by Niki Tudge
If you are looking for a dog trainer or dog behavior consultant, ask them questions about their understanding of canine social behavior and stay away from anyone citing canine dominance theory, alpha slang or the need to assert yourself as the “boss”.
Social behavior is how dogs interact and form relationships with other dogs, people and other beings. The relationships formed are shaped at each interaction as behavior dimensions are strengthened or weakened due to the situation specific contingencies. During these social interactions conditioned emotional responses are also elicited due to the history of conditioning.
Canine communication behavior is social in nature. Within social setting dogs use behavioral sets to access reinforcement or avoid aversive stimulation. These behaviors are shaped over a period of time and are operant behaviors. Environmental antecedents set the occasion for the behavior and consequences reinforce or punish the behavior even though in some cases the social behaviors are made up of modal action patterns.
Distance decreasing behaviors serve the purpose of accessing social encounters. Play behavior rituals are very prominent and specific communication prompts are used to initiate play. Not all distance decreasing signals are so obvious and more subtle communication behaviors can be observed between dogs that are socially comfortable together.
There are two opposing categories under the distance increasing behavior, aggressive behaviors and appeasement behaviors. These behaviors serve the functions of fight, flight or appeasement. Dogs that are aggressive make extensive use of threat displays by making all areas of their body appear larger and rigid. With flight behaviors the dog will move away from the interaction, moving slowly and tucking themselves down low to appear small.
Appeasement behaviors serve to avoid or escape hostility but do not necessarily have a distance increasing function. When displaying passive appeasement behavior the dog will place itself in a recumbent position exposing its underside. The dog may expel some urine and its ears will be back and its tail tucked as low as it can go. With passive appeasement behavior the dog will remain motionless until the threat has moved on. Active appeasement behaviors are more soliciting with the dog moving into the personal space of the dog or person, crouching ears back and their entire rear end may wag. The difference between canine flight behaviors and appeasement behaviors is that a dog in flight will disengage from the social interaction.
Not all communication behaviors are clear cut and in some instances when there is motivational conflict a dog will vacillate back and forth between displays of distance increasing behaviors and distance decreasing behaviors. The dog will display ambivalent behaviors or displacement behaviors. Ambivalent behaviors are mixed signals where as displacement behaviors are behaviors that appear out of context and “function to temporarily break off sensory contact” (O’Heare 2010).
An understanding of canine communication is important to pet care professionals so we can reliably predict a dogs future behavior given a set of conditions and by understanding its communication we can avoid being bitten, can understand whether stimulation being applied through training is reinforcing or punishing to a dog and we can understand the relationship between environment antecedent and consequences on the dog’s behavior. If you are looking for a dog trainer or dog behavior consultant, ask them questions about their understanding of canine social behavior and stay away from anyone citing canine dominance theory, alpha slang or the need to assert yourself as the “boss”.
O’Heare J. Domestic Dog Behavior 103 (2010)