Dogs are highly social animals, which is why they fit in so well with human society – they have adapted to cope with a complex set of relationships. The relationship between dogs and humans is remarkable. This association has been going on for a minimim of 12,000 years – some mitochondrial DNA evidence suggests up to 120,000 years (before we were truly modern humans). Some scientists suggest that dogs have affected human evolution just as we have quite clearly affected theirs.
Feral dogs tend to live in social groups that are loosely hierarchical, often with dominant dogs and subordinates in overlapping hierarchies. These hierarchies prevent social discord by ensuring that everyone knows their place. Dominant dogs have first access to food and to any other limited resource, and they keep their subordinates in order by the way they behave – the way they walk and the way they stare down their subordinates or ignore them. Only as a last resort will a dominant dog bite its underlings. Subordinate dogs cheerfully accept their position and would never bite their superiors in the pack.
Your pup’s instincts have been overlaid by thousands of years of selection by humans for friendly, puppy-like behaviour. It is no longer fashionable to talk of dominance in dog training, but every family or group has a social hierarchy of some sort. There are many painless ways to ensure that your dog understands the hierarchy of your family and fits in appropriately.
A dog’s behaviour is a combination of instinct and acquired or learnt behaviour, and dogs go through developmental stages just as people do. They progress through the socialisation period (equivalent to human childhood), through adolescence and into adulthood, and at each stage you can have different expectations of your dog’s behaviour.
Dogs mostly learn by trial and error. They try something: if the outcome is rewarding they are more likely to do it again; if the outcome is unpleasant they are less likely to do it again. The more often they have a pleasant outcome from a behaviour, the more rapidly they will learn to perform that behaviour.
To learn about the phases of socialisation, read on.