puppy from the litter until about eight to ten weeks of age, forgetting that during this period the puppy is developing a strong bond to its litter mates. It then will most likely key on other dogs first during the rest of its life and the bonding process with the owner can become jeopardized. Konrad Lorenz not only defined this critical imprinting period, but also concluded that once established, the bond becomes permanent. This is not to say that the puppy bonds to only one person or dog, but to people or dogs in general. Lorenz seems to be saying that when the bond is genetically driven during this early period, the results of the bond are the same as if its bond to a dog or person becomes genetically based. The research has seemed to confirm Lorenz’s conclusion in showing that the many attempts to reverse a certain kind of social behavior learned during this critical period are rarely successful. It is as if the trainer is trying to change the dog’s genes.

A strong bond between the dog and the super alpha trainer does not solve the potential conflict that can arise in the training environment, if the trainer fails to understand that the dog will still show many types of social responses to different training problems. Bonding does not create a magic elixir capable of changing the fundamental character of the dog. Instead, a strong bond between dog and trainer satisfies the genetic need of the dog to bond to something and, therefore, makes the dog more willing to respond to the demands of our work. Unless, of course, the trainer fails to properly read the dog’s social responses during training.

Theory of Social Behavior

In the first installment of this series, the principles of defensive behavior, including aggression, were discussed and the comment was made that many of the characteristics of defensive behavior seem similar to those of social behavior. It is easy to fall into the trap of concluding that responses in one type of behavior are the same as in another. I would like to review those characteristics of defense in light of similar responses between handler and dog or dog and dog.

The strategy in defense is for the prey animal to respond in such a way that the predator can not see the prey, catch it or breaks off the threat for fear of injury to itself. Using this simple definition, it should be clear that the motivation behind defensive behavior would seem to have little to do with social reactions and this is the principal point. The most important distinction between defense and social behavior is the purpose behind the behavior. In contrast to defense, the dog’s motivation in social behavior is to find its place in the relationship between itself and other members of the same species (or in our case, with the trainer). All healthy reactions in social behavior are driven by this need of the dog to find its niche. Earlier I discussed the need of the dog to find success and, in true defense, we discovered that the dog’s strategy of either avoidance or aggression would lead to a dog’s sense of success. The trainer must keep this in mind for in social behavior there are many responses a dog can give that will result in the dog’s sense of success, but which can be a total failure for the trainer.

In examining defense, we found that an animal can evade the attack by withdrawing to a safe place, fleeing or freezing. All of these responses can be shown in social reactions to the trainer, except we must add some additional characteristics and redefine some of these seemingly identical behaviors when discussing social characteristics. While the word avoidance fits comfortably into our descriptions of the above defense responses, similar reactions in social behavior can not so easily be described as avoiding the trainer. In a wolf pack, if the alpha wolf actively dominates a subordinate, the lower wolf will immediately show every sign that it is submitting to the strength of the alpha. It will lower its body and tail, pull its ears back and even roll on its back. As soon as it demonstrates that it is no longer willing to challenge its superior, the alpha immediately reassures the subordinate by greeting it or even sharing some social activity. Therefore, the response of appeasement or submission is critical to the survival of the pack, but would be totally worthless in the life and death struggle of defense. No animal can submit to or appease a predator and succeed, let alone survive. If an animal runs away, freezes or submits to a more dominant force in social interactions, it has still found success. Therefore, the trainer who unfairly disciplines his dog will teach it that the only way for it to succeed is to avoid, usually in the form of submission. The dog has found success and the trainer has found failure. Further, because the bond is ever present, the dog has found a pattern of successful behavior that it must use whenever it is around its master, so the trainer can look forward to consistent and, perhaps, permanent avoidance from the dog. Other forms of defensive like avoidance can manifest themselves in the relationship between trainer and dog. One of the most frustrating is freezing or passive resistance. In this behavior the dog simply freezes, choosing neither to submit nor run away: it simply does nothing. Here the dog is in conflict; it wants to submit and flee at the same time. It is not hiding by freezing, as in defense, but totally incapable of resolving the conflict of wanting to do two things at the same time. Unable to work its way out of this dilemma, it finds some third type of behavior, freezing, to resolve the problem. This response was earlier discussed in the installment on defense and is called displacement.

The above describes behavior that is designed to avoid the confrontation between trainer and dog or dominant dog and subordinate dog, but what about those cases where the dog is willing to actively defend its position? We see dogs that fight or handlers that are bitten. Isn’t this just another form of aggression, similar to what we saw in defense?

