What if dogs aren't pack animals?

I wrote a couple of months back that people should keep their dogs on leads, and while I don’t think any of the miscreants on my walking route have changed their behaviour, I did get comments suggesting my column was “COMPLETELY littered with misinformation about dogs.” One reader, who agreed dogs should be on leads, said my lifelong fear of dogs has made me stereotype all dogs as dangerous when most aren’t. She didn’t care how many times I’d been bitten as a youngster. I should have learned to read the little signals dogs give off. My fear would affect our dog Spike, another reader said. Spike needed to know I was her pack leader so she could look to me “for safety and comfort.” 

I’m sure my fear of dogs has affected Spike. I was too scared of a pair of retrievers that ran at Spike as a puppy to dive in and rescue her. What’s worse, hiding my guilt, I took the high moral ground against the owner of the retrievers and complained to the Council. When the dog officer came to our door, he took one look at me and then at Spike and said, “You’re just as I expected, a little highly strung thing.” I’m still not sure which of us he was addressing. But Spike has never struck me as a pack animal. She spent puppy school hiding between two bags of dog food on a shelf while the other dogs played, and she hates meeting dogs on walks unless it’s Charlie, another Cavoodle who’s probably as much a pack animal as Spike is.

But what about other dogs? Do they respond to training that shows them who’s boss? La Trobe University neuropsychologist Dr Pauleen Bennett, who works in the field of anthrozoology, or relationships between humans and their companion animals, says theories about dominance and hierarchies, while popular in dog training, don’t have good evidence, and the research is based on wolves not dogs. “Modern dogs have been separated from wolves for a long time,” Bennett said. Not only that, “most studies are based on wolves in zoos and their behaviour would be totally different from wild wolves.”

Bennett said the best dog research is on cognition. “Dogs can learn to do things we wouldn’t expect them to be able to do given their place in evolution,” she said. For instance, humans learn at an early age that when someone points, they should look not at the person’s hand but at where they’re pointing. Bennett says chimps, which we think are most like humans, can’t work that out. “But dogs can.” I’ve always known Spike has more in common with humans than with wolves or chimps. When you put out dog food, she looks at you as if to say, “Oh great, are we getting a dog?” while suggesting fairly emphatically that you give her whatever you’re eating. Her cognitive powers are perhaps less obvious. Once she spent 15 minutes battling a shiny rock on the back deck.

Bennett is endlessly fascinated by how much we love our dogs. She said that while you can train them to some extent, the most important thing is to have the right dog in the first place. “Dogs can be the best thing ever,” Bennett said, “but the wrong dog in the wrong place can be a nightmare.” In Australia we don’t like puppy farms, which conjure images of abuse and neglect, but we need breeders who can breed good companion dogs, Bennett said. Most expertise is in breeding show dogs, which “don’t make good pets. You should train and socialise your dog, but you want basically good dogs to begin with.”

I look over at our little Spike next to me on the couch, those big brown eyes full of dog wisdom. Whatever mistakes we’ve made, I know we lucked in when she chose us, even if she does eat our underpants, romance cats, attack rocks and bark at shadows, and even if I’ve failed her terribly. And when I point towards the back yard, while she doesn’t look where I’m pointing, she does tilt her head on one side and wag her tail in case there’s a treat coming.