"Unified Dog Theory 6: Why Are Dogs So Friendly?"

Evolution’s Box-of-Crayons Approach to Each Litter of Puppies.

Originally published in slightly different form on November 17, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

“Nowadays, far more dogs are fearful of people, reactive to other dogs and unreliable off-leash.” —Dr. Ian Dunbar

Friendly or Aggressive?

Dogs are the most wonderfully social species of animal on the planet. They live wherever we live, from Antarctica to the Mojave Desert. They’d be happy to go to the moon with us if they could! They’re also inherently capable of forming an almost infinite number of social relationships with an equally infinite number of dogs and people. That said, when not raised properly, or mistreated by their owners or trainers, dogs can quickly become one of the most aggressive species on the planet as well.

A study from the University of Colorado shows that dog bites are a major health concern in America, and that unsupervised children are a dog’s usual targets. Science Daily reports that “mixed breeds were responsible for 23 percent of bites followed by Labrador retrievers at 13.7 percent ... and Golden retrievers at 3 percent. The study was done in the Denver area where pit bulls are banned.”

A little over 20 years ago I noticed an interesting anomaly: more and more Labs and golden retrievers—breeds usually known for their friendly, easygoing nature—were becoming aggressive, while more pit bulls were becoming overfriendly. Could breeding for “friendliness”—as some Lab and golden retriever breeders have been doing with their litters—actually create more aggression? And could breeding dogs for fighting somehow create overfriendliness? [1]

Box of Crayons

Temperament testing in puppies—though no longer considered a valid means of predicting an adult dog’s personality—still shows one thing: in every litter of pups there is a spectrum of temperament types, from what we used to call “dominant” to what we used to call “submissive.” It’s literally impossible to find a litter of puppies where every single pup has the exact same behavioral tendencies; there is always a spectrum, as if Nature were acting as a quality control technician for Crayola, ensuring that each box of crayons contained an array of colors so that your child wouldn’t open a new box and find all red, yellow, or blue.

But why would Nature want this spectrum to exist?

I can only think of one reason, and it goes back to the ideas that 1) dogs and wolves are genetically related, and 2) the wolf pack is not a dominance hierarchy but a mechanism for hunting large prey by working in harmony. If all wolves had a direct approach to prey, the hunt would surely fail; the same is true if they all had an indirect approach. And this box-of-crayons operating system is still seen in every litter of puppies, in every breed imaginable, across the board. It’s as if each litter of pups is still seen as a potential hunting unit, at least as far as Nature is concerned.

Why Are There More Aggressive Dogs These Days?

Another thing I’ve noticed, and this has been in the last ten to fifteen years or so is that there are more aggressive dogs now than ever before. Some believe that this is caused by an increase in the number of trainers using dominance techniques.

Is that true?

I think the opposite is true. I think it’s more likely that the current increase in aggressive behaviors is a direct result of three things: 1) the proliferation of “positive” training techniques (remember, “positive” doesn’t mean your dog is having a positive experience during training it just means that something has been added which causes a behavior to be repeated), 2) the introduction of micro-chips, and 3) the mass introduction of puppy classes.

When I started out in the late 1980s aggression was much rarer than it is now. During that period, most trainers used dominance techniques. There were very few, if any trainers using “positive” reinforcement. Since the primary form of training at that time was dominance, and since there were far fewer aggressive dogs back then, why would dominance training be the culprit now when positive trainers currently outnumber dominance trainers by a ratio of about 4 to 1?

It was only with the 1) proliferation of “positive” training techniques, 2) the development of micro-chipsand 3) the proliferation of puppy classes that aggression became the serious problem that it is today.

If people look at the current marketplace through their own prejudices, they’ll always see that “the other guy” is the problem. But I’ve been a part of the training marketplace for over 25 years, and my impression is the opposite of what some positive trainers claim.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that people use dominance in training their dogs, just that, if possible, they avoid the three things that, in my experience, tend to either cause or increase a dog’s aggressive tendencies.

