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Reflex responses: Instinct, Choice or both

The other week, in amongst all the other emails I received relating to dog problems; one came from a student of canine psychology who was studying to become a behaviourist.

I do receive many emails everyday, but it made me think how I edit the answers to suit each problem. A problem in using e-mail, I am not actually seeing the person asking the question, so I cannot see how they received my answer and if they understand. Many people write to say that my answer does sound logical so they can appreciate what their dog was doing and why. In such cases, my hope is that the owners will then be willing to follow my suggestion and resolve the problem.

Many people do keep me updated of how things have progressed but for others, it is a bit like having your boiler repaired, you do not ring the plumber and say thank you its working fine now; it is just expected.

On other occasions, some owners may disagree with my opinion and are unwilling to follow my suggestions. In such cases, they may go somewhere else for advice and I never hear the result. Others seek advice from all over the place, only to find they do not know who is correct and who to believe in order to solve their dog's problem.

The excellent question the student asked is why a dog would go through the motions of burying food in the carpet. A simple enough question but coming from a student should I have to go into greater explanations of all the various permeations.

There is though one important point, the student does not have a dog with any problem, whereas normally those that write to me do. This means that the students question is only hypothetical whilst for dog owners it is not. Added to this is that such a simple question, dogs are all different so some dogs will bury bones in the carpet, whilst others will do something else and some do not even bother at all.

Whilst the students question is hypothetical, it could be just like anyone else, so this does not need a different type of reply. The problem though is there is no way to test if the advice is correct, as there is no dog to work with. Only knowing what a dog does and how it reacts, is it possible to correct the problem.

The basic answer to the question is relatively simple. Wolves when hunting have a success kill rate of about ten percent. The rest of their hunts will normally end in failure. This means that wolves, when they do kill, will gorge themselves to survive until the next meal. On some occasions, they may still have food left over. In all cases, never knowing when the next meal will be, they will bury or hide it for later when they become hungry again. Some bones though will be too hard to eat. Burying them will allow them to decay and soften enough in order to eat them later.

As wolves learn what sustains their survival it will become instinctive. If those wolves that do not hide surplus food fail to survive then obviously, it is only those that do that will thrive.

Most of you reading this would probably say that the answer to the question was indeed instinct, implying that they are doing something without conscious thought. However, is it that simple? Having seen dogs hide excess food, would you not think they are actually making a conscious choice?

Winston will clean up all the empty dog food bowls as if he could eat more. Yet when I give him a large bone shaped rawhide chewy, he waits until no one was looking, then goes to bury it. When he saw me watching him, he dug it up again to hide it somewhere else. That looks very much as if he is making a conscious and logical decision.

My mothers dog also use to bury bones. Though he dug a hole, he tried to cover it by pushing the soil over it with his nose. All he succeeded in doing was making a molehill on top of which sat his bone. This got him quite upset and he only settled down when we took the bone away.

A friend of mine told me his dog would hide food under cushions. This meant they always had to feed him in the kitchen with the doors closed. When they went into the kitchen, the bowl was clean except he kept some food in his mouth, ready for an opportunity to hide it.

Another reflex example is dogs going to sleep; they will circle around a few times before settling down. Some even scratch at their bedding. This does seem to follow from wolves digging small hollows to lie in and removing any stones to make it more comfortable. This action also increases the contact surface area, in order to retain greater body warmth.

When a dog has a lovely soft doggy bed without any stones in it then performing such action does look instinctive. In other words, it does not seem to have made a conscious choice.

If we use a human example when they see someone they really like as a potential partner, a friend might consider him or her not his or her type. The person looked at does not change, yet for one they appear perfect, whilst the other is unimpressed.

Humans, in order to survive, make many choices throughout their generations. Such preferences carry on imbedded in us because we survive. Though our children may think that they have made a conscious liking towards those they favour, this often reflects the similar choices of their ancestors. In other words, we think we are weighing up all the current information to make an informed decision. Often unbeknown to us, working away in the background are generations of previous choices that still influence us in order to maintain our survival.

If we know what this influence is, then yes we could consciously make another choice. The only problem is that though feeling that we are now in control, we could be making the wrong decision for our own survival.

When we do see our dogs doing things that look like instinctive reflexes, it does not mean that we cannot change them if we wanted to. Whilst a dog sees no difference between earth and carpet in order to bury a bone and though this does seem natural, it is possible to teach it that this action is unacceptable. 

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