There’s a litter of four puppies in a 1000-habitant village in the State of Mexico. The day I made this video, I met two of the four. Only over the last couple of days had they started coming out and exploring: they had reached an age where they dared venture further and further from their birthplace.
It’s interesting to observe how many of the experiences Western breeders and puppy owners recreate happen naturally for a puppy like this – and they happen on the right time scale since it is the puppies themselves who decide when they are ready to explore, and how far they are ready to go on any given day.
You can also see differences within a litter: the two black puppies are bolder than the blonde one who is not with them, but who I saw the day after I took this video1, still in the safe space of the restaurant. The second blonde puppy must have also been a bold one – maybe the boldest one, or just a bold one with bad luck – because the person I am talking to in this video tells me that puppy got hit by a car earlier that same day.
The fact that within this litter, there are both bold and shy individuals shows an interesting tendency in evolution: evolutionarily speaking, both bold and shy individuals get selected for. We see this in humans, too. If a trait gets selected for, it has to have an advantage – and indeed, it does! It may seem counterintuitive, but in fact, both extremes of the spectrum of boldness and shyness can be advantageous. This is, I’d venture, particularly true for species that live in a vast variety of different environments – such as humans, canines and felines! Since the environments vary greatly, what is an advantage in one environment can be a disadvantage in another one. Or what is an advantage in one part of the year can be a disadvanrage in another part of the year. Or depending on what circumstances you happen to be born under – depending on random factors! – it may be advantageous to be either bold or shy.
A thought experiment: the shy puppy in the litter – the blonde one who I haven’t seen out in the street – is the least likely to get run over. From this point of view, being shy is adaptive – it increases the chances of survival, because cars (as illustrated by the death of the fourth puppy) are a HUGE danger to puppies. On the other hand, the two black puppies in this video show a lot of exploratory behavior, and they find food – both in the street and in the entrance of the store they then get shooed out of. From this point of view, being bold (showing a lot of exploratory behavior) is adaptive – it increases the chances of survival because you find more food. Due to studies done on puppy mortality, we know that most of these puppies are not going to survive. If one of them does survive – will it be a bold or a shy puppy? It could be either, because it depends on many factors: are the puppies still getting fed within the safe space of the restaurant? If so, being shy may be more advantageous because there is no lack of food resources. Are they not getting fed anymore now that they are a little bigger? If so, being bold might be an advantage because you need to learn to find enough food to make up for the calories you spend growing and existing! Being bold likely also increases a puppy’s chances of becoming an owned village dog, and owned village dogs get fed. If you are bold while you are still young and cute, you’ve got a killer combination setting you up for success in this respect … unless, of course, you get run over by a car first.
So there is no straightforward answer, but one thing is clear: depending on when, where, to whom and under what circumstances a puppy is born, boldness, shyness, or both may be advantageous. The same goes for humans. If it were not the case – if you were most likely to succeed by being a middle-of-the-road animal – the extremes of the spectrum of boldness and shyness would already have disappeared (for canines as well as humans). We would have what is called stabilizing selection: selection around a stable phenotype around a mean (a certain degree of not-too-bold-and-not-too-shyness). What we actually see is disruptive selection: selection at both ends of the normal curve: on the one hand, we get very bold individuals, and on the other hand, very shy ones. We see it in puppies, even within litters. And we certainly see it in humans, too! Even in very young toddlers, the differences are striking. By the way, a shout out to Marc Bekoff: I’ve learned the terms stabilitzing selection, disruptive selection and directive selection (selection for more or less of a given phenotype, e.g. if over time, puppies would tend to get bolder and bolder) from his book A Dog’s World, which I’ve had the honor of translating into German.
After this little detour into different kinds of selection, let’s get back to the experiences that breeders and puppy owners recreate, but that happen quite naturally for free-roaming puppies:
1. Introduction of different surfaces:
in the space of the restaurant, the puppies would have encountered artificial turf and real grass. Venturing out, they get to move up and down the stairs to the restaurant entrance, and they will walk on concrete and asphalt. In this video, one of the black puppies walks over an iron grid covering a drain – something else a breeder or owner might carefully introduce to their puppies that happens naturally in this environment.
2. Introduction to different sounds:
Currently, the 9 days leading up to a catholic holiday are being celebrated in this village – and like most Mexican celebrations, they are celebrated quite loudly, with lots of cohetes (firecrackers). Similarly, there are cars going by – this is the busiest part of town – and the puppies will get used to the sounds of cars, busses, motorcycles and lots of different human voices: adults talking and yelling, children laughing and playing …
I’ve seen kids interact with the puppies (hold them, pet them, pick them up), and the puppies will also see people of all ages once they start venturing out of the restaurant space. People are quite naturally being paired with food, so a positive classical association is made to them when a puppy is born in the town center. They will also interact with people in that they get a basic village dog education: being cute and begging politely is going to get reinforced with food, and being obnoxious or entering forbidden spaces is going to be punished (at 09:18, the owner of the store across the street shoos the puppies back outside).
In this video alone, you’ll see three adult dogs: the fluffy dark dog, the pitbull, and the black lab mix. Throughout the day, the puppies will interact with A LOT of village dogs: everyone who roams freely, whether they are community dogs or owned free-roamers, will meet these puppies and interact with them. Some will be big, some small, some male, some female, most intact and some spayed. It is unlikely that a puppy born to a breeder would meet this many dogs at this age.
5. Other animals:
Sometimes, horseback riders come through; sometimes, they’ll see a cat, and once they are bold enough to venture just a little further up the street the store is in, they’ll see sheep and chickens.
The restaurant is closed, but there are still chairs and tables in there. And once the puppies venture out, they’ll see cars, busses, and everything sold at the little stores around the area: brooms and food and buckets … At some point in this video, you’ll see one of the puppies approach a broom that’s for sale.
+ I met the third blonde puppy the day after recording this video – so there must have been 4 originally, but 1 got run over, leaving three.
+ At some point in this video, I say that my AirBnB “tenant” also owns the restaurant – I meant to say host. I do not own a building in this town.
+ It’s interesting that I get asked whether I want to take the two puppies (they are community puppies, so unlike the puppies of owned village dogs, they are up for grabs). I assume the reason the person I’m talking to suggests I take them is that I’ve shown an unusual level of interest in the puppies – I’m following them around, filming and talking about them.
(1) One of the puppies is still alive for sure 2 months after I took this video, as I am writing this post – and it’s the blonde puppy (the shy one). I don’t know about the two black ones. They must either have died, or been taken in and have become owned village dogs. Statistically speaking (given the percentage of puppies that survive), they are more likely to not be around anymore – but we don’t know if this is the case for this particular litter. It’s a littler born under relatively advantageous circumstances, and in a good spot. (No highway; plenty of people; close to a food source.)