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Part 2: Differences between dogs

This article first appeared in Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, in Canis magazine, August 2014

Village dogs in Rural Spain


Berta. Three of the friendliest street dogs, Canela, Che and Bertha, disappeared over a short period

Dogs can learn enough of our social rules to live in harmony with us, though the specific rules a dog needs to learn depend on the norms of the human society the dog lives in.

Voith et al found that 35% of US dogs slept on the owner's bed at night, and 55% were allowed on furniture (1). A Czech study examined urban-rural differences within one country, and found that urban dogs were more likely to be allowed to sleep on owners' beds than were rural dogs (2). Urban owners were also more likely to see their dogs as companions and family members, and celebrate their birthdays. Urban dogs also tended to be more fearful and growl more at family members, perhaps because of stresses of urban life, or simply due to dogs being in closer proximity to humans, so owners notice their behavior more.
My own interest in how dogs respond to different human social norms came from bringing three dogs, Rug, Tilly and Conor, from a small English town (pop 10,000 approx) to a large village (pop 1,500 approx) in central Spain. Later, I took on Toby, a stray ex-hunting mutt who’d been wandering round the outskirts of the village. I studied the village for a PhD in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and kept in touch through visits from then until coming to live here (3). Until recently, it was common to see dogs trotting around the village on their own, minding their own business, and behaving amicably with other dogs they met. These 'free-ranging' dogs, mostly mutts, were pets. Their owners allowed them free access to the streets, which until the early 1980s were just dirt and cobble tracks, so cars had to go slowly. These dogs presented a puzzling question: why did they seem to be so well-behaved when they were apparently untrained?

When we first arrived, I built a gate as a barrier to stop the dogs from going upstairs to a balcony, where they could get access to the roof. 'Will that work as a barrier?' I asked the village friend who helped me build it. 'It wouldn't work for my dogs, because they're smart and street-wise. But your dogs aren't as clever', she answered.


One difference was clear, the village dogs were expected to take independent decisions. My dogs could jump the barrier, but only went upstairs when they had permission to do so. One study showed that asking for permission was a characteristic of pet dogs kept inside the house: they’re more likely than working dogs kept outside the house, to wait for permission before attempting to solve a problem (4). However, the village pet dogs were independent learners whether they were kept outside or indoors. The key factor affecting independent learning seems to be allowing dogs out on their own.

The relative independence of the village dogs may account for there being no reports of separation distress. Dogs sometimes howled, but usually when confined to a yard, rather than when given free access to the outside world. It may be, of course, that villagers didn’t perceive separation distress so some cases passed unnoticed. There does, however, appear to be a link between being free-range, and coping with the absence of the owner. The dogs were less dependent on humans for a sense of security. 


Traditionally, most pet dogs in the village weren't allowed inside the house. As youngsters, they were shooed out of the house every time they tried to gain access to it, so they learnt to stay outside. Youngsters also learnt to respect traffic and passers-by by going on walks with their owners. Pups had less freedom to come and go than adult dogs. Though I first noticed that dogs often walked alone, because this was different from England, I later realized that the village dogs were in fact walked a lot by their owners. Most people worked from home back in the early 1980s, if you include the family stockyard as part of the home. So dogs would accompany owners as they went on their daily rounds.

It surprised me that even pups were, and still are, taken for walks off-leash. The one command that the village dogs are expected to obey is recall. Dogs have to be off-leash to learn a good off-leash recall, so there are benefits to allowing them to walk loose, but there are also risks. Often, when villagers see me with leashed dogs, they ask pityingly if I haven't trained them to walk off-leash. So I mention risks from traffic, and they remember dogs which have been killed by cars. Villagers tend to be less protective of their dogs, which either learn to avoid traffic through training from their owners, or through a non-lethal encounter with a car. They learn, or are killed by a car - the most common cause of death until recently. The villagers are upset when their dogs are killed by cars. Their attitude is similar to that of English cat owners who give their cats freedom to come and go, and sometimes lose a cat to traffic.

Encounters with strange humans and other dogs are also governed by different norms from those I was used to in England. In England, strangers, especially children, would often want to pet my dogs, whereas villagers rarely want to do so, unless they know the dogs very well. English dogs are more likely to be taught to accept petting from strangers. This isn't a skill that the village dogs have to learn. The most common circumstances I heard of in which dogs bit unfamiliar humans back in England was when humans tried to pet a leashed dog, either with the owner, or tied up outside a shop.

Likewise, In England, owners would encourage their pet dogs to play with other dogs. This doesn't happen in the village, in fact villagers expect dogs to fight others of the same sex if they’re with their owners. I've often explained that Conor is very sociable with dogs of either sex, while Tilly is mistrustful. However, villagers tend to repeat their mantra, despite the evidence in front of them that Conor has a penis and is happily greeting another male. Notwithstanding the accuracy of this belief, the assumption that dogs will fight other dogs rather than be friendly has its benefits. The caution shown by villagers in supervising dog-dog encounters does tend to reduce fights, especially those in which young dogs are allowed to approach leashed, unsociable oldsters.

