As part of our dog training academy teaching dog lovers how to become dog trainers, our students and trainers believe it’s a necessary “must” to teach and learn about the biology of dog- hence why we want to spend time in this article explaining it to you!
Genetically speaking, dogs and wolves are almost the same: more than 99% of their DNA is identical. How big a difference can that one percent really make? Well, consider this: Humans share up to 98.9% (depending on which model of comparison is used) of genetic material with chimpanzees. Fabulous as chimps are, it’s safe to say they live very different lives from us. Add to this at least 15,000 years of domestication (recent studies suggest a far longer period) and genetic adaptation for living with humans, and the result is that canis lupus familiaris—both physiologically and behaviourally—is very different from its big, grey ancestor.
For a start, even the most wolf-like of dog breeds are smaller, weaker, and have less powerful jaws and necks than wolves. Why? They don’t need to be able to bring down moose by themselves; dogs are on Team Human and we have tools, big brains, and opposable thumbs. Behaviourally, we have bred dogs over millennia to retain a juvenile lack of aggression into adulthood. With that comes openness to new social relationships, allowing dogs to meet and bond with new people throughout their lives, an adaptability to changing circumstances that no wolf can match. Dogs take guidance from us in several ways, too. For example, they understand directional cues (pointing), something no other animal can do. They are sensitive to social cues and generally wait for humans to signal what is expected of them; wolves follow their own agenda, even if hand-raised in human homes. Dogs pay close attention to us and are adept at reading human emotions through facial expressions. Wolves don’t give a hoot about our moods.
The takeaway is to not project wolf-like assumptions onto dogs. When we do, we too easily mislabel behaviour and see conflict where there is none. Yes, dogs are pack animals. But dogs are no more wolves than we are chimps. Feral dog groups provide a more accurate picture of dog social behaviour: they are opportunists whose lives revolve around getting close to humans for food and safety. In other words, dogs rely on and care deeply about their relationship with us. Not only can we teach them to live with us peacefully and happily; they spend their lives hoping we will.
If you found this article interesting and want to learn more about dog behavior or dog training skills, please check out our Phoenix classes for dog trainers.
The American Veterinary Medical Association defines the human:animal bond as “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both.” So, what are the behaviors in question? Being a responsible caretaker is at the foundation, of course, and includes providing food, water, shelter, and safety, as well as medical care when needed. But aside from that, what influences a person’s relationship with her dog? What takes it from good to great? In the human world, psychologist John Gottman spent four decades studying couples to find out what makes marriages happy and lasting. His major takeaway was that a deep sense of connection and trust is built between couples that make many “bids”—verbal or nonverbal requests for attention
and connection—and offer positive responses to those bids.
Most dog training schools now heavily lean towards positive reinforcement training methods. These methods show us that the same principles apply to dog-human relationship building. If you like something and reward it, not only will it be more likely to happen again, but everyone involved in the interaction feels better about each other. More connected, more trusting. The one caveat is that it’s important not to reinforce behavior we don’t like (with any kind of attention, positive or negative) and that we should therefore ignore whining, jumping up, nudging, and so on. Beyond that, though, any time spent with dogs offers opportunities to extend and respond to bids.
For example, just looking at a dog with a happy or playful expression qualifies as positive attention and therefore a bid for connection. Ditto saying “what a good dog you are…” in a soft voice for no particular reason. The same goes for reaching over to a dog lying quietly on or beside the couch to scratch a belly or neck, depending on the dog’s preference. Have three minutes to spare? Play a quick game. (You can get suggestions for some games from many dog trainer websites.) Get out a treat and practice a fun trick. What’s the lesson?
Never think you’re spoiling your dog with these kindnesses. They are tiny investments in a lifelong, loving relationship. Every time we remember to stop to give our dogs affection and attention, we are making deposits on a richer and ever-deepening bond.
Looking to learn more so you can improve your dog training skills for your own animals or a rescue that you volunteer at? Look no further than the only Arizona school for dog trainers! AZ Dog Smart Academy is a hand’s on, interactive and educational school for normal people who want to learn more about dog behavior skills!