The Dog’s Mind: Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior
by Bruce Fogle, DVM, MRCVS, published 1992
Peering into the canine mind
If you’ve ever owned a dog, or even just observed one owned by someone else, it seems almost inevitable to ask yourself the question, “What is going on inside that dog’s head right now?”
I grew up with dogs and have fond memories of four different family dogs of different breeds since childhood. But as a child and even a teenager I didn’t spend much time trying to understand the dogs. They were just there, part of the family landscape and in many ways I took them for granted.
Those fond childhood memories influenced my decision almost two years ago to acquire my own dog. This time, my decision was purpose-driven based upon what I understood about dogs and dog breeds, what I hoped for as a lifestyle to be had with my new companion and my own emotional idealism concerning the dog. We ended up buying a pure bred female German Shepherd from a professional breeder who creates showdogs and pets from German working bloodlines. She is a beautiful, intelligent creature to put it mildly.
We spent a considerable amount of time before and after acquiring our puppy studying articles, videos, books and other information at sites like Leerburg.com and others around the web (two other titles which were helpful, amongst many: The Art of Raising A Puppy and How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend) trying to establish a baseline of knowledge concerning both dog biology and dog psychology to aid the integration of this creature into our home and to improve our chances of training and controlling the animal in a manner beneficial to both parties.
While we’ve been largely successful in this endeavor (so much so that it is hard not to be a bit judgmental towards most of the other dopey, clueless dog owners and dog lovers we come across on a daily basis) the mystery largely remains– what is going on inside that little doggie brain?
The unity of The Dog’s Mind
The author is a practicing veterinarian who I gather may have been an American (or at least was fond of the American revolution at one point, based upon the names he gave to his two Golden Retrievers) but at any rate now lives in the UK. This is a strength of the book because he clearly has personal experience with thousands of dogs of a multitude of breeds and he obviously loves the animal, but it is also a weakness because Mr. Fogle is so intelligent and academically-minded that he often spends a lot of time going into medical and biological minutiae that the average pet owner neither needs to understand (“Here’s a short explanation of DNA sequencing in the dog genome!”) nor is likely to be interested in (“A research study into the effect of X on lab rats showed Y, which may provide interesting insight on the nature of dogs as well.”).
In other words, this is an at-times-top-heavy but otherwise practically-oriented book written by an extremely knowledgeable, experienced and well-read author (read: “scientific”) that explores not dog behavior, or dog psychology but the dog’s mind.
Essentially, Mr. Fogle seeks to explain how
the dog’s mind is a result of instinct, genetics, evolution and selective breeding… hormones influence the mind… and… maternal and peer imprinting and human intervention alter the ways of the dog.
Key ideas here are that the near ancestor of dogs are wolves, a species which inhabits an “opportunist omnivore” ecological niche, and that dogs can never get away from this historical and genetic fact and that despite breed differences which emphasize one characteristic of the dog over another (scent versus eyesight versus aggressiveness versus size, etc.) the mental core of the dog is common to all breeds and can be shaped by humans the same way.
Physiology and psychology
“The Dog’s Mind” is divided into two parts, “The Anatomy and Physiology of the Dog’s Mind” and “The Psychology of the Dog’s Mind”. The first part explores the role of genetics, the “wiring”, size and layout of the dog’s brain, the five senses, the interplay of hormones and the communication strategies of dogs while the second part explores maternal, peer and human imprinting, social behavior, breed differences and finally the effects of age and ill health on the dog’s mind.
Dogs are sentient beings, aware of their own personalities… Dogs dream… They are amazingly perceptive to nuance and observe the most imperceptible changes in us… dogs have been bred to retain the juvenile characteristics of play, exploration and subservience to the leader.
There are so many fascinating insights in this book, far too many to quote them all so I plan to cover some of the more interesting or important ones and sprinkle other quotes without comment as I go.
