Monday, April 6, 2009

Dogs Eat Goats

Okay, so perhaps that headline is a bit alarmist. But the true story of a house pet marooned on an island (!) who survived by eating goats is nothing short of remarkable. It is also a reminder that underneath Fido's fuzzy fur lies a complex web of instinct drawn from his lupine ancestry. One of our most important themes here at Happy Dog Land is that the key to a happy dog lies is understanding his dogness.

Dogs are not really people with four legs and tails. Instead, they are an entirely different species with a radically different outlook on the world. Smells and sounds are not understood through the filter of language. Instead, they are processed through instinct and conditioned behaviors. For this reason, it is difficult for human beings to think like dogs. We always want to stick our own sense of the world inside Fido. But that doesn't work.

For example, think about poor Sophie, the Australian Cattle Dog stuck on an island like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Raised in a loving home, she fell overboard while sailing with her family off the coast of Australia. She promptly swam five nautical miles (!) through rough waters to an uninhabited island. With nothing to eat, she initially began to starve, before she realized that she could survive by hunting goats.

Imagine that. Sophie had never watched Survivor. Sophie had never even heard of hunting. Even her in-bred purpose -- Cattle Dog -- was focused on herding animals, not eating them. How did she figure out how to hunt without having been taught to do so by other dogs, or people? How did she learn how to survive on her own as a wild animal without a framework for understanding her situation? A person would think to themselves "I am now stuck on an island. I need to find food to eat. I see some wild goats. I've never hunted a wild goat. I wonder how that works?"

Conversely, our friend Fido has a instinct buried deep within him, placed there when dogs were very different animals not that much different from wolves, which tells him to hunt that goat. You do not have that same instinct. You have to think about it. A five year-old human wouldn't know how to survive. Fido doesn't have to think about it at all.

Of course, in dealing with your own dog you don't have to think too much about survival instincts (though if you work in animal rescue it's a necessity). Instead, you need to focus on pack instincts, on how dogs protect each other, on how dogs play with each other and the purpose of that play. Over the next few months we will return to this topic again and again, and for good reason. A happy dog is a dog that is comfortable in his own skin. A happy dog owner is able to help Fido find that happy place.

And trust us, no goats will be harmed.

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