I know that my observations don’t prove a causal relation between positive training, micro-chips, puppy classes, and aggression. But in the same blog article quoted up top, Ian Dunbar also bemoans the complexity of the behavioral science approach to training: “The human brain cannot compute the variable [reinforcement] schedules and train a dog at the same time.”

There Are 3 Basic Approaches to Training Dogs

There are three basic approaches to training pet dogs: 1) Dominance (or pack leader) techniques, 2) Behavioral science (or positive reinforcement), and 3) Drive training, based on the way working dogs are trained (originated by Max Von Stephanitz and restructured for use with pet dogs by former police dog trainer Kevin Behan). In the third model, puppies aren’t expected to learn obedience skills before their brains, bodies, and emotions are ready for it. Max Von Stephanitz, who originated obedience training in general, and drive training specifically, said that, yes, puppies should be taught basic manners, but should not be trained for obedience until they’re two years old. And in his view there had to always be an equal balance between showing that you’re in charge (but in a gentle, not overtly punitive way), and using lots and lots of positive reinforcement, long before that term was coined by B. F. Skinner. (Like Kevin Behan, Von Stephanitz was ahead of his time.) But I think the most important thing Von Stephanitz brings to modern training is his dictum that, “Before we teach a dog to obey, we must teach him how to play.” This is why I’m advocating against puppy obedience classes, and for spending more time allowing our puppies to engage in free play, with other doggies and with us. This is what wolf parents do with their young. Free play also stimulates the production of brain-derived neural growth factors, strengthens the pro-social circuits in the brain, and naturally stimulates a dog’s desire to obey. [2] Predatory Instincts = Sociability

We now know that a dog’s social instincts come directly from the wolf’s prey drive. Add to that the knowledge that play is a young animal’s way of perfecting the skills necessary for becoming a predator, or for avoiding being preyed upon, and we can see that puppy play is much more important than puppy obedience, especially since anytime you pull a puppy away from what his developmental urges are telling him to do, in order to teach an obedience behavior—no matter how “positive” the approach—you’re automatically creating a feeling of resistance toward the very behavior you want the pup to learn, a resistance that will only start showing itself once the puppy has reached adolescence. This is one reason why some pups, who were the stars of their obedience classes, seem to “forget” nearly everything they learned in class once they get a little older. Knowing these things we can easily solve some of the problems Dr. Dunbar is having with modern training. After all, dogs who love to play, who live for it, are also more responsive, and almost never act in an aggressive manner. They’re also more able to shift from direct to indirect (or shift “emotional polarities,” as Kevin Behan puts it) in the blink of an eye. So let’s start to consider very carefully whether puppies do better or worse—in terms of their aggression and obedience skills (not to mention their emotional flexibility)—when put into obedience classes too early, or are allowed to spend their puppyhoods learning a few manners but mostly engaging in free play. LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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1) Interestingly, another new study shows that children who are more fearless are also more aggressive, which seems to indicate that fearlessness does not always equal friendliness.

2) In his book, Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacities of Our Dogs and Ourselves, author and dog trainer Kevin Behan, who’s spent his entire life around working dogs and their trainers (including his father, who was America’s first celebrity dog trainer), devotes an entire chapter to this idea.

3) This is based on some of the work being done by evolutionary psychiatrist Jaak Panksepp and others. For instance, Panksepp says that when we allow pre-schoolers to engage in free play, where they make up their own games and their own rules (under adult supervision), natural processes of learning impulse control, fairness, and how to control aggressive feelings take place naturally. The brain develops faster. New abilities to learn and move through space develop quicker.

He also writes: “Our recent broad-scale brain gene expression analysis has indicated that activity of about a third of the 1,200 brain genes in frontal and posterior cortical regions are significantly modified by play within an hour of a 30 min play session (Kroes, Burgdorf Panksepp and Moskal, 2006, Unpublished observations from Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, Northwestern University).” He adds, “If such dynamic brain changes evoked by play facilitate brain growth and maturation, perhaps solidifying pro-social circuits of the brain, we must worry about anything that diminishes the progression of such developmental processes.”

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