Dog Behaviour, Evolution and Cognition by Adam Miklosi, OUP Oxford; 2nd edition (2015)
Adam Miklosi leads a pioneering team in Hungary which has been studying dog-human social interactions, using an ethological approach, since 1994. The original head of the research team, Vilmos Csanyi, surprised his colleagues, who were then studying fish, by telling them about his plan for studying dogs instead. Ethologists had traditionally looked at the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat or mock-ups of it, and excluded dogs as not fitting this description because living among humans is not ‘natural’. However, Csanyi argued that, since dogs have evolved to live among us, they are in their natural habitat, so it is legitimate for ethologists to study them. Dogs are also interesting because of their ability to understand humans, a skill which helps them to succeed in the human social world in which they live. This understanding probably came about as dogs evolved.
Csanyi, Miklosi and Jozsef Topal set up The Family Dog Project in 1994. It aims to study the behavioural and cognitive aspects of the dog-human relationship, and has become the largest dog research group in the world. The project’s website (1) is a wonderful resource for people outside universities who are interested in dog behaviour and cognition, because it gives full-text access to a large number of ground-breaking academic articles.
After Csanyi retired, Miklosi took over leadership of the team. Miklosi´s ‘Dog Behaviour, Evolution and Cognition’ was first published in 2007, and has become a classic. It is now the most important textbook on dog behaviour. The second edition, first issued as a hardback in 2014, has been updated to cover a large amount of research carried out since 2007. It is, as Miklosi notes, over 40 per cent longer than the first edition.
If you are new to this field, Miklosi’s book is best read together with Csanyi’s ‘If Dogs Could Talk’ (2), since they complement one another. Csanyi’s book is far more accessible. It’s chatty, enthusiastic, and occasionally careless. Miklosi’s book is less accessible because it’s a serious academic text. One thing I missed, being a non-biologist, was an idiot’s guide to biological terms, ie a glossary. The second edition also needed a little more editing for clarity. Even so, exploring this book is well worth the effort.
So why should a non-biologist bother to read this book? Not just because Miklosi’s team has carried out some ground-breaking research, the second reason is precisely because the book has all the virtues of an academic work. It’s thorough, methodical, and carefully written. It also brings together, and reviews material from other researchers, in zoology, psychology, genetics, anthrozoology and archaeozoology, as well as ethology, so can save you a lot of time finding relevant articles on topics you are interested in.
What does Miklosi’s book cover?
There are sixteen chapters, some of which are of more interest as background knowledge, such as Chapter 1 on the history of research on dogs, Chapter 2 on concepts used in research and Chapter 3 on methodologies used to study dogs. The book also covers how dogs perceive the world, how they solve problems, their social relationships, play, social learning (both how dogs learn from one another, and from humans), changes in behaviour as dogs develop, canine personality, and genetic aspects of behaviour. These topics may seem more directly relevant for people who work with dogs. However, it is well worth reading the first three chapters, which set the stage.
The first chapter charts how our perception of dogs has changed over time, up to the recent development of an approach based both on ethology, focusing on dogs as a species, and on cognition, or how dogs think and understand the world. Throughout the book, Miklosi makes comparisons between dogs and wolves, which help to make clear both the similarities between dogs and wolves, and the differences, which tell us about the nature of dogs.
Chapter 2 explores this ‘ethocognitive’ approach further, and how it can be applied to training. Cognitive approaches take into account whether the dog is attentive, and how much the dog knows, rather than simply developing an association between one event and another. The way dogs are trained can affect their understanding of a situation, so how they think.
Miklosi also notes in Chapter 2 that dogs can become trained without much formal training. Chapter 3, the methodology chapter continues the discussion on training, and an interesting question that Miklosi asks is whether we want to look at human-dog interactions just in terms of training, or whether we want to see these interactions as co-operation between two companions.
Training the whole dog, from early socialisation to old age
If dogs can become trained and learn skills without much formal training, then there is obviously a lot more to training than teaching specific behaviours. So, how are dogs learning their skills? Part of the answer lies in the chapters on ‘Communication, play and collaboration’, and on ‘Social learning and social problem solving’. Dogs learn from one another, and from us, and all the time we are learning how to communicate better with one another.
We start out with pups, and how we raise them affects their later behaviour. Some people call teaching pups, and helping them learn ‘training’, while others just see it as part of the natural upbringing of a young animal. We can’t rely on pups to behave sensibly, and we have yet to develop their potential to co-operate with us. Here, Miklosi’s account of socialisation is useful. Dogs have a longer socialisation period than wolves, which allows them more time to learn how to relate to humans and other animals they meet in their environment. Dogs are also better able than wolves to form attachments to individual humans, a skill which perhaps developed because it has been important for their survival as part of human groups. We are better able to influence the behaviour of dogs than we are to influence wolf behaviour. However, only dogs that have contact with humans as pups can fully develop their potential for interacting with humans, and that tends to exclude ownerless dogs, which stay wary of humans all their lives, if they have had no contact with humans when they were pups.
Pups need initial contact with humans for imprinting, and they learn social rules, or how to behave with humans and their own kind through interactions. If they lack a chance to interact either with other dogs, or with humans, their social skills are stunted, and they tend not to develop normal social behaviour. This points to a challenge for people who take pups to live in a human-only environment, at a time when pups need to learn how to behave with other dogs as well as with us. Miklosi also notes that different breeds develop at different rates, so leaving a pup with its siblings a little longer than eight weeks may be a good choice.
The chapter on changes in behaviour from birth to old age is also helpful for understanding the limitations of senior dogs, no longer able to hear us as well, and sometimes a bit muddled, just as humans can get muddled as we get older.
