I find ecosystems fascinating. They are beautifully-balanced communities of organisms and species interacting with their environments in a mutually-beneficial way. So balanced, in fact, that any disturbance (species introduction or removal, climatic shifts, changes in topography, etc.) disrupts the entire system. This is why things like bringing exotic species into gardens and clearing woodlands for suburban neighborhoods are frowned upon. Human activity disrupts these perfectly-functioning systems—a sad irony considering that this puts in jeopardy the very goods and services upon which we rely.
I was recently introduced to the concept of the human ecosystem and it got me thinking about how it applies to dogs. We can think of a dog ecosystem as the beautifully-balanced synergy of traits that make any given dog himself. The construct of a shy dog, for example, is the collection of behaviors that we humans qualify as reserved, timid, and/or nervous. These behaviors might take the form of hiding when visitors arrive, cowering when being patted, or freezing when a garbage truck passes on a walk.
But we often forget that these behaviors are just elements in the whole dog ecosystem, interacting with each other and with their environment in a way that is lawful and symbiotic.
My first dog, Kiana, rarely jumped on visitors. When I first adopted her (and knew little about animal learning and dog behavior) I believed this was simply one of her virtues. She was a good dog, a polite dog. As time went on and I learned more about her and about dogs in general, I learned that this trait was actually the manifestation of another trait—the fact that she wasn’t totally comfortable with new people. You see, the dogs that jump to greet are usually social. They’re trying to close the gap between themselves and the greeter. They want more of the greeter.
Dogs that are skeptical of people want the opposite. They want to maintain (or maybe even increase) distance between themselves and new people. In Kiana’s case, her discomfort was mild enough that it didn’t manifest as barking and lunging; she was simply aloof. But ultimately, she wanted less of the greeter. We worked hard on making her more comfortable with new people. And it worked. But you can probably guess what else happened: She started jumping to greet. When that one trait (human skepticism) was modified, it gave rise to new behaviors not formerly part of her repertoire. Much the same way ecosystem disturbances (such as a fire or earthquake) result in conditions that favor new species over pre-disturbance organisms. Fascinating, right?
The first time I ever went on a hike with Kevin (which was also the first time I ever met our dog, V) I was enamored of V’s incredible recall. Kevin let him off-leash and every time he got a little too far for comfort, Kevin called him. And he came, every time. Even more impressive was the fact that Kevin didn’t even reward the recalls with food. I remember thinking, “Wow, what an amazing trainer!” But just like Kiana (and all other organisms), V was behaving in a very lawful way. As it happens, he has mild separation anxiety. And being near Kevin is more reinforcing than the uncertainty of being out of his sight. We know this, because in a familiar environment where Kevin’s presence is guaranteed (such as our backyard), his recall is much weaker. Much the same way Spider Milkweed attracts Monarch butterflies in California, but can’t grow in Minnesota.
The way the organism interacts with different environments gives way to different behaviors and different relationships between organisms.
Now, this isn’t to say that disturbance doesn’t sometimes benefit ecosystems. Stream restorations, for example, are a set of human interventions to improve the health of stream channels. These activities prevent erosion, manage flooding and support biodiversity. And let’s not forget about Coppinger’s theory of self-domestication, wherein wolves developed a mutually beneficial relationship with prehistoric humans by scavenging around their settlements. This gave rise to our relationship with dogs as we know it today. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely grateful for that disturbance.
So this isn’t to say that you should simply accept all behaviors from your dog in fear of disturbing a complex system. Quite the contrary, actually. But I do want to offer that perhaps we should consider the whole dog ecosystem in our efforts to live peaceably with them.
For example, if we use harmful or frightening methods to train dogs, we might stop the unwanted behavior. But we run the risk of shutting down many wonderful behaviors in the process, much the same way kudzu overtakes and outcompetes healthy native plants.
Similarly, when we teach dogs that other dogs are safe and predictors of good things, we might start to see them pull toward other dogs when they see them on a walk. Much the same way replanting a cleared forest leads to the flourishing of new organisms and species, behaving in ways that support a symbiotic relationship.
The beauty of how this applies to dog training is that we can exploit the dog ecosystem to get the results we truly want—a happy, well-mannered dog.
So if we happen to create an excited greeter by teaching our puppy that new people are fantastic, we can now use that motivation (access to the person) to teach an alternative contingency—sitting earns you access. Because of what we know about the dog ecosystem, we wouldn’t want to do something painful or scary like jerk on the leash when the dog pulls toward the person. Sure, that might stop the pulling but the attendant discomfort we’d have created could lead to the development of more serious behavior problems like snarling and growling. Much the same way English Ivy suppresses healthier native plants, fear suppresses healthier social behavior.
So let’s embrace the whole dog ecosystem, shall we? And at the very least, let’s recognize that many of the behaviors that our dogs do that bug us are likely interwoven with the very traits that we adore.
Let's remember that our dogs are beautifully-balanced systems that we should feel privileged to observe and experience.