Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The wolf in your home has been misunderstood

As I sit down to write this column, my friend has just settled down at my feet. This is normal.
Occasionally, as I type, he will shift to a slightly different position or sigh quietly, more or less impatient for me to finish and take him for a walk.
He, just as much as the Star’s print schedule, sets my deadlines.
He is my loyal companion. He is the wolf in my living-room (or, just at the moment, in my study).
My wolf
“The wolf in your living-room”: you have no doubt heard the phrase. It is snappy, attention-catching, memorable. And it is basically true.
But it is also misleading. And it has been used to justify a great deal of dreadful treatment of humanity’s best mate.
Often by people whose intentions are good, but who have been misled by what they have been told by supposed “experts” whose own understanding has been based on a misunderstanding.
I have myself, in the past, treated my best friend badly. Not from malice, but because – like so many people – I had been given bad advice.
So let me try to correct that bad counsel by summarising one of the most important points made by John Bradshaw in his outstanding book In Defence Of Dogs.
Professor Bradshaw has been studying dogs, and their owners, for over 25 years. He probably knows as much about pet dogs as anyone in the world.
The fact that his book is a bestseller can only be good news for a lot of dogs – a lot of wolves in a lot of sitting-rooms.
Your dog may not look much like a wolf (mine doesn’t really, as you can see), but it is one.
In fact, many dogs (mine included) look more like wolves than, say, a chihuahua looks like a great dane, a newfoundland like a dachshund, or a pekingese like a greyhound. They are all, biologically speaking, the same species.
In the past, many dog-trainers, breeders and self-appointed “experts” have taken this to mean that every dog is at heart eager to take control of its pack – or the human family who have taken it into their home.
Many still spout this belief. TV’s popular, and undeniably charismatic, “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan, still talks about “dominance” as if it was the one thing motivating all dog behaviour.
Millan, to be fair, doesn’t make this a reason to ill-treat dogs – but many do.
Such inhumane devices as choke-chains and – heaven help us – “shock collars” are based on this barbaric principle.
As is the idea that it’s a good thing to beat your poor dog into “submission”. Or to shake it, pull its ears or roll it over to “show it who’s boss”.
Bradshaw shows convincingly that the chief effect of such treatment is to make your dog scared of you. And fear is a powerful motivator of aggression, or “bad” behaviour. The exact opposite, in fact, of what’s intended.
A dog that bites, either a person or another dog, isn’t making a bid for dominance. It’s almost certainly acting out of fear.
So how should we teach our dogs to know their place? Love them, treat them well, and you shouldn’t need to.
Though it’s necessary to train them to behave in the ways our society has come to expect, that is more effectively done through kindness than cruelty.
The same is true, of course, of other creatures. Young humans, for instance.
Ah, you’ll say, young humans aren’t pack animals with an instinct for dominance. Maybe, maybe not. But neither are dogs – or, as it turns out, wolves.
So where did this idea come from?
Professor Bradshaw tracks it to three simple misunderstandings.
First, the study of wolves. Because this is difficult to carry out in the wild, it has mostly been done in zoos.
In the wild, wolves naturally live in family groups. Leadership is shared by the parents – there is no need to fight for it.
In zoos, wolves have normally been kept with non-relatives. The dynamic is different. Instead of family relations there is fear, anxiety, uncertainty.
To consider relations among zoo wolves to be “natural” is like observing prisoners in a jail and imagining you’re watching family life.
Secondly, it’s now known through DNA that dogs are mostly descended from the European grey wolf. Of all the types of wild dog, the one they are least related to is the American timberwolf – which happens to be the type that has been most studied.
Finally, there is the dog’s unique evolution, which has been tied up with that of humankind for upwards of 10,000 years.
The first domesticated dogs would have been the wolves that were most trusting (and trustworthy) around humans. Every dog since is descended from those tame individuals.
The descendants of the warier, less tame individuals went on being wild wolves, persecuted for centuries and so made even less tame, breeding out the trusting.
Just as, over millennia, the breeding of dogs by people has progressively selected the most useful, the most trainable, the friendliest. And, increasingly, the most aesthetically pleasing.
There’s no more reason to expect your dog to behave like a wolf than to look like one. For good evolutionary reasons, its main aim in life is to please you, not supplant you.
And now I’ve got that off my chest, it’s time for a walk with my pal.


No comments: