Canine Social Behavior

CHAPTER 4 Canine Social Behavior

Dogs are a social species, like humans. During the selective breeding process, some modifications were made to the group structure. As a result, many of the interactions and problem behaviors of dogs are associated with intercanid relations. From sexual behavior to predatory behavior, from urine marking to mutual grooming, the subtleties for much of the canine daily life are based on social relationships. To complicate this process, humans are accepted as group members, bringing in the factor of interspecies interactions.

Social behaviors start at birth and become more intricate as a puppy gets older. Social learning passes through the stages of socialization, development of dominant-subordinate relationships, behavioral maturation, and group interactions.

The largest and most complete study of the social interactions of the dog was headed by J.P. Scott and J.L. Fuller at Bar Harbour, Maine. These findings were published in a number of scientific articles cited throughout this chapter and in the classic text, Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog.290 Any serious student of dog behavior is encouraged to read this text.


The hypothesis that a specific experience will lead to different behavioral results at different periods during the development of an animal is the one on which the existence of critical periods is based.292 The concept of critical periods (also called sensitive periods) means that certain important events must happen in specific time periods or else that learning opportunity is lost.32 It would be expected that one of these critical periods occurs when new social relationships can be easily developed and another when memory becomes consistent.292 Using these types of landmarks, social behavior for dogs has been divided into four time periods: neonatal, transition, socialization, and juvenile.

The neonatal period covers the first 2 weeks of life, from birth until the eyes and ears open.* Because of the immature physical and neurologic state of the puppy at this age, behavior is restricted to infantile patterns—mainly sleeping and nursing. Only a lack of tactile input from the dam or littermates causes a neonatal puppy to become active.165

The transition period is a short time frame starting when the eyes and ears open and during which the locomotor skills change from a crawl to a walk.20,105,284,292 It is a time of rapid neurologic and physical development, when puppies first begin to respond to environmental stimuli.298 This is usually the time that puppies become mobile enough to start leaving the nest box, first notice others, and start eating semisolid foods.

Socialization is the third critical period for a young puppy, It probably is the single most important time in the dog’s life relative to social interaction.32 This period begins at 3 weeks of age, when the puppy becomes capable of seeking nonmaternal social interaction, and it lasts until infantile behavior patterns end and environmental interactions become more attractive than social ones—about 12 weeks of age. A lot of other things happen during this time relative to the maturation of physical, neurologic, and behavioral features. Motor skills mature to allow active interaction and reaction. The nervous system approaches adult-like patterns, and stable learning begins. Evidence exists that events during the socialization period may be critical for other effects, such as attachment to particular places,286 formation of basic food habits,286 development of agile motor skills,97 and reaction to isolation.97

Because the socialization period is so significant, it is important to understand the various types of learning that go on during that time. Rapid brain development and maturation, along with myelination of the spinal cord parallel the social significance of this period.298 The most significant lesson that should occur during this time period is species identification. By raising puppies in solitary isolation, paired isolation, around cats, or around people and then testing at various intervals, investigators have learned much about the importance of puppies being with other dogs and with people. At 3 to 5 weeks of age, puppies will actively approach people who are either familiar or strangers.116,117,197 Eventually puppies will develop an attachment to their owner and approach them in preference to a stranger. In contrast, well-socialized wolf cubs do not show approach differences between known individuals and strangers.310 Five to 8 weeks is considered to be the optimum time to socialize puppies.288 Shortly thereafter, avoidance of strangers begins and slowly escalates until it peaks at 12 to 14 weeks of age.106,116,117 This progressive avoidance helps protect the youngster from predators,106,197 but it can also prevent normal relationships with humans.116

Although there are breed differences in responses,121,290 puppies that are completely isolated from humans until 14 weeks of age are never comfortable around people.117 They act unapproachable, like a wild wolf,* usually attempting to avoid interactions and acting fearful if escape is not possible.104,106 If raised only around humans or cats for 14 weeks (no other dogs), the puppy tends to avoid its own species both socially and sexually.104,108,112,122,123 A hand-reared puppy is more apt to show inappropriate social behaviors toward other dogs, from aggression to avoidance (Fig. 4-1).223

At the other extreme, in wolves and dogs, the adult that was not socialized to people as a cub or puppy can nevertheless be socialized to a few individual humans with very careful handling.108 The period between puppyhood and adulthood when socialization apparently cannot occur may be related to the increased physical and emotional development that can finally be overcome as an adult.108

