What is a dog?

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This chapter covers

What is a dog?

Natural selection for tameness

Dog-human relationship

Upsides/downsides to being a dog

Conflicting human requirements of dogs

Dogs in art

​​​The Dangerous Dogs Act

It has often occurred to me that although they have a Latin name, Canis familiaris, we have generally never thought of the pet dog as a species at all. Dogs are so inextricably and uniquely involved with humans that we do not consider their habitat, ecology and environment in the same way one would, for example, that of the kangaroo, whale, elephant or red kite. It is as if the dog has come to be viewed as a human accoutrement only, to be used and, dare I say, abused, according to human needs only. After all, the domestic dog is hardly an endangered species, far from it. With an estimated 470 million pet dogs worldwide, with perhaps 900 million free-ranging or human satellite dogs, it is arguably the most successful of creatures, with no need for protection or special concern. It is only relatively recently that the domestic dog in all its myriad of shapes and sizes has generated any science of its own, rather than being assumed to be an offshoot of the grey wolf, physically different but with behavioural traits intact. But the question is: how correct have we been in our conclusions about the social structure and behaviour of the wolf in the first place? And then how correct have we been when we began to apply the same assumed rules to the dog?


Illustration by Victor Ambrus.

When fighting for our own share of the duvet or hoping that Fido won’t actually bite the postman, we tend to forget dogs’ historic use as a hot water bottle or as guardian of property. Have we contributed to the evolutionary double bind the dog now finds itself in?


Illustration by Victor Ambrus.

So why do we get along with dogs and why don’t we? It has to be said that as a species, Homo sapiens seems to have a rather schizophrenic attitude towards animals in general, and dogs in particular. As epitomised in Hal Herzog’s book Some We Love, Some We Hate and Some We Like to Eat, the domestic dog can, in certain circumstances and cultures, fall into all three categories. In the UK alone, the dog is all at once ‘man’s best friend’ and a creature which can, in the blink of an eye, turn so savage as to put life and limb at risk.

Much has been postulated and fairly confidently written about the origins of the domestic dog as a species, but the jury still seems to be out on exactly when and where the transformation from wild canid to cuddly pet began. There is pretty much agreement that the dog and modern-day wolf had a common ancestor and that this animal was predisposed to selective pressure. This pressure was imposed mainly accidentally, by aspects of the lifestyle and propensities that humans and wolves have in common.


Cooperative hunting: hunting an aurochs 9000 years ago. Image by Victor Ambrus, reproduced with permission from the South West Heritage Trust.

The ‘successful scavenger’ is a concept, proposed by Ray Coppinger in 2001, which encompasses the human tendency for indiscriminate disposal of waste, the opportunistic feeding habits of the wolf and the accidental selection for tameness which would have resulted. Those individuals among the wolf population which were least afraid of man had the greatest chances of success.


‘Everyone for himself’ (Chacun Pour Soi), Philippe Rousseau, 1864.


Modern-day equivalent of ‘the successful scavenger’?

The experimental selection for tameness as a behavioural trait in silver foxes began in the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Siberia, (Belyaev 1959 onwards) and seemed to have accounted solely for dog-like physical changes, such as having floppy tails and ears, variation in coat colour, bi-annual seasons and smaller brains. But selection for this trait of tameness alone has recently been questioned (Lord et al. 2020). Other genetic selection, such as for the ability to digest starch, may have also favoured those animals scavenging human waste, part of the domestication syndrome. Add to this the culture-wide and historic human trait of pet-keeping, whereby a young wild animal is adopted and effectively tamed, a genetic pool is formed from which a truly domesticated species may emerge.

There is evidence that a similar process is happening among red foxes in urban environments today. Having been struck by how fearless these foxes appeared as they strolled between rubbish bins, Kevin Parsons of Glasgow University studied fox skulls collected from London and adjacent countryside between 1971 to 1973 (royalsocietypublishing.org/journal/rspb). The skull shapes varied significantly between habitats. The urban foxes, like their Russian counterparts, had developed shorter and wider muzzles, seemingly favouring a stronger bite over the need for speed, which would be provided by a more slim-line shape.



Domestication in progress, courtesy Solent News.

