Was there a particular experience with your own dogs that got you thinking about the topic
of the new book, namely a new view of the origin of the domestic dog? Or was it
Ray & Lorna: No single experience triggered our thinking about the origin
of domestic dogs, although we admit to feeling unfulfilled by the widespread acceptance of
what we call in the book The Pinocchio Theory of Dog Origin. (Briefly, the wild wolf pup,
taken from its den by people, strives to become a real dog.) All the dogs we have known,
both at home and the hundreds we've watched all around the world, have contributed to our
By connecting our field observations and research with that of many
others, we were able to construct a new' explanation of dog origin, one that makes
biological sense. As biologists at Hampshire College, in 1977 we co-founded the Livestock
Guarding Dog Project, with research into the behavior and use of dogs as a non-lethal way
to protect livestock from predators. During the next 15 years, we completed many field
trips to various Old World sheep pastures, and imported dozens of pups to raise, breed,
and introduce to New World ranchers and farmers. Eventually, our project monitored
long-term records of behavior for over 1400 guardian dogs.
The most amazing experience abroad was observation of the
transhumance migrations, which we first saw in Yugoslavia in 1977. The transhumance, or
twice-yearly migrations of millions of sheep, shepherds and dogs, occurs between winter
and summer pastures in all livestock-raising cultures from Portugal to Tibet, from South
Africa to the North Polar Regions. Watching the guardian dogs and their behavior, counting
the miles they travel and the numbers involved, opened a view of dog evolution and
behavior that helped us to understand many of the biological mechanisms operating in the
perfection of canine form and function.
Also, our first visit to Pemba in east Africa solidified the concept
of the village dog -- the idea that dogs in many parts of the world, and no doubt since
their beginning -- are like pigeons, rats and cockroaches, carrying out their lives in the
company of humans but with no overt assistance in either their feeding or reproduction.
The village dog is a key to understanding the earliest evolution of breeds.
You propose a new view of the origin of dogs, suggesting that people did not
domesticate dogs but rather some wolves domesticated themselves. How did that occur,
in your view?
Ray & Lorna: In DOGS, we propose a model whereby wild canids -- call them
wolves -- domesticated themselves in response to humans providing them a new ecological
niche, that is, permanent' human settlements. But remember, most new' ideas
are made up of pieces that have been kicking around for a long time.
The anthropologist Frederick Zeuner wrote in the 1960s that many of
the domestic species were originally crop pests, species adapting to a niche that humans
created. Biologists Alan Beck in the US and Luigi Boitani in Italy showed modern examples
of village scavengers, dogs living well on the surplus of human habitation. Walter
Poduschka in Austria emphasized the realities of population biology. Psychologists John
Paul Scott and John Fuller understood the importance of the genetic tameness of dogs in
contrast to the genetic wildness of wolves. These and many, many other scientists provided
evidence on which to build a theory.
But it was Dmitri Belyaev's long-term project in Russia that first
demonstrated, we believe, how the genetic transformation from wild to domestic canine
could occur, without human intervention. It's based on flight distance,' a component
of wild animal behavior that dictates how close the individual can approach some object
before turning and running away. This is all in Chapter 1, one of our most favorite
chapters in DOGS.
Do you consider this new view of the domestic dog to be important for owners
and trainers of working dogs of various kinds? How might people change their
thinking about dog behavior and training?
Ray & Lorna: The village dog origin of our modern dogs won't in itself
change dog training techniques. Dog training has been changing rapidly over the past few
years anyway. Besides, we never found that dog trainers paid very much attention to
Dog trainers would tell you that you should dominate the dog like
the leader of a pack of wolves, and then tell the dog in a high squeaky voice, "Good
Boy!" We think the importance of DOGS may be that it helps dogs more than their
owners. A view of dogs as essentially village scavengers that are easily adapted to people
and kind of fun to play with, opens many new windows for people in their relationships
with their dogs. Relationships should be based on positive situations, play, having fun.
Among your new views of the dog is a rejection of the trainer as the "alpha
wolf" and the dogs as the "submissive pack member." Why have you
rejected what has essentially become dogma in the dog training world?
Ray & Lorna: The alpha wolf model of dog training certainly does appear
frequently in print, but we wonder if it was ever really incorporated into serious dog
training. We suspect it was never very useful in training dogs, and that almost everybody
intuitively knew that. It was "say one thing, do another."
Certainly all the new techniques, such as click and treat, are not
based on dominance. We've watched top trainers like Terry Ryan and Ken McCort, and never
saw any hint of "I'm the dominant wolf." People who try modifying aggressive
dogs don't try to "dominate" them into submission. Everybody agrees that would
be a disaster. Imagine training a wolf by dominating it. Quick way to get killed.
