Dog behaviour, Evolution and Cognition


 Click on the cover above to go to this book at

Adam Miklosi leads a pioneering team which has been studying dog-human social interactions, using an ethological approach, since 1994. The original head of the research team, Vilmos Csanyi, argues that dogs need social understanding to succeed in the human social world, and that this understanding probably came about as dogs evolved. After Csanyi retired, Miklosi took over leadership of the team. MiklosiĀ“s 'Dog Behaviour,Evolution and Cognition'  was published in 2007, and has become a classic. This second edition, first issued as a hardback in 2014, has been updated to cover a large amount of research carried out since 2007. It is, as Miklosi notes, over 40 per cent longer than the first edition!

If you're new to this field, Miklosi's book is best read together with Csanyi's 'If Dogs Could Talk', since they complement one another. Csanyi's book is far more accessible. It's chatty and enthusiastic, and occasionally careless. Miklosi's book is less accessible because it's a serious academic text. One thing I missed, being a non-biologist, was an idiot's guide to biological terms, ie a glossary. So why should a non-biologist bother to read an academic biology book? Not just because Miklosi's team has carried out some ground-breaking research, the second reason is precisely because the book has all the virtues of an academic work. It's thorough, methodical, and carefully written. It also brings together and reviews material from other researchers, in zoology, psychology, genetics, anthrozoology and archaeozoology, as well as ethology, so is a very useful guide to the literature.

Miklosi looks at and rejects two common ways of perceiving dogs, as children or as wolves. There's a lot in this book on differences between dogs and wolves, some of which comes from the team's own research project of socializing wolves to compare them with dogs. These differences include a longer socialization period for dogs, which allows them more time to learn how to relate to humans and other animals they meet in their environment. Miklosi's comments on socialization are especially relevant to breeders and anyone taking on a new pup, in particular, his point that socialization periods can vary from one breed to another.

Non-biologists may be tempted to skip the 'methodology' chapter as technical, but it is important in demolishing some common misconceptions about dogs which have been based on research using questionable methods. Methods are especially important in studies of dogs biting humans. Miklosi later points out that the human element is often ignored, as are the situations in which humans have been bitten, the focus tends to be on the dog. His discussion is especially relevant for understanding why breed specific legislation is an inappropriate response to the problem that dogs sometimes bite humans. Solutions he suggests include teaching children how to relate to dogs.

Miklosi is wary of labelling certain breeds as 'aggressive', and he notes that sometimes the term is used without explanation. Here I would agree with him. Arguably, for an adult human household with a dog, the more serious type of aggression is territorial aggression, against strangers, which can happen without warning, rather than aggression against family members, eg over food. Some dogs may be very well behaved with family members, yet, if untrained and unsupervised, pose a threat to strangers. Being precise about what 'aggression' means makes it easier to prevent aggression by training dogs appropriately.

One key difference between dogs and wolves is that dogs are better able to form attachments to individual humans, a skill which perhaps developed because it has been important for their survival as part of human groups. Miklosi argues for describing some relationships between dogs and humans as 'friendship', which can include both dominance by the human, and equal collaboration. Sharing, and social support are part of friendship, bringing benefits to both parties.

Miklosi notes that dogs can relax humans, and humans can relax anxious dogs, sometimes just by being with them, as well as by petting them. This might appear to contradict the advice of some 'dog experts' such as Cesar Millan, who argue that over-the-top behaviour of anxious dogs can be reinforced by petting. However, there is a world of difference between fussing an anxious dog, and massaging a dog which, despite anxiety and being distracted by something that has spooked it, has obeyed a recall, or a 'stay' command.

Perhaps Miklosi see no need to warn owners against fussing because he comes from a more sensible dog culture than that of parts of the UK and US. I was struck by how much better behaved my own dogs were with Spaniards, who tend not to fuss dogs, compared with English people, who often have an irresistible urge to caress dogs, sometimes at inappropriate moments. On average, Spanish humans tend to touch each other more than do English and American humans, and it may be that humans afflicted by taboos against touching other humans have a higher propensity to fuss dogs.