Puppies isolated in cages from 8 weeks to 6 months of age, or kept in kennels beyond 14 weeks of age, showed a generalized fear of different environments.108,218,288 Those kept in relatively bland surroundings showed behavior aberrations in new, more complex environments.108,119 This institutionalization syndrome, or kennelosis, is expressed as a lack of interest in exploring a new environment; the puppy will withdraw into the transport crate and show timidity or other inappropriate responses to strangers.108,218,223 It is only comfortable in its original environment.288 Even the inclusion of toys, especially rawhides, in the puppy environment is of some enrichment to help prevent this.159 If this isolation also includes social isolation, significant changes occur in behavior and in brain chemistry.4 Although there are genetic differences, the general reaction after social isolation is one of withdrawal from social activities. Glutamic acid, glutamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and aspartic acid levels in the superior colliculi, thalamus-hypothalamus, and caudate nucleus are significantly different between puppies raised in isolation and their littermate controls.4

The actual amount of contact needed for socialization to another species is probably quite brief, and it can be influenced by outside factors. Studies suggest a minimum of 2 minutes per week is sufficient.288 Food rewards are not necessary for socialization, nor does punishment inhibit it; however, hunger and its gratification will speed up the process.284 Emotional stress associated with separation begins at 3 weeks,288 then strong emotional experiences, such as occur when the puppy is separated from its mother and littermates in a strange location, will also speed up socialization toward human handlers.284 This natural separation at weaning coincides with the barking and whining of isolation, which peaks by 6 to 7 weeks.223,284

Isolation and restraint significantly increase the amount of distress vocalization a puppy uses, but the addition of a companion can reduce the distress vocalization by 50% to 60%.96,277 Because this age also happens to be a common one for new puppies to go to new homes, socialization to people may actually be facilitated. New owners, however, should be advised to not overreact to whining episodes. The experience of distress in general will be sufficient for socialization, and response to the vocalizations could reward the undesired behavior.

An interesting study was done on the effects of punishment at different times during socialization.106,111 Puppies raised with normal human contact were divided into three groups that were tested at either 5 to 6 weeks, 8 to 9 weeks, or 12 to 13 weeks of age. Each group was first tested for the approach response to humans. If the puppies did approach, they were given a mild electric shock. The puppies of age 5 to 6 weeks who actively approached the human ran away when shocked. When retested a few weeks later, these same puppies actively approached again as if they had no memory of the first episode. The puppies of age 8 to 9 weeks that approached the human also retreated from the shock. When these puppies were later retested, though, they would not approach the person. The oldest group, those of age 12 to 13 weeks, continued to approach the human even though they received the shock.

These were three different reactions at three different ages. Stable learning does not start until approximately 8 weeks of age. Therefore, the young puppies of age 5 to 6 weeks first showed the typical active approach to humans and, when retested, showed no memory of the early traumatic experience. This result would be consistent with a new pet puppy actively approaching a resident cat, getting clawed on the nose, but returning to pester the cat again.

Because of the start of stable learning at around 8 weeks, the puppies of age 8 to 9 weeks remembered the trauma and chose to avoid a similar situation. Traumatic episodes (trauma from the puppy’s perspective) can desocialize a dog. A discharge of static electricity, a toe accidentally stepped on, or a painful vaccination may be sufficient for the puppy to become cautious of an individual or a similar group of individuals.

The older puppies of age 12 to 13 weeks had been socialized, and their continued approach indicated a strong emotional attachment toward humans. As is the case in interactions with children, the puppies may have felt safer by being close than by running away. For example, a dog may follow a child leaving home on a bicycle, even though the dog is not supposed to leave the property. The child then gets off the bicycle and hits or throws stones at the dog, yelling for it to go home. The dog responds by lying down next to the child instead of running home, so the frustrated child has to ride the bicycle home and tie up the dog before starting out again.

Separation of 6-week-old puppies from their mother, as would occur during weaning, has been shown to have a negative effect on their well being for the next 6 weeks.302 Parameters affected include higher susceptibility to disease and mortality.302 Separation from the dam either at 6 weeks or 12 weeks did not affect socialization to humans if daily human contact was received.302

Not everything happening during the socialization period relates strictly to social behavior. Fear of strange objects begins at 7 weeks and peaks at 14 weeks.288 When puppies are introduced to new environments, it is important that owners allow appropriate time and positive situations as the puppy learns that the new object poses no threat.

