In the Company of Dogs
By Diane Swanbrow
University News Service
We may think we're acting like their best friends by feeding them filet mignon, taking them for long walks and buying them diamond-studded collars and designer doggie beds. But according to U-M behavioral ecologist Barbara Smuts, if we really want to be our dogs' best friends, we need to provide them with the company of other dogs.
You can't just throw any two dogs together, of course, and expect they'll get along. "The ideal is to begin when they're young and open to forming relationships with each other," Smuts says. "They'll get well-socialized, and that will generalize to other dogs. So you'll
Smuts, 51, is a world-renowned scientist who has spent most of her career studying wild animals in their natural surroundings. Her book Sex and Friendship in Baboons (Harvard University Press, 1999) is widely praised for its groundbreaking description of female choice in mating decisions and the strong bonds between females and males that help to protect infants from male aggression. She has also studied bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Western Australia, searching for evidence that animal intelligence, including our own, originally evolved to solve the challenge of interacting with one another.
For the last several years, Smuts has focused on Canis lupus familiaris, the domestic animal whose ancestors have lived among humankind for more than 100,000 years, yet whose relationships with its own kind remain almost as mysterious as those of the animal from whom it's directly descended, Canis lupusthe wolf.
"Most of the scientific work that has been done on dogs involves their relationship with people," says Smuts, a psychology professor who teaches an upper-division undergraduate course on the behavior of wolves and dogs. But it's through dogs' relationships with each other, she believes, that we're most likely to glimpse their essential nature.
'Science will help us to help them have better lives'
While every dog trainer and most dog lovers have strong opinions about canine behavior, many of these opinions rest on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, sometimes quite extensive. Smuts is quick to endorse the value of experience in interpreting an animal's body language and vocalizations, but her goal is not to change the ways that animals behave. Instead, she wants to analyze how dogs use specific strategies of competition and cooperation by carefully observing and describing their interactions with each other. To do this, she uses the classic methods of ethology, the scientific study of an animal's characteristic behavior patterns, developed by Konrