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Canine Behavior


Canine adaptations

Social order



Puppy development

Normal behavior


What are some of the unique adaptations of the dog?


Dogs are far sighted. Their eyes are designed to detect movement and are less able to detect detail. A dog’s field of vision is approximately 250 degrees, while in comparison, a humans field of vision is about 180 degrees. At 30 degrees, their binocular vision is very limited compared to ours (it is about half that of a human). Dogs have eyes that are rich in rods and they have a reflective layer in the back of their eye (tape-tum lucid-um), adaptations that allow adequate vision in dim light. Dogs do have a small number of cones in their eyes that allow them to detect some color in their environment.


Dogs have a very sensitive sense of smell. They have about 220 million smell sensitive cells compared to 5 million cells in a human. As an example, a wolf can smell a deer up to one and one half miles away.


The hearing of a dog is very acute. People hear in the 16-20,000 Hertz range while dogs can hear all the way into the 70-100,000 Hertz range. As an example, a wolf can hear a howl up to four miles away.


What kind of social structure do dogs display? Dogs still display all of the strong social instincts of the wolf. They are pack animals that have a need to establish a pecking order within the group. Modern dogs spend most of their time with humans and will come to view their human family as their pack. The need to establish order will exist within in this modern human/dog "pack". Normally there will be an alpha (dominant) female and male. All other pack members will be subordinate to this pair whether they are human or canine.


Many experts describe dog behavior as strictly hierarchical. This point of view is being challenged. It appears that certain members of a pack may switch roles depending on need, for example, a certain pack member may be an outstanding hunter and take the lead in a hunt or perhaps each pack member may have a certain role in the hunt of a large mammal with one member going for the neck, another for the belly, etc…


How do dogs communicate? The complex social system of the dog is maintained through visual, physical, auditory and olfactory cues and signals. What is the meaning of the following body language? See if you can interpret some of the situations that follow:


Tail low,  wagging,   face licking,   nuzzling,   rolling over,   displaying belly/groin,   urinating, averts gaze,   crouching


These are all body signs of a submissive animal. This dog is acknowledging its lower status in the hierarchy by exhibiting puppy-like body language. If the dominant animal (or person) does not accept these gestures and continues to crowd or press the subordinate dog, the subordinate dog may go as far as to rollover and urinate on itself. This is the ultimate sign of submission.


Tail erect,    stiff legged walk,   head held high,    ears up,   direct eye contact


These are all body signs of a dominant animal. This does not necessarily mean that the dog will bite. It does mean that the animal has a high opinion of its self and may not acknowledge another animal’s dominance over him (including humans).


Front legs extended,    chest lowered to ground,    ears back,    yapping,    rump in the air, tail up and  wagging


These are all body signs of a dog that wants to play. This dog is "inviting" another dog or person to join him in a play session. He is making himself less threatening by making himself smaller and is using puppy sounds (yapping) to let all concerned know that romping is about to take place, not fighting.


Ears back,     lips drawn back,     head and neck extended,     tail up,       standing tall,     hackles up,   eye contact


These are all strong body signs of a dog that is about to bite. She is making herself large with her body posture. She is indicating with the facial expression and raising of the hackles that a bite is eminent. If something is not done quickly to diffuse the situation, someone is going to get hurt.


Realize that certain breeds, because of breed characteristics, may be more difficult to "read" than other dogs. Dogs with floppy ears, for example, will not provide ear position cues. Dogs with heavy facial fur make it difficult for the observer to interpret facial signals as is often the case with Old English Sheepdogs, for example. Some dogs have been selected for their lack of vocalization, as in the Doberman Pincher so called silent attack. In reality all of these dogs are providing many behavioral clues, the average unobservant human is just not very good at interpreting them.



Normal physical and psychological development of a puppy


Normal development in a puppy is characterized by five main periods.


Days 0-14 Neonate period Dependent on mother

Days 14-21 Transitional period Rapid development

Days 21-84 Socialization period Social relations developed

Days 70+ Juvenile period. Period rapid of learning

Sexual maturity Adult period Continue to learn


Canine development period There is considerable research and written material about what is normal for puppies as they mature. Not all the behaviorists agree on the exact times a puppy should be weaned and go to a new home or when the eyes and ears will open. Three references, well known veterinarians and behaviorists, were summarized for the following section.


 I) Neonatal Period - birth to 2 weeks of age


Puppies are born totally dependent on their mother and need close and constant attention. At this time they show no adult behavior patterns, their eyes and ears are closed. Their mother stimulates urination and defecation by licking the anogenital region. Puppies do have some reflexes, including pain, suckling, righting (when turned on their side rolling back to lie on their stomach), anogenital (urinating and defecating when stimulated). The question often arises about the amount of pain felt by puppies when procedures such as tail docking and dewclaw clipping are performed at an early age without anesthesia. Either veterinarians or breeders have often done these minor surgeries before puppies reach one week of age. The traditional view has been that the puppy’s nervous system is underdeveloped and that they do not feel the same sensation as an adult dog. Recently there has been much interest and research in veterinary medicine regarding pain and pain management in animals. Perhaps, in light of new findings changes will made in the practice.


 II) Transitional period - 2 to 3 weeks of age


    During this period many adult reflexes and behaviors start to take shape. Eyes open as early as 5 five days and as late as two weeks, by 21-to 28 days the vision should be normal. The ears open at about two weeks; often an oily discharge will be noted. Puppies begin to crawl, urinate and defecate on their own and can "dog sit". Some may begin to develop preferences for where they eliminate as early 3 weeks. Also at about 3 weeks they begin to socialize with dogs (litter mates and mother) and start to learn dog etiquette.


 III) Socialization period - 3 to 12 weeks of age


During this stage puppies learn to walk and climb normally, eat solid and liquid food and reflexes become more fully developed. This is the time when they are especially receptive to new stimuli, animals, humans, and novel experiences.


The early weeks of this period are focused on interactions with other dogs, but starting as early as 5 weeks puppies can begin to socialize with other humans. Within this 9 week socialization time, there are periods where puppies are easily frightened, fear periods. If puppies are mishandled and frightened during these periods it will probably have permanent long-term effects. It is essential that puppies have interactions with other dogs at least during the stages of the socialization period. There have been many reports of orphan puppies raised by hand with no litter mates being attacked, and sometimes killed, by another dog. These pups never learned canine body language and gave the dominant dog the "wrong" signal, perhaps a play bow, and were attacked.


At 7-8 weeks is the best time to begin human socialization, puppies will form bonds with their owners and are eager to interact with humans. Although these interactions are not true training sessions, many lifelong lessons will be learned. If puppies have little or no human contact during this stage they will probably become shy suspicious of humans as adults.


 IV)  Juvenile - 12-24 weeks


Many adult behavior patterns are established at this time. The cute puppy antics such as nipping, jumping, chewing and unruliness can become major problems when that 10-pound puppy grows to 50 pounds. Many dogs also reach sexual maturity at about 24 weeks or 6 months. This is a time when many dogs are given up to shelters because the owners can no longer deal with the behavior.


Normal behavior in a dog includes barking, howling, digging, biting chewing, mounting, marking territory with urine and feces, roaming, guarding, growling, attempting to establish dominance, protecting food, sleeping areas and offspring, etc. Most problems that arise from dog ownership and interaction are a result of an expression of normal behavior.


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