The fourth and last of a puppy’s critical periods is the juvenile period, which extends from approximately 12 weeks until sexual maturity.20,197,290,292 The lessons of socialization will need occasional reinforcement during the juvenile period and afterward, or they can be forgotten within 6 months.122 If the original learning did not occur, the dog will be socially handicapped throughout the remainder of its life.104,338 Environmental exploration increases during the juvenile period, and if the puppy has not been around people, it will show avoidance of them. The basic learning capacity is fully developed, and the speed for conditional learning begins to slow, perhaps because of the interference of previous learning.197

Other critical periods occur related to specific events, although specifics for these periods are less well understood. One critical period occurs for mothers to learn to identify their newborn as their own. Another coincides with sexual maturity, when dogs learn territorial boundaries.284


It is generally true for any social species that individuals will spend a considerable amount of time in proximity with their own kind. To maintain a social unit, most intercanine interactions must be friendly and of a cooperative nature, that is, allelomimetic. Dogs in a pack spend 43% to 85% of their time within 50 feet of each other.122 By becoming the equivalent of a pack member, the dog owner must consider this social need. Of course, it is often impractical for a person to spend 10 to 20 hours a day with the dog, and most dogs can adjust to less time together if maintained on a fairly regular schedule. The reaction of the dog to other species and individuals depends on socialization, environmental context, physiologic state, “mood,” intensity of stimulation, and early learning.32

Home Range

The home range of a dog is the farthest distance from home that it would normally travel.32 It usually consists of a dense core area, with farther distances used less often.41,166 The dog turned out each morning will typically have a pattern of travel around the neighborhood. Although an unusual scent trail may cause an occasional deviation, it generally will not affect the normal home range.

In the wild, the size of a home range is influenced by the availability of food.166 For wolves the size of the home range is correlated with metabolic needs and in proportion to the amount of meat in the diet.127 Plentiful amounts and reliable sources of food tend to be associated with smaller home ranges, as in urban areas where home ranges vary from 0.01 to 61.0 hectares (ha) (0.02 to 150.7 acres).* Dogs in rural areas tend to have larger home ranges of 444 to 1050 ha (1100 to 2600 acres).109,153,294 These figures correspond to home-range information for free-ranging dogs as well.125,240,241

The size of a home range also may show seasonal variations, with those of winter being approximately half as large as those of summer.79,241 Seasonal variations are not, however, always observed.80 The size of a home range correlates to neither the dog’s size nor sex, and the home ranges of owned dogs are not significantly smaller than those of unowned dogs.79 Abandoned dogs usually remain very near a food source, so their home range averages 0.02 ha (0.049 acres) in size.80

The distance of a daily excursion varies from 500 to 8200 m (0.3 to 5.1 miles) for a pack of owned dogs to 10,000 m (6 miles) for feral dog packs.108,109,125,294 This movement occurs at approximately equal distances in all directions from the core.278 Activity is primarily in the cool periods of the day, so the pack-group dogs are most active at night and early morning, especially from 8 PM to 11 PM in the evening and 5 AM to 8 AM in the morning.80,294 Urban dogs are most active when humans are the least—that is, early morning and late in the day109,278—or at times when people typically turn the dogs out of their homes, like 7 AM and 5 PM.41,103 Feral dogs are seasonally more active when the weather is cool.125


In general terms, a territory is the part of the home range that is actively defended.32,103,166 This defense can be by aggressive encounters, vocalization, or threat displays.166 It is also a space where the boundaries are marked to create olfactory fences. For dogs, the most important area is usually near the core of the home range, where a dog spends most of its time. Barriers like chain link fences can artificially limit the size of both the territory and home range.278

Many, but not all, dogs are very protective of their territory. The intensity of a dog’s threat will increase as an intruder moves closer toward its territory and toward the center of its territory. When a stranger first approaches a territorial boundary, the dog responds with a high-pitched, rapid bark. If the intruder enters the territory, the pitch lowers and the dog’s body language becomes more threatening. As the stranger goes deeper into the territory, the bark may turn to a growl, and the growl may give way to an attack.

The dog is somewhat ambivalent about how aggressively it should defend the edges of a territory, in essence having to weigh the importance of holding the space against the potential for being hurt. But the closer to the center of the territory an intruder approaches, the greater is the shift in importance toward holding the space. For this reason, dogs are often very aggressive in defending small territories such as cars. If the opportunity is available, the average dog territory will consist of 2 ha (4.9 acres), with a 0.65 ha (0.6 acre) core area in which the dog has its favorite resting spots and spends approximately 60% of its time.

Other types of territories can exist. Aggression at a food bowl may occasionally represent the protection of a feeding territory, although it may also be associated with food-protection aggression. Breeding locations, nest sites, and sleeping locations can all be territories defended by a dog.

