wrong about wolves

Oops. We’ve been wrong about wolves.
Wrong about dogs too says John Bradshaw via Salon: How we came to misunderstand dogs.

Throw out the choke chain and shush those dog whisperers.

But it’s fascinating to learn that the influential studies about wolves — which have so heavily influenced how we treat dogs — were seriously flawed.

In the earliest studies of wolves, going right back to the late 19th century, they put wolves together in zoos. I think, for its time, the science was perfectly valid, but they did construct these wolf packs assuming that wolves you put together in a zoo would form a society which was typical of wolves. And then it emerged — really, didn’t emerge until the 1990s, when it became possible to really keep an eye on wild wolf packs with developments like GPS — that families should behave completely differently to groups of animals that are not family.

It’s basically the conception, now, that the wolf is an animal that breeds [a lot like] many other social species, birds and all sorts of things, not just mammals. The young, when they grow up, have essentially two choices. One is to stay and help their parents raise the next generation, the next litter. The other one is to leave. Staying behind is genetically very good because they share genes with their parents. When those conditions are good, it’s a sensible strategy to stay around for a couple of years. Help your parents, learn a bit more, and then go off on your own. And that’s essentially the way that the wolf biologists now conceive wolf societies. Family-based units. Also, voluntary. I think the key point is it is voluntary.

The young, the so-called subordinate or submissive animals, are not there because they’re being compelled to stay by their parents, by a diet of aggression. They’re there voluntarily and, in fact, have to almost ask their parents if it’s OK to stay every now and again. Because, of course, they are competing for food and so on. So it’s turned the whole idea of wolf society on its head.

And you believe positive reinforcement is always the way to go for dogs in all situations?

With all the research we’ve done — I’ve worked a lot with the military, and with dogs used in places like prisons to sniff out narcotics, I’ve worked with people who train dogs for obedience competitions, and with people who train guide dogs — most of them now use positive reinforcement. The research, there’s not very much of it, but the research that’s been done all points in the direction of the dog is much more reliable if it’s been trained with reward, whether it’s been trained to help a blind person around or whether it’s been trained to attack terrorists. The dog that goes into that because it’s fearful of its handler is less effective, and particularly less predictable, than the dog that’s been trained that biting somebody’s arm is fun, which is how they do it. So, I’ve obviously not been privy to every single bit of training that the military have ever done, but most of what I’ve seen has been very much focused on positive reinforcement, and seems to be very effective.