Just as feeding your dog the right nutrition for his age, lifestyle and body condition is vital to helping him to stay healthy and energetic; giving him the right emotional nourishment is vital to helping him to stay happy.
While their basic requirements may be similar, different breeds of dogs have very different emotional needs. If you have a Terrier, for example, he will love digging to find food, whereas a Scenthound would prefer to follow a trail to a hidden stash. And whereas a Livestock Protection dog may be happy on his own for long periods of time, a Toy Dog requires far more frequent social interaction. These profound behavioural differences between the breeds can be better understood by looking at the various roles dogs have played historically within human society.
A brief history of the dog
Now widely referred to as ‘man’s best friend’, today’s dogs are descended from the wolves of the Middle East and Asia that began interacting with humans and adapted their hunting, feeding and reproductive strategies to become village dogs. Certain village dogs were then selected to help perform various tasks like guarding, hunting and protecting livestock against their own forerunner, the wolf. This selection meant that dogs soon developed into distinct ‘behavioural types’ with the ability and desire to perform specialised roles, many of which are still easily recognisable today.
As their suitability to perform a role largely defined their size and shape, dogs have become the most diverse species on Earth in terms of their physical appearance and behavioural adaptations. There are now over 500 breeds of dog and countless crossbreeds and, even though few modern pet dogs still perform the job they were originally bred for, their brains and emotional systems are often still hard-wired for it. In order to help your dog be happy, this means you need to give him the chance to express his natural, type-specific instincts.
How your dog’s mind operates
An animal’s psychology is the result of a number of emotional systems coming in to play; among them, the three key systems of Reward
that evoke positive feelings of wellbeing. These three systems are present along with a series of others including Lust, Fear, Panic and Rage. The systems are common to all species of mammals, from mice to monkeys, and, of course, from dogs to cats. Without experiencing emotional responses, animals are deprived of the chance to learn, form bonds and enjoy life, so understanding your dog’s individual emotional needs is vital to his wellbeing.
The Reward-Seeking System
Each type of dog has a slightly different version of their wolf ancestors’ “eye-stalk-chase-grab-bite-kill” hunting motor patterns, adapted and made safe by our selective breeding to be able to fulfil different roles. So if you find your Border Collie ‘herding’ (eye-stalk-chase/circle) your family on a walk, he is not only carrying out his adapted version of this sequence, he is also enjoying the process.
Behavioural problems can arise when dogs don’t get the chance to fulfil their innate behaviours, so letting them perform their original role, or simulating it by chasing balls, or exercising ‘mind and body’ around dog agility courses, is crucial.
The Care System
The Care system evolved in mammals because bonding and caring for our young for a longer period after birth than most other creatures gave us a competitive advantage. The Care system also provided us with the emotional machinery required to establish social relationships of all kinds.
Thus, what constitutes good care varies little between dog types but their original role, age, gender, personality and even size definitely make a difference. Toy Dogs, for example, are usually far more emotionally dependent on their owners because they have been bred with an enhanced Care System to provide companionship for us, in contrast to the more aloof Livestock Guarding Dogs bred to watch over sheep and goats without much direct supervision or contact with us.
The Play System
Traditionally, scientists believed that play simply provided a safe opportunity for animals, young ones especially, to practise and maintain hunting and courtship skills, but now the Play system is actually recognised as a key emotional system in its own right and one that is crucial to maintaining an animal’s overall sense of wellbeing.
When they play, you may see young dogs expressing some of their emerging predatory ‘Reward Seeking’ behaviours. Many of these are adapted from their ‘hunting’ repertoire – including behaviours such as stalking, chasing, mouthing and jumping on each other – and some others from their ‘Lust system’ as they mount each other momentarily in their excitement.
Physical contact is also very important for dogs. When dogs play with each other, or us, it releases pleasure chemicals called endorphins. And because playing dogs are relaxed and unthreatened, the Play system also promotes the growth and maintenance of good social relationships.
Different breeds, different needs
To better understand how different dogs have developed different needs, they can be divided into nine distinct types – each with its own set of innate, emotional needs – based on years of canine behavioural research.
Click here to find out more about the emotional and behavioural needs of your dog according to his type, and what you can do to help keep him healthy and content.