Distances When Approached

When a dog is approached by a member of a species to which it is poorly socialized, the dog will first become aware of the stranger when it reaches the perceptive distance.32 It may show no visible acknowledgment of this awareness, it may look toward the approaching individual, or it may actually walk a short distance toward the intruder. In this latter case, the actual distance the dog walks forward is the approach distance.32 If the intruder continues to come toward the dog, a point will be reached at which the discomfort is so great that the dog will flee. The distance at which this escape behavior happens is the flight distance.32,107 The distance the dog runs away from the potential danger is the withdrawal distance.32 In many cases, the dog will then stop, reassess the situation, and leave the area at a somewhat slower pace. If for some reason the dog was unaware of the intruder’s approach or was unable to flee, the dog will attack as the stranger reaches the animal’s critical distance.32,107 This type of attack usually has the characteristics of fear biting, but the wounds inflicted can be quite serious.

If the approaching individual is recognized by the dog, the aforementioned distances do not apply. Instead, they are replaced by individual, social, and submissive distances. Close associates are allowed within a space immediately surrounding the dog, the individual or personal distance.32,107 This is the space in which veterinarians must work. If the dog is uncomfortable with a person entering that space, it will try to move away, putting the person into the more remote social distance.32 If the dog is comfortable with the person’s approach, it may show submissive behaviors as the person gets to its submissive distance.32


How dogs interact with one another is influenced by many factors: proximity, dominant-subordinate relationships, and species-specific interrelations. Interactions between dogs can result in social facilitation and competition for food,293, 316 especially when that food is highly palatable.74 Wolf behavior and that of feral, untamed, or genetically selected dog populations can provide insight into the behavior of the pet dog. Puppies born to free-ranging bitches have a high mortality rate—68% by 4 months of age.241 When old enough, the surviving offspring tend to disperse, especially males. The mean distance they go from their birth place is just under 2 km.241

Social Orders

Dominant-subordinate relations ultimately promote group harmony and a decreased incidence of agonistic interactions. Disputes can be settled through the use of subtle threats instead of more serious aggression. When puppies are raised together, they can establish their dominance hierarchy over food or play without inflicting serious injury.122 Older dogs depend mainly on the language of body positions, with occasional aggressive bouts needed for dominant-personality individuals. Social ranks are generally thought of as having a stair-step order, with each individual a step below the more dominant one above it. This linear A over B over C ranking generally holds true in dogs, although certain positions can be shared by two individuals, and occasionally there can even be a triangular relationship such as A over B over C over A.32,122

The social hierarchy will be established by 15 weeks of age in 88% of the puppies.290,291 Dominant puppies control access to the food bowl and other favorite resources. Once the dominant-subordinate relationships are established, there is a reduction in the number of fights and in the seriousness of the play fights.98,290 Instead, the group members play more often and interact more in general. Siblings recognize and prefer one another to other puppies.143 This group may even attack or mock-attack strangers,290 and if raised around members of only one breed, they may direct their attentions more toward the recognized breed of dog.

Once dogs establish a social order, they tend to retain that order, but a few changes can occur over time. After 11 weeks of age, there can be marked differences in hierarchy based on breeds.243 Some breeds tend to maintain positions once they have been established. Others have a deterioration of rank so that all the puppies again become equals. The most clear-cut differences seem to be in the tendencies for males to be dominant over most females, especially female littermates.* Litter size, physical size, and relative dominance of the bitch can also influence dominance. In trials between Terriers and Beagles, terriers are dominant. They control food availability and, as adults, sire all the puppies.164 It is also interesting to note that if given a choice for social interaction, both breeds will choose to be with a Beagle as opposed to a terrier.164 Puppies that are introduced to older dogs typically come in at the bottom of the social order.

In discussions about dog social ranks, there is a tendency to compare it to wolves. Although lessons can be learned by doing this, it is important to be careful not to expect exact duplication. For example, group members are almost all related individuals of different ages. Also, wolves live in packs in which there is a dominance ranking for males and a separate one for females. There is a well-defined alpha wolf that is not only the leader, but also a decision maker, intervening to settle disputes.108 The highest ranking male and highest ranking female are usually the only two that can successfully mate.108 It is also noted that for both the male and female social orders, the highest ranking individuals are well defined, but it becomes harder to identify hierarchical positions as you get further from the top.51 For dogs, we have put them as individuals in a human “pack” with different social rules, surgically neutered the dogs so hormonal influences of social behaviors are removed, and mixed sexes within the “pack.” Dogs do not signal like wolves, complicating interactions even more.51 Few dogs try to assume an alpha position and readily yield that role to humans. Instead of needing the “put in your place” handling advocated by some trainers, dogs seek a pack leader figure.

