Dog behavior

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Dogs roughhousing.

Dog behavior refers to the collection of behaviors by the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, and is believed to be influenced by genetic, social, situational and environmental causes. The domestic dog is a subspecies of the grey wolf, and shares many of its behavioral characteristics.

Although there are important and distinct differences between dogs and wolves, contemporary views of dog behavior are heavily influenced by research on wild wolves.

Dog intelligence[edit]

Various studies have attempted to estimate intelligence by measuring the number of words or signs a dog can learn. A recent example is animal psychologist Juliane Kaminski's paper in Science that demonstrated that Rico, a Border Collie, could learn over 200 words.[1] Rico could remember the names of several items for up to four weeks after its last exposure (Kaminski eliminated the Clever Hans effect using strict protocols). Rico was also able to interpret phrases such as "fetch the sock" in terms of its component words (rather than considering its utterance to be a single word). Rico could also give the sock to a specified person. In 2008, Betsy, also a Border Collie, was featured on the cover of National Geographic Magazine. Betsy's intelligence rivaled that of Rico's in that she knew over 340 words and was able to connect an object with a photographic image of the object, despite having seen neither before.[2]

Social behavior[edit]

The social unit of dogs is the pack. From research on wolf packs that are formed in captivity, the pack has traditionally been thought of as a tightly knit group composed of individuals that have earned a ranking in a linear hierarchy, and within which there is intense loyalty. It is believed that dogs were able to be domesticated by and succeed in contact with human society because of their social nature. According to this traditional belief, dogs generalize their social instincts to include humans, in essence "joining the pack" of their owner/handler.

However, much of this traditional view is based on findings from grey wolf packs that are formed of unrelated animals in captivity, and thus may not apply to natural wolf packs, natural dog packs, or dogs incorporated into a human household. Research in packs formed in the wild indicates that wolves form a family group, including a breeding pair and their offspring. In these familial packs, the terms "dominance," and "submission" are less useful than "parent," and "offspring," and bring with them a number of misconceptions. While the majority of research to date indicates that domestic dogs conform to a hierarchy around an Alpha-Beta-Omega structure, domestic dogs, like their wild wolf counterparts, also interact in complex hierarchical ways.

The existence and nature of personality traits in dogs have been studied (15,329 dogs of 164 different breeds) and five consistent and stable "narrow traits" identified, described as playfulness, curiosity/fearlessness, chase-proneness, sociability and aggressiveness. A further higher-order axis for shyness–boldness was also identified.[3][4]

Behavior when isolated[edit]

Dogs value the companionship of the others in their "pack" and are sometimes distressed if they are separated from it. Typical reactions when a dog is separated from the pack are barking, howling, digging, and chewing. These activities may distress humans when they need to leave dogs alone for a period of time. However, this behavior, called separation anxiety, can be overcome with training, or at least decreased to the point where it becomes manageable. If young puppies are habituated to periods alone from an early age, this can normally be prevented entirely.

Dogs are also crepuscular, meaning their natural period of peak activity is dawn and dusk,[5] and may be content to rest during the day and night (because of this trait, domestic dogs are more likely to show barking and chewing activity at times when people are leaving to or returning from work.[6]) Some owners struggling to deal with this problem resort to devocalization, a controversial practice considered cruel by animal advocates and outlawed in many countries.

Applicable research on grey wolves[edit]

Dr. David Mech of the University of Minnesota, who has studied wolves in their natural habitat, claims that much of what is widely believed about wolf packs is mistaken. From observations of wolf packs on Ellesmere Island over more than a decade,[7] he claims that natural wolf packs are not at all similar to those formed in captivity by unrelated wolves. He attributes many of the misconceptions about wolf packs to generalizations from these unnatural packs in captivity, and equates this to erroneous inferences we might draw from generalizing human behavior from studying refugee camps.

Dr. Mech argues that the natural wolf pack is typically a family, with a breeding pair of adult wolves and their offspring, along with a few other relatives such as uncles and aunts. In such cases, the terms "alpha" and "dominant" are less appropriate than "parent." Of course, the parent wolves are both "alpha" and "dominant" (by definition), but he argues that these terms are misleading because they imply that a pack of wolves typically include multiple families and that the members assume a place in a linear hierarchy. A wolf pack should not be seen as a tribe of individuals who have an established place in a hierarchy until a younger dog usurps the role. Rather, a wolf pack should be seen as a family unit, with young wolves of age dispersing into new territories of their own, to find other wolves and begin their own family units.