Ultimately, once the vagaries of human taste and preference for appearance were also brought to bear, this amalgam of selection for behaviour, looks and ability resulted in the variety of canine shapes and sizes we see today. These variations however are definitely not all to the dog’s advantage, either as a species or as an individual, as will be discussed later.

But it is the fact that wolves were social and lived in groups that is the most relevant for my purpose. Of necessity a means of communication was required which limited the need and desire to kill each other. The communication whereby wolves, and their descendants dogs, manage this, to my mind, provides both the reason for the domestic dog’s success and, paradoxically, its downfall. It has created the dichotomy faced by today’s dogs.

To understand this, it is essential to correct erroneous but persistent beliefs in the social structure of wolves and how it is maintained. Early studies of wolf behaviour were carried out largely on captive animals – disparate groups of unrelated wolves of varying age and sex thrown together in limited space. In such inevitably stressed animals, a completely false impression was created of a society in which aggression seemed to be the main form of communication. Individuals were labelled as to how aggressive they were in encounters and the most successful (possibly daring) were considered dominant to the submissive losers. Far from communication serving the purpose of reducing stress and strife in social animals, it was assumed that every individual was simply waiting for any opportunity to gain aggressive advantage over its companions. Furthermore, any individual who reached the top of pecking order had to watch his back continually for any aggressive challengers, a form of canid coup d’etat.

Studies of wolves more recently released into the wild, specifically into Yellowstone Park USA in 1995, revealed just how wrong this notion was (www.yellowstonepark.com). Free-ranging wolves were observed to form cooperative family groups, just as people. Squabbles only rarely broke out, therefore requiring an urgent re-evaluation of how peaceful communication was achieved. The parents of such families had had the fictitious ‘alpha’ or ‘dominant’ status assigned to them simply because they did what parents do everywhere – educate and, if necessary, discipline any unruly offspring. Once maturity was reached, young adults might decide to leave the family group and set up on their own, again not unlike human families.

One of the first to acknowledge the mistake he had made in interpreting wolf social behaviour in his influential book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, published in 1970, was ecologist L. David Mech (www.davidmech.org/wolf news). In his article ‘Whatever happened to the term “alpha wolf”?’, published in the winter of 2008 in the International Wolf journal, he states,

Most other general wolf books have relied considerably on ‘The Wolf’ for information, thus spreading the misinformation about alpha wolves far and wide.

Rather than viewing a wolf pack as a group of animals organised with a ‘top dog’ that fought its way to the top, or a male-female pair of such aggressive wolves, science has come to understand that most wolf packs are merely family groups formed in exactly the same way as human families are formed. (p. 7)

But there had been many previous decades for the dominance myth to infiltrate the world of the domestic and pet dog. Dogs were thought to need dominating by their human companions to keep them in their place and prevent a ‘take-over bid’. Moreover, this had to be achieved by coercive and downright violent means.

Unfortunately, to the detriment of dogs and owners everywhere, this erroneous notion was taken up avidly by certain elements of the dog training world, particularly those of a military bent, well-schooled in fighting to win. The methods advocated by Colonel Konrad Most in his 1910 book, Dog Training: A Manual were of this ilk, as are the various far more recent publications by The Monks of New Skete. Titles such as ‘How to be your dog’s best friend’ belie the aggressive way this relationship is advised to be forged, if anything serving only to seriously damage the mutual trust evolution had created.


Commonly advised ways to assert ‘dominance’ over a dog have been to hold a dog up by the scruff of the neck or, as illustrated, under the chest, or to pin a dog down to the floor by the muzzle. I have come across veterinary surgeons who have demonstrated this supposed means of putting a dog in its place, when faced with an unruly puppy in consultation. In reality, nothing is more guaranteed to teach pre-emptive aggression in adulthood. There seems little point in vaccinating against fatal infectious disease if, at the same time, one is causing potentially fatal behavioural damage.

Times and attitudes are however changing, albeit slowly, and not soon enough to salvage many broken relationships evidenced by rehoming centres becoming full to capacity. In spite of studies which have shown that coercive and threatening training methods are associated with aggressive responses in dogs (e.g., Casey et al. 2014), practise has not caught up with theory and dog owners are still urged by books, the media and certain dog trainers to be ‘leaders of the pack’. Their pet must be left in no doubt of where they stand in the hierarchy. Only a few weeks ago I received the veterinary history of a young male Jack Russell aggressive towards his owners who was described as having ‘dominance issues’ in his notes. Along with the earth’s supposed position at the centre of the solar system and the Flat Earth Society, such beliefs must be consigned to history for the welfare and sanity of our canine companions.

