Domestic dogs are really not that far removed from their distant wild relatives like wolves, coyotes and foxes. Although we have trained them to eat prepared food, housebroken them, even trained them to work for us, they are still canines that have strong instincts. You can see connections to their primitive nature in everyday life.
I have been thinking about this ever since I went through physical therapy last year. My therapist pointed out that dogs are smart because they stretch first thing after getting up or before doing just about anything. Dogs don’t need to be trained to stretch; they just do it, even when they are little puppies. This behavior serves several purposes. It wakes up the muscle tissue, expanding capillaries and blood vessels to help oxygenate the blood. It extends tendons and ligaments, increasing flexibility of the joints. By stretching, the dog is also communicating with you, a dominant member of its pack. She is acknowledging your presence, showing she is ready to do whatever you want to do. The dog is trying to function as a member of your pack.
I take my dog for walks daily. She really loves walking. It gets her out of the house to do her business. I am not just talking about her relieving herself; Hershey has an agenda when we leave the yard. She wants to patrol her pack’s territory and check what other dogs have entered it. We have to stop at every little tinkle spot along the sidewalk so she can give it a good sniffing. While I tolerate a little of this, I do not stop for long-I treat it like a billboard, not a postcard. After all, I am walking her, she is not walking me. She carefully selects where to leave her scent as well, metering her urine for the length of the route I select. Patrolling and marking territorial boundaries is instinctive canine behavior.
Bird hunting is another example of instinctive behavior modified to fit human lifestyle. There are different schools of thought on how to treat a hunting dog. Some would say the dog has to be kept outside in a kennel to make it an ideal hunting dog. Others (like Richard Wolters, author of Gun Dog) advocate for bringing the dog in and having it form family bonds so it feels compelled to hunt for the pack. My dog is treated as part of the pack at home, living in the house and interacting with the family around the clock. She has rules and boundaries that help her remember she is a subordinate pack member. She also participates in play with the family, and gets to go out and hunt to help feed the pack. When she goes bird hunting with me, she helps me in the hunt, knowing there are family members back at the den that are waiting to eat whatever we bring home. All of these activities and behaviors are linked to canine instincts.
Wild canines have some differences from domestic dogs, as well as differences between species. Wolves are pack animals with a complex social structure that defines which animals hunt, which will breed and reproduce, which animals lead the pack and which animals leave. Coyotes tend to be more solitary, although they have been documented occasionally hunting in packs to bring down larger prey. Foxes don’t form packs, either. Wolves generally do not tolerate coyotes, but seem to tolerate foxes. Coyotes will kill foxes, so in areas where you have more wolves, you might see more foxes and relatively fewer coyotes. Wolves tend to avoid people, where coyotes have no problem co-existing with humans-even right here in town.
If you have a dog, watch how it behaves when it sees a squirrel, meets another dog at the fence or when you bring a new baby home. You will see tempered instinctive canine behavior.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.