Relative dominance is usually tested by giving two dogs access to one bone (Fig. 4-2). The dog that gets possession is considered the higher ranking dog. Adult dogs rarely take bones from young puppies, but by 7 months of age a puppy will always lose its bone to an adult male dog and will lose it 54% of the time to an adult female.93 Between male and female adults, males will gain possession of the bone 2.5 times more often than females. If possession is shared, the male usually has the largest end.93

Once established, the interdog hierarchy may remain stable for several years with only minor fluctuations occurring, by breed, as mentioned earlier, or during estrus.18,93,285 If dogs are also studied during interactions with other dogs, it is possible in some cases to find differences between the results of dominance tests with bones and those with social interactions. This result points to more than one type of dominance: dominance can be competitive or social.342 Maintaining possession of a bone, then, is unrelated to physical size.18 If food is not a strong motivator, an individual may not appear very dominant and yet actually be fairly high ranking socially. A direct correlation has been made between exploratory behavior and competitive dominance.343

If puppies are raised around humans, humans will usually be viewed as dominant.105 Humans are viewed as dominant in part because of their relatively greater size and age. Certain individuals, especially from some breeds, are less likely to accept this rank as automatic. Firm but gentle guidance during puppyhood may be necessary to establish a human as the pack leader. Care must be used to ensure that the appropriate lessons are learned but that excessive force is not exerted.

A dominant wolf may pin a subordinate to the ground by the neck.285 Although it has been reported not to be part of the 71 behavior patterns that dogs share with wolves,285 this behavior does occasionally occur in dogs, but more in play than serious altercations (see Chapter 3, Fig. 3-11). Despite its popularity with a few dog trainers, the alpha-roll technique, in which the human pins the adult dog or puppy down on its back, even growling near its neck, is excessive and not appropriate, because it is not a common dog behavior. It can result in a very dominant dog becoming more aggressive or any dog showing aggression because of fear. The dog is also likely to develop a distrust of the person. The individual attempting such a move can be injured by teeth or claws from the fearful dog and may even misinterpret the fear reaction to mean the dog is acting “like an alpha.”

Feral versus Domestic Dogs

Pack behaviors vary somewhat between feral dogs and their domestic relatives, whether the domestic dogs are stray or just loose (free ranging). The term feral is most appropriately applied to a group of animals that have been together long enough that their innate behaviors, physiology, or anatomy have changed from the original domesticated version. True feral populations are generally low, perhaps 2.5% of the free-ranging population.183 Most feral individuals are solitary scavengers that participate in a pack for only brief periods under a rigid hierarchy.108,109,125 When feral dogs do pack together, the pack has up to 10 members,125,171,294 consisting of two males and six to eight females.125 A feral dog pack typically lasts only 1 to 2.5 weeks and has a large dog as its leader.125 When a new pack is formed, the lead dog barks loudly until a sufficient number of other feral dogs join.

Canine specializations to accommodate the hunting of large herbivores have developed in parallel with pack-hunting techniques.171 Peripheral dogs may follow this group, but they are not allowed to share any kill. During their travels, the feral dogs will frequently stop to test dominance, but a definite order can be identified, both during travel and when eating. Aggression is rare, with avoidance preferred.41,79 If aggression does occur, dogs unfamiliar with each other are 5 to 15 times more likely to be involved than familiar ones.79

Cases have been recorded in which members of a feral pack suddenly turn on and kill a weak member.125 This type of behavior has also been seen in domestic dogs. It has happened in at least two research colonies of geriatric Beagles and in occasional household environments. Because people have not been around to see the actual attacks, precipitating factors are unknown.

Feral dogs can be tamed individually but, like a wild animal, they usually become very aggressive when forced to interact with humans.294 As might be expected, feral dogs have a greater flight distance, are more elusive when being followed, are not active in the morning between 6:30 and 9:00, and systematically forage for food.

Stray dogs are unowned animals that tend to show remarkable plasticity in pack behavior, leading to group stability.103 The density of stray dogs reflects this plasticity, varying from 127 dogs to 1304 dogs per square kilometer.103 Stray-dog packs tend to be a little smaller than feral packs and have two to three times as many males as females.79,103,125

Free-ranging (loose but owned) dogs tend to be solitary, but approximately 60% of their dog interactions develop into temporary groups of two to five dogs.41,125,183,278 Whereas strays are wary and tend to retreat from humans, free-ranging dogs are more likely to show aggression or bark at humans.278 As many as 60% of these free-ranging dogs are wearing collars.278 Strays have larger flight distances than free-ranging dogs.