Speaking of genetics, the author observes that there are more genes which control behavior than there are genes which control “morphology” (the dog’s physical characteristics and appearance) which is part of the reason that there is a large difference in the morphology of an Irish wolfhound and a Chihuahua after generations of selective breeding, yet the “mind” of each animal is quite similar. It also explains why dogs remain so wolflike after thousands of years of domestication and co-habitation with humans. This is so key for dog owners (and the general public!) to understand and yet, tragically, it is not. Most people expect from dogs thought processes and behaviors that are simply unreasonable given the dog’s mind. The dog comes from the wolf, a predator animal, and every dog, no matter how big, small or lovable, continues to think of himself as a predator animal. Like the wolf, the dog is also a pack animal. Amongst modern humans it is popular to be egalitarian and democratically-minded, but to dogs aristocracy and a pecking order is the most natural and desirable system in the world, so much so that attempts to make the dog an “equal” in a human pack can be greatly destabilizing to the point of psycho-somatic derangement.
(Pro tip: if you ever see a “mean” dog that barks/yips at every dog and stranger passerby, you are actually witnessing a situation where the human is unwittingly beta and the dog has designated itself the alpha pack leader and protector… a truly sad and, for the human, completely unwitting state of affairs!)
In the dog’s limbic system, a battle plays out between his instinctive behavior and the negative or positive stimulus humans provide by punishing or rewarding certain behaviors. If we can create a stronger stimulus than the instinct, the limbic system is overridden and we’re able to control the dog’s behavior. A dog that is “uncontrollable” is simply a dog whose owner has not found a sufficiently stimulating punishment or reward to alter behavior. This is important not just for control but trainability– the dog’s mind is most amenable to learning when its interest is aroused which is why positive reinforcement (systems like “marker training“) tend to be the most effective ways to establish long-term behavioral conditioning in the dog’s mind.
Touch is the earliest and possibly the most important of all the canine senses.
The role that senses play in the dog’s mind is another critical piece of the puzzle. When a newborn pup emerges from the womb, its ear canals are closed shut, it can not open its eyes and its wonderful sniffer is fairly ineffective. Touch and sensations of warmth are how it maneuvers itself toward its mother’s teat for its nourishment. This connection to touch remains with the dog its entire life and becomes therefore an important tool of social communication– touch a dog and it feels rewarded, ignore a dog and it feels despondent.
While touch has the biggest social implication, it is smell that is the strongest of the five senses. The book explains that taste is actually fairly restricted for dogs, they basically experience taste as “pleasant”, “indifferent”, and “unpleasant” unlike the human experience of salty, sweet, spicy, bitter, etc. And while a dog’s vision is in many ways superior to a human’s both in terms of distance and operation under varied light conditions, the positioning of the eyes on a dog mean that it is best-adjusted to observing peripheral motion, the “furtive movement” of its prey, rather than focusing on objects directly in front of it. Dogs are also known for their ability to hear sound frequencies humans can not perceive and are even considered to be “musical”, but it is truly the sense of smell that is most developed and differentiated in the dog which means that the dog’s mind primarily experiences the state of reality through smell.
Dogs have around 220 million scent receptors around their nose compared to the average human’s five million.
Smell memories last for life and affect almost all canine behaviors.
The dog uses scent in a number of ways– to sense prey, to sense other dogs, to sense a mating opportunity, etc. The reason dogs seem to forward with humans, sniffing our butts just as they sniff other dogs, is because in a dog the anal glands have developed to give an ID to other dogs. And because smell is so key to the functioning of the dog’s mind, it is the ability to get out of the house and smell things, rather than the exercise, which is most satisfying and important to a dog on a walk. It also means that “the quality of life of a blind dog can still be quite good.”
The chapter on hormones is somewhat technical but one important idea is that in tact male dogs live their entire lives with male sex hormone circulating throughout their body, whereas in tact females only experience the female sex hormone twice a year for a total of four months. This means the volatility of a female dog’s personality is greater than a male’s.
Selective breeding by humans has enhanced the “infantile” vocalizations of dogs. For example, adult dogs rarely whine at each other, but rather at us humans– a learned response. There are 5 primary vocalizations for dogs:
- infantile sounds; cry, whimper, whine
- warning sounds; bark, growl
- eliciting sounds; howl
- withdrawal sounds; yelp
- pleasure sounds; moan
Dogs also are masters of body language in communicating to one another, and to observant humans, how they are feeling, manipulating the position of their mouths, ears, tails, hackles, front and hind quarters and even their entire bodies to demonstrate a range of emotional experiences. And in dogs, staring is a form of dominance (like physical mounting), only alpha dogs can look directly at other dogs, so when you pet your dog and it looks away it is expressing deference to you, not disinterest.
