Any study of dog behavior has to start with an analysis of the behavior of the wolf, ancestor of all domestic dogs.
Wolves are exceptional predators with a complex set of behaviors, signals and communication methods guiding their behavior. Their bodies and brains are the result of millions of years of evolution that has resulted in perhaps the ultimate co-operative hunter.
Dogs are directly descended from wolves and have been domesticated for only 15 000 years or so, a mere blip on the evolutionary scale. So it makes sense that many of the wolf’s instincts and drives are still present in dogs.
Understand this, and many of your dog’s strange behaviors will suddenly make sense.
Here are some of the behaviors common to dogs and wolves.
Pack Mentality: As pack animals wolves naturally submit to a leader. Wolf packs usually consist of a mating pair and their offspring, with the alpha male as the leader.
Dogs also look for leadership in their human “pack”. Where none is present, they will feel compelled to take up the role themselves, leading to dominance issues.
Body Language: In the world of the wolf (and the dog), body language trumps vocal cues every time. This is a complex “language” with body posture, movement, facial expression and eye contact all playing a part.
These signals are often misunderstood by humans. For example, many asume that a dog who wags his tail is happy when he may in fact be highly aggitated and ready to bite.
Territorial Aggression: In the wild, wolves will stake out a territory, then patrol and defend it against intruders. The same behavior can be seen in dogs. They will naturally protect what they perceive as their territory, whether it’s their home, a favorite toy, or even a person they regard as “theirs”.
Socialization: Social interaction is very important in a wolf pack as it helps to develop the strong bonds that are vital to the survival of the pack.
You can simulate this with your dog through play, walks and obedience training. But you need to go further, socializing your dog with a broad spectrum of people and other animals, so that he doesn’t start to see everyone outside his immediate circle as a threat.
Pursuit: A wolf pack hunts by pursuing a prey animal until it is exhausted and easily subdued. Their instinct is to chase anything that moves away from them.
Dogs have this same instinct which is why they love to chase cats, cars, and cyclists.
Fleeing: Even powerful, apex predators like lions, would rather back off than get involved in a fight where they could be seriously injured. A wolf or a dog will rather flee than fight if the odds are stacked against him.
Vocalization: Contrary to popular belief, wolves can bark, they are just less inclined to use vocalization as a form of communication. This is perfectly logical, as a hunter that makes a lot of noise is unlikely to be very successful.
Dogs, on the other hand have spent thousands of years in the company of humans and have learned that we communicate mainly by voice. They therefore have no problem expressing themselves with a bark, a while or even a howl if the mood takes them.