Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Importance of Play, Part II

Here I go, dipping into the archives again. This was culled from an online discussion group (Doggie Bag online), discussing the question, "Do Dogs Play?" The moderator (for whom English is a second language) was of the opinion that they don't. She was also of the very strong opinion that they do form hierarchies. From May, 2006...

 The debate continues over on the dog behavior board I mentioned in an earlier post. I had left off by saying that the idea of hierarchy comes from captive wolves, who were unable to use their predatory energy. As a result, the behaviors they exhibited were based on stress and were not natural. I also made the point that in domesticated dogs hierarchies may seem to form in multiple dog households, but that this behavior is also unnatural and stress-related, partly due to the fact that dogs don't have the full complement of the prey drive that's present in wolves.

MODERATOR:With all due respect, but are you sure only because we tried to breed the hunt out of our fellas they are cripples when it comes to hunting now? I agree, that our dogs might not be the first choice when it comes to hunting elks. But I sure do believe that they are perfect killers of mice, rabbits and birds. Which, by the way, forms the basic food ressource for most canines beside insects - and enables perfectly to live without large prey.

KELLEY: I have never denied your last point, but find it irrelevant overall. As for the first point, I never said that domesticated dogs aren't capable hunters of small prey. I said they don't have the full complement of the prey drive necessary for pack hunting that wolves do, and that the missing pieces of the prey drive are one cause of the underlying stress in domesticated dogs.

MODERATOR: In other words: prey drive and hierarchy are not related.

KELLEY: I say they're directly related, despite all expert opinion to the contrary. In fact, you keep using the word hierarchy which as far as I'm concerned is off the table. There is no hierarchy in canines. The prey drive is directly related to the social instincts in canines, but those social instincts do not include the formation of a hierarchy. The whole idea of it doesn't make any sense. To me it makes more sense that the pack is a bottom-up heterarchy, ruled by differences in temperament which are necessary only for hunting large prey.

MODERATOR: Yes and yes: dogs do show a lot of the same sequences as wolves and yes, they can be easily compared. However, keep in mind that wolves are not always equally to wolves. Behaviour and social structure depends on the direct environment. And a wolve high up north is faced with other external influences than one in Ethiopea...

Which means: all canines have similar behaviour patterns - but also a whole lot different ones depending on their direct surroundings.

KELLEY: I agree, but the underlying structure hasn't changed. It's one reasons wolves are so adaptable to changing environments.

MODERATOR: Lee, I agree to the point of play. But you really have to get over that "let us hunt large prey"-issue.

Let me explain it to you in a different way: cats are designed to hunt. And even prey a whole lot larger than they are themselves. Look into the wild Africa and watch a cheetah hunt an antilope. Perfect. You know why you never see a wolve hunt deer or elk on his own? Because he is genetically not designed to do so. Their theeth are not made for the killbite as the ones of the cat. The muzzle is way too long for that.

Their front legs contain no muscle and the bones are not flexible, which means that they can rund fast due to the lack of muscle-weight - but can not pull down their prey for the kill (like cats for example). In other words: they are perfect runners -but not the perfect hunters.

KELLEY: Exactly. Because wolves, or their predecessors, didn't have the physical capacity to take down a large prey animal on their own, they had to either adapt by radically changing their body structure (which didn't happen), or they had to adapt the way they did adapt, which was to develop social skills and instincts, that enabled them to kill the large. Instead of larger teeth and more powerful muscles and larger bodies, they developed emotionally, which in the end made them more adaptable to hunting large and small prey. And which also made them adaptable to living in a human society as well.

MODERATOR: Lee, I assume we will never get an agreement on the importance of hunt for the social life of dogs. Regarding the fact that you built your training on the hunt issue and I prefer modern ethology, I doubt we will ever be able to settle this.

KELLEY: Yes, you're right that we probably won't see eye-to-eye on the existence or non-existence of a social hierarchy in canines. However, since we are talking about play here, and since there can be no question that play is directly related to the hunting instincts of predators, I think it's interesting to note that a dog I've been working with for the past three weeks or so, a dog who had aggression problems, and no interest in socializing with other dogs, is now mostly non-aggressive and will even initiate friendly contact at the dog run. He won't play with complete and utter abandon yet with other dogs he doesn't know well (one of my goals), but when we started he wouldn't even go sniff other dogs at the dog run. He'd just sit or lie down and look around without making any kind of social contact at all. (His owners say he'd been like this for about two years, long before they hired me.)

