Social capacities

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Although dogs are descended from wolves and are still pack animals, they have become more individualised in the course of evolution. They have acquired their own codes and capacities, which are much more subtle than those of their wild cousins.

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The myth of strict dominance

Duhayer_Royal_canin

The myth of the relatively strict social structure of wolf packs has done a great deal of harm to dogs. We all know the much-vaunted legend of the “dominant” wolf, the “alpha” male, yet there are relatively few academic studies on the social life of wolves in their natural environment to back it up. The alpha male is the uncontested leader of the pack with a number of “privileges” compared with the rest of the pack. It eats its fill at its leisure, before any other animal is allowed to eat; it controls its territory and the movements of all wolves within that territory; it chooses where it sleeps and does not tolerate the encroachment of any animal or any disturbance when it is sleeping or relaxing; it is the one that takes the initiative in contacts with members of the group and is likely to react ferociously if this rule is not observed; it chooses its female and is the only male allowed to copulate openly in the group. It is the dominant animal in the pack; all other wolves are subordinate to it. Relations among the other individuals in the pack are also based on strict observance of a hierarchy: each wolf is on a particular rung of the ladder – dominated by the wolves above it and dominating the wolves below it, except for the wolf at the very bottom of the ladder.

The most recent studies into animal behaviour using remote monitoring technology shows that, while it is constant and homogeneous, the social organisation of wolf packs is often much less rigid than originally thought.

Dogs are not wolves

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Dogs are not wolves any longer; they have evolved together with humans for millennia in a climate of cooperation and mutual benefit.

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We often forget that dogs are not wolves; that dogs have evolved together with humans for millennia in a climate of cooperation and mutual benefit, consequently developing natural and social abilities very different to those mastered by their wild cousins. Like humans, dogs have been freed from the imperatives of survival that characterise the natural world. Humans have lived in relative prosperity for at least 10,000 years, thanks to the development of agriculture and “breeding”. This has led to the promotion of cooperative exchanges rather than combat. We have flocked to cities in increasing numbers and turned our back on war more and more. We rightly regard ourselves as “civilised”, but we forget that dogs have accompanied us on this journey too.

Exactly like modern humans, modern domesticated dogs function through mechanisms of cooperative exchange much richer than a simple relationship of dominance and subordination. Dogs have a very wide range of signals they can use to communicate to humans and to other dogs. Just like us, they prefer signals of conciliation which promote cooperation and exchange with both species. In conflict situations, they are still able to express dominance and subordination, of course, but this occurs very rarely when dogs are properly socialised.

Being “civilised”

Grossemy

For dogs, expressing a social relationship with other dogs and familiarity with humans or other species is not only an act of “civility”, but also an essential need which is written into their DNA. By being social, dogs show that they are capable of and, indeed, need frequent exchanges with others.

Some wild canids, such as foxes, are solitary animals that only come into contact with other members of their species when they need to mate. Dogs seem to be very like wolves in terms of this irresistible need for social relations, although the two species express this in very different ways. Social contacts are a type of essential lubricant, a basic behavioural need. When positive and structured, social contacts with other dogs and with humans very probably have the same role as those between mother and litter immediately after birth – they provide a soothing, stimulating context. These include playing and cuddling, both with other dogs and humans. Simply spending time with other dogs or humans, even when dozing, is very important and very significant to the dog. It is probably the most common form of social exchange for humans. And, like us, dogs are strikingly flexible in their relationships. They are basically just as happy to spend time with other dogs or with humans, with perfect strangers or with those familiar to them. Like us, they are social animals not limited by any particular familiarity or attachment. This social ability to cooperate is extremely rare in the animal world, one shared by humans and domesticated species that has developed over a long period of time.

Duhayer_Royal_canin
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Some wild canids, such as foxes, are solitary animals that only come into contact with other members of their species when they need to mate.

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Social capacities
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