Why does Fido . . . ?

John Fisher on canine behavior

Paradoxically, even as researchers compile study after study that proves the value of dogs to human psychological and physical health, society is placing more and more restraints on dog ownership. Many apartment complexes and planned residential developments limit or prohibit dogs, many communities ban specific breeds of dog, and some even legislate the number of dogs a family can own.

The frustrations of neighbors who live near misbehaving dogs leads to emotional confrontations and new laws as local government officials try to protect some citizens at the expense of the rights of others. Two widely divergent causes lie at the core of dog problems: dogs that misbehave, and owners who are irresponsible. British behaviorist John Fisher has spent several months in this country giving seminars to dog owners, trainers, breeders, and others with a keen interest in man's best friend so that we can understand why Fido does what he does and intervene where necessary to change the behavior.

Fisher gave a seminar on dog aggression and related behaviors in Toledo at the end of March. He began by discussing the scientific basis of behavior -- the chemical changes in the brain that accompany various behavior patterns, the influence of frustration on behavior, and the history of the development of the domestic dog that genetically predisposes particular types of dogs to particular behaviors.

Canine development

Dogs are indisputably descended from wolves, and recent research categorizes them as a subspecies of Canis lupus rather than a separate species. Although dogs now live in mixed species packs with humans and often with cats, horses, or other animals, they maintain the basic pack behaviors so invaluable for wolf survival. However, when wolves and man first became working partners thousands of years ago, early humans selected certain wolfy behaviors to accentuate when they began to develop breed types for certain purposes.

According to research by Raymond Coppinger and others, these breeds were developed from wolves whose development was arrested at a particular stage of development.

Coppinger classifies wolf development in four stages:

Dogs developed from wolves caught in the adolescent stage would never progress to the hunt and kill conclusion, so would make good guardian dogs for livestock. Dogs developed from the wolves arrested in the object-playing stage would become the sporting dogs; those developed from the stalking-stage wolves would become the sheepherders, and those developed from the pouncers and followers would become the livestock heelers.

Fisher considers Coppinger's work to provide guidelines for assessing dog behavior and devising training programs to prevent and solve behavior problems. He followed a brief description of Coppinger's work with a review of other studies that emphasized behavior sequences common to many animals and simplifying behavior to four survival strategies: fight, flight, freeze, and “fiddling around,-- also known as displacement behavior.

He said that pack behavior is a useful guide for working with dogs, but that the dominance structure tends to be flexible between animals in the household and between the humans and the dogs in the family. Dominance is only a problem if it gets out of control, Fisher said.

Other bits and pieces from Fishers seminar that can be used by pet owners:

Fisher talked briefly about the advantages of the click and treat method of training.

Fisher made great use of video-taped cases in his presentation. He described the case, then showed the tape, then explained the process of identifying and eliminating the unacceptable behavior and replacing it with appropriate responses. His cases involved health checks to rule out medical problems, short term drug therapy when indicated, and behavior modification.

Fisher works with several veterinarians in England and has been doing so for years. Dog psychology has not been given much attention in the US, but the recent establishment of a veterinary specialty in behavior should give the profession more stature. With the anti-dog folks ambushing us from all sides, it is imperative that dog owners understand their pets' behavior and take steps to shape that behavior to avoid destruction, aggression, and nuisance.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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