In defense, I described aggression, perhaps to the reader with some uncertainty, as hostile behavior against animals of a different species, beyond the displays and posturing of bluffing. It might seem that I have conveniently created a definition that gets me out of having to define social aggression as identical to that in defense, but I hope the definition will now become clearer. If my definition would include animals of the same species, then a dog urinating on a post or bird singing in its territory would also have to fall into the definition of aggression. Researchers, faced with this problem, believe a more accurate way to define aggressive like behavior in social relationships is conflict resolution, or agonistic behavior. It is not the purpose of the aggressive behavior to inflict harm or kill, but to maintain social order through confrontation, resolution and appeasement. While this behavior may be intense in the wolf pack, especially during the breeding season, man has placed limits on this behavior in dogs. While dogs are capable of fighting, if you carefully watch the behavior there is a significant amount of posturing and displays before the fight actually starts. If one dog should submit, there is little risk of an outright fight, for the dominant dog has succeeded. Even if a fight should ensue, bites most often are directed against less vulnerable parts of the body, minimizing the risk of serious wounds or death. Certainly, all of this can go wrong with serious injury resulting, but the norm is that the result of what seems to be a horrendous fight is little more than minor cuts and bruised egos.

In the case of dog and trainer, the reader can probably think of many examples where dogs have bitten their owners. If the definition of the human-dog relationship is truly predicated on the super alpha concept, then no owner should fear his dog. Yet, we know that many owners are challenged and even attacked by their dogs. The super alpha concept is based on the relationship of a trainer and dog, not the simple custodian of a pet. Through good bonding and sound principles of conditioning and reinforcement, the dog has found success in the relationship and is not tempted to seriously challenge the working dog trainer. It should not be in the modern working dog’s makeup to seriously consider challenging the trainer. It can happen and does, but only because the super alpha relationship has broken down or never been established in the first place. Look at the many books written by dog psychologists and the common denominator is usually that the owner has sent out the wrong messages to the dog. Maintaining the super alpha relationship is not simply a matter of exercising brute force over the dog so it never challenges again, but reinforcing the dog’s genetic sense that the owner is always dominant and it can find success in this relationship. Therefore, if the trainer experiences aggressive like behavior against him, he can be sure that he has violated the fundamental rules that the dog’s genes and good training require.Of course, the dog could have a poor temperament, but this is an entirely different matter.

Putting Social Behavior to Work

The dog trainer can use the critical social period to advantage in amazing ways, where what the young puppy learns will stay with it for life.

The trainer can take walks with the puppy and call it to return to the trainer. Each time the puppy returns on command, there is a reward of food, praise or petting.

By teaching the beginning of retrieval during this period, the puppy not only learns to retrieve, but also that it must return the prey to the handler on command, an act that is not so natural. Retrieval training at this early period greatly strengthens the bond.

Isolate the puppy when you are not training or playing with it. Allowing the puppy to run with other dogs or subjecting it to the corrections and demands of other people only confuses the bonding process where the puppy becomes uncertain about who the super alpha is. Usually putting the puppy in a crate or run during inactive periods is sufficient to allow it to rest and remain isolated from these other influences. The trainer must strive to become the center of this young dog’s universe during this period and up to an age of one year.

The danger during this period is that the trainer may also teach the puppy the wrong thing. If all the positive bonding work has an irretrievably good effect on the dog, then poor training can create permanent harm for the same reason.

Taking the earlier statements that a dog must find its place in the social order and strive for success, if the trainer tries to put too much strain on the bonding relationship, the young dog will simply give in. Suppose a trainer is going to show everyone how good he is by teaching a young dog perfect obedience before it is six months of age. The young, undeveloped dog has no foundation in obedience so the trainer will use corrections and praise to teach the exercises. The young dog, not understanding the corrections, learns only to submit to the dominant force of the super alpha. Because the bonding defines the basic relationship between owner and dog and, further, because the dog is not strong enough to confront the owner, the only avenue for success is avoidance. While most of us would agree that this type of attitude is bad training, the real damage results from the dog’s young age and its, now fixed, attitude that the relationship with its owner is one of stress and submission. It will make little difference that the trainer might later realize his mistake and return to motivational work; the damage has been done with the dog finding success and the trainer creating failure.

On the other hand, making the young dog associate the bond with a person who is always a source for an active and interesting relationship carries into later, more formalized training.

The isolation of the young dog from other influences focuses the bond on the trainer.

Retrieval and teaching the dog to come on command make the puppy think only in terms of the super alpha.

Make all sessions with the puppy highly active so that it only thinks in terms of maximum energy when with the handler.

Avoid all formalized training in the early months and instead concentrate on building the foundation for later, more structured training. Such things as building confidence, physical skills, the bond and trust are those elements that, when taught at this young age, become a permanent part of your puppy’s character.

In the last installment we will look at a slightly different subject, the dog’s drives. Instead of being a specific behavior such as defense, prey and social activity, a dog’s drive is the engine that pushes these behaviors and leads to the top working dog, or just as easily, creates a working dog monster.