Who let the dogs In?

There is no other animal so connected to mankind than the dog.  But where did they come from and who let them in?

Shay & Barney

The dogs’ most closely related species is, of course, the wolf (Canis lupus).  Speciation most likely occurred around 15,000 – 20,000 years ago. Speciation is the splitting of one species into two or more species as they become separated and perhaps isolated from one another (they continue to evolve separately).   Although people often compare the domesticated dog with modern wolves, dogs are actually more closely related to an extinct wolf sister-group than they are to any wolves living today.  You could say they are distant cousins; very, very distant cousins.

One theory of how wolves became domesticated dogs is that humans adopted wolf cubs, raised them and kept the most friendly ones.  Repeatedly selecting from new litters for friendlier and friendlier cubs.  There are big holes in this theory, however.  Wolves have a very short socialisation period of just three weeks (at this point they are increasingly fearful and extremely cautious of new experiences).  They are not fully weaned until 8-10 weeks of age.  We may keep orphaned pups or cubs alive with formula milk now but 20,000 years ago there wasn’t any (there wasn’t even a Tesco or a Walmart).  By the time humans could adopt and keep alive a cub, it would likely not want to be anywhere near them.  Raymond Coppinger stated that no wolf has ever been tamed if adopted after 2 weeks of age.  Furthermore, they would be unlikely to stick around to breed because young wolves leave their families to pair up and start a family of their own.


Another theory, and one that seems more feasible, is that of self domestication.  This theory states that wolves were attracted to the waste left by human settlements.  The least fearful gained the advantage of obtaining the most food and so natural selection produced less fearful wolves over time.  These may have eventually lived in a similar way to modern free-ranging village dogs of West Bengal.  Humans likely benefited from the wolves/dogs presence.  Perhaps they were handy waste disposal units or provided early warning signals of more dangerous intruders.  And so the unbreakable bond was formed.

Since then, Man has wielded significant influence over the dogs’ size, shape and temperament.

Firstly, as humans travelled (with their canid friends) and occupied varying (sometimes extreme) environments, so natural selection favoured different features for different locations.  It’s easy to see how a thick waterproof coat might be an advantage in a cold, wet climate.

Secondly, we kept dogs that suited us best.  Dogs with a better propensity for hunting may have been kept (and allowed to breed) by hunters whilst dogs with a greater propensity for guarding or herding may have been favoured by the early farmers. Breeding for different skill/ability was probably accidental but it happened because people kept the dogs that suited them best.  And what suited them varied considerably and so inadvertently selected for different body and temperament type.

We have since discovered and taken full advantage of our ability to breed for particular traits, but being human we have taken this to extremes which are often not in the best interests of the dog (many have health problems and some cannot perform normal canine to canine communication).  Desmond Morris has identified over  1,000 separate breeds.  What they all have in common is that they are utterly dependent on their human carers.

So, who let the dogs in? They let themselves in….. but we locked the door.

When is Enrichment Not Enrichment?

Always looking for enrichment ideas and finding nowhere catering specifically for canine enrichment I recently (2nd July 2017) embarked on starting a Facebook group for that very thing.  Canine Enrichment (my Facebook group) exploded and today just 8 weeks on, the membership stands at over ten thousand.


Edit:  the group now stands at over 150,000 members

Now, obviously I’m delighted that so many people are interested in providing enrichment for their dogs but I wasn’t quite expecting so many questions along the lines of, ‘my dog isn’t interested’ ‘he just gives up’ ‘he can’t get the food out of the toy’.

There are two main reasons that a dog might be seemingly unsuccessful with enrichment activities.

Reason 1:  He isn’t sufficiently motivated to work at getting the food.  Perhaps he gets plenty of similar food for free (in a bowl) and can easily do without whatever extra is in the enrichment toy.   Or perhaps the food that he has to work for is not of sufficiently high value to him to get interested or put in an effort.   I see lack of motivation for food in small dogs mostly (though not exclusively) because it is much easier for them to get enough food (they often only need a small amount).

What can be done? Try really high value treats, like liver, cheese, hotdog or chicken. Of course, not all dogs like these foods. It’s all about finding something that will rock his world.

Alternatively, and my preferred option; Make absolutely sure that you are not overfeeding the dog.  It is really, really, really (is that enough reallys?) easy to overfeed. Kibble often doesn’t look like much food (because it’s dense with very little water content) so make sure you weigh it or you could be giving far more than the recommended amount (I’ve seen this a lot).  Next: Stop feeding from a bowl. Encourage interaction for the food.  This can be as simple as calling the dog and giving a treat (piece of food), treating when they do any behaviours you like, when you groom them, when they come in from the garden or simple training sessions like, sit, paw and down.  Maybe play a game like rolling the food along the floor for the dog to chase.  This builds interest and also builds a good bond between human and dog.

A healthy dog should be interested in food (just like we are).  If you have concerns about the dogs health due to a lack of appetite then you should consult a qualified veterinarian.

TIP: Keep a monthly record of your dogs weight. This will give early indication to weight gain or loss (so feeding can be adjusted) and might even highlight illness so help can be sought.

Reason 2: The task is simply too difficult and the dog has no comprehension of how to get to the food.  Perhaps he doesn’t even realise that the food is accessible.  The dogs fabulous sense of smell surely equips him with the knowledge that there is food in our cupboards and refrigerators. However, he ignores this because it is not accessible.  It simply doesn’t make sense to continually try behaviours which do not pay, so they usually don’t.

What can be done?  In a similar way to training complex behaviour so some enrichment tasks may require breaking down into tiny parts and rewarding (reinforcing) the dog for small steps.  For example, training a reverse figure of eight is surprisingly straightforward. If I was to train this behaviour in one go (asking for the whole behaviour before rewarding) then I could be here until next Christmas and Barney (my dog) would still not have a clue.  Instead, we break it down. We only ask for a tiny amount of the behaviour and then we build it from there, one step at a time.

Imagine you have a wobble Kong (it has a hole in one side where treats fall out as the dog knocks it around).  You might remove the lid and allow the dog unrestricted access to the treats. You might then make it increasingly more challenging. maybe half covering the treats, covering the treats, placing the lid on but not screwed on and then twisting the lid on very slightly so it falls off easily. Eventually you could have the top tightened properly (the dog should be confident and successful at each stage before moving on).   This is for dogs that are not too sure, many others could manage the wobble Kong right from day one.

Taking an activity mat as a second example.  You might just sprinkle treats on top of the mat, you would then slowly increase the challenge each session.  These are relatively simple examples but there are many brain training toys on the market that are really quite complex and the dog needs it to be very, very simple to start off with.

Giving a highly motivated dog a complex brain game or food dispensing toy which they can’t solve will cause more stress (frustration) than it will provide enrichment.  Exactly the same goes for non-food activities.  Some dogs love water (some dogs hate water) but chucking them in at the deep end before they have been successful in the shallows is not likely to be enriching.  It’s much more likely to be stressful (panic inducing).

So when is enrichment not enrichment? When it is frustrating, scary or stressful.