How did I effect this change? I stimulated his prey drive by teaching him to play fetch (among other things, like tug and chase-me). That's pretty much it. You can read all about the process and his daily progress on my blog, if you like.*

Look, I've been training dogs via their prey drive for about thirteen years, and I've seen this happen time after time: when you stimulate and satisfy a dog's prey drive he quickly becomes more openly social. You can quote all the "experts" in the whole world who say there's no connection, but I've seen the proof of it with my own eyes far too often to be convinced by any counter-argument. THE PREY DRIVE HOLDS THE KEY TO SOCIALIZATION IN DOGS, AND PLAY HOLDS THE KEY TO THE PREY DRIVE.

MODERATOR: Lee, without meaning to be disrespectful: Are you sure that dogs, aggressive towards humans after abuse and other dogs after bite incidents, only have to chase the neighbours cat four times a day and will be the perfect pal afterwards with perfect play behaviour?

KELLEY: That would be like trying to cure heroin addiction with morphine. And though it might take the edge of a dog's aggression, it wouldn't cure it. No, I'm talking about structured play, under the trainer's control.

In regards to dogs who've been abused by humans, a great deal of time and effort has to first go into earning back the animal's trust. No dog I know of who's been abused will automatically want to play with his owner or trainer right out of the box. His prey drive has to be coaxed to the surface and allowed expression in whatever way the dog feels comfortable, still within acceptable parameters. If the dog wants to PLAY with the cat, that might be fine in the beginning. If the dog gets excited about the sound of a spoon being dropped in the kitchen and wants to grab that spoon and "kill" it by shaking her head around, that's cool, too. (See Chapter 38 of my novel, A NOSE FOR MURDER; this is not a plug, the book is currently out of print, but an excerpt is available on my website.)

With dogs who've developed fear of other dogs (and all aggression is based on some kind of fear), you have to not only bring the dog's prey drive to the surface, you have to make him feel comfortable around other dogs. One of the things I did with Boomer was take him for a walk with one of his mortal enemies. That's it. With the help of the other dog's dogwalker, we took the two boys for a walk along the Brooklyn Promenade. (When two dogs walk parallel to one another it dissipates the aggression.) Doing this doesn't solve the aggression totally, it just gives the dog a temporary respite so he can learn that he doesn't necessarily have to protect himself all the time.

This thread is about play, and I've learned that the key to healing wounded emotions in dogs is structured play. There is a vast difference between teaching a dog to chase a ball, bring it back to you, and drop it at your feet, and letting him chase a cat. Boomer, the dog I'm training now wouldn't play fetch at all before I started. Now he's wild about it. All the aggressive energy he's been holding inside, energy that was constantly erupting into fights with other dogs, now has an acceptable outlet. So not only does he no longer feel the same need to start fights with other dogs, he's more capable of wanting to seek out friendly social contact on his own.

Dogs want to be social. It's their thing. For years we were taught that the way to deal with aggressive dogs was to show them who's alpha, scare them, punish them, keep them in line. And that works, as long as you're always around to control their every move. But that aggressive energy hasn't been repolarized or redirected, only repressed. The dog has only been taught how to put a lid on the pot of the pressure-cooker, not how to USE that energy, which has got to have an escape valve.

Now we're told that a dog needs to be desensitized to emotional triggers, or shown that nothing in life is free, which again doesn't teach him HOW to use his natural energy properly, it only puts a damper on it. There's still no safety valve, no outlet.

What IS the proper way to use that energy? To focus it on games where the predatory sequence is completed, where the dog gets to chase and bite. The more you do that, in a structured way, the closer the dog will be to his true nature as a group predator. And nature is never wrong.

The kind of training I do was developed by Kevin Behan, who used to train police dogs for a living. He also studied with an old German SchutzHund master before becoming a master trainer himself. He was the first one to see a connection between the prey drive and the social instincts in canines. When dogs play, their natural-born predatory energy and their social needs are given a safe, acceptable outlet that's under the owner's control.

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