Traditionally, villagers tended to keep males as pets, because females could get pregnant. Neutering is uncommon here. In the past, you'd often see a loose female and her suitors. Despite the growls, there were few actual fights among the waiting males, which tended to defer to one in the group, perhaps because the village dogs knew one another, so knew which dog was likely to win a fight.

Back in the 1980s, it was common for big dogs to be loose on the village streets, but by 2000, you only saw unaccompanied small dogs. Today, villagers are more likely to be afraid of a large dog even when it's leashed. Large dogs are still walked loose in the countryside, or take themselves for walks. Villagers followed by strange dogs often make threatening gestures, or even throw stones. This means that the dogs understand threatening gestures, which is useful if you are walking dogs and attract an unwanted follower. In England, my dogs would sometimes attract a strange loose dog which would try to mount one of mine. These dogs didn't respond to threatening gestures. They couldn't believe that a human could be unkind to them, but one tactic that worked was to tell the dog to sit. In this Spanish village, few dogs know the 'sit' command, but they do know that humans can be unkind to dogs.

Most villagers simply ignore dogs which don't approach them. This makes it easier for the dog to focus on the owner. One young dog, Che, was allowed into a bar at a quiet time, with only four or five customers. He was placed on a cushioned bench, and told to stay, with a gentle slap on the rump. He stayed put for as long as the owner was in the bar, some forty minutes. A cute-looking dog in an English pub would not have been left in peace by the clientele.


'How did you get Che to be so well-behaved?' I asked his owner. 'You have to bring them up properly, teach them right from wrong, just like kids' was his answer. The word villagers use for training, 'educar' is the same word they use for teaching social norms to children. The verb ‘to train’ does have a meaning of ‘to educate, rear, bring up’, as well as the narrower sense, of training for a performance, or training obedience ( 5). The village dogs, then are in fact trained, in the sense of being taught how to behave, even though they aren’t formally trained, and some of what the village dogs learn is taught by humans other than their owners.

 Imitative learning in dogs is well documented (6). The village dogs can teach one another, as well as learning by taking their cue from humans. Canela was my neighbors' dog, and, during the week, when her owners were at work, she often followed me on walks. She knew me too well to believe my threatening gestures, so I just accepted her as a walking companion. Initially, she was spooked by mules, which were big and scary. She started barking at a mule, then looked at Toby, who was off-leash, and quite unconcerned. The change in Canela's behavior was immediate - she just followed Toby's example and relaxed, while keeping a respectful distance from the mule.

Today you rarely see pet dogs loose on the village streets without their owners nearby. Villagers are more likely to work away from home, so have less time for dogs. There are fewer dogs overall, and more expensive, pedigree dogs, at risk from thieves if they’re allowed to come and go alone. Some of the friendliest street mutts, Canela, Che and Bertha, simply disappeared over a short period, perhaps stolen. A chapter in the life of the village has ended. However, a few kilometers away, there’s a smaller village, further away from the main road, where you can still see both small and large dogs trotting around alone, minding their own business.

Co-operative dogs

The free-ranging village pet dogs were skilled at fending for themselves, and taking independent decisions. Some were more co-operative than others, especially those that were part sheepdog. The ability to co-operate with humans can be taught. It includes checking human faces for visual cues that tell the dog what to do. Selective breeding can also enhance both the biddability of dogs, their desire to co-operate with us. Dogs from breeds designed for co-operative hunting did better than those from breeds designed for independent hunting dogs in a test for understanding human pointing gestures (7). All the dogs in the study were kept as pets, rather than working hunters, to tease out the influence of breeding from that of learning a skill through working. Dogs may have different built-in skills even if they look similar, though physical differences can also affect skills, Dogs with short noses and eyes at the front of their heads, like pugs or Cavalier King Charles, can focus more easily on a human than can dogs with eyes at the side of their head, like greyhounds. Short-nosed breeds have a visual field which focuses more on what is in front of them. Short-nosed dogs performed better than long-nosed breeds in a test of responding to human pointing cues to find the location of food (8).

Dogs used as guides for blind people tend to come from co-operative breeds in the UK, especially golden-labrador retriever crosses. They undergo intensive training before being placed with a human partner, and then have to learn to communicate with their new partner. They can take or relinquish leadership according to the situation. The blind person knows the route, but the dog perceives potential hazards along the route, and insists on taking the lead if the human doesn’t appear to perceive a hazard (9). Formal training focuses on what the dog is learning. When handler and dog learn how to interact successfully, the dog also teaches the human.

