As I take my foster dog Lumen out the door for an afternoon walk, we suddenly come upon a rabbit nibbling clover on the lawn. I look down at this little 25 pound dog and it is as if something has taken her over. Her muscles are coordinating in a ballet as old as canids. Her legs are bent, her body tensed, her head lowered and ears forward, as she soundlessly stalks the unsuspecting prey.
Most people, including many professional dog trainers, when seeing this behavior think of how wild and wolf-like it is. They tend to think of untrained behaviors, especially those reminiscent of wild ancestors’ as innate, triggered by an instinctual drive inherited directly from the wolf. But when I see these behaviors I notice how different they are from the wolf. Yes Lumen, a little grey frazzled dog from the streets of Texas is displaying pieces of the ancestral hunting behavior, and there’s no need for training a rescue dog to display these behaviors! But beyond that her behavior is quite different. We call these pieces of behaviors motor patterns, they are snapshots of a behavior. The wolf hunting behavior is made of “orient,” when the wolf focuses its eyes, ears, and nose on its potential prey with its head up above its shoulder, ears forward and attention rapt. Next are “eye” and “stalk,” two motor patterns that happen at the same time. “Eye” refers to the position of the head, which is now at or below the level of the shoulders. The ears are either forward or out to the side and eyes and nose are still trained on the potential prey. “Stalk” refers to the position of the body which is tense, but the legs are bent and the wolf is either frozen still or creeping forward slowing. Next is “chase,” which is exactly what it sounds like, then “grab-bite,” which is the initial bite to the prey. For wolves hunting large prey, this is a bite to whatever is handy – often the flanks. And finally “kill-bite,” which in the wolf is a bleeding bite often to the jugular. In wolves hunting large prey, this behavior is also performed with other members of their family, all coordinating together to hunt the same prey.
While dog behaviors are all made up of motor patterns that exist in the wolf repertoire, they are shown in different sequences, different contexts and at different thresholds, resulting in entirely different behaviors. Furthermore, while the motor patterns themselves appear perfectly the first time they are displayed, the behaviors that they make up like Lumen’s stalking of the rabbit, have to be developed. And while genes are important in producing behaviors, there are no genes for behavior, instead there are complex interactions between genes and environment. During my upcoming “Instinct & Drive” webinar, I will be breaking down what we know about behaviors that are often thought of as intrinsic and explaining the current knowledge of how genes and environment play into their development.
Kathryn Lord received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, where she studied the evolution and development of dog and wolf behavior, with Dr. Raymond Coppinger.