Mech also states that dominance is rare in wild wolves, and does not arise from sexual competition. Because young wolves usually disperse before age two, and almost always before age three, there is little sexual tension within a pack. Instead of "dominance" and "submission," he uses the terms "assertiveness" and "passiveness" to reflect the role of the wolf in the pack. Dominant breeding pairs led the pack most of the time (71%), and initiated most new behaviors (70%). Leadership behavior in subordinate pack members tended to be followed by dispersion.[8]

Empathy in Dogs[edit]

Empathy has been viewed as an emotion unique to humans, but recent research suggests other animals, such as dogs, could share this more complex way of thinking. The media has portrayed many examples of animals behaving empathically and with altruistic-like behavior. One example is Eve, a Rottweiler who pulled her paraplegic owner, Kathie Vaughan, to safety after the owner's truck unexpectedly filled with noxious gas and exploded.[9] Many researchers have started studying empathic-behavior and have developed many ways of testing empathy in dogs.

There are many theories as to why dogs would have evolved empathic behavior. One theory is that dogs evolved from wolves, who are highly social animals with complex roles and hierarchies within the pack.[10] The development of empathic-like behavior may have been essential to carrying out the many duties and behaviors these roles within the pack demanded. Empathy simply aided in the survival of this particular species. However, this theory doesn't necessarily explain why domesticated dogs would behave empathically toward an unrelated species, such as humans. Some believe that empathy developed during the domestication of dogs through the close proximity and cohabitation of humans. Empathy would allow dogs to predict and read human behavior more easily, and promote some clearer form of communication between the species.

Custance and Mayer looked at the curious empathic-like behavior of dogs towards humans.[11] Eighteen medium-sized domestic dogs and their owners were recruited for the study. The study involved exposing each dog to 20-seconds of either humming or crying-like sounds coming from the dog's owner as well as a stranger. Out of the eighteen canines in the study, fifteen of them approached both their owner and the stranger when the individual pretended to cry. Thirteen of the fifteen dogs approached the crying individual submissively, and not in a playful manner. Very few dogs approached an individual during the humming-condition of the experiment, which suggests that the dogs were not simply approaching the individual out of curiosity. The researchers concluded that many of the dogs behaved with empathic-like concern and comfort-offering toward both their owners as well as strangers.

Another behavior that has researchers questioning if empathy exists in the canine species is contagious yawning. Research has found that dogs will yawn after observing a human yawn.[12] Dogs have been observed yawning after witnessing both familiar and unfamiliar humans yawning. However, the dogs tend to react and yawn more to humans who are familiar to them. There is still some disagreement whether contagious yawning is an empathy-related response.

Canine Personality[edit]

Canine Personality: Canine personality is defined as the combination of characteristics or qualities that form a canine's individual distinctive character. Personality in canines refers to the behavioral characteristics that describes and accounts for consistent patterns of normal behavior that are stable across time and situations. It is made up of characteristic patterns, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Their personalities arise within and they remain fairly constant throughout a canine's life. A canine's personality is made up of a combination of characteristics or qualities that form a distinctive character which is passed down from parents to their young pup. [1]

Canine Personalities have a genetic contribution which has to do with the complex personality phenotypes (set of observable characteristics) which are thought to be influenced by many environmental factors and multiple genes (Genetic makeup). As of now, only a handful of genes have been linked to personality traits in humans, however canines offer a promising approach to detect the genetic components of complex behavioral traits. In canines, a large proportion of their personality is due to their inherited genes, so there is no question that genes play a role in the behavior of domestic canines, but a canine's individual environmental history plays a major role in shaping its behavior over its lifetime. From the time a puppy is welcomed into a household of humans that puppy becomes completely dependent of the humans to become their new caretaker for all of their needs. [2]

Canines are likely to have been the first animals to be tamed and as such have shared a common environment with humans for many years. Humans have become interested in this animal and its personalities because Canine Personality research has been inspired by a number of common concerns. Some of those concerns are that potential canine owners look to find canines that are similar to their own self so they mesh well in each others lifestyles. Also animal shelters and other agencies have an interest in using personality traits to improve the success of the adoption process and to direct care to the animals most in need of attention. There is a test called C-BARQ or (Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire) that contains eleven dimensions for canine friends, and eight for guide dogs. For puppies, aggressiveness and submission were the most consistent traits while activity, fearfulness, sociability, and responsiveness to training were the least consistent.[3]

One important canine behavior that is very important to humans is their ability to attend and respond to human social gestures and cues. Owners of canines find it very important to have a canine that can learn visual and verbal cues that they show. Most owners prefer a canine that is easily trained such as Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, Standard Poodle, and Border Collies. Humans want to become familiar with canine personalities because canines are very useful to humans. Humans use canines for hunting, herding, sledding, rescue missions, police dogs, drug findings, guiding the blind, as well as a lovely companion at home. The evolutionary development and diversification of canines is interesting because, instead of natural selection by the environment, humans are artificially selecting and are responsible for the hundreds of canine breeds that are domestic and exist today. [4]

Sexual behavior[edit]

Dominance and submission[edit]

Properly socialized dogs can interact with unfamiliar dogs of any size and shape and understand how to communicate.

