Dogs: Love, Rejection, Dominance, Training, and Breeding

Dogs are in the news a lot these days and here's a summary of what's been "hot"

Posted Feb 16, 2017

I'm always looking for popular and scientific essays dealing with dogs, and over the past few days I've found many very interesting articles which I feel others would also like to know about. They deal with love, rejection, dominance, training, and breeding. 

Love, rejection, and the big "O"

Around Valentine's Day, I'm always asked if dogs can fall in love. Of course they can. An essay by Erin Meisenzahl-Peace called "Dogs Can Feel Rejected and Fall in Love Like Humans" nicely summarizes what's known about rejection and love in dogs. In this essay I note, "If you define love as a long-term commitment—meaning they seek one another out when they're apart, they're happy when they're reunited, they protect one another, they feed one another, they raise their children together—then of course non-human animals love each other."

Ms. Meisenzahl-Peace also discusses the role of the big "O," oxytocin, often referred to as the love or "cuddle hormone," and writes, "according to a study [called "Oxytocin promotes social bonding in dogs] published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this is also the case during dog-to-dog interactions. 'Oxytocin enhances social motivation to approach and affiliate with conspecifics and human partners, which constitutes the basis for the formation of any stable social bond,' the researchers found. The oxytocin levels increased 'after dogs engaged in affiliation with their dog partners.'"

The opposite side of the "love" coin involves rejection, and dogs and many other animals can suffer from broken hearts. But, still, dogs are pretty good at saying "I love you" and following up on these feelings.

Dominance and training are a bad marriage 

I've written a lot about dogs and dominance and my take on this topic hasn't changed at all, namely, dogs display dominance but dominance should not be used in training/teaching dogs to coexist with us or with other dogs [please see "Social Dominance is not a Myth," "Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense," renowned primatologist Dr. Dario Maestripieri's outstanding essay called "Social Dominance Explained: Part I" (in which he mildly takes me to task for trying to accommodate the deniers), and many links therein.] 

Thus, I was very pleased to learn about Dr. Zazie Todd's essay called "'Dominance' Training Deprives Dogs of Positive Experiences," although I wouldn't have put the word dominance in scare quotes. Dogs, like numerous other animals, display dominance, and in an essay called "Dogs, Dominance, Breeding, and Legislation: A Mixed Bag," I offer many different quotes from researchers about this fact and also a brief interview I did about dominance in dogs. In another essay titled "Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate," I discuss dominance in dogs in a bit more detail and include a brief exchange I had with dog expert Dr. John Bradshaw about some of our differing views. Dr. Todd also includes Dr. Bradshaw's views on the topic at hand. 

Regardless of agreements or disagreements about dominance in dogs, I agree with Dr. Todd when she writes, "Approaches to dog training based on dominance rely on the idea that you have to be the ‘alpha’ or pack leader. Unfortunately, this type of dog training is not just out-of-date and potentially risky, but modern approaches to dog training are also a lot more fun – for you and the dog." Amen. 

My brief conclusion, simply put, is: 

Just because dogs and other nonhuman animals display dominance, this does not mean we should dominate dogs when we are trying to teach them to live in harmony with us and other dogs. We should always work in partnership with dogs with whom we share our homes and hearts to achieve a win-win for all. 

Reward-based training is the way to go. Along these lines, Dr. Todd writes, "I will leave it to you to think about what dominance or alpha-based training is like from a dog’s perspective." I'm sure they don't like it one bit.

Breeding dogs for money

Another essay I became aware of today is by Philadelphia dog trainer, Marisa Scully, called "The Westminster Dog Show fails the animals it profits from. Here's why." It also deals with a "hot" topic. The subtitle of her essay says it all: "America’s iconic dog show encourages breeding for beauty over health. It says a lot about our society’s fixation on aesthetics and status at the cost of empathy." (Please also see "A Matter of Breeding: How We've Greatly Harmed BFF Dogs" for a discussion of Michael Brandow's book called A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man's Best Friend, and links therein). Ms. Scully's apt conclusion must be taken deeply to heart.

When it comes to clothing or artwork, people can make their own choices about spending money on something for visual appeal. But manufacturing domestic animals whose sole purpose is to live alongside us and improve our quality of life with no consideration for their quality of life is a depressing commentary on our fixation on aesthetics and status at the expense of compassion and empathy.

Dogs know more than we think they do

"I used to look at [my dog] Smokey and think, 'If you were a little smarter you could tell me what you were thinking,' and he'd look at me like he was saying, 'If you were a little smarter, I wouldn't have to.'" -- Fred Jungclaus

A recent research paper by Dr. James Anderson and his colleagues titled "Third-party social evaluations of humans by monkeys and dogs" also caught my eye. It is a very important one in that these scientists review data that show that Capuchin monkeys negatively evaluate people who refuse to help a third party; Capuchin monkeys negatively evaluate people who exchange unfairly with others; Dogs negatively evaluate people who refuse to help their owners; and Nonhuman species can engage in third-party based social evaluations.

Concerning dogs, as surprising as it might sound, we don’t know much about how much dogs and other animals learn from just hanging out and observing their surrounds. Many animals spend a lot of time resting, often peering around and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. Dogs surely do this. I often smiled as I watched the dogs with whom I shared my home just hanging out and looking around at their dog and human friends and their environs. Also, when I've done fieldwork on a number of different animals, including wild coyotes, I noted that they spent a lot of time just hanging out and looking around as they rested. I was convinced that they were picking up a lot of information from just looking around, and that what they learned could be used in their social encounters with others. Indeed, we know that dogs aren’t passive observers and that they are able to make what are called “third-party” evaluations of humans and avoid people who don’t support their own human.

In their essay, Dr. Anderson and his colleagues argue that dogs and other animals display a core morality that doesn’t depend on language or teaching – individuals learn who’s helpful or not and base future interactions after making this determination. Clearly, dogs are not automatons who are programmed to act in specific ways with little or no thought (please see "Dog Smarts: If We Were Smarter We'd Understand Them Better"). In many discussions with people at dog parks and on trails I’ve heard similar stories.  

I hope you find these essays as useful as I did. Dogs are fascinating beings and while we know quite a lot about them, there still is much to discover. Please stay tuned for more research and discussion about the cognitive, emotional, and moral live of dogs and other animals. 

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. His homepage is

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