An irresistible urge to caress a dog, which overrides the afflicted person's ability to 'read' the dog in question, can lead to bites. I saw two such cases in England. One involved a sentimental elderly lady who persisted in her attempts to caress a labrador across a gate, despite the dog's warning signals, because she 'loved labradors'. She needed several stitches. To do her credit, she didn't blame the dog.

Miklosi does note that, compared to rural Czech dogs, urban Czech dogs tend to be smaller, more fearful, growl more at family members, get taken more often on vacation with the family, and are more likely to have humans celebrate their birthdays. He is aware that certain dog cultures can put too much emphasis on seeking emotional support from dogs, land that this can be linked to unwanted canine behaviour, but i did miss an in-depth discussion of modern dog cultures.

Nevertheless, there is a wealth of information in this book, not just for people wanting mannerly dogs, also for people seeking to develop their dogs' potential. One comment Miklosi makes is that, whereas puppy testing may not be especially helpful as a predictive tool, it can help to improve a dog's performance by highlighting areas where more training is needed.

All owners have an interest in developing their dogs' potential. The dogs are happier if they have something to do, and can be very useful in performing tasks that owners cannot do. Dogs can, for example, be trained to find named objects on command, which is handy if you have lost your car keys, or if they are somewhere a dog can reach and you can't.

The chapters on how dogs perceive the world, physical-ecological cognition, and social cognition are particularly useful for isntructors teaching owners of pet dogs to train them, and for people training working dogs. Eye contact is important for dogs working out what they are being asked to do, so dogs' performances can diminish when humans wear sunglasses.

The book ends noting that dogs and humans face the same negative effects of our environment, because our lives are bound together. So a lessening of social contacts between humans, and a more individualistic lifestyle can affect both humans and dogs. Dogs can end up spending much of the day either alone, or confined by a leash. Miklosi's last sentence is a plea for a socially rich family life for the sake of both dogs and humans.

I would second this plea, though of course factors that tend to confine individuals, such as watching too much TV, or working too long hours in places from which children and dogs are excluded, also affects contacts between families and households, important for both dogs and children. Owners may ferry dogs to agility classes, parents may take children to similar activities, but these may not compensate for deeper changes in our lifestyles. The dogs I meet in rural Spain, following their owners and helping with everyday tasks, look both more relaxed and purposeful than the English car-boot loads of dogs I used to meet at agility. And the Spanish dogs are better behaved, on the whole.

Miklosi's book is an academic text. Owners and handlers of working dogs may feel frustrated at his caution in apparently seeing only academically sanctioned work as worthy of serious interest, as 'scientific fact'. When he claims that little research has been carried out on working dogs, people who work these dogs might justifiably ask  why he doesn't 'get out there' more, observe the dogs at work, and talk to their handlers. Some jobs that dogs do, such as tracking, or work with sheep, involve a great deal of communication between owners and dogs, who are trained to use certain cognitive skills, and tell humans what humans are not equipped to know.

People working with dogs in fields where canine cognitive skills and collaboration with humans are important, keep diaries and exchange information. They have built up a pool of knowledge that Miklosi could tap into more deeply. Much 'good science' has been carried out by people who are outside the academic world, and who nevertheless take the trouble to define terms, record observations methodically, and have the self-discipline to come to conclusions that fit the facts. The same cannot always be said for publications in learned journals, where one can find a lot of 'bad science'. It is, however, refreshing to see the academic world get its act together where research on dogs is concerned, and Miklosi's work is a beacon in the academic world. And of course, academic research can only supplement direct experience with dogs - what Miklosi has done is help to make it a more useful supplement.

All in all, despite the occasional caveat, I would strongly recommend this book, especially for dog clubs and other organizations working with dogs where people can discuss its contents. It may help to find a friendly biologist to explain some of the technical terms, though even without such help it's well worth reading this book from cover to cover.

AL 2009