Some believe that dogs establish a dominance hierarchy through aggressive play and roughhousing along a continuum of dominance and submission,[13] although the concept of social hierarchies in dogs is unproven and controversial. Successful socialization of puppies involves their participation with their littermates in learning to relate to other dogs. Dogs learn to successfully relate to other dogs by keeping the peace rather than by constantly fighting to reestablish this hierarchy.

Dominance behavior[edit]

Although dogs are commonly characterized in terms of their dominance (e.g., "Fido is the alpha."), the stability of dominance as a stable personality trait remains controversial.

In wild wolf packs, displays of dominance have been observed to include "licking up," which involves essentially begging for food; "pinning," in which the dominant dog appears to threaten another, which shows submission by rolling over; "standing over"; territorial marking; and more passive expressions of body language that include holding the tail and ears erect, looking directly at other dogs, circling and sniffing other dogs, and growling if another dog moves.

Submissive displays mirror dominant displays and include adopting such a posture that is physically lower than other dogs as crouching, rolling over on the back and exposing the abdomen, lowering the tail (sometimes to the point of tucking it between the legs) flattening the ears, averting gaze, nervously licking or swallowing, dribbling urine, and freezing or fleeing when other dogs are encountered.

In wolves, recent research has indicated that dominant behaviors have been misinterpreted as personality traits that determine the individual's place in a linear hierarchy in the pack. In contrast, Mech (see recent research, above) argues that packs are family units, and that the "alpha" of a pack does not change through struggles for dominance. Rather, he argues that the family unit serves to raise the young, which then disperse to pair up with other dispersed wolves to form a breeding pair and a pack of their own. This model undermines the popular conception of dominance in wolf social behavior.

Research on canine familiaris has also questioned whether dominance is a personality trait. Svartberg and colleagues (2002) gathered behavioral data from 15,000 dogs of 164 breeds in attempt to identify major personality traits. In an approach similar to those used in humans, the authors performed a factor analysis of their data, and identified five major traits: "Playfulness," "Curiosity/Fearlessness," "Chase-proneness," "Sociability," "Aggressiveness." A similar analysis by Goddard and Beilharz (1985) revealed two major factors in social behavior: "Confidence," and "Aggression–dominance."

These studies suggest that dominance may not be a personality trait itself but rather be a behavioral epiphenomenon that is composed of such underlying personality traits as aggressiveness, confidence, and curiosity.

Human interaction[edit]

Research has shown that there are individual differences in the interactions between dogs and their human masters that have significant effects on dog behavior. For instance, Topal and colleagues (1997) have shown that the type of relationship between dog and master, characterized as either companionship or working relationship, significantly affected the dog's performance on a cognitive problem-solving task. They speculate that companion dogs have a more dependent relationship with their owners, and look to them to solve problems. In contrast, working dogs are more independent.

Dog attacks[edit]

A USAF attack dog in training.

Dog attacks are attacks on humans by feral or domestic dogs. With the close association of dogs and humans in daily life (largely as pets), dog attacks—with injuries from very minor to significant, and severe to fatal—are not uncommon. Attacks on the serious end of the spectrum have become the focus of increasing media and public attention in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.[14]

It is estimated that two percent of the US population, 4.7 million people, are bitten each year.[15] In the 1980s and 1990s the US averaged 17 fatalities per year, while in the 2000s this has increased to 26.[16] 77% of dog bites are from the pet of family or friends, and 50% of attacks occur on the dog owner's property.[16]

There is considerable debate on whether or not certain breeds of dogs are inherently more prone to commit attacks causing serious injury (i.e., so driven by instinct and breeding that, under certain circumstances, they are exceedingly likely to attempt or commit dangerous attacks). Regardless of the breed of the dog, it is recognized that the risk of dangerous dog attacks can be greatly increased by human actions (such as neglect or fight training) or inactions (as carelessness in confinement and control).