When it comes to the developing dog mind, early exposure to mild stress (loud noises, sudden movements, bright lights, etc.) are valuable in creating a stable, even-tempered pet. Dogs are learning all the time and what they are exposed to frequently and at duration (called “flooding”) they learn to tolerate or even accept as natural.
The concept of “imprinting” is also important. There is a key window in the puppy’s development, from around weeks 6-12, during which it is critical the puppy not only be exposed to humans but also to other dogs so that it learns that both are part of its pack. A puppy only exposed to humans becomes fearful and protective around other dogs, and a puppy only exposed to dogs becomes anxious and often untrainable with humans.
Play is a lifelong activity in dogs… as strong in wolves as it is in Yorkshire terriers.
But even with this human imprinting, a dog still thinks of itself as a dog and expects the human to behave as a dog does, participating in group activities, playing, hunting together and sleeping in the same den.
Puppy Aptitude Tests (PAT) have become popular when selecting a pet from a new litter, but there is little research that shows these techniques are successful indicators of long-term behavior other than those which demonstrate aggression or dominance, which tend to persist into adulthood but which are also rare in high levels in the dog population as a whole.
Regarding dog training, it is important to remember that dogs don’t think symbolically, they operate on a “what you see is what you get” basis. They learn three ways:
- classical conditioning
- operant conditioning
Dogs are also ALWAYS learning. They pay attention to all cause and effect relationships and will expect them to happen consistently in the future once substantiated once unless they are conditioned out of the expectation. This is why, for example, my dog becomes alert and predatory at the corner of my block in front of a house where it once saw a cat on the lawn– it happened one time and is now imprinted in her mind so she expects to see the cat each time and gets aroused in anticipation.
It’s worth quoting Mr. Fogle at length on this point:
Dogs are learning all the time and our objective is to control the stimuli, responses and rewards. We can do so by reinforcing, not reinforcing or punishing the behavior… They learn fastest when their behavior is consistently rewarded… The timing, intensity and intervals of reinforcement all have direct consequences on learned behavior. Reinforcement must be immediate… The object of canine punishment should be to reveal your power, not inflict pain… if a learned behavior is not reinforced, it is eventually lost.
Another important implication of the way dogs are always learning is that they interpret our reactions to their behavior as the control they have over us. If we respond to unwanted behaviors, they see that as their dominance or assertiveness operating. As humans, we must be very thoughtful about how we respond to all dog behaviors, good and bad, at least as far as we morally categorize them as such.
There was also an interesting list in the book showing tendency of behaviors between male and female, with more likely in females at the top and more likely in males at the bottom:
- Obedience training
- Housebreaking ease
- Affection demand
- Watchdog barking (baselined at 0)
- Excessive barking (baselined at 0)
- Excitability (baselined at 0)
- Snapping at children
- Territory defense
- General activity
- Aggression with dogs
- Dominance over owner
I also thought it was interesting that the author noted that most dog breeds are similar in intelligence although their capacity to excel in certain roles and functions is quite different. Many people tend to think of very small and very large breeds as “dumb” dogs not worth training.
As I said, there is a ton of information in this book. I had read a lot of it in other places before I got to this book, and I found some of the detailed explanations of biological processes a bit overwhelming and beyond my interest in reading the book but that doesn’t change the fact that this is chock full of info. In fact, there is a very handy appendix with training tips for some of the primary behaviors every pet dog should have (come, sit, stay, down, etc.) and the latter half of the book dealing with dog psychology includes not only diagnoses of various forms of dog aggression but also suggestions on how to prevent or treat their development as behavior traits, which could be helpful to many people who think they “just have an aggressive/mean dog.”
Dogs don’t think and behave as we like them to, they think and behave as they do, and what they do is strongly influenced by their genetic heritage as wolves as well as the early experiences they have in the litter and in our care. If we want to have enjoyable relationships with our dogs and other people’s dogs which are increasingly prevalent parts of our society, we would do well to become familiar with the essential knowledge contained in books like “The Dog’s Mind.” It will fundamentally change our relationship with these creatures and may even leave us appreciating, rather than bemoaning, our biological differences.