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What Are Dogs and Why Do They Behave That Way?

In This Chapter

You can offer your dog no greater gift than to understand her and her whole being. In other words, you need to walk a mile in her paws. Even though money can buy a lot of dog biscuits and squeaky toys — and those pricey obedience classes can encourage greater responsiveness to you — a lot more is going on behind the scenes than the simple recognition of the “Sit” command. This chapter begins your journey of discovering the mystery that is your dog. You discover the evolution of your dog and how it affects your relationship.

The History Behind the Beast: How Dogs Came to Be Dogs

The goal of this book is to help you understand your dog from her vantage point. It helps you to discover what it must feel like to be a dog and to understand your role and capacity to shape your dog’s behavior after you’ve developed empathy for her experience.
Remember that your dog isn’t merely a four-footed person in a fur coat. Your dog isn’t a wolf in disguise either. Though some proponents of dog psychology emphasize the common ancestry between dog and wolf, your dog is more than a tamed version of any of its wild descendants, be it wolf, jackal, fox, coyote, or dingo. Your dog and these other canine species do share a lot of characteristics, both in physical makeup and behavior, but humans share a lot of physical and behavioral characteristics with apes. Does that mean we’re just like other apes? Not exactly.

Technical Stuff

Wolves and dogs are part of the larger order Carnivora (animals that are meat eaters and mostly live by hunting). Even though each dog has a secondary classification specifying its distinctions, all are categorized by biologists as canines and members of the same biological family, Canidae — as are wolves, foxes, jackals, and coyotes.

If you were to line up all modern domesticated animals in the order in which they were domesticated, you would see that dogs lead the pack. In fact, dogs were brought into the human circle well before humans even knew how to grow their own food.

Technical Stuff

Recent evidence based on the fossil record suggests that dogs were domesticated between 17,000 and 14,000 years ago, which is much earlier than sheep (11,000 years ago) or cats (7,000 years ago). Domestication seems to have occurred at different times in different places, with dogs first domesticated in Asia and Russia, and then separately in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

In this section, we explore a little canine history.

In the beginning

From the beginning, dogs and humans naturally formed an everlasting relationship. Both species were hunters that lived and survived through a dependency on a close-knit hierarchical group. The main advantage humans had over canines was the ability to learn and reason. However, in comparison to others in the animal kingdom, canines also were (and still are) intellectually advanced.
Even though the wild ancestors of dogs were efficient and daring pack hunters, they also scavenged when the opportunity arose. Scavenging around human campfires proved fruitful and was certainly less dangerous than hunting some of the larger hoofed animals that could kick and gore. When they were regularly presented with free meals, wolf packs weren’t above taking advantage of leftovers. Such leftovers were often dumped just outside the camp or village in heaps that archeologists call middens. For the wolves, middens were a veritable buffet of free food that was being continually renewed.
What sensible wolf would rather hunt when such easy pickings were available? And perfectly happy to oblige, the humans appreciated the value of having another species about that would make use of their waste while simultaneously keeping their camp varmint and odor free.


Now perhaps if the relationship had just stopped there, no further domestication would have occurred. However, humans and canines share another important similarity — namely, both are territorial. Wild canines came to view the area around the camp as their territory. As a result, when a threatening wild animal or a marauding band of strangers came close to the encampment, the canines created a commotion. The noise gave enough warning for the inhabitants of the camp to rally some form of defense, which was especially useful at night. As a result of the vigilance of these canines, the lives of the nearby humans became much safer.

Wolves initiate domestication

The domestication of dogs wasn’t simply a matter of some Stone Age man finding a wolf pup and bringing it home where it would be fed, sheltered, and treated like a dog. It may sound surprising, but the first stages of domestication were probably initiated by the wolves themselves.


