In a recent blog post here at PsychToday.com, Lee Alan Dugatkin, Ph.D. tells us that “Back in 1963, Niko Tinbergen, who would win a Nobel Prize a decade later, wrote a classic paper entitled “On Aims and Methods in Ethology.” Tinbergen distinguished among four different types of explanations when dealing with behavior.” (The following list is paraphrased slightly from the original.)
- Proximate explanations address the immediate, real-time mechanism that precipitated a particular behavior.
- Developmental explanations tell us how a behavior came about over the course of an organism’s developmental and experiential history.
- Natural selection explanations describe a behavior’s adaptive purpose.
- Phylogenetic explanations look at the evolutionary history of a species, and explain how and where the behavior in question might have first appeared.
In the bygone canon of “ways to tell if your dog thinks he’s alpha,” one of the 10 or 12 signs of this supposed behavioral tendency was that a dog who always go through a door or any other opening ahead of you “thinks he’s alpha.”
This never made sense to me, even when I was a firm believer in the alpha theory. As far as I could tell most dogs went through a door first because they were excited about going for a walk. This is borne out by the fact that when you come home, dogs don’t seem quite as eager to cross that threshold as before.
Using Tinbergen’s 4-steps, going through a door ahead of an owner would look like this:
- Proximate Explanation: The dog is eager to go for a walk.
- Developmental Explanation: The dog has learned that going through the door usually leads to tan enjoyable experience.
- Natural Selection Explanation: Hmmm? Is there one? If we go back and look at the dog’s ancestors, then yes, perhaps the eagerness to leave the den might relate to the need to hunt for a living. If you stay on the “safe” side of the den door, you don’t eat.
- Phylogenetic Explanation: This behavior probably originated when wolves first began living in dens.
However, why would it be necessary for Nature to have influenced the wolf to turn this business of going-through-any-opening-before-others into an issue of rank and status? After all, dominant behaviors are said to be primarily about controlling resources. How does going through an opening before others help ensure that you’re the one controlling access to resources? After all, the kinds of resources a wolf might want or need access to are usually found miles and miles away from the den door. (I’m speaking of food; neither wolves nor dogs make an issue over who does or doesn’t get to drink before anyone else.)
Another explanation seems to be that the alpha wolf has to enforce his authority at all times or else chaos will ensue and everybody will just do whatever they want. The trouble is, we now know that the alpha wolf doesn’t enforce his authority at all times. He’s selective. He’ll let a subordinate keep a bone, for instance, if that particular animal is guarding it with enough vigor. So what does the den door really signify to wolves, and by extension dogs?
We’ve already covered the idea that it may signify going for a walk. Another thing it might signify is the dividing line between safety and danger: inside/safe, outside/danger. This could be why many dogs will bark when they hear noises outside the “den door,” or growl when a stranger crosses the threshold. It would even explain “submissive” urination (an exaggerated fear response) when anyone comes through the door.
If the den door is about safety vs. danger then it might make sense that an alpha wolf—who presumably would come naturally equipped with the strength and tenacity necessary to take on whatever might be on the other side—would usually go first. That might be the adaptive purpose. But that doesn’t strike me as being about enforcing one’s status, or controlling resources, but more along the lines of “There might be danger out there, so let me go first.”
If the rest of the pack recognizes the alpha’s authority in other situations, then it might be possible that they would also recognize his superior ability in dealing with danger. “Danger?” they might be thinking. “Then yes, you go first, by all means.” However, the folklore is that they all want to go first. No one is bowing down to the alpha wolf’s supposed authority.
So where did this rule come from? What specific behaviors—not abstract, after-the-fact explanations—were researchers seeing (probably in captive wolves) that made them think there was a conflict worth mentioning?
“Dominant” behaviors are generally about tension, conflict or friction. “Dominance” displays quite often involve a wolf baring its teeth. Even when a submissive animal licks its superior (or tries to) there’s generally at least a twitch of the gums in the general direction of teeth baring.
Since it doesn’t seem likely that this behavior has anything to do with “who’s most dominant,” let’s look at the behavior again, without putting that spin on it. Let’s just look at this business of baring one’s teeth around a den door. Why does that happen?
- Proximate Explanation: Going through any opening is potentially dangerous. Any movement would automatically create nervous tension, stimulating the urge to bite. This feeling would intensify when a number of animals are all intent on going through the same small opening at roughly the same time. When a wolf is in close proximity to other wolves, while feeling a strong urge to bite, he may “bare” his teeth, which may cause others to do so as well. (These behaviors have been misinterpreted as dominance displays.)
- Developmental Explanation: Over time the wolf’s behavior of baring his teeth becomes conditioned.
- Natural Selection Explanation: Any wolf who has a strong, reflexive urge to bite whenever there’s any kind of movement around the den door would be more likely to live long enough to pass on his genes to the next generation than those who don’t.
- Phylogenetic Explanation: This reflexive urge probably originated sometime after wolves first started living in dens.
Interestingly, I think this scenario applies to dogs as well.
Years ago I had a group of dogs that I took to Central Park everyday for play time. One of them, a Welsh terrier named Guinness, usually got a little nippy with the other dog’s butts when we came home and entered the vestibule just inside the front door of my apartment building. There were days, however, when Guinness didn’t nip.
When I recognized this, I wondered if it could be related to oral tension, brought on by going through an opening. To test my hypothesis, on some days I played tug-of-war with Guinness in the park, always let him win, and praised him for winning. Other days we just walked together, or the dogs played chase-me games. It found that Guinness was never nippy on the days we played tug-of-war, but was mouthy on the days we didn’t.
Then there’s Mocha, a very excitable Pharaoh hound mix. Whenever Mocha’s mommy came home, Mocha would run to the door, jump up on her owner, and if told to get off, would start nipping at her clothes.
The owner asked for my advice. I suggested she keep a tennis ball with her at all times so that when she came home, and Mocha began her jumping and nipping routine, she could show the dog the tennis ball, and throw it for her to chase. Within three days, not only was there no more jumping and nipping, but Mocha always appeared at the door with a tennis ball in her mouth, happily wagging her tail.
- Proximate Explanation: The dog is equipped with a reflexive urge to bite that is stimulated by any movement (or sound) around the den door.
- Developmental Explanation: The dog learns to release the oral tension brought on this reflex by jumping up, barking, circling around, urinating, etc., or by bringing the owner a toy.
- Natural Selection Explanation: All greeting behaviors probably stem from an atavistic impulse, which may have had an adaptive function at one point in time but now is simply a means of sublimating the urge to bite into pro-social behaviors. However its original purpose sometimes remains intact when intruders enter the premises.
- Phylogenetic Explanation: The original impulses behind greeting behaviors probably started when wolves began living in dens.
If your dog gets overly excited when you come home, or when guests come over, what is the best way to deal with it? Teach the dog to bring a toy to the door. Having a toy in his mouth will reduce oral tension, brought on by the reflexive need to bite whatever comes through the door. This will gradually eliminate all the other behaviors that you want to get rid of.
My thanks to Dr. Dugatkin!
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