Darwin's Subterranean World

Evolution, Mind, and Mating Intelligence

Your Dog Is on the Roof, I Thought You Should Know

The Evolutionary Psychology of Being a Dog

So my wife Kathy and I are bustling around getting ready to get out of the house the other morning when a friendly neighbor stops by – with an interesting message:

“Your dog is on the roof.”

Simple, straightforward, and clear – but sort of concerning! So I scramble upstairs to see that our awesome new pup, Nico, a one-year old Great Pyrenees mix, had, in fact, decided that since the window was open and since it’s easy to push screens out of the way, hey, why not go on the roof!? There’s an idea!

Luckily, Nico quickly came in when I called him and everything turned out fine. And, of course, we’re hugely appreciative to our neighbor for looking out for little Nico!

This all said, What The Heck, Nico? What were you thinking!? …

As domesticated creatures with long-standing and evolutionarily rooted social bonds with humans, dogs are, like any domesticated critters, bred for various purposes. Think hunting dogs, herding dogs, retrievers, and so forth. With our canine friends, it’s easy to see that breeding and lineage (dare I say “genetics?”) have behavioral effects. Ever try to get a border collie to stop herding or get a terrier to stop chasing squirrels? Or keep the lab out of the pool? Good luck.

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Darwin pointed out the distinction between “natural selection” – when consistent environmental pressures across time come to shape the nature of a species’ morphology and behavior – versus “artificial selection” – which is essentially human-implemented breeding of other species – such as dog breeding. With natural selection, the natural features of an environment (e.g., how dense the branches of trees are in a local ecosystem) shape the nature of various species (e.g., the gripping-ability of the hands and feet of various tree-dwelling primates).

With artificial selection, the process is similar, but human decision-making (rather than prevailing environmental conditions) acts as the selecting agent. If you want a dog that is good at hunting out rabbits, then you may want to find an adult male who’s got this skill and a fertile adult female with the same abilities. The offspring are likely to have some good rabbit-hunting abilities. Something about these abilities must be heritable – dog breeders have known this for years.

Well it turns out that Great Pyrenees have strange-looking double dewclaws – like extra toes on their back feet. And Nico’s got this trait (his paws look a little funny, but we love him anyway!). Why do these dogs have these strange toes? Well, as with natural selection, in domestic breeding, certain traits are selected together. Great Pyrenees were bred to be guard dogs for livestock – they originated in a rocky mountain range – the Pyrenees Mountains – between Spain and France. If you’ve ever hiked in terrain that’s at all rocky and steep, you don’t have to think too hard to envision the adaptive benefits of double dewclaws. After probably spontaneously showing up in some early specimens, the dogs with this “new mutation,” as it were, had survival benefits relative to others given the unique terrain that they regularly encountered – they could climb better and were less likely to fall relative to their single-dewclaw counterparts. Yeah, that’s adaptive. So the breeders probably kept it in the mix.  

Along with some morophological trait of any breed, there are often behavioral correlates that complement the morphology. So if you’ve got a body that’s good for one kind of task (let’s say climbing), it makes sense that you would have a psychology (or a set of behavioral tendencies) that maps onto, or complements said morphology (such as a drive to climb when the opportunity arises). This reasoning matches many of the basic premises of evolutionary psychology as a whole (see Geher, 2014) – and it applies to any species with some kind of behavioral system. I’d say that dogs and humans fit the bill – dogs, like humans, have bodies – and dogs, like humans, have behavioral systems. Thus, we can use evolutionary psychology to understand either kind of critter.

So let’s get back to the big question of this blog – What The Heck, Nico!?!?!? – what were you doing on the roof?! Well, this evolutionary analysis, hopefully, puts this question into some perspective. Nico has got some clear Great Pyrenees ancestry – he’s got the double dewclaws and he’s not afraid to use them! When he saw that open window, the call of the wild (or, perhaps more accurately, that call of his ancestral breeding history - that goes deep into the mountains of France over hundreds of generations) kicked in.

Open window, flimsy screen, roof – done deal. This event almost had to happen, in fact, now that we think about it!

And, on top of this, of course, he’s still a puppy and we all know that puppies do the darndest things! In any case, next time, we’ll keep the windows closed!

References and Acknowledgment

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Big thanks to that deity of Dog-dom, and fellow Psychology Today Blogger, Stanley Coren for helping inspire this piece. I was very fortunate to have met Stanley at the President’s Dinner at the recent meeting of the Western Psychological Association out in Portland, Oregon. Hearing this guy talk about dogs is inspiring beyond words – after talking with him for two minutes, he convinced me that, as my wife Kathy has suggested for years, we apparently NEED another dog in my household – and Nico is the product of this conversation! If you’re interested at all in our four-legged friends, you’ll find a ton of cool information at Stanley’s Canine Corner right here at Psychology Today.

Glenn Geher, Ph.D., is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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