At dawn in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley I had my first and only glimpse of a pack of wild grey wolves, but they always loomed large in imagination. I follow them in books and movies, read about their conservation and reintroduction, and in a more contemplative mood see their shadow in my pets.
We hold ambiguous attitudes. We created stories of them as evil predators but also learned they are faithful mates and parents. One of the enduring myths is that a pack is ruled by an alpha male and female.
The notion of a pecking order in social animals began with chickens! Such an appealing theory, the biologist Rudolf Schenkel adopted it back in 1947 to explain the hierarchy he observed among ten wolves cooped up in an enclosure at Basel Zoo.
Human societies organize vertically according to rank or class and historical upheavals trying to level differences to the horizontal never lasted long. I experienced the bottom of the pecking order in the school playground as a new boy tortured on the ‘bars’ (iron railings) by bullies who hazed/ initiated us. The great ethologist Konrad Lorenz in seeking to understand human aggression projected it forward from the behavior of animals, although I wonder if we misinterpret animals by extrapolating backwards from our behavior!
Animals, it is said, avoid inevitable conflicts of a homogeneous society by creating social ranks, disturbed occasionally by a strong rival for the alpha post. But this attractive theory fails the test of wilderness evidence in wolves, although even experts find it hard to break the habit of referring to alphas in a pack.
Dave Mech is a world expert who has studied wolves for decades. In Ellesmere Island in the Canadian high arctic he got on intimate terms with them where they are fearless of humans. He learned a wolf pack is not an assorted mix of related and unrelated animals, as in captivity. Each is a family consisting of a monogamous pair of adults and their pups, sometimes with adolescents tagging along. Since we don’t regard our parents as alpha adults, neither should we think of wolves in that way.
The dark side of the error of believing that pack leaders violently rule over subordinates is when it is applied to the training of dogs. Owners who harshly punish pets for disobedience or insubordination may achieve their goal by intimidation, but at what price? Much better and more faithful to what we now know from wolves, we should be head of the family, Mom and Pop to our pups. Likewise, professional trainers today prefer to reward dogs for being a good boy or girl through positive reinforcement (operant conditioning).
Studies in Norther America and Europe should have packed off the creaking theory. But in biology there always exceptions, and not just those unhappy creatures in a cage. Evidently, pecking orders can exist in unusually large packs and maybe I saw a spectrum from alpha to omega when the morning mist cleared over the Lamar River.
“I used to think my human was smart, but I now realize he only looks that way.
I know I shouldn’t be anthropomorphic about one I’m particularly fond of.”
Did you ever suspect that dogs often turn out looking like their owners—or the other way round?
…the portly owner of a British bulldog…the old lady with a blue rinse and a coiffed poodle in her arms…the greasy-haired young man in a leather jacket leading a pair of snarling pitbull terriers… Yes they are caricatures, but we have all seen them. And now there’s research to prove an association.
Lance Workman has been collaborating with the British Kennel Club to find out if there is any correlation between dogs and their owners for what psychologists call the “big five” personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and anxiety. After analyzing questionnaires returned by 1,000 pedigree dog owners Workman concluded, “We go for dogs that are a bit like us, just as we go for a romantic partner like us.” The breed predicted its owner’s personality: owners of working dogs were more extroverted, hound owners more emotionally stable, gun dog owners more affable, and toy dog owners were “an open and imaginative bunch.”
It makes sense if our dogs resemble us in some ways because either we chose the dog or it chose us. People domesticated them thousands of years ago because they are smart animals that can share a slice of our emotional lives. We sometimes overestimate them, treating our pets like cute little hairy people. I don’t think it’s wrong to hold that attitude because they are more likely to be the lucky ones showered with love and care from their owners. It is when we underestimate their intelligence and emotions that they are more likely to be treated shabbily. I used to visit an old farmer from New York who contradicted me when I explained the rich emotional life I have with our golden retriever. “It’s only a dog,” he’d say. But I still believe I am nearer the truth because I live closer to the animal.
