Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, United States

Author of the book "Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others," 2nd edition published by Dogwise Publishing. Canine Behavior Series at

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Do Scientific Terms Help Us Understand Dogs?

I guess "exact" definitions of words (good luck with that) are on topic considering the books we're discussing this month, though they do give me a royal headache. Jargon in sciences such as psychology and sociology may have purpose for some scientists, but for many it is simply a way of saying "This is a real science, because we know the meaning of this word, and you DON'T! So, give us our share of university departments and government grants."

Jargon obscures communication rather than facilitating it. For anyone who wants their words to be understood outside their own tight circle, it is the enemy. Except when writing a professional treatise, writers try to avoid using jargon unless they define the term within the article. Too many such terms and a writer's message is lost.

This months discussion will be more interesting if we keep it very close to real dogs. I see a lot of generalizing about "all" dogs, and in fact many breeds don't come at all close to the predominantly German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers used in the projects these books describe.

The book on the Scott and Fuller research work behind Pfaffenberger's guide dog pup testing does go into the huge differences between the various breeds they studied: Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Basenjis, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Fox Terriers. That title is "Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog," by Scott and Fuller. I got it and read a lot of it, skimmed the rest, for this discussion. It helps put these books into perspective for those involved with other breeds.

I think the Saluki is just gorgeous. I can't get over how beautiful they are. But I relate to dogs as a handler. It's a partnership with me the leader, and I need a dog with a flexible mind and intense interest in interacting and working with me. The Saluki is not that kind of dog. Virtually all the retrievers and several of the herding breeds are. A few of the working breeds are, but mostly they are not, because they tend to be less "yielding" to whatever game the human wants to play now. Humans have genetically set strong --whatever you want to call its-- (see what happens when you argue about a term? NOW what do I call these--uh--"tendencies" that have been so powerfully genetically set into many breeds by genetic selection? Instincts? Drives? Perceptions? ROM?) into many of the working-group breeds. I don't require guarding of my property, myself, my bank deposit for a business, or my livestock as some of these breeds were selectively bred to do. I don't require a dog to pull a load for me--and have the big bone structure to do that comfortably.

Retrievers and herding dogs have been genetically selected to like to fetch things and to take direction off-leash and at a distance from a human when engaged in exciting, active work. Pretty cool. And that's the kind of dogs these authors were dealing with. When handlers know how to teach it, retrieving objects comes pretty naturally to herding dogs, because they are so interested in "retrieving" and manipulating moving critters. Retriever breeds take to "retrieving" humans, because it fits their perceptions. Thus you can get very complex trained behaviors with both types of dogs and their thinking is flexible. Many breeds from other groups inherit from the genetics of these dogs, such as the little American Eskimo I had, who was a sure-enough herding dog.

I didn't understand that about her until I had had a Belgian Tervuren for while. Then one day Pepper the cat was up on the TV, jumped off and started down
the hallway. Angel the Miniature American Eskimo dog ran at her from the side with some barking and "headed" her, turning the cat back toward the TV. But she did not have the physical power to hold the cat's position, and the cat knew it, so after that 180 turn she just did another, for a full 360, and ran on down the hall where she had been headed in the first place. Actually, I'm not sure she even ran. The dog's game had been to head her, not to chase her.

Next day, same scene, except this time the dog was gentle Star the Belgian Tervuren. Pepper jumps off the TV, Star runs at her from the same position as Angel the day before. Pepper does a 180 and is back on the TV. Star works silently. Then I knew what Angel had been trying to do--and a great deal of her behavior for the few years I'd had her at that time suddenly made sense.

Star made me do my homework, because she had so much herding behavior I had never seen before and didn't understand. One thing she did at first was stay in the back of the yard when I would call her in, lower her arched Tervuren neck and hold her head like a coyote, eying me. I didn't know what the heck that meant.

My homework gave me an idea, so one day when she did that, I put a smile on my face and walked out there, holding eye contact with her, and walked a circle around behind her. She tossed her head exactly like a laugh, and merrily went inside with me. She had been telling me a joke, and was thrilled that I "got" it.

People often interpret herding behavior as "dominance," but it is not. Herding dogs can be "dominant," but manipulating the environment, especially when turned toward the handler, can be the foundation for wonderful communication. It was a blessing to me that my first dog with so much herding instinct was clearly a submissive dog. It saved me a lot of potential confusion.

Terms, oy.

---Kathy Diamond Davis, author, "Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others," and the Canine Behavior Series at