The only wolves that could benefit from discarded food were those that could comfortably coexist with humans. If a particular wolf was aggressive or threatening, he was simply killed by the human residents as a matter of safety. This process began a kind of human-enforced natural selection — the genetic elimination of the most destructive individuals. Animals that were friendlier and less fearful could stay closer to the settlement. In addition to the free meals, the close proximity to humans provided them protection from predators that preferred to avoid human contact. When these friendlier canines began to interbreed, they ultimately generated a race of animals that were much more doglike. In these new animals, the genes for tameness were predominant.

Technical Stuff

Domestication takes more than simply taming a wild animal. A tame animal allows a human to care for it and accepts human presence and control to some degree. A domesticated animal, however, is actually genetically modified. Humans exert control over its breeding patterns, which leads to an animal that’s drastically different in both physical appearance and behavior than its wild ancestors. Certainly no one would ever mistake a Pekingese or a bulldog for a gray wolf based on what they look like and how they act.

Don’t try to tame a wolf

Research shows that instantaneous domestication just isn’t possible. Researchers have often tried hand-feeding wolf puppies from birth and rearing them with a human family. The results have been far from satisfactory. In virtually all the scientific studies, as the wolf cubs matured, they became more wolflike in their behavior. The previously “tame” cubs, for instance, began to stalk and hunt farm animals, other house pets, and even children, growing ever more socially dominant and challenging their people for control. Even though tame wolf puppies can learn basic obedience commands, they stop responding to them when they’re adults and begin challenging the authority and status of humans. Many reports tell of supposedly domesticated wolves attacking and biting their handlers.
Consider some research done by the Russian geneticist Dmitry K. Belyaev, who was trying to re-create the domestication of dogs. He decided not to use wolves because, in many areas, evidence suggests that domestic dogs have interbred with wolves and any dog genes would contaminate the data. Instead, he used another canine species: the silver fox. Also, because silver fox fur is prized for making expensive garments, he saw the potential for some economic benefits if he could domesticate these foxes and make them easier to raise on a farm.
The form of genetic manipulation that Belyaev used was similar to what occurred naturally around prehistoric villages with wild canines. He looked for the animals who were the tamest — the least fearful and least aggressive. The tamest and friendliest animals were bred with other tame and friendly animals, and after only six generations, noticeable differences existed between the tame and wild foxes. After 35 generations, this research created animals who looked and acted so much like dogs that they could be sold as pets and live in a human family. If you saw one of them walking down a street, you’d most likely believe that you were looking at some exotic breed of domestic dog.

Technical Stuff

What really happened to change a fox into a dog? Genetic changes aren’t governed by a simple process. Because of the ways that our chromosomes are constructed, it turns out that if you want to change one specific feature genetically, you often end up changing other characteristics as well. That’s exactly what happened when researchers began to breed foxes in a way that encouraged the genes associated with friendliness and tameness. It happens that these traits are linked to other genes so that selective breeding for tameness actually changed Belyaev’s foxes physically and behaviorally. The resulting genetic mix actually changed the timing and rate of physical and psychological development in these new “dogs” so that they physically appear more doglike as well. 

Humans make the second move

Because the wild canines hanging around the prehistoric camps were more docile and friendly, some clever Stone Age person realized that if the canines would protect whole camps, why couldn’t one protect an individual hut? Protection at a personal level. Hmmm. . . . This development turned out to be a fortunate choice because, in the end, dogs would demonstrate other behaviors that would help keep early man (and his successors) alive by doing the following:

The end result: Perpetual puppies

In truth, what the domestication process accomplished was to arrest dog development in a very puppylike state. In essence, domestic dogs are the Peter Pans of the canine world.
Neoteny refers to certain features normally found only in infants and young juveniles but which in certain animals persist into adulthood. In Figure 1-1, you can see that many physical features of an adult domestic dog resemble those of a wolf puppy more than those of an adult wolf. Common physical differences between wolves and dogs come about because of neoteny. As you move down the arrow, you move farther away from adult characteristics and toward more puppylike features.


In terms of human relationships with dogs, the behavioral aspects of neoteny are most important. Dogs keep a number of puppylike behaviors that wolves lose as they mature. These puppy behaviors are what make dogs fine companions (versus the adult canine behavior that makes wolves so difficult to tame). Table 1-1 offers an interesting look at what the adult wolf behavioral characteristics are like compared to the wolf-puppy characteristics that you see in dogs.

  Figure 1-1: The ranging characteristics between adult wolves and perpetual puppies.

Table 1-1            Dogs Act More Like Wolf Puppies Than Wolf Adults

Behavioral Trait or Characteristic
Adult Version Seen in Wolves
Puppylike Version Seen in Dogs
Fear of strangers (xenophobia)
Common and not easily changed
Usually friendly and approach strangers if brought up with adequate human contact
Acceptance of leadership
Often challenges for leadership and dominance
Usually accept humans as leaders and challenges are rare
Tend to look to humans or other dogs for guidance
Play behaviors
Very rare in adults and then only shown around puppies
Urge to play continues throughout life
Minimal; obedience commands learned when young often aren’t responded to when adult
Much more trainable than wolves; furthermore, obedience training can occur throughout life, and trainability is retained through adulthood
Rare and brief — only in warning or surprise
Common in many settings, with variations serving as communication
Absent except in pups
Common in many settings
Group howling
Common social activity
Less common in dogs; much like pups, when it does occur, it includes barks and yelps
Muzzle biting and pinning canines to the ground
Common as part of the ritual display of dominance
Rare except in the most wolflike breeds (such as Malamutes)
Licking as a greeting
Occurs only occasionally and for short duration
Quite frequent, especially in the most puppylike breeds

Understanding the Evolution of the Dog and Human Relationship

Is your dog a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Well, yes and no. Suffice it to say that dogs approached domestication at their own speed. There was no cosmic moment when some brave young child, holding a wolf pup, approached his father and said, “Please, Dad, can we keep it?” Instead, domestication was a slow evolutionary process involving a gradual progression that began with curious wolves who drew closer and closer to our ancestors’ campfires. Domestication shows the marked physical changes that characterize the dogs we know today. This section gives you a brief history of the evolution.

Which wild canines became dogs?

More than 30 different species of wild canines are candidates for the first animal that humans domesticated into a dog, but which species did humans actually take into their homes and make their closest animal companion?
DNA evidence suggests that the first wild canine that was domesticated was the gray wolf. However, other types of wolves and also jackals, coyotes, wild dogs, dingoes, and even some varieties of fox got into the mix as well. As a result, any one dog may have a combination of genes from all these various members of the canine family. Researchers know this fact because domestic dogs can interbreed with any of these species (the exception being some of the common fox species, such as the red fox, which have the wrong number of chromosomes).
The offspring from such matings are live, healthy, and fertile, which is usually taken as evidence that they’re all the same species or, according to evolutionary theory, at least have a relatively recent common ancestor. This research suggests that the dog at your side may be some random mix of genes, descended from perhaps 40 percent wolf, 30 percent jackal, and 30 percent coyote, while another breed may be 60 percent wolf, 10 percent jackal, 15 percent arctic fox, and 15 percent dingo. No wonder so many different breeds have so many different physical appearances, behavioral styles, and personalities.

People and dogs: A parallel evolution

Our relationship with dogs began during a time when survival was our only focus. During this time, dogs provided personal protection and hunting assistance.
For eons, dogs and humans evolved in parallel. During the agricultural era, for example, we modified our selection process to produce dogs who would cull the varmint population and others who would herd livestock. As kingdoms grew, massive dog breeds were shaped by a process of manual selection to guard castles and aid wars. The selection process has continued throughout time, and today more than 400 different dog breeds — all developed for particular tasks — populate our globe.
Except for in a few instances, most dogs’ special talents are rarely needed. But don’t tell your dog that; it would be too depressing for him, because he thinks his abilities are still in high demand.
Seeing how domestication shaped dogs’ personalities


Dogs’ devotion to people was hard wired upon domestication. The canine species is the only species that will look to and take direction from another species (humans) as if it were their own.

In Chapter Considering All the Options, you discover how to identify your dog’s temperament and how it shapes her understanding of the world you share. For example, a dominant dog assesses everyone who enters, whereas a timid dog hides under the table when the doorbell rings. Embracing your dog’s personality helps you orchestrate a training program to normalize your life together.
Unlike humans, who learn by listening, your dog is much more attuned to nonverbal communication — from how you hold your body (especially in moments of tension or stress) to where you focus your eyes. Understanding your dog’s concept of language can help you understand her behavior and be understood in kind.


If you consistently look at your dog, she may interpret your interest as a need for leadership. So remember this little jingle: The more you look at your dog, the less she’ll look to you.

A dog’s senses never change: Dealing with sensory overload

To really consider life from your dog’s perspective, you need a new nose. Dogs rely most heavily on their sense of smell to interpret even the most minor aspects of their surroundings, such as when another animal may have passed through or even the stress hormone of a visitor in your home.
In your dog, the sense of sight (a human’s strongest sense) is blurred and limited. Your dog only can recognize a limited range of colors and is more attuned to the motion of an object than its particulars. Dogs don’t rely on the recognition of fine details of objects. Rather they were born to be hunters with the motto, “If it moves it might be food, and I’ll chase and catch it!”
Your dog’s hearing abilities are much different than your own, and this difference can be traced to the evolution of our separate species. Humans are more sharply attuned to the sound of other human voices, whereas dogs are capable of hearing higher frequencies and fainter sounds. Because dogs evolved from hunters, their hearing is more attuned to the sounds that their potential prey might make.
Unfortunately, dogs’ sensory strengths are rarely appreciated today. An apartment dog is admonished each time he alerts to the sound of a footstep; hounds are scolded for getting into the trash; and all breeds are reprimanded for chasing the family cat. In our world, dogs are on sensory overload and yet they’re expected to ignore everything.

Influencing Your Dog’s Learning

Dogs love to learn and feel connected to group activities. So how you develop as a teacher and translator directly affects their enthusiasm for learning and, in turn, for life. Think of each lesson and highlighted word as though you were teaching a foreigner your language. Lift “Sit,” “Wait,” “Down,” and “Good” beyond mere command status; instead, make them verbal directions that show your dog how to act in everyday situations.
Book Training-Agility and Shows lays out all the tricks of the trade, exploring learning influences and emotional responses. In addition, the chapters in that part help you make sense of the different schools and methods of training your dog.

Keeping age in mind

Whether you have a puppy or an older dog, you can appreciate that time and experience will make a difference in your dog’s behavior. A young puppy, who’s often interpreting many of life’s nuances for the first time, watches your actions carefully and is influenced by how you behave. An older dog, however, who may have studied many human responses, may be less influenced by your activities — unless, of course, they’re unusual or unexpected.


Chapter Helping Your Adopted Dog Make the Homecoming Transition highlights how to best acclimate your puppy and lists the ideal lessons to introduce at different stages. It also stresses the critical importance of early socialization and how encounters with various people and places can change your dog’s life forever.

Dogs age quickly. Even though many of their life processes mirror ours, their timeline accelerates at ten times our rate. By age 3, your dog is a mature adult, by 7 most have reached middle age, and by 10, many are heading into their twilight years. It’s a reality that can’t be ignored or avoided. Chapter Caring for an Aging Dog is devoted to the care of an aging dog.

Putting commands to work


There’s no one approach to encouraging good behavior. Each dog is unique and may respond better to one technique than another. A clearly orchestrated attempt to educate yourself and understand the different methods available will keep your training effort fresh and alive.

Even though a dog can recognize up to 165 different commands, or word cues, your goals need not be so lofty. Table 1-2 lists six example commands that are most useful for navigating your life together. After you have these directions firmly planted in your dog’s memory bank, they form the foundation for controlling your dog’s behavior. Their use reassures your dog of her place in your family and her vital inclusion in your world.

Table 1-2                       Six Commands That Make a Difference

Daily Uses
When walking about town or off your property, or to encourage attention in your home
Wait — okay
To get your dog to stop and check in before entering or exiting your home or new buildings as well as when you cross the street and approach stairs
No (and other derivations, such as Not now, Leave it, Don’t think about it)
To alert your dog that a given impulse is not in her best interest (for example, stealing food, chasing an object or animal, and so on)
Enforces impulse to control; ideally used when you need your dog to be still or to relax
Down (and Settle down)
Directs your dog into a submissive, relaxed pose or to her bed
Directs your dog to stop whatever he’s doing and go to you

Ain’t Misbehavin’: Examining Dog Behaviors and Human Responses

No matter how livid you feel when your dog disobeys you or damages prized possessions, you won’t influence his routines until you sit down and listen to his side of the story. Sure, your half-eaten pair of shoes cost $95, but to your dog, its enticing aroma (a perfume called “You”) was impossible to pass by. This section leads you through the most common frustrations, from housetraining to anxiety-driven behavior and on to aggression, in an effort to shape your ability to respond in a manner that your dog understands.

Why dogs act out

Just as people do, many dogs act out when they feel misunderstood, restless, or needy. If you walk around claiming that your dog is reacting out of spite, then in your mind, her every reaction will be tainted by that view — even though “spite” is not an emotion that dogs have. If you keep shouting “Bad dog!” every time your dog makes a wrong move, what option does she have?


Dogs, like children, are motivated by what gets attention. However, it often appears that dogs can’t differentiate positive attention from negative. So if an action gets a reaction — any reaction — it will get repeated.

Furthermore, negative attention can be misperceived as being rough play or confrontation. Thus, a dog who steals from the counter may feel prize envy when her people react uproariously. A smart dog will simply wait until people have left the room and then (minus competition) carry the prize off to a more secluded space. Chapter Teaching Your Dog Manners examines what can be done to address misbehavior.

Dissecting daily frustrations

You may have a real issue with some of your dog’s behaviors, but it’s unlikely that he’s even aware of the issues. Even though a pee-stained carpet can raise your blood pressure, from his point of view the carpet is just as absorbent as the grass, and whether his accident was motivated by need or distraction, he did what came naturally.
Now, don’t get stressed. You don’t have to live with a dog who urinates on the carpet, jumps on company, or chews your slippers. However, recognizing that your dog’s behavior isn’t motivated by spite, vengeance, or guilt can ease your frustration.


Common complaints that dog owners have about living with their dog include barking, chewing, jumping, and house soiling. Each behavior, though disruptive and aggravating, may be a perfectly normal sign of a dog who has bonded well and is trying to get along within the family unit. Reorganizing his outlook may require some effort and intervention, but the process usually takes less time and is less stressful than coping with the current frustrations that have become status quo. 

Reality bites: Inside canine aggression

Aggression is the one behavior that warrants a red flag on any playing field. Though biting is sometimes perfectly understandable, dogs simply aren’t allowed to bite human beings (or other animals) — unless, of course, they’ve been trained to such ends or are legitimately defending their territory.
Dogs who bite are excluded from activities, relinquished to shelters, or euthanized. So before your dog shows any signs of aggression, it’s wise to understand what motivates her and do what you can to prevent it. The chapters in Book Training-Agility and Shows cover many aspects of training.


No book for home use can address the needs of a dog who’s exhibiting a full-blown aggressive response and threatening the safety of family members, neighbors, or other animals. Even though this book gives you the means to recognize the nature of your dog’s behavior and some ways to deal with it, if your dog has seriously bitten someone, or is really scaring you because she’s threatening to bite, you must seek professional advice.

by Eve Adamson, Richard G. Beauchamp, Margaret H. Bonham, Stanley Coren, Miriam Fields-Babineau, Sarah Hodgson, Connie Isbell, Susan McCullough, Gina Spadafori, Jack and Wendy Volhard, Chris Walkowicz, M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD
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