It is a mistake to think that because dogs are descended from
wolves, they behave like wolves. Wolves do not show the "alpha roll," or any
other hierarchical behavior, except in specific circumstances, particularly during
reproductive and feeding behaviors. Wolf packs on a hunt are working cooperatively, and
hierarchy goes by the board.
Training dogs is fun for me and for the dog, as it should be. Our
sled dogs ran because running is fun and feels good. Endorphins are released, social
interactions are increased. Try running while you're being submissive. Dogs aren't pulling
sleds because they are forced to or are submitting to some person's will. Everybody who
ever drove dogs knows that you absolutely cannot force them to do it.
It will be hard to get that alpha wolf/submissive wolf thinking eliminated
from the parlance of dog training, but for starters, how should people think about their
relationship with their dog?
Ray & Lorna: It won't be hard to get the wolf pack mentality to go by the
board simply because we don't think many of the experts ever really believed it. It is
through social play behavior that animals learn from one another. Further, it is fun to
play with our dogs even if none of us learn anything. It will certainly make more sense to
the dog than to be tumbled onto its back and growled at by a human.
Colin Allen and Marc Bekoff have recently drawn attention to a
category of behaviors they call intentional icons. Dogs have signals they use when they
want to play the play bow. The play bow is a signal that all the following
behaviors like growls and snarls are all in fun. Consider what might happen if you gave
the "dominant male" intentional icon, indicating everything that happens from
now on is about the driver being the dominant dog. The sled dogs, if they were reacting as
submissive wolves, would then lie on their backs and pee in the air instead of running as
Instead of threatening our dogs every time we want to train them, we
need to perfect the human play bow which tells the dog the games are about to begin.
Remember that games have rules, and what the dog and the humans learn during play is what
the rules of the game are. That makes sense in teaching or training, whether it is dogs or
students. The intent of dominance display is to exclude the subordinate from some
activity, like breeding. The alpha wolf isn't trying to teach the subordinate anything.
You also tackle the nature/nuture issue in the book, looking at the relative
importance of genetics and environment in shaping a dog's temperament and behavior.
You clearly think both play a role in a dog's development, but how important is
each? Are genes and environmental experiences equally important, or is one dominant?
Ray & Lorna: The nature/nurture dichotomy has been dying for a long time.
Daniel Estep said it very well a few years ago, that talking about behavior as
"genetic" is just a shorthand that many of us use -- including in DOGS.
Behavior is actually epigenetic, or above (or more than) the genes.
It is like saying that an animal's size is genetic, implying that there is no
environmental input. But everyone realizes, if an animal doesn't eat it won't grow to its
normal size. On the other hand, all the food in the world won't make an animal any bigger
than its genetic potential.
Now, think of behavior as a size and shape. If you don't nurture a
dog's behavior it won't grow to its genetic potential. No matter how much you nurture a
pup's behavior, it can't go beyond its genetic potential. It is the interaction between
genes and the environment that determine how the dog will behave.
Important to all breeders and trainers of working dogs in your discussion of the
"critical period" in a young puppy's life. You give great examples of what
is done with livestock guardian dogs during that critical period to prepare them for their
life's work. What about sled dogs -- what experiences should a sled dog pup have
during that critical period? How can others generalize from these ideas?
Ray & Lorna: We showed why it was important to raise livestock guarding
dogs with sheep during the critical period as an illustration of what every professional
should know about raising working dogs. Sled dogs are usually raised in big pens, playing
with other dogs, and often going out on fun runs. We know at least one driver who fed his
pups separately so that they would not have any resource to fight over.
The idea is not to let hierarchies develop during the critical
period of social development. We want our sled dogs' social behavior centered around play
with other dogs and me. The driver should be a fun guy and when he shows up they are going
to play games, and when they get through everybody is going to feel good. Pups develop the
attitude that other dogs are fun to be with, not to be avoided.
Most professional dog handlers have fun tricks to play with their
dogs. Bird dog people have an old quail wing on a string that the pup chases and starts
learning the rules of the game. Ray has a bright silver de-hooked lure that he casts out
with his fishing rod to see if he can keep our Jack Russell terrier from getting it. He
loves the chase. But, it is getting to the point where Ray needs a bigger, faster reel.
Critical period gets several long looks in DOGS, and we show how it
is related to breed differences and working abilities in several behavioral types of dogs.
It should be easy for readers to extrapolate to other breeds, once they understand how it