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Understanding the Instincts of Dogs

The innate behavioral traits of many breeds are well known. Without any special training, retrievers love to pick up objects in their mouth and carry them round, often showing them to their owners with great pride. Pointers unconsciously "point" at things which interest them before investigating. Sheepdog love herding all animals, including people. And Spitz-type breeds, the Doberman and terriers are all instinctive guards.



Territorial instincts

Protecting the home and its occupants from human or canine interlopers is a basic instinct of dogs. Although birds and other animals are often ignored, a dog regards humans and other dogs as its own kind, so unknown members of these species are viewed with suspicion.


The pack instinct

A dog's owner is usually seen as the leader of its pack, responsible for the pack's defense. If a stranger (human or dog) is accepted without aggression by the pack leader, he or she will generally by accepted by the dog. In the absence of the pack leader, the dog takes over the role and behaves quite differently. Even a small, quiet bitch may show territorial aggression.



Transient visitors to the "territory" (a classic example being the postman) serve to reinforce this protective behavior. Because the dog warns them off, they depart rapidly. This is seen by the dog as cowardice, and eventually it recognizes their uniforms as the mark of a person it can chase and who will retreat. Tackle this behavior by arranging supervised introductions between the dog and the visitors. And let your dog see regularly that you, as "pack leader", obviously accept the visitors' presence.


Predatory instincts

Although dogs have been domesticated for many thousands of years, some still instinctively go through the motion of hunting and catching prey. They may stalk, catch and even kill small animals, but frequently, they take an impressive looking run at the prey which is aborted at the last minute.


Chasing cats

Dogs regard cats more as good sport than dinner. Cats appeal to the natural predatory instinct of dogs in being small, furry, quick to move and inclined to run away. Usually the chase is harmless and the only result is hissing and spitting from the cat. A dog can distinguish between cats and will coexist happily with its own family cat, tolerating its cheeky behavior. Indeed, it may rush outside and chase the cat next door, then come indoors and curl up in the same basket as the household cat.


Sheep worrying

Sheep are natural prey - they run when chased. And dogs unaccustomed to sheep will often chase them. Some settle for a herding maneuver and give up the activity when the sheep are huddled together, in a corner of the field. Other dog may continue harassing the sheep, biting and even killing some. This behavior is very serious and a farmer may well shoot a dog seen worrying sheep. When walking near sheep, don't take any risks, keep your dog to heel on the lead.


The importance of smell

Sniffing anything unfamiliar - including other dogs - is one of a dog's strongest instincts. Where humans interact on the basis of sight and sound, dogs rely heavily on smell. The dog's sense of smell is remarkably well developed.


Socialization sniffing

Smell is part of any greeting between dogs. Initially they may virtually touch noses, while displaying heads and tails held high. Any show of aggression will push this into conflict, but part of the initial "sizing up" is circling each other and sniffing.


Scent marking

The importance of smell is also shown by the male dog's desire to urinate frequently. (Bitches do it too, but not so noticeably.) By doing this, the dog leaves its own scent and marks what it considers to be, or is trying to claim as, its own territory. (Similarly, a dog uses the strong-smelling secretion from the sebacious glands in its anal sacs to put its own smell on its feces). The reason a dog urinates so often is that it is competing with all the other local dogs, trying to mask their scent. Another form of scent-marking is scratching the ground with the hind paws, kicking up earth. This leaves the scent produced by the sweat glands in the hind paws. Dogs sometimes apply their own type of "after-shave", rolling in strong- smelling substances to enhance their own smell. These smell terrible to us, but delightful to a dog - top favourites are pig manure and bird droppings.