Sheepdogs also do complex, co-operative work, which involves communicating well with their owners, and having a deep understanding of sheep. Shepherds have long commented that it is much easier to train a sheepdog if it is working with an older, more experienced dog (10). Trained sheepdogs are also able to work out of sight of the handler, and, like guide dogs, can take independent decisions in the context of a shared task (11). The village dogs acted independently, conforming to human social norms, but outside the context of a shared task.

Recovering 'lost' dogs

Sometimes humans abandon dogs to live a feral existence, or hoard them in horrendous conditions. People who rehabilitate these dogs need immense patience. One such person is Janeen McMurtrie. She comments:

‘To me the really interesting thing is how even feral dogs with extremely socially impoverished backgrounds still display an innate drive to connect with humans, far more so than wild animals raised in a tame environment. The "feral" dogs I've worked with have ranged from those who had very minimal (and of that, almost all very negative), handling by humans to one whose only experiences were sick huge extremes (beatings or gushing). All those which came from one particular hoarder initially showed an extreme fear of new situations, or neophobia. The conflict in some of these dogs is extreme - wanting to connect with humans but filled with flight reflexes. Socialization is important - but it isn't what makes dogs domestic. I think it has far more to do with making them more resilient.

Taming a feral dog, while still very much a daunting task and one which will not likely ever give you the same kind of companion that a pup raised by hand will, is still a far easier, and I would say even more natural, task than taming a wild animal. Dogs appear to me to have a strong innate drive to bond across the species barrier with us, or maybe with non-conspecfics in general. After all, livestock guard dogs bond with sheep and there are many stories of terriers bonding with horses, and other tales of dogs bonding with really odd species like elephants and such. Perhaps friendliness lies at the core of what it means to be a dog.’ (12)

Toby arrived trained to respect cats and livestock, essential for a hunting dog, but he had had little contact with humans, so is wary of strangers. The connection-flight conflict that Janeen refers to is still very obvious when he first meets someone. Toby needed to be taught to look at my face, and to understand pointing gestures. He learnt rapidly, probably because he loves retrieving. His strong innate desire to co-operate in some shared activities was a surprise given his background as a stray and ex-hunting mutt.

Janeen is helped in her task by her well trained dogs. My best allies in civilizing Toby were Tilly and Conor. Toby, for example, initially wasn’t just spooked by humans, also by big dogs. When I first walked him alone, he had hysterical barking fits on meeting a large strange dog. However, if Toby was with Conor, who’s naturally sociable with other dogs, he followed Conor’s example, and this helped to calm Toby when he was walked alone.

As Pongracz notes, the daily interactions between dog and owner help dogs to develop skills (13). We may take these interactions for granted, but they’re important. It’s much easier to start by teaching pups, but some deficiencies in early socialization can be overcome, especially with a dog that has a strong natural desire to do things with people. Tasks developed in social cognition research could be used as a way to improve the ability of pups to maintain eye-contact with humans, and facilitate social learning (14). Such tasks could also be useful for recovering lost dogs.

Encouraging dogs to develop their potential

Dogs realize their potential through socialization, in the broad sense of learning rules which help them cope with the social world they live in, making them more ‘resilient’. Training is socialization plus. It's helpful to distinguish between 'formal' training, or consciously teaching dogs, and training in a broader sense, including our everyday interactions with them. Formal training makes it possible for owners tell dogs to do things that keep them out of trouble. However, training goes beyond just teaching commands and skills. It helps dogs to make sense of and cope with the physical as well as the social world. Well-trained dogs can be powerful allies in training newcomers, who initially tend to defer to experienced dogs and follow their example.

Complex co-operative tasks involve two-way communication. Humans often need training to understand their dogs. There’s a strong case for extending this training, because today we have much less contact with dogs than we used to. Children in particular, can benefit from lessons in understanding canine body language, which can help to keep them safe, and help them to enjoy the company of the dogs they come into contact with.

Sometimes, with the best of intentions, we train dogs to behave badly. For example, the tendency of some English dogs to become overexcited when they meet strangers may be linked to allowing strangers to make a fuss of our dogs. Strangers then become very exciting. Most interactions between villagers and strange dogs are very boring for the dog. Nothing happens. They ignore one another.

There‘s a price to pay for the freedom of village dogs – many die young, killed by traffic. But there’s also a price to pay for keeping dogs safe. They need more human effort to ensure they have enough exercise and interesting things to do, precisely at a time when homes are emptying during the day. Today, there’s more of a risk of infantilizing adult dogs, and forgetting their potential as partners.


Thank you to Julia Altshuler, Diana Attwood, Diane Blackman, Tiffani Howell, Margaret Kenna and Janeen McMurtrie for interesting discussions on issues raised here, and to Tiffani and Janeen for comments on an earlier draft of this paper


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