Social Maturity

Evolution of canine behavior resulted in sophisticated pack hunting techniques and with them, a group structure based on long-term affiliations.171 Domestication of the wolf to the dog has resulted in other changes, just as Belgaev’s experimental domestication of foxes did.38,73 Comparisons between identically raised wolf cubs and Malamute puppies suggest that differences can be attributed to the genetic selection for prolongation of juvenile behaviors and morphologic characteristics.115 Changes associated with domestication have resulted in canids that can read human communicative signals.131 On the negative side, it has also been blamed for the breakdown in ritualized aggression,115 perhaps resulting in the inability of many dog owners to know exactly what to expect in certain situations.

Although dog behavior is similar to wolf behavior, it is not the same, and a wolf may or may not recognize various components of a dog’s behavior.51,115 Cubs have approximately 100 facial expressions by 18 weeks of age; puppies have significantly fewer.101 Play and social behaviors also differ. Whereas cubs show an increase in both social and solitary play during their first year, the young dog reaches a maximum of play at around 6 months and then decreases.101 In one study, Poodle puppies showed little interaction with the adult males that were part of the group until the females’ first estrus. By comparison, wolf cubs had frequent, nonstressful encounters with adults.101 This difference may have a bearing on the tendency toward unstable social orders in dogs.101 It has been shown that there are considerable differences in social affinity among nonestrous females, each showing an individual pattern of preference.18 It has also been suggested that the interactions between the puppies and bitch facilitate the appearance of submission and affect later trainability.340

As a social species, dogs develop certain behavior patterns that allow safe interaction among individuals, and these patterns change as dogs age. As with the young of most species, the physical properties of the puppy tend to inhibit aggression by adults. This fact holds true even when the puppy’s playful interactions take on an added play-fighting component by 5 weeks of age.122 By 6 weeks of age, the puppy shows most of the species-specific patterns, including the facial-lingual greeting response, the inguinal approach, and the anogenital approach (Figs. 4-3, 4-4, and 4-5).38,122 At 9 weeks, the pup’s behavior repertoire includes submissive postures, et-epimeletic (care soliciting), forelimb raising, licking, and investigation-initiated rear-limb raising.122 Social maturity is reached much later, usually at 12 to 24 months of age, approximately twice the age of sexual maturity. It may occasionally be as late as 36 months in very large breeds.218

Responses of a dog to being petted indicate the extent to which the dog is able to include humans as a member of its pack. It would correspond with mutual grooming between dogs. Simple tactile contact can dramatically lower the dog’s heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, aortic blood flow, and coronary artery blood flow.188 Responses can also vary somewhat depending on the sex of the dog and the person involved. Female dogs show little reluctance to approach unfamiliar people regardless of gender. Male dogs are much less likely to approach unfamiliar men.187 Most dogs solicit petting from their owner but few really are relaxed when an owner tries to hug them.

Social Cognition

Social cognition is the derivation of social information from the observation between group members.274 In many ways it puts observational learning in the social context. Although social cognition has been extensively studied in primates, only recently has it been investigated in dogs. An observer dog will interact first and/or more rapidly with the winner of a play bout than with the loser.274 If the social context was a contest over a resource instead of a play bout, the observer dog is less likely to seek interaction with either winner or loser.274 Dogs have been shown also to be able to learn from human demonstrations, not just that from other dogs,254,255 but verbal attention-getting may be an important aspect of that success.256


The long history of dogs and humans was discussed in Chapter 1. It is the social characteristics of dogs that have allowed this to come about. This interspecies social interaction has some unique situations that are worthy of separate discussion.

Working Dogs

Dogs have been used by humans for many tasks. In fact, many of the modern breeds resulted from selective breeding for a specific task. Retrievers are still used to bring in downed birds and Border Collies still work sheep. Some dogs guard businesses and property.3 Dogs also are used for tasks that are newer, like catching criminals, finding lost or trapped people, guiding the blind, alerting a deaf owner to certain noise-related events, and assisting severely handicapped people. A number of scientific studies are beginning to evaluate the success of the various uses of dogs and look for ways to make them even more effective.

New Babies and Small Children

Dogs and babies are often part of the same household and it is important that they get along together. The most extreme case of positive interaction between the two was reported by witnesses of the event in Kenya. A young mother had abandoned her newborn and it was retrieved by a dog and carried to be with her puppies.341 In the United States, the baby-dog interaction is more likely to be negative without special considerations.