Of course they have a wide range of abilities and personalities: smart ↔ dumb, placid↔aggressive, et cetera. Dogs bred for working or hunting are generally at or near the top of the scale, except for poodles (no airheads). We like to be praised for owning a smart dog, as if it reflects on our own brains. It’s safer not to mix compliments like, “For a dumb breed he’s a magnificent specimen,” to a chow chow owner.
Some animal behaviorists used to deny that dogs have much emotional life. That seems ludicrously false to dog owners and is now contradicted by modern research (Ádám Miklósi, Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition). The controversy now centers on what emotions they can express. Love of their owner, joy at greeting a friendly face, and fear of punishment are all transparent emotions which they never conceal as we sometimes do. Expressions of love almost overwhelm some dogs, like the black lab greeting the soldier returning after six months deployment. If we say that a dog only loves when it is rewarded, is that so very different to the bonding of human hearts by more subtle rewards?
Perhaps the fame of Pavlov’s experiments gave some people the impression that dogs are little more than furry automatons. But we too learn automatic responses to coupled stimuli, including salivation to the sound of a dinner gong like the conditioned reflex in his dogs. Dog training and learning, and a good deal of human education, is owing to associations made between a voluntary behavior and a reward or punishment. The stock example is giving your pet a treat for returning a ball, which psychologists call ‘operant conditioning’. That’s how working dogs, Grace and other smart dogs are trained to look so brilliant.
A really big brain isn’t needed to express the basic emotions like love, joy, and fear, but it helps build a larger repertoire. I carried out a simple experiment on my three-year-old golden retriever to test her learning ability, but she educated me.
Taking advantage of her high motivation for food, I prepared three empty crème brûlée dishes. I wiped the insides with her favorite treat, peanut butter, so she couldn’t tell which concealed the reward. I turned each dish upside down, and stuck a US postage stamp on the one containing the blob of peanut butter. Then I lifted each in turn to show her where it was, and finally switched their positions in her plain sight. The experiment was repeated over and over ending up with different positions.
When I gave the release command she knew there was a reward at stake. We would have gone immediately to the dish labeled with the stamp, but she nosed each dish in turn again and again. Finally she came to the right answer. It is possible that despite my efforts the dish hiding the treat had a stronger odor than controls, but I think her strategy was to check her olfactory bulb first and hippocampus second.
Dogs trust their noses and ears more than their short-term memories which are not as sharp as ours. This is certainly a carry-over over from wolf ancestors, but dogs have a unique stock of behavior and an emotional intelligence that has been molded by domestication. Over the generations the two have been apart, gene expression in the hypothalamus has diverged which might explain differences in emotions and hormonal and autonomic responses.
Of the more complex emotions I’m sure dogs can express jealousy because ours proves it every time we walk together. She protests by jumping and barking when a neighbor’s dog pays me too much attention. Charles Darwin, a dog-lover, had no doubt “that a dog feels shame” (The Descent of Man, 1871). And when dog owners were polled recently, half of them believed their dogs can express grief and guilt. Judging by the viral video of Denver the dog who stole kitty cat treats guilt is written all over his expressive face video. But animal behaviorists look for other explanations, although none are as entertaining as guilt.
There is no doubt that dogs really care what we think of them, and they are amazingly sensitive to our body language. John Bradshaw, who studies dog behavior in Bristol, England, says that “at present, then, there has to be considerable doubt about whether dogs can actually experience an emotion similar to our guilt”. Perhaps we do misinterpret a low wagging tail and avoidance of eye contact, which may be conditioned by their anxiety to please us.
So they may be reacting to our behavior instead of an internal feeling. It is imponderable how much self-awareness a dog has, but perhaps not a great deal. They live very much in the present and we can confuse them by punishment after the fact.
If dogs have weak powers of reasoning and learn mainly by trial and error that doesn’t make them stupid. They have impressive powers of recall and skill retention. Theirs is a different kind of intelligence, and if we make much of the confusion we cause each other by sending misleading signals between the sexes we ought to admit greater misunderstanding of our pets.
Our golden was right. Her expectations of me were too high, because her owner is both smart and stupid. But he is trying to do better.