Dog training in the past has been largely influenced by how wolves and their behavior were once interpreted. Fortunately, in the last 20 years there has been a leap forward in this regard, as today we know more about wolves and dogs, but the outdated knowledge and its effects are still felt today.
It is important to remember that dogs and wolves are different species, even though they share a common ancestor. If in the past the behavior of wolves was observed and conclusions were drawn based on that, how we should behave with dogs, today instead of observing wolves, we can observe the lifestyle and behavior of free-living dogs. This way we can learn much more about dogs and see how they behave and live when they are almost not dependent on humans.
Although we don't see too many dogs roaming freely in Estonia, such a sight is very common in many countries in Europe and Asia. Observing such dogs has helped us to advance a lot in our understanding of dogs. We have been able to learn a lot about how the dogs themselves spend their time, what they eat and how they raise puppies. This information is very important to us, because in this way we can create an environment as natural as possible for our dogs, which supports them and allows the dog to be a dog.
The topic of free-living dogs has excited me for a very long time. Recently, I also happened to talk to a colleague of mine who lives in India. It was very funny for him to listen to another co-worker and I discussing dog walking and the dog keeping culture of different countries. A colleague from India said that for him walking the dog is a very strange activity. The dog walks by himself! In addition, there is no such concept as "my dog" for him. There is a dog that is taken care of, but at the same time, it is completely free to spend a large part of its time with someone else or chilling on the street instead. He just lives in the same village as the people, but nobody tells him where he sleeps, when he can go outside, what he eats and when he has to sit or lie down. There are a lot of dogs in the village, everyone goes and roams around as they see fit and manage their lives quite well. People still provide them with food from time to time, and also make sure they are healthy. However, everything else is set by the dogs themselves.
During our conversation with him, we also discussed the life of free-living puppies. A few years ago, they too had received a puppy from their relatives and brought it home. Their attitude towards dogs is quite different from ours. They are much less concerned with what the dogs do and how they learn and let the dog explore the world on its own and learn from other dogs. In their society, it's just so common, but for us it's foreign and, let's be honest, probably very complicated and dangerous in this environment.
Recently I also read Turid Rugaas and Stephanie Rousseau's new book about puppies: "How To Raise A Puppy: A Dog-centric Approach". I will summarize one chapter here:
What does puppyhood look like for free-ranging dogs?
- studies have shown that 2/3 of puppies stay with their mother and those that do leave their mother do so at around 9 months of age
- weaning from breast milk takes place at around 7-13 weeks of age
- in some cases, the father of the puppies also stays with the puppies and helps raise them
- joint parenting is also common, which means that other dogs help with raising puppies (e.g. the puppies' aunt, grandmother, etc.)
- the puppies are taken care of all the time and are not left alone for long periods of time
- puppies are generally not left alone to cry. When the puppy cries, the mother goes to help and does her best to solve the puppy's problem. A crying puppy attracts predators and no mother wants that
- puppies sleep with their siblings and mother
When you think about what puppy life looks like in our dog-owning culture, it's quite different... Food for thought, right?
Do I think that's the way it should be and should we all let our pet dogs out the door and say get on with your own lives? Probably not. However, I think that we still need to develop a lot in terms of creating a natural environment for dogs and fulfilling their needs. I am interested in continuing to research free-living dogs because I believe there is a tremendous amount to learn from them.