A person bitten by an animal potentially carrying parvovirus or rabies virus should consult a medical doctor immediately. A bite victim may also incur serious bacterial infections of the bone called osteomyelitis which can become life threatening if untreated, whether or not the animal has parvovirus or rabies virus.

Dangerous breeds[edit]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in 2000 a study on dog bite-related fatalities (DBRF) that covered the years 1979-1998. The study found reports of 327 people killed by dogs over the 20-year period. Using newspaper articles, the CDC was able to obtain breed "identifications" for 238 of the 327 cases of fatal dog attacks; of which "pit bull terrier" or mixes thereof were reportedly involved in 76 cases. The breed with the next-highest number of attributed fatalities was the Rottweiler and mixes thereof, with 44 fatalities.

Dog play[edit]

From a young age, dogs engage in play with one another. Dog play is made up primarily of mock fights. It is believed that this behavior, which is most common in puppies, is training for important behaviors later in life. Research on puppy play has shown that puppies do not engage equally in both dominant and submissive roles in fights; rather, puppies will tend to start play fights with weaker puppies they believe they can dominate.[17]

Additionally, puppies will intervene in play engaged by other pairs. In these situations, the puppies overwhelmingly aid the dominant dog. Puppies do not show reciprocity in interventions, suggesting that they prefer to be dominant in a fight, and are being opportunistic in the short-term. In the long-term, intervention may aid the puppies in learning coordination.

A common behavior among domesticated dogs is chasing their own tails. Researchers are not completely certain why dogs chase their own tail, however some research studies found a link between tail-chasing and high cholesterol. A study found that when dogs experience an increase in activity of hormones tied to the "fight or flight" response, it causes dogs to chase their tails more often.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kaminski,et al., Juliane (2004). Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for "Fast Mapping". pp. 1682–1683 doi=10.1126/science.1097859. 
  2. ^ Morell, Virginia (March 2008). "Minds of their Own". National Geographic. Retrieved 2008-10-13. 
  3. ^ Kenth Svartberg, Björn Forkman, K (2002-06-14). "Personality traits in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris)". Applied animal behavior science 79 (2): 133–55. doi:10.1016/S0168-1591(02)00121-1. Retrieved 2010-06-24. 
  4. ^ Svartberg, K.; Tapper, I.; Temrin, H.; Radesater, T.; Thorman, S. (2004-04-26). "Consistency of personality traits in dogs". Animal Behaviour 69 (2): 283–91. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2004.04.011. Retrieved 2010-06-24. 
  5. ^ The ecology of stray dogs: a study of free-ranging urban animals By Alan M. Beck p. 12
  6. ^ chapter "Home alone"
  7. ^ Mech, L. David (1999). "Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs" (PDF). Canadian Journal of Zoology 77: 1196–1203. 
  8. ^ Peterson, Rolf O."Leadership Behavior in Relation to Dominance and Reproductive Status in Gray Wolves, Canis lupus", 2002. Retrieved on 25 March 2014
  9. ^ Bond, Annie (5 May 2005). "The Dog Hero: A True Animal Story". care2. Retrieved 6 March 2014. 
  10. ^ Silva, Karine; Liliana de Sousa (2011). "'Canis empathicus’? A proposal on dogs' capacity to empathize with humans.". Biology letters 7 (4): 489–492. 
  11. ^ Custance, D.; Mayer, J. (2012). "Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: An exploratory study.". Animal Cognition 15 (5): 851–859. doi:10.1007/s10071-012-0510-1. 
  12. ^ Silva, Karine; Joana Bessa & Liliana de Sousa (2012). "Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): first evidence for social modulation.". Animal cognition 15 (4): 721–724. 
  13. ^ Gerritsen,Resi."K9 Behavior Basics", Detselig Enterprises, 2010. Retrieved on 25 March 2014.
  14. ^ Reuters (2004-10-13). "Stray dog pack attacks Albanian town". IOL. Retrieved 2008-01-21. "An Albanian town had to call in police and hunters after a pack of 200 stray mountain dogs attacked at least nine people. Headed by a clearly identifiable leader, the snarling pack overran the main street of the small northern town of Mamurras, its mayor said on Wednesday. "Even in the movies I have never seen a horde of 200 stray dogs from the mountains attacking people in the middle of a town," Anton Frroku said on Wednesday. He said the dogs bit at least nine people, aged from 20 to 60, dragging them to the ground and inflicting serious wounds." 
  15. ^ Questions and Answers about Dog Bites
  16. ^ a b Statistics about dog bites in the USA and elsewhere
  17. ^ C. Ward (2007) Doctoral Dissertation
  18. ^