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.
The Problem With Breeding
So why are there so many canine misfits around these days? If dogs domesticated themselves, if they have evolved their way into a cozy place in human society by instinctively ingratiating themselves, if they have learned behaviors that elicit a friendly response and play on our preprogrammed sympathies, then why are the veterinary journals full of case reports like this one?
An 18-month-old male Irish Setter was owned by a young childless couple. The husband was often threatened by the dog and had been bitten several times. The dog would growl whenever the husband entered the room. This usually occured if the wife and the dog were in the room before the husband entered. The dog would willingly go for walks with the husband, but only the wife could be in the kitchen when the dog was eating. The dog was most likely to attack the man when he tried to enter his bedroom if the wife was already there.
It is impossible to say for sure if such problems are getting worse, though there is no doubt that aggression in dogs is a widespread phenomenon. In Baltimore, a city of 80,000 to 100,000 dogs, there were 7,000 attacks on people in one year, according to a classic 1973 study. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the United States 800,000 people are injured seriously enough by dogs to require medical attention, 6,000 are hospitalized by dog attacks, and about fifteen, mostly children, are killed.