understanding dogs


 Why does a dog frown just like a scolded child when it feels down and wag so very obviously when it its spirits are  up, while a cat is so inscrutable?

Come to that, why are most dogs so keen to be friendly?

John Bradshaw, in his book In Defence Of Dogs (Penguin paperback, £9.99), says: “From a biologist’s perpective, it demands explanation. Neighbouring cats often spend their whole lives avoiding each other, whereas many dogs will try to greet every dog they come across. Where does this general affability come from?”

Bradshaw says it is all down to hunting behaviour. For the wolf and its kind, being easy to read and willing to communicate is good for the pack and therefore for the family group. Cats hunt alone and are only co-operative with their own offspring. Seen anything nice to eat, Mr Tibbles? Might have done; might be just out for a stroll.

Already, we have mentioned the domestic dog’s wolfishness. And this theme in human understanding of dogs is central to Bradshaw’s book. The descendancy from wolves is genetically clear, he says. But enough is different, and enough has gone differently – for several distinct strands of canine development – that it is unsafe to explain all dog behaviour in terms of the original necessities of wolf life.

Anyway, we probably do not understand wolves as much as we think we do. They have generally only been closely observed in captivity and imprisonment affects human behaviour quite dramatically, after all. In the wild, says Bradshaw, they appear to be much less obsessed with hierarchy than most dog psychologists think. And wolf relatives which have learned to live with man and then gone wild again, like Australian dingoes and Indian pariahs, are even more easy-going.

In short, says Bradshaw, it is probably not necessary to go in for all those tricks which dog books of recent years have tended to recommend, to assert your dominance – making the dog sleep a floor below you, and winning every tussle with a toy and all that sort of stuff that is recommended for getting the poor beast to regard you as Ming The Mighty & Merciless. If it works at all, it probably works for reasons you do not understand, says Bradshaw.

He is director of an animal behavour centre at Bristol University and his mission in the book is to straighten out what in the mythology of dog ownership is likely and what is clearly wrong, in view of the most recent reliable science.

His starting point is: “It has become abundantly clear that the model upon which many people are training, managing and interacting with their dogs is fundamentally wrong.

“There is a growing feeling that the dog’s supposed drive to ‘dominate’ is a convenient myth for those who wish to continue physically punishing dogs.”


He says we are probably right to think our pets love us in much the same way we love them. Do they get jealous? It is not a wild idea. But do they feel guilty? Probably not. If the puppy cringes when you come home and find a puddle on the floor, that is because it got smacked last time and had no idea why.  It has forgotten the puddle.

The dog’s understanding of what rewards and punishments are for is based on what has happened in the past couple of seconds, Bradshaw says firmly. Understanding that is the key to training. You can associate treats with a clicker or a whistle, for example, and use the noise to let the dog know, even over a distance, that it has just done the right thing and can look forward to your next reunion. But there is no point in taking revenge for something it did while you were out.

He spends a chapter on the importance of imprinting puppies with an early trust in people – and not just one sort of people, if you want to avoid problems later. The timing and handling of the split with mum and the litter is more critical than a lot of breeders seem to appreciate, he says. He quite likes the American idea of “puppy parties”, where a pup meets a range of humanity.

He is also firm on the importance of introducing the dog gently to the idea of being left alone. Separation anxiety is probably a bigger source of canine distress than has ever been recognised, he reckons.

He signs off with these words …

“Addressing the twin pressures of misguided breeding and poor understanding of canine psychology is crucial to ensuring dogs remain as significant a part of human life as they have been for the past ten millennia. My hope is that this book will make some contribution towards that goal.”


Understanding Dogs, by John Bradshaw, is a Penguin paperback with a recommended price of  £10.

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