The New Science Of Understanding Dog Behavior

John Bradshaw and friend

What’s the best advice to give man about respecting man’s best friend?

In an interview of animal behaviorist John Bradshaw conducted by the staff of National Public Radio, he says it’s realizing that dogs are neither wolves nor furry humans and that dog owners have certain responsibilities to make sure their dogs are psychologically healthy.

Bradshaw, who has spent much of his career debunking bad advice given to dog owners, is the author of a new behavior guidebook called Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, published by Basic Books (2011). The book details what pet owners should expect from their dogs and what their dogs should expect in return from their owners.

Here are a few highlights  from the interview of John Bradshaw.

To read all of it, read an excerpt from the book, and/or watch a video, please click here.

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On common misconceptions about wolves

“The main [myth] … is that wolves are essentially an intrinsically aggressive animal that is continuously trying to take over whatever group they find themselves in and dominate it. And the new wolf biology really exposed that as an artifact — that particular view of wolves came from wolves in zoos and in wildlife parks, where a bunch of unrelated wolves were basically put together and told to get on with it and, not surprisingly, they got on with it by being aggressive toward one another. The new picture of wolf society is that wolves are harmonious animals. They live in family groups. They get along really well together, and they’re almost never aggressive to one another. The aggression comes out when two families meet, so they have very strong family ties.”

On playing tug of war with your dog

“Let’s take a very simple piece of advice that trainers take out, which is you should never allow a dog to go in front of you through a doorway because it will give the signal to the dog that you are submissive and are therefore allowing him or her — the dog — to become dominant. Take another one. Many trainers advise against playing tug of war games because there is a risk the dog will win and the dog, by winning, will think that you are being submissive and he will therefore be able to control you in the future. We’ve done research into a number of these things — including the tug of war game — and have shown that the premise is just completely not true. If you do let a dog win over and over again at tug of war, it likes you. It wants to play with you more than it did to begin with because it’s having fun. If, on the other hand, the dog gets less attracted to you and doesn’t so much want to play with you — again, but there’s absolutely no change of the dog’s behavior outside of that particular situation of play — the dog does not get into its head that you’re kind of a soft touch and that in the future it will be able to control you and whatever you do.”

On breeding

“There’s still a great genetic variability if you take the dog as a whole. But within a breed, the variation has diminished. So you get all kind of inherited diseases coming up [which are] very difficult to eradicate at the moment while the breed barriers are being maintained.”

On military dogs

“I’ve been involved with training dogs for the military for about a decade now, so I think everybody but me has been surprised by the dog that went in to find Osama bin Laden. They’re very valuable dogs. And I must say, if I was in an environment like that, I would actually much rather have a dog ahead of me than another human being because it’s another set of senses — and particularly the olfactory sense. These dogs are trained to find and then indicate all manners of things. In that particular instance, it would presumably be explosives and ammunitions and guns and so on.”

On dog senses

“They’re colorblind to a certain extent but colorblind humans are not that badly handicapped. Their hearing is a little bit more sensitive than ours in the high-pitched region. But it’s their sense of smell that really distinguishes them from us. And I don’t think we really take up too much recognizance of that. I think dogs have a right to sniff things whenever it doesn’t cause a problem to us. When I meet a dog, I hold my hand out. I don’t stick my fingers right out, just in case, but I just make a loose fist and put my hand out to the dog. If it’s a small dog, I’ll squat down. And that dog will want to come and sniff my hand and lick it if necessary. That’s a greeting, and I think if we don’t do that, I think it’s as upsetting to the dog as if we were talking to somebody that we never met before and covered our faces at that point in time, as if we were trying to disguise who we were.”

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