The Perfect Laboratory for Studying Stress in Canines
In a recent episode of the PBS series Nature—Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo—wildlife filmmaker Jeff Turner used both land and aerial cameras to get some spectacular footage of the daily lives of a pack of wolves living in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the border between Alberta and British Columbia and is 5 times the size of Yellowstone.
Since a great many wolf documentaries are filmed in Yellowstone, and since I switched on the show a little late, I thought that that’s where this one was taking place. But after watching for about ten minutes it occurred to me that the behaviors exhibited by this pack were different from what I’d seen in footage of Yellowstone wolves. These wolves seemed more relaxed, more easygoing, and more comfortable with their surroundings.
It might seem strange to some, but I feel that studying wolves in Yellowstone is a bit like studying them in a wolf sanctuary or other un-natural setting. That’s because the park is not their natural habitat; they’re originally from British Columbia, and were forcibly re-located to Wyoming as a means of restoring the park’s balance of nature.
It’s true that the wolves in Yellowstone are now several generations removed from the original ones, transplanted there. And I freely admit I don’t know enough about genetics, epigenetics, or DNA to even be able to guess how long it would take a species to adapt itself from one habitat (British Columbia) to another (Wyoming). But it seems to me that certain behaviors exhibited by some of the wolf packs in Yellowstone are similar to the stress-related behaviors found in captive wolves.
Since I’ve never studied wolves directly—either in captivity or in the wild—a reasonable person would probably wonder, “How can a dog trainer, living in New York City, possibly pretend to know what’s natural and unnatural in wild wolf behavior?”
That’s a good question—a very good question. And yet New York is a perfect laboratory for studying how stress informs and influences the behaviors and body language of dogs. Plus I don’t see myself as a dog trainer, necessarily, but as a canine stress-reduction facilitator. And since the typical responses to stress seen in dogs are very similar—and in many cases exactly the same—as found in wolves, I think it's not out of the question to sometimes extrapolate from one to the other.
Eros & Thanatos, Wolves and Buffalo
At any rate, toward the end of Turner’s film, the pack is attempting to hunt a herd of buffalo. Their usual technique is to find the smallest or weakest member and separate it from the herd. But there don’t seem to be any calves or aging animals available.
Then, out of nowhere, the pack leader takes off running, far, far ahead. Turner comments that the wolf has “seen something,” but when the camera cuts to a higher angle, there doesn’t seem to be anything for him to see, just empty landscape.
Still he races on, full speed, toward some unknown target. This is highly unusual for canines when spotting something unfamiliar in the distance. Unless it’s a dog seeing his owner's arrival, or a wolf seeing a long-lost pack mate, the usual approach would be much more cautious. So when I saw the wolf sprinting, full-speed, away from the buffalo herd my feeling was that he must have detected some kind of weakness in the bio-energetic field up ahead, probably emanating from a dying buffalo.
Sure enough, once the aerial camera (and the other wolves) catch up to him we see that he’s found two bulls—a young one and an aging one—standing near a small creek. But instead of chasing or harassing the bulls, the wolves actually ignore them, taking their time to drink from the creek, as if they had all the time in the world.
“The wolves,” Turner says, “don’t seem worried at all. It doesn’t seem like a hunt anymore. It’s strange. The wolves seem to only be focused on the older bull, like they’re waiting for something to happen.”
Sunset is approaching and Turner tells us he has to return to camp, promising to come back in the morning. When he does, he finds the wolf pack feasting on the carcass of the old bull. The circle of life is complete.
Turner doesn’t say it but I will: The pack leader didn’t see the two buffalo off in the distance. It’s unlikely that he smelled or heard them either, not because they were too far away but because he was already immersed in the scent of the herd he was harassing, and the sounds of their hoof beats.
So how did he know that a better target was located up ahead?
Dogs and wolves hunt by feel, and they feel things in terms of attraction and resistance. That’s how wolves target weaker animals. Smaller and weaker animals “radiate”—if you will—less resistance.
Why Dognitive Science Sees Things Backwards
This might seem like a strange U-turn, but I think this incident shines a light on how and why I think dognitive science keeps going astray in how they design and perform studies on canine cognition. They don’t do so from the dog’s point of view, but from their own, i.e., the human perspective.
For instance, a recent scientific study purports to show that dogs only steal food when the lights are off, suggesting that dogs are capable of understanding how humans see the world.
On the face of it this seems quite logical, but examined a bit more closely it’s not really designed for seeing things from the dog’s point of view. Eyesight is much more important to humans than it is to dogs. Yet instead of a study based on the dog’s default mode of information-gathering—its sense of smell—it’s designed around the human default mode—vision.
Remember what wildlife cinematographer Jeff Turner said when lead wolf suddenly ran off ahead of the buffalo herd? He said that the wolf “saw something” ahead, even though it turned out that he couldn't have seen anything from where he was.
Another thing is that dogs don’t seem to pay any attention to when the lights are on or off. The sound of the refrigerator door opening? They pay attention. The lights going off and on? No interest at all. In fact, in the hundreds of dogs I've observed in the past 20 years or so, and I have never seen a single one so much as bat an eyelash when I either turn the lights on or off.
Also, the conclusion—that dogs understand their owners’ perspective—only works if we ignore that this requires a sense of self. Since a sense of self is dependent on a class of neurons known as VENs, and a dog’s brain doesn’t come equipped with VENs, dogs can’t see themselves as separate from their owners and, in turn, can't understand that their owners’ perspective may be different from their own.
So it’s pretty clear that something besides understanding the owner's perspective (that the owner can or can’t see the dog) was going on when the lights were turned off. What could it be?
If canines hunt more by feel than they do by vision, then we might be on our way to understanding this more from the dog's perspective.
Let’s go back and look at the dying buffalo’s perspective (if we can). I don’t know if the buffalo knew his time was up, but I suspect he may've had two conflicting feelings: a desire to keep living despite his growing weakness and a desire to stop struggling against the inevitable.
So just as the wolves may have felt that the buffalo had these conflicting feelings, it's possible that the dogs in the recent study felt that their owners and the researchers had conflicting feelings about a) actually wanting the dogs to steal food when the lights were off but also b) wanting the dogs to behave themselves (the owners) and wanting to be as scientific and objective as possible (the researchers).
Feeling things out is a form of telepathy, which translates as the ability to feel things at a distance. The lead wolf in the PBS film certainly seems to have had such an ability, but all mammals and birds have it to some degree or another. (In humans it's called a "gut" feeling).
For those who distrust Rupert Sheldrake’s research in this area, there’s a simple way to test this. Re-do this and similar studies so that their aims are disguised completely, so that no one directly involved has even the faintest idea of what the dogs are expected to do. Once that control is in place, the results may be completely different.
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