Bringing a new baby into a home that previously did not have children can cause a lot of tensions for a dog. This single event results in major changes to the dog’s routine and social interactions. There are lots of visitors in and out, fewer interactions with the owner, less predictable interactions, loud crying noises, and strange smells. To the dog it might be as if an alien invaded its space. Owners, however, may not recognize the disruptions that occur for the dog because they are so distracted with the new family member. The dog’s resulting behaviors, like urine marking and attention seeking, are inappropriately handled.32 The dog may be punished and is often banned from interactions with the owners when the baby is present. If the dog is not socialized to infants, it may even show threatening behaviors in the presence of the infant. Severe discipline may suppress a dog’s aggression toward a child when the adult is present, but it is often not inhibited when the adult is gone.322 There are better ways to introduce dogs to babies.

The best time to begin minimizing the impact of the newest family member is several months before the arrival. Obedience training gives owners better verbal control and a higher comfort level in their ability to handle situations when baby and dog interact.161,327 The dog should gradually be put on a schedule of feeding, exercise, and reduced attention that can be continued after the baby comes.32,161 Owners can also incorporate fun interactions with the dog in the baby’s room, rather than making the room off-limits.32 The sounds and smells of new babies can be introduced by audiotape recordings and used items of baby clothing borrowed from friends before the newest member arrives.32,161

When the family comes home from the hospital, the adults should greet the dog as they usually do, alternating who holds the baby as necessary. This will allow the mother to interact with the dog, who is excited enough simply by her return.161,327 The dog will be curious about the baby, so after the dog has settled down, it should be introduced to the new family member. This is more so it can smell the baby rather than see it up close, so a little distance is desirable. Protection of the infant is important, of course, so using a leash is appropriate and a muzzle is appropriate if there is any concern.161,327 This should not be confused with jealousy, nor should it be punished.161,327 At this time, there are also likely to be many visitors. Because both the dog and family members are already stressed by all the recent changes, caution needs to be used to protect guests.

To help the dog adjust to the newest family member, positive owner interactions with the dog should occur primarily when the baby is also present, so that the dog comes to associate good things with the presence of the new infant.32,138,161,323,327 The dog can even be asked to “sit,” “down,” or do a trick, with the baby seeming to give the food reward with “help” from the parent. All too often owners want to ban the dog from the baby’s room and use punishment when the dog seeks attention, thus setting up an ever-increasing series of negative interactions.

The most important consideration with any small child and dog is to never allow the two together unsupervised. Not every dog will accept a new baby, even with the best preparation. Certain situations dictate caution. A greater likelihood for problems exists if the dog has had little or no contact with babies,161 has already shown aggression to other babies, is aggressive to adults, or has a history of predatory aggression toward small animals.326 Owners should be particularly alert to the possibility of problems when the baby cries, crawls, and begins to walk. Protective barriers are a must.40 The cries of a newborn baby can be very upsetting to certain dogs. They may hide in some distant corner of the house, or they may respond by pacing back and forth between the baby and owner.32 A parent may incorrectly interpret this pacing as protective behavior when in reality the behavior is the dog’s comfort-seeking attempt. If the source of the irritating noise does not stop, a stressed dog may eventually attack.

The other two times of special concern are when the baby begins to crawl and later when it begins to walk. At these times, the dog finds it more difficult to escape the approaching child and may bite as a warning.32 Unfortunately, young children can hurt dogs by pulling tails, grabbing a handful of hair, or losing their balance and falling on the dog. Dogs usually try to withdraw from these types of situations if possible,205 but when that is not possible, they may react defensively.

Dogs also want quiet time away from the two-legged pest. The dog goes off by itself but the child seeks it out. It may try to move away again or it may begin to show other signs. When trying to communicate this “leave-me-alone” message, the dog can become irritable, but the child is not able to understand the nonverbal message. These situations can be particularly dangerous for small children because they are at face level with a dog. In cases where the dog is unable to get peace from a busy child, parents should remove the child or dog from the vicinity or strictly shield the child from interactions with the dog.32


Veterinary clinics can be stressful places for dogs because no matter how many times the dog comes, there is almost always a painful or stressful experience. In some cases, it is the strange environment that causes stress. In others, it is many unfamiliar people or animals.336 The dog may get a thermometer placed in its anus, be put on a slippery table, stuck with needles, have tender ears swabbed, and get pills poked down its throat—all for a pat on the head or a so-so food treat. Sixty percent of dogs coming into a veterinary clinic for routine examinations show submissive apprehension.303 Another 18% are fear-biters or potential fear-biters, and 5% show active defensive tendencies.303 All types of breeds have shown aggression to veterinarians, and not necessarily in proportion to their distribution in the population.190 Only 17% are relaxed and easy to approach.303

