The development of canine behaviour
The behaviour of our pets has long been a source of amusement and, at times, frustration for many of us. It is a delight to watch the playful antics of a young puppy exploring its world but exasperating to return home and find yet another garden plant uprooted or the neighbours complaining about the howling.
Have you ever wondered how the animal's behaviour develops? A newborn puppy is relatively helpless. It cannot see, it cannot hear well and its sense of smell is not well developed but it is still able to find warmth and food. When separated from the litter and its mother a young pup will send out distress calls and its mother retrieves it. This is instinctive behaviour, programmed into the genes of the animal.
Selective breeding in dogs has resulted in a vast array of behavioural differences, in addition to phenotypic variation (differences in appearance of breeds). Sighthounds like the Greyhound have been bred for their sense of sight, their speed and intelligence while Collies were bred to herd and guard sheep, instincts that they still possess.
In addition to these behavioural tendencies which are inherited, animals are also able to modify their behaviour with experience. In other words, they learn. A dog quickly learns that sitting quietly by your side, shaking hands, rolling over, or whatever you may have taught it, will get the desired result, usually a tasty scrap of food. Almost as easily, many dogs learn that jumping up on you as you return home gets the desired result, attention from you.
Learning optimum behaviours takes time and so an inherited response is useful where a delay in learning could prove fatal. Learning ability requires an adequate amount of brain tissue thus smaller species, such as rabbits, may rely less on learned behaviour than on instinct. It is, however, difficult to separate the two forms of behaviour and learning and inherited tendencies often interact. Terriers may inherit their hunting instinct, which has to be modified by trial and error. Repeatedly exposing a dog to the appropriate stimulus will reinforce and perfect its instinctive behaviour.
Animals behave in ways that are natural to them. It is when we do not provide the correct environment that we often begin to see problems. Many behavioural difficulties in companion animals stem from the failure to provide an adequate learning environment. Dogs, for instance, must learn to be social. Problems will arise if animals are isolated from other members of their own species or from human contact.
This socialisation process is time sensitive. There are critical time periods when animals must receive social contact, or experience and adapt to a wide range of environmental stimuli, a process known as habituation. Failure to provide these opportunities at the correct time results in a fearful response being shown when the stimulus is later presented to the animal.
In dogs, the sensitive period for the development of social behaviour is between 3 and 16 weeks. Dogs will, at an early age, imprint onto both their own species and humans, enabling us to live together. A dog that is reared with the rest of its litter by its mother, receiving adequate interaction with family members, both before and after adoption by its new family, will generally grow up well socialised. Continued efforts at socialisation must occur until puberty. Isolation until 14 weeks and beyond results in a dog with abnormal behaviour.
Neglecting to introduce your young dog to a wide range of people can have devastating effects later on. The dog may not have encountered any children, for instance, and may react in a frightened manner when it first meets these small but loud people. Equally, if a person with a beard frightens the dog, unless it meets a whole range of bearded people, it may associate beards with being frightened. A fearful dog may react aggressively to deter a frightening stimulus.
Knowledge of learning and behaviour can be useful throughout the animal's life. The importance of genetic factors and the animal's experiences early in life must be taken into consideration when choosing a new pet. We can then continue to give positive learning experiences at home. Behavioural knowledge can aid in training, where some behavioural patterns are fixed eg. salivating over food and others can be modified eg. sitting in response to a stimulus such as food. Motivating the dog with praise is a powerful reinforcer, the dog associating the behaviour with a reward.
We can also use our knowledge of animal behaviour and learning when animals are behaving in inappropriate ways. For instance, the dog that jumps up is receiving attention from its owners. Instead of reinforcing that behaviour by shouting at the dog or pushing it away, two negative reinforcers, a more effective solution may be to ignore the dog. Follow that by praise when it carries out the behaviour that you wish it to.
When it becomes too difficult to change a dog's behaviour or when you are unsure about the best way to avoid behavioural problems from developing, then there are a variety of animal behaviour therapists who can help. Many of us will work at determining the cause of the problem in addition to finding a solution. The treatments will work at changing the animals' environment, its behaviour or even the owner's behaviour. The animal's genetic inheritance cannot however be changed, nor can its previous upbringing. If the owner is motivated, however, much can be done to modify behaviour problems so that dogs and their owners can live happily together.