Travel thoughts E1: dog/dog sociability

I had fun with The Brindle Girl series, and decided to do more video-style posts. I’m hoping this will tie me over until I go back to speaking in front of groups of people. I was going to record these while driving across Guatemala and Mexico – but it turned out that the AC blasting and the car were too much background noise. So I’m only recording these post road trip. They are still travel thoughts, so I’m keeping the name!

The first video post below is my musings about dog/dog sociability. After recording this, I remembered that I recently learned something that contradicts my anecdotal experience: dog breeds, it turns out, are much less predictive of an individual’s behavior and personality traits than we conventionally think they are.

How do we know that? As of today (May 27, 2021), the Darwin’s Ark project has analyzed 3,056,323 answers provided by the owners of 29,233 dogs. At the 2021 Lemonade Conference, Elinor Karlsson explained their approach in a captivating talk that was amazingly understandable even for someone like me, with zero training in data analysis or statistics. If you get a chance to catch one of her presentations – make sure you don’t miss it!

Based on what Elinor Karlsson and colleagues have found, you should take my video musings with a grain of salt! So before you watch my video – here’s the scientific caveat:

In relation to predicting sociability, we’ve learned two things from Darwin’s Ark:

  1. An individual dog’s behavior and personality traits can not accurately be predicted if all we know is their breed.
  2. Dog breeds have some subtle differences in behavior and personality when compared to all (pet) dogs.
    However, these differences are not clear for all factors examined in the Darwin’s Ark project. For example, there are no statistically significant breed differences when it comes to factors like agonistic threshold, and dog sociability – two factors relevant to my musings below.

Puppies: the importance of free play

One of the assignments in Grisha Stewart’s Empowered Puppy Raising class is to discuss Jon Hamilton’s article¬†Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build A Better Brain. As a Bronze student, I couldn’t submit my thoughts, but I thought I’d write them down anyways. A colleague and I are planning to offer a puppy group class this spring, and we’re always on the outlook for input!

The article suggests that free play¬†(“No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.”) leads to new neural connections in the pre-frontal cortex, and argues that play may not primarily serve the purpose of practicing fighting or hunting, but “to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways” (Jaak Panksepp). Furthermore, in human children, these social skills seem to be related to academic performance later in life.

Assuming that the canine brain reacts similarly to free play, we clearly want to give our puppies plenty of opportunities to practice free play! This also confirms that socialization is a lot more important than obedience training early in life. A dog can learn every trick in the book later in life, but there is only one puppyhood – and in it, we are building the foundations of how he will relate to other dogs later in life. Thinking of the children’s academic performance, we may even build the foundations of the ease with which he takes to dog sports later in life.

For our puppies, the parallel to human free play might be to give them a chance to interact with other puppies and adult dogs of all kinds of sizes, ages, male and female, neutered and intact, and with different play styles. We also want to keep our puppies safe, so we should set them up for success by means of finding appropriate playmates, and always keeping an eye on them. If a puppy gets overwhelmed or does not respect the others’ distance-increasing signals, it’s time to step in. That is to say: we should give them the opportunity to negotiate social situations for themselves, but never abandon them with more than they can handle. We never force them to interact with other dogs – if our puppy is shy, we’ll let her watch the others play from a distance until she herself decides she wants to participate. We don’t lure her closer; we let her progress at her own speed. She is in control of who she engages with. If after some time of play, our puppy seeks sanctuary near our legs, we will respect that wish and make sure to not let the others get too close. I like Roya Hollensteiner metaphor for this safe zone: she describes it as an imaginary box we build with the help of our arms. Our puppy may seek shelter in our “box” anytime, and may leave it anytime if she wants to resume playing. However, the other dogs or puppies may not enter our puppy’s box, i.e. the space in front of her human’s legs.

Ideally, the puppies would get to play in different environments, so they could have chase games outside as well as calmer bitey face games inside. A third part, which I consider equally important, is exploring the environment together with others or hunting for treats together, for example on a walk with a dog friend. We want our puppies to share both exciting experiences and calm experiences with other dogs.

As long as they play well together, we don’t interrupt – this is not the time for human rules and obedience, this is the time for learning to be a dog.