There are many natural behaviours that a dog displays; these behaviours are rooted in their ancestry and have been used by humans for many many years. Some are obvious and some are subtle whilst others are not useful (to us) at all. Dogs are natural predators “Left to revert to natural behaviour, the domestic dog becomes the Dingo.” (1). Although we , as humans, have selectively bred over the years to suppress the kill instinct there are many of the natural hunt instincts that are very useful to us.
Dogs in a natural environment would be required to feed themselves using searching, tracking and stalking. Then they would have to chase and kill and sometimes take their prey to a safer location to consume. Although dogs are no longer required to do this as we as owners feed them they have rewarded our kindness by allowing us to use their natural skills to help with all sorts of modern living tasks. It is easy to observe a litter of young pups and see them displaying and perfecting these techniques through play, chasing one another, pinning, biting, tugging and shaking.
Hunting, stalking and tracking are all exploited by man in lots of different forms. Dogs will begin by picking up the scent of something, whether it is a rabbit, a squirrel, a missing person or drugs. For the use of hunting they can smell the ground or even pick up the scent on the air. They will follow that scent and instead of killing it flush it out as Spaniels do, or alert a human to the whereabouts of the scent displayed by Pointers, Setters and Labradors. This has been useful in past years for humans to catch food but now is used in gun sports. There are dogs that are used to find humans, criminal or missing using the same smell-track-alert system, again useful following natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis and terrorist activities like the 9/11 disaster or in Afghanistan. Dogs can even detect explosives, drugs and more recently cancers with a great success rate, happy to go into places humans couldn’t even imagine seeing themselves.
The stalking behaviour can begin with sight rather than smell as we see in our herding dogs, still used frequently on farms to herd sheep and cattle. Humans certainly could not perform this tiring task with the eagerness and precision that collies do. After a dog has located his prey whether it is smell or visual he may then chase, this is something that is oppressed in gun dogs, but collies are definitely encouraged to chase their prey, also Greyhounds in the popular sport of racing. Dogs love to chase, they will do this willingly and get serious enjoyment out of it. Owners though must be cautious of the downside to chasing. Dogs will chase anything so care has to be taken that they do not direct this natural behaviour on joggers, cars, children etc. These sort of behaviours are wrong, not to the dog, but to society. The dog will view this as just as much fun as a work out in agility or flyball but they are dangerous to both dog and prey!
The scent tracking is a far more specialised task. Dogs have around 220 million scent receptors and smell is their primary sense. Any dog owner can see the brain power a dog puts into an interesting smell, food smells, other dogs urine scent ( territorial marking ), anal & genital sniffing or simply if you’ve been out for a while the third degree you receive when you return! These are all behaviours which average dogs must do. Humans have utilised and exploited this sense of smell by specialised training to perform the tasks mentioned earlier.
Another frequently seen and used behaviour is retrieving, our dogs love to chase a ball and bring it back for it to be thrown again. Labradors do this with very little encouragement and much joy. It is not a man made attribute but a natural one, this comes directly once again from their wolf cousins where they will carry food back to their young. This natural behaviour is an absolute essential in gundogs, they will do the scenting, and tracking and either point or flush. The handler will execute the kill and send the dog to retrieve the game. Service dogs for the blind or handicapped can be specially trained to bring items to their owners or indeed pick things up and tidy. As beautifully demonstrated by Joanne & her dog Kaiser at this year’s Crufts. Dogs will not only carry food back for their young but may also regurgitate food for them; this behaviour is still practiced by some Dams but very rarely any other time. A puppy will lick the mouth areas of their mother to stimulate her to regurgitate, perhaps this is what our dogs are trying to do when they lick our faces. This behaviour is of no use to humans what so ever. Sometimes food is carried and then hidden; my female Rhodesian Ridgeback will spend ten minutes attempting to conceal a raw hide chew in a wooden floor or with more success in a sheepskin rug. Some dogs bury bones, this again is an instinct from their ancestors where wolves will hide food for later consumption, very few domestic dogs return and dig what they have hidden back up probably due to the fact that they are well nourished and there is no need for this squirrel like behaviour. Digging is not only used to hide food but sometimes to find a cool spot to lie, Huskies and malamutes are evidence of this. Some dogs are digging for prey, especially terrier breeds who are keen ratters, some females will dig a den to have their puppies in, a behaviour which wolves do and some dogs, much to our frustration dig for the sheer fun of it!
The other behaviour which may be cause for complaint is barking. Barking has evolved way beyond wolf howls. “Barking is used by the dog as a rough means of communication” (2). They will bark as an invitation to play or for attention. Guarding breeds are used for warning that intruders are approaching and they can be a very good deterrent for a prospective burglar, many people hear an alarm and ignore it, but who could ignore a Rottweiler or Doberman? Not only useful for protecting property but also livestock. However nuisance barking is a different vocalisation all together, dogs are not in their natural environment and increasingly in our modern society become much stressed as their needs are not being met, this can lead to constant barking as an outlet for that stress. Another way of a dog getting a good stress-buster is chewing. Chewing is something a wolf must practice in order to eat, our dogs are no different. They love to chew so give then something safe to chew and they will leave your shoes, furniture, socks etc alone. Dogs need to chew to clean their teeth and exercise the jaw, a good work out keeps their mouths healthy. I love a Friday night glass of white wine; it’s my wind-down, I always equate that to my dogs view on chewing. Although chewing is not useful to humans it is essential for dogs, look at the behaviours above that we use, surely they are allowed one all to themselves? A reward for being man’s best friend………this leads me to the last natural behaviour of the canine, the one that compromises the title, Guarding food. This is of no use at all and in fact the cause of many dog/human fall outs. This behaviour is a natural instinct of survival, “In the wild, an animal often has to compete with others to get enough to eat.” (3) caution then should be taken in multiple dog families. Prevention of food guarding is better than cure, always have your dog understand that if it is given up willingly it will either be returned or rewarded.
My personal belief as a dog lover is all their behaviours with the exception of food guarding is either necessary to them or useful to us, too often humans exploit what they need and discard the needs of others. This is no different when it comes to our dogs. Why are they barking? Why are they chewing the skirting boards? The answer is always the same. They are either bored or stressed, cater for the needs of your dog and he will reward you tenfold!
1. BOOK: BRUCE FOGLE (1990) THE DOGS MIND. PELHAM BOOKS. CHAPTER 8. PAGE 130.
2. BOOK: ROGER ABRANTES (1997) DOG LANGUAGE AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CANINE BEHAVIOUR.WAKAN TANKA PUBLISHERS. PAGE 49.
3. BOOK: GWEN BAILEY (2010) WHAT IS MY DOG THINKING? HAMLYN.CHAPTER 4.PAGE 50.