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Canine Behavior

When making a cake, you might start with just a few basic ingredients. Depending on how you use each of them and their inherent properties, will determine the cake you end up with. In that regard, behavior drives are very similar. Utilizing these basic elements of behavior seems obvious and simple, but in the way they can be mixed and moulded, and which are priorities, you can find a remarkable variety in the attitudes and responses of dogs to a variety of situations. Additionally, these drives can be influenced or altered, a dog that is not particularly play driven, for example, can certainly be encouraged to be more so. This preamble indicates that while the ingredients are simple, their variety makes the interpretation a bit complex, and, well, interesting much of the time.

As you read, watch for words that are highlighted and underlined, they lead to more information that could be helpful.

Behavior Drives are essentially instincts that influence how your dog would react to any given situation or stimulus. These are all influenced by genetics and the environment, the old nature/nurture question that many of us have heard before. To influence behavior, one would look to manipulate those drives (giving a dog a cookie when they sit upon command is utilizing the food drive for example). These common elements to all canids (and other species for that matter) is what makes the study of animal behavior a science. Understanding how to encourage (or discourage) certain behaviors or drives, is the skill all trainers seek. Early man recognized certain abilities in dogs that resulted in speed, tracking ability, hunting ability, guarding ability and other skills that they encouraged through selective breeding and training. All of these attributes were the result of specific blending of behavioral drives. These basic drives, pack, play, prey, food and defence, still determine the basic elements of the relationships we enjoy with our dogs today.

Many books and articles have shared the common knowledge that dogs are pack animals. They prefer a social lifestyle built around others that we as humans, would call family. This truth doesn’t always clarify the fact that dogs do vary in their pack drives or that their pack structure is not static. For example, the work performed by a Sighthound or Terrier varies vastly in its sense of independence from that of a Retriever or Herding dog. Generally, those breeds (or types) that were developed to work closely with human counterparts, will exhibit higher pack behavior and thus, by the standards of many people be given labels like “higher desire to please” or even more intelligent than more independent dogs. This is likely a bit unfair, since the difference is likely not one of intelligence but rather of the ability of the “trainer” to motivate. Lower pack drive or more independence will mean that companionship and attention do not typically rate highly as motivators.

Most people would be surprised to consider that dogs need to learn how to play. Indeed, of all the drives listed, play drive seems to be the one that is not inherently part of every dog’s genetic make up. For wolves and other wild canids, play is the educational mechanism for puppies. In their efforts of pouncing and stalking and jumping and wrestling, they are building the skills needed for their survival. For domesticated dog, these behaviors are not as critical and as puppies are often removed from their litter and mother at an age too young to have an opportunity to develop these skills, it falls to their new pack to help them develop them, if at all.

A dog possessed with a strong prey drive will often be found reacting to virtually anything that moves. Whether it be a game of tag, tug of war or chasing bugs, the drive finds a way to express itself. Prey drive is what makes a Herding Dog work so lyrically and a Hound sing, it is behind many of the behaviors that were prized for many generations. Dogs’ vision, attuned to movement at distances far beyond our ability, and their sense of smell, which is beyond our comprehension, are behind the sensory stimulus of most prey drive behaviors. Prey Drive is an important component to many aspects of a dogs’ personality, social behavior, work and play. A strong prey drive combined with socialization and dog-friendly training practices often result in some of the superstars of the dog world as their ability and desire to work appears boundless.

The drive for food seems so obvious as to hardly necessitate comment. Yet, within the world of dogs, there is a vast chasm between the dog that is strongly food motivated and the one that is not. Is it anything other than paradoxical that those breeds we think of as being rather low in food drive are often low in pack drive and typically grouped as difficult to train or even called less intelligent? Or is it more likely that their lack of drives in this areas that many trainers look to first (praise and food) tend not to be extremely motivating? Regardless, whether using food in training or not, every dog enjoys motivators that a trainer can make use of.

Early dog (and early man for that matter) knew the value of a good defence. Survival could be determined by the appropriate response to a threatening situation, of which there would have been many. Defence drive can show many manifestations. Much of the variability can be based in the confidence and anxiety felt by an animal. An animal with high anxiety and low confidence might cringe and submissively urinate in a situation that another dog with slightly different sense of confidence or higher sense of anxiety might choose to attack. For dogs to be able to manage their defence drive and assess threat appropriately, socialization and the ensuing experiences are critical. A dog that has had the opportunity to experience many things will be in a much better position to ascertain those which are truly threatening versus simply novel. Additionally, defence drives can include simple behaviors like avoidance and even hiding (they know it’s bath time). This basic instinctual drive, to avoid and prevent the unpleasant, is based in the instinct to survive. As such, helping your dog to learn to accept and enjoy a wide variety of experiences helps assure that his/her responses are appropriate. Inappropriate responses are generally referred to as sharp-shy, anxiety or fear based aggression, aggressive posturing, among others.

While you might have enjoyed learning about these basic components of dog behavior, please don’t rush out and try to map your dog or worse yet, don’t try to analyze every dog you might consider adopting on the merits of its drives! To do so would be a grave disservice to you and the dog in question. For example, if it is a dog you are considering adopting, it is very likely that other components like confidence and dominance in the adoptive situation would play a part in the drives you would observe. For a dog that is already in your family, those drives have been influenced by the environment you offer. Instead, reading this puts you in a position of being able to better understand your dog, respond to his offered behaviors and build a better level of communication