Problems at the veterinary clinic can be caused in part by negative experiences during the socialization period, particularly if they happened as stable learning was beginning. It is during this time that puppies are getting vaccinations and fecal exams frequently. There are several ways to help minimize the likelihood of the visit being negative. By spending the first few minutes interacting with the puppy or dog in a positive way, the veterinarian allows the animal to get comfortable with the new person and environment. Small pieces of a highly palatable food treat help create a positive first impression. If this happens routinely, many dogs will eventually walk right up to the veterinarian and put their nose in the treat pocket. Shy dogs take a little more effort. In addition to the treats and soft voice tones, it may be necessary to avoid direct eye contact. When it is time to actually do a procedure, such as getting the weight, obtaining a fecal sample, or vaccinating, distracting the puppy or dog with spreadable cheese can make the procedures go unnoticed (Fig. 4-6). Then, time spent by the veterinarian to end each visit on an upbeat interaction is probably time well spent in regard to future visits.

Human-Dog Play

Social play between puppies, and to a lesser extent between adult dogs, provides social interaction, an opportunity to learn new skills, and physical toning. Play with humans is characteristically and motivationally different than play with another dog.275 A dog that plays with other dogs will still play as much with its owner as does a dog without a canine play partner. This indicates the types of play are motivationally different. Dogs are also capable of responding to play signals from humans, especially the play bows and lunges.276 Dogs are also less likely to possess toys than to present a toy when playing with the owner.275 In interdog play, they tend to keep the toy for themselves.


Aggression is a threat of harmful behavior directed toward an individual.32 It is a normal behavior between dogs and is commonly seen in free-ranging dogs. Their interactions occur between dog packs 69% of the time and within them the remaining 31%.240 Dominance hierarchies are established among all adults of a pack via aggressive encounters, with juvenile males showing the highest levels of submission and adult females showing the highest levels of aggression.240,247 Dog packs have a linear dominance hierarchy, with 56% of the aggressive bouts initiated by the dominant male or female.240 The number of agonistic episodes varies considerably by season, sex, and age.240

There is a relationship between defeat (subordination) and the neural mechanisms involved in regulating adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH) secretion in males.52 This serves as one example of the relationship between behavior and the neuroendocrine system. In several animal species, including wild dogs, the most dominant female has the highest cortisol levels,207 suggesting the chronic stress of “life at the top.” As a result, the life span of this alpha dog is shorter,207 and it may affect other aspects of life, including reproduction. Other researchers have suggested that alpha males of various species have higher testosterone levels, but specific information is not available for dogs.

Aggression represents a normal expression of distance-increasing vocal and postural communication between dogs. Often, however, it is reported as a problem because of the fear it elicits, a misunderstanding of its message, or injuries that have resulted. Aggression can also occur in excess of the acceptable limits for normal behavior.

Clinically, aggression means that one or more of the distance-increasing behaviors was expressed in an agonistic way as the dog asserted itself at the expense of someone else.321 Careful history taking is essential to assess fully the situation in which the behavior was shown and how it was expressed. Additional information may be obtained from a physical examination and laboratory test data. Only then can the specific type of aggression be determined and appropriately treated. Normal agonistic behaviors have been described as being related to eating, reproduction, and hazard-avoidance activities.74 Their expression as aggression varies by quality, frequency, and sequencing because of the environmental context, as well as the dog’s genetic and developmental history.74 The number of functional diagnoses is usually larger and contextual but ranges from 2 to 20.* Applied behaviorists tend to use the most extensive lists of differential diagnoses. Because it has been helpful to use the broadest grouping, the discussion here recognizes 15 major categories, with several subcategories (Box 4-1).

Before any discussion can take place about the types of canine aggression, their diagnostic criteria, and treatment protocols, it is worthwhile to assess overall outcomes relative to public safety. Many factors contribute to the success or failure of a treatment program:

The first concern when dealing with canine aggression must be for human safety. Handling an aggressive dog makes the veterinary staff particularly vulnerable to dog bites. Proper restraint, whether physical or chemical, is a must.272 Gauze, leather, wire, cloth, and plastic muzzles can be very important tools. Catch (rabies) poles, double leashes, and swing gates or doors may also be necessary, if only until a drug has time to become effective. Sometimes it is possible that the dog will allow the owner to safely put on a collar without showing any aggression. When this is the case, they can slip a collar on and then slip a big loop made by the leash passing back through the ring of the collar over the dog’s nose. The veterinarian can then tighten the leash and thus create a makeshift head halter (Fig. 4-7).

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Jul 24, 2016 | Posted by in SMALL ANIMAL | Comments Off on Canine Social Behavior

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