What makes a behaviorally healthy companion dog? I’d say the ability to get along well in a world designed for and by humans. And yet most of my dog-geeky friends and colleagues have – just like I do – a dog with a minor behavioral issue or two: insecurity or separation anxiety, overarousal in public, a tendency to bark and lunge at dogs on leash, …
These issues are so common that they seem normal to us. So normal, in fact, that we go out of our way to nip them in the bud: from the day we get a new puppy, we socialize her to dogs and people, and we carefully introduce her to the visual, auditory and tactile stimuli she will encounter in our world. We don’t just expect her to grow up and be behaviorally okay; we actively make an effort to minimize the chance of future behavioral problems. We recognize that we need to invest a lot of time and energy into setting our dogs up for lifelong behavioral success. And that seems pretty normal to us, too. So normal that we don’t consider minor behavioral issues a reason not to breed a particular dog, for example. If his hip scores are perfect and his ring performance is great – who cares that he doesn’t like strange dogs! We avoid potential problems by means of things like leash laws that, as long as people abide by them, keep the leash-aggressive dogs we have bred from biting each other.
Over the course of the last year, I’ve been immersed in cultures that have different norms of dog ownership. I’ve observed something that fascinates me. The dogs I’ve seen on the sidewalks and ranging free in the streets – and there are a lot of them! – are the most behaviorally healthy population of dogs I’m familiar with. They get along with each other, and they get along with people and farm animals. They are attracted to people, but not to an obnoxious degree. They are moderately active, happily walking with the farm workers into the fields every day, but not pushy and demanding if they miss a day of exercise or attention. They are independent enough to not annoy their owners, but have a degree of handler focus that makes them stick to their people quite naturally when out and about, and curl up next to them when they work in the field rather than taking off – and all that without mat work or tethers, radius or recall training. They are the epitome of what people are looking for in a companion dog – even though their owners certainly haven’t invested a lot of time and energy into consciously socializing them as puppies.
Where do all these dogs come from, and why do they seem so much less aggressive, stressed, hyperactive, insecure, and barky than the average Western companion dog? Who – or what – makes them this way? And what are we doing wrong in Western Europe and North America since our dogs seem to have many more issues?
Maybe the free-roaming dogs I’ve seen here are close to the proto-dogs – to the first dogs who domesticated themselves a long time ago, when people started settling down. I like the theory of domestication put forth by Ray and Lorna Coppinger: dogs developed into dogs because of natural (rather than artificial) selection. The wolves with the shortest flight distance lived to reproduce, because they could eat the most food at the village dump: they got there first when someone threw out food and ate the best bits, and they didn’t waste energy on running away whenever a human looked their way. Tameness was THE selection criterion as far as behavior was concerned – and that’s how the wolf turned into the dog. Not because he was consciously bred by humans, but because he was well adapted to the ecological niche of the village dump. Tame animals got fed (i.e. they fed themselves), hence they survived.
The dogs in my neighborhood today are still very much the result of natural (rather than artificial) selection. The most well adapted ones survive long enough to reproduce and pass their genes on to the next generation. The people in my neighborhood absolutely factor into this, but much more indirectly than a breeder would. They don’t select breeding pairs – they simply feed the dogs they like, don’t feed the ones they don’t like, and cull the ones that cause problems.
I can see at least four behavioral criteria that determine whether a dog will live to reproduce and spread her genes in my neighborhood:
1. Attraction to people.
People live closely together around here; farmers often work in groups; children play in the street … Dogs need to get along with people. Threaten or bite someone or their child, and sooner or later, you’ll get culled.
People like dogs who are friendly and tame – those are the ones who get dinner scraps, and those are the ones who’ll pass their genes down to the next generation. However, be too much of an attention seeker and annoy your people, chew up their shoes and disrupt their workday, and you won’t get fed, and might get culled if you take it too far. The result: most dogs in my neighborhood are neutral if ignored, and friendly and curious when invited to interact.
2. Dog-Dog Sociability.
The free roaming dogs here tend to get along well with each other. I haven’t seen a fight – neither here in Guatemala nor in Thailand. Conflicts are resolved through body language alone. They are social: I’ve seen them play with each other, and I’ve seen them roam in small groups of friends.
3. Being a scavenger rather than a hunter.
People around here have farm animals, especially chickens and horses, and the dogs are indifferent to them. It’s unlikely the people in my neighborhood have the time or energy to train a dog who kills chickens or chases horses. This is not a rich population with a lot of spare time to train dogs – it’s easier to get rid of a dog who doesn’t fit into the community. Benevolent indifference towards farm animals is positively selected for.
4. Moderate activity and moderate loyalty.
Everyone here walks. And everyone who walks walks with their dogs. Men, women, children – usually, their dogs aren’t far. People will occasionally call out to their dogs, but mostly just let them roam around them. Dogs who aren’t interested in joining their people on errands will likely not get thrown a tortilla for lunch.
In a nutshell: the typical free-roaming dog here knows his people and sticks with them – but is independent enough to not be annoying. He enjoys exercise enough to walk a few miles every day, but doesn’t require more than that. He doesn’t chase critters and farm animals, and he is good with people and good with other dogs.
I’d say this describes the ideal companion dog – the kind of dog most people would love to have by their side! And maybe this is exactly the kind of animal we started out with when we began to artificially select and develop different breeds of dogs. But somewhere down the line, we lost elements of sociability and mental balance. Maybe part of the reason is that looks got more important, and behavior less important. Maybe sociability just didn’t seem as important anymore when dogs started to be kept inside the house and walked on leashes: as long as we control and micromanage our dogs, it doesn’t matter much if they like other dogs or people! Maybe developing breeds for particular purposes made us zoom in on one or two particular traits and neglect others, equally important ones. Maybe some desired qualities got lost through inbreeding. I don’t know – but I’m deeply fascinated by the dogs I’ve met around here, and I’d love to hear from you if you have observed a similar (or very different!) population of free-roaming dogs in a different part of the world!
Please note: these are my subjective thoughts and observations. Are things really the way they seem to me? I don’t know. Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. I’m not trying to say that breeding dogs according to breed club standards is wrong, either – not at all. I like purebred dogs. But these dogs, the free-roaming ones in my neighborhood? I’m very fond of them, too.