[Notable New Media]
by Kenneth W. Krause.
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes frequently to Skeptic as well. He can be contracted at email@example.com.
Ethologists like Mark Feinstein and Raymond Coppinger attempt to study animal behavior objectively by emphasizing its biological foundations. In their new book, How Dogs Work, the authors scrutinize, for example, the adaptive motor-pattern foraging sequences of both dogs and wolves. In all such species, different patterns—not learned, but genetically based—emerge at different stages of life.
When born, both dogs and wolves demonstrate a characteristic mammalian neonatal foraging sequence: orientation (toward mom) > locomotion (to mom) > attachment (to her teat) > forefoot-tread (stimulating lactation) > suck. Here, the pups’ mouths and digestive systems are well-adapted to challenges imposed by the foraging environment—that is, mom. But despite the close evolutionary relationship between dogs and wolves, puppyhood is the point after which foraging parallels end.
Adult predators exhibit the following generalized foraging pattern: orient > eye (still, with gaze fixed and head lowered) > stalk (slowly forward with head still lowered) > chase (full speed) > grab-bite (disabling the prey) > kill-bite > dissect > consume. But some species, and some individual dogs and wolves, might substitute one element, or “rule,” for another. Coyotes that tend to hunt small prey, for instance, might occasionally substitute the forefoot-stab rule for the chase rule, and the headshake rule for the kill-bite rule. Large cats like the puma, by contrast, might substitute the forefoot-slap rule for the grab-bite rule in order to bring larger prey down from behind.
The form of grab- or kill-bite can vary between species as well, often based on the predator’s evolved anatomy. The puma usually kills with a bite to the neck, crushing its prey’s trachea, or to the muzzle, suffocating the prey. But the wolf often grab-bites its prey’s hind legs, shredding its arteries and slowly bleeding it to death. Puma and wolf anatomies—jaw structure, dentition, and musculature, in particular—apply different mechanical forces, and thus demand the evolution of at least slightly different foraging behaviors.
Domestic dogs, on the other hand, have long relied on humans for food and now rarely demonstrate complete predatory foraging patterns. Rather, different breeds have retained different partial sequences or distinct individual rules. Border collies, for instance, are famous for following the eye rule. I once owned an Akita that employed the forefoot-stab rule with astonishing expertise to catch mice rummaging deep beneath the snow.
Nevertheless, say Feinstein and Coppinger, “certain commonalities have long persisted in the predatory motor-pattern sequences of all carnivores, reflecting their shared ancestry” and “an intrinsic ‘wired-in’ program of rules” that at least partly governs their foraging behaviors. Learn much more about why our beloved pets and working partners really behave in the ways they do in the authors’ fascinating new work, How Dogs Work (University of Chicago Press 2015.)