Miklosi, then guides trainers towards a more holistic approach to training than simply teaching specific behaviours, even if it’s not always clear how we should label what we are doing.
Prevention is better than cure
The effort put into raising a pup pays off as the pup matures. Socialisation involves teaching youngsters how to behave with humans, and helping them learn to relate to one another. They need to learn how to interpret what other dogs are telling them, and how to respond. All too often, professional trainers are asked for help with dogs that get into trouble simply because of how they have been raised. Dogs may, for example, get into fights with other dogs because they lack social skills. They may bite humans because of a failure in communication, so humans also need to learn how to communicate better with their dogs. Miklosi emphasises the importance of socialisation in helping dogs learn to control aggressive behaviour. Trainers can help owners to prevent problems from developing, by providing guidance and opportunities for appropriate interactions. Prevention is much easier than trying to remedy a lack of early socialization in an adult dog.
Problematic aggression isn’t just down to how dogs are raised, however. A dog’s genetic endowment also affects its personality as an adult. This means that breeders also play a key role in tackling the problem of inappropriate aggression, because they can exclude dogs from breeding programmes if they fail tests. As Miklosi notes, this raises questions about how to design tests for aggression, which in turn means defining different types of aggression, and deciding what is normal for a particular type of dog, such as a guard dog, compared with a family pet.
Dogs are affected by changes in human lifestyles
As the title tells you, the book focuses on dogs, rather than the human side of the dog-human equation, yet changes in our lifestyles, especially people moving to cities, living in smaller households, and working away from home, have affected what we ask of dogs. Formal training for pet dogs is a fairly recent innovation, and Miklosi notes that city dogs who have to cope with our urban lifestyles, tend to need more formal training, as do dogs which have developed behaviours that owners have trouble coping with. He mentions that, compared to rural Czech dogs, urban Czech dogs tend to be smaller, more fearful, growl more at family members, get taken more often on vacation with the family, and are more likely to have humans celebrate their birthdays.
Dogs are being asked to play different roles, and learn new social rules, compared to the past. They may be acquired as fashion accessories, or in the hope that they will solve problems that humans have created for ourselves through our lifestyles. Dogs can help humans interact with one another, because people are often attracted to a dog that looks friendly, and will then chat to the owner. However, when people seek emotional support from dogs, their perceptions of their canine companions may be clouded by their needs.
Dogs and humans share the same environment. Our lives are bound together, so a lessening of social contacts between humans, and a more individualistic lifestyle can affect both humans and dogs. Dogs can end up spending much of the day either alone, or confined by a leash, with little chance to learn social skills when they are youngsters, or use them when they are adults. We cannot recreate the world where dogs could be free-ranging, and learn in the streets. There is too much traffic today, and by-laws prevent this. Even so, it’s still worth thinking about how we plan the physical layout of cities, and about our lifestyles, for the sake of humans as well as dogs.
What does future hold for dogs?
Today, most dogs in developed countries are kept as pets. Miklosi’s team focuses on ‘family dogs’, which reflects this trend, though he also compares pet dogs while with non-owned dogs, and sometimes with working dogs. Many of the differences between types of dogs arise from their having been bred for specific purposes. Guard dogs are not meant to be friendly with strangers, for example.
Owners and handlers of working dogs may feel frustrated at Miklosi’s caution in apparently seeing only academically sanctioned work as worthy of serious interest, as ‘scientific’. When he claims that too little research has been carried out on working dogs, people who work these dogs might justifiably ask why academics don’t spend more time observing dogs at work, and talking to their handlers. Some jobs that dogs do, such as tracking, or work with sheep, involve a great deal of communication between owners and dogs, and handlers have had to think about how their dogs understand the world and solve problems.
People working with dogs in fields where canine cognitive skills and collaboration with humans are important, keep diaries and exchange information. They have built up a pool of knowledge that academics could tap into more deeply. Much ‘good science’ has been carried out by people who are outside the academic world, and who nevertheless take the trouble to define terms, record observations methodically, and have the self-discipline to come to conclusions that fit the facts.
Research on working dogs can help pet dog owners to choose a dog to fit their lifestyle, or choose suitable activities to enjoy with their dogs. The terms ‘family dog’ and ‘pet dog’ can hide a wide variety of lifestyles. Some pet dogs are kept for their abilities in dog sports. Others may accompany owners on long hikes, or, in contrast, rarely walk far, and spend most of their time snuggled next to their owners and playing games indoors. Increasingly, owners want dogs to be both pets and provide some sort of support, whether emotional, or doing tasks for them. Choosing the most appropriate breed or breed type often makes the difference between having an enjoyable relationship with a dog, and having to tackle a challenging ‘project’. If a dog doesn’t fit the role assigned to it, any resulting ‘behavioural problems’ are to do with human choice, rather than the dog.
Questions and answers
‘Dog Behaviour, Evolution and Cognition’ does not tell you how to train your dog, but it does give you knowledge that is very useful when developing a training programme for particular dogs. Miklosi himself doubts that there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to training, but he does stress that approaches to training should take into account the nature of dogs, and how they understand their world and solve problems. This is an extremely useful reference book. It’s also well worth reading the book from cover to cover, to make connections between one topic and another, and gain a broader understanding of dogs.
Alison Lever, January 2019
- Link to The Family Dog Project: https://familydogproject.elte.hu/
- Reviews of Vilmos Csanyi’s If Dogs Could Talk: https://www.infopet.co.uk/index.php/dogbooks/dogs-behaviour/13-if-dogs-could-talk-exploring-the-canine-mind