Differences between wolves and dogs


Extended family groups

Cooperative hunting

Intolerant of wolves outside family group

Intolerant of people

Adults less playful than cubs


Groups of disparate heritage

‘Selfish scavenger’

Tolerant of unknown dogs

Tolerant of unknown people

Retention of puppy-like behaviour into adulthood

BUT … both species have a common body language which allows for harmonious group living. Moreover, during the course of evolution and adaptation to living in close proximity to people, dogs have become adept at interpreting human gestures and expression. Of great importance is to understand that the dog-human relationship developed throughout without our deliberate interference. We are only just beginning to unravel the influences, including on human behaviour, by which domestication occurred. Unless the dog is understood for what it really is, to the best of current knowledge, the unique relationship that exists between our species will be fatally damaged.

The death of dominance

What is the appearance of a dog allegedly trying to be ‘dominant’? Or, of equal importance, what does a dog look like when being ‘submissive’? Do the terms dominance and submission have any real relevance to internal mental state of the individual dog or are they simply descriptions of appearance? To ascribe intent to an appearance is fraught with difficulty, and historically ethologists have assumed intent by observing the results of interactions between two individuals (or dyads). If the apparently dominant animal wins and the apparently submissive dog loses, then this is what must have been the outcome intended by each party. The terms thus became self-fulfilling prophecies.

The definition provided in 1993 by Drews states the following:

A dominance relationship can only exist between two individuals and is the result of repeated, agnostic interactions between them, characterised by a consistent outcome in favour of one individual and a default yielding response of the other rather than an escalation of aggression. The status of the consistent winner is dominant to the loser, who is subordinate. (p. 283)

If we have to mention it at all, dominance therefore:

1.Describes a relationship, not an individual animal

2.Is based on experience and mutual assessment of strengths and weaknesses and on-going cost-benefit analysis

3.Is context-specific with regard to resource value and expectation

4.Action of the deferent party determines the outcome of the interaction and confers dominance by default

5.Serves to eliminate the need for aggression

What, therefore, is the behaviour which determines the outcome of a supposed battle? Arguments are ‘won’ more by one side conceding defeat than being forcefully overcome, and it has been argued that the same is true for animals (Rowell 1974). If this is what is happening, contrary to popular belief, it is the actions of the deferent (‘subordinate’/’submissive’) dog which determines the nature of the relationship and most importantly the expectations of each party. It is when the customary expectation is confounded that instability in any relationship arises. The significance for the dog-human relationship is that we do not have to assume that dogs are forever trying to take advantage of us by aggressive means. It also means that, in order to accurately predict outcomes of interactions between individuals, there needs to be a reasonable degree of stability in the relationship. The reliability of body language and expression in achieving a desired outcome in the other party is what a stable relationship depends upon. Conversely, it is when the habitual provisions of one half of a relationship are at odds with the expectations of the other that disharmony results.

Dogs express their needs and desires in some very obvious ways which are difficult to misinterpret. The dog wagging a tail on being shown a dog lead can fairly safely be assumed to want to go for a walk as can the licking of lips and gazing in the direction of a food bowl show a desire to eat. But they also do it in far more subtle ways. Although more open to misinterpretation, these expressions have also been of huge benefit to dogs and humans have been more than willing participants in this process. How do they do it? A continuum of social gestures, variously termed ‘calming signals’ (Rugaas 1997), affiliative behaviour and threat aversion can all be placed under the umbrella term of appeasement behaviour. These have conspired together, I would suggest, to give rise to three overriding categories of canine appearance which, I would further suggest, have been largely responsible for the huge success of dogs. But at the same time, this success may be eroded as the appearances feed erroneous and damaging beliefs and management methods.

It is imperative to remember that, from the canine perspective, whatever differing intents assigned to these appearances by humans, they have only one expectation as to result. Which is calmness and the restoration of harmony.

These appearances are the following:

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Jun 21, 2021 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on What is a dog?

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