The Truth About Dogs

Recent explorations into the field of canine genetics are changing the way we think about man's best friend—"man's best parasite" may be more like it—and could help us repair the damage done by a century of inbreeding
Dogs and Determinism

What is so exploitable about human society? And how do dogs manage to exploit it? We are, as the animal behaviorist John S. Kennedy called us, "compulsive" anthropomorphizers—always on the lookout for behaviors that mimic, even superficially, human social phenomena such as loyalty, betrayal, reciprocity. These are useful things to look out for when one is a group-dwelling animal whose survival is threatened less by ravenous wild beasts than by back-stabbing fellow group dwellers. Our cognitive ability to ascribe motives to others is a large part of what makes us human. But it truly is compulsive. Human beings do it so instinctively that they are forever ascribing malignant or benignant motives even to inanimate forces such as the weather, volcanoes, and internal-combustion engines. Our very cleverness is the start of our undoing when we're up against an evolutionary sharpshooter like the dog. We are primed to seize on what are, in truth, fundamental, programmed behaviors in dogs and read into them extravagant tales of love and fidelity. Often dogs need do no more than be their simple selves to amaze and beguile us.

Take the protectiveness that dog owners almost universally impute to their pets. "Protectiveness" is almost certainly nothing of the kind; it is not a sign of a dog's loyalty to and concern for us but an example of what behaviorists call "facilitated aggression." Rather than protecting us, the dog feels protected byus; he is emboldened to react to any threat that appears on his radar screen. Such behavior is observed regularly in wolves: aggression by a dominant member of the pack toward another wolf will trigger an attack by other members.

Or consider the countless stories about dogs that have "saved" people. In fact dogs have no particular instinct to save people and no particular understanding that that is what they are doing even when they do it. Search-and-rescue dogs are trained by exploiting the instinct to retrieve thrown objects. They are trained to fetch. And they are trained to fetch one toy only. Once they master that, they are ready for the next step: A person takes the toy and hides; the dog is encouraged to find—well, his toy. When he finds the "victim," the dog is rewarded by getting his toy. At actual disaster scenes trainers get someone to go and hide with the dog's toy several times a day, so that the dog can score a few successes and not become frustrated.

This takes nothing away from dogs' amazing sense of smell or trainability or utility to humankind in such situations. It does say that what is going on here may be simpler than we are ready to believe. As Gregory Acland points out, "All you're doing is taking a behavior that's there and subverting it." Other "rescuing" behavior in dogs is an even simpler matter. Newfoundlands and other water retrievers will bring anything they can out of the water. Often Newfoundland owners cannot swim with their dogs, because the dogs keep pulling them to shore.

The degree to which seemingly complex behaviors are rigidly and genetically programmed is quite frightening at times—frightening for what it suggests about motivation and free will, at least. Pregnant dogs will often pick up stuffed animals and try to "nurse" them. A cardinal in the wild was once observed feeding goldfish for several weeks; a fish would rise to the surface of the pond and open its mouth, and the cardinal would stuff it full of regurgitated insects. That, of course, is what birds do to feed their young, and apparently all it takes to trigger that behavior is the sight of a gaping mouth.

An early part of Elaine Ostrander's work in the Dog Genome Project was an attempt to locate genes responsible for such complex canine instincts as herding behavior in border collies and the affinity for water in Newfoundlands. The grandpuppies of crosses between border collies and Newfies showed a rich assortment of the two behaviors, enough to make it clear that they were under genetic control—but also enough to show that perhaps a dozen or more genes were involved, and that to accomplish any sort of mapping of those genes, one would need to start with several hundred dogs.

A former postdoctoral research fellow with Ostrander, Melissa Fleming, has developed an assay that attempts to quantify certain innate breed-specific behavioral differences. Fleming found, for example, that border collies would stare at a moving remote-controlled toy car for the duration of a 120-second test. Newfoundlands, in contrast, not only would fail to stare at the car but would not even react to it unless it ran directly into them.

Other studies have turned up some remarkably narrow and distinctive behavioral lineages that further demonstrate the extent to which canine behavior is genetically determined. Certain strains of Siberian huskies and pointers have developed a strongly inherited shyness or aversion to human beings; when kept under identical conditions in identical kennels, the shy dogs will stay back (or, in the case of the pointers, actually freeze and quiver when people approach), while the normal dogs come up to be petted. Breeders have succeeded in producing lines of bloodhounds that bark or do not bark while trailing a scent; of Dalmatians that do or do not take up the proper "coaching" position, trotting under the front axle of a carriage, very close to the heels of the horses; and even of miniature poodles that do or do not "shake hands."

There is probably no "deflecting aggression," or submission, gene, but much of what enables dogs to get away with everything up to and sometimes even including murder in human society is an innate part of wolf social behavior. Dogs are social animals, and so are we. Dog society consists of a strong dominance hierarchy in which submission to and appeasement of higher-ranking animals is necessary to survival. Dominance hierarchies avoid violence for the most part, but the threat of violence is ever present. Thus reading social cues adeptly, down to such details of body language as a flick of the ear or the angle of a tail, is the most basic of canine instincts. "That's what dogs do for a living," Gregory Acland says. "They figure out what's expected of them in a social situation and do it."

Even people who are very bad animal trainers can usually make themselves understood to dogs. If you shout at a dog, it cringes. Does this mean the dog feels sorry for peeing on your Oriental rug? The fact is that it doesn't matter, as far as the dog is concerned, whether he feels sorry or not. The cringe is a successful technique for deflecting aggression. Millions of years of wolf evolution have selected such behaviors because they are socially effective; thousands of years of dog evolution have fine-tuned such behaviors so that they are socially effective on people. Just as we are genetically programmed to seek signs of love and loyalty, dogs are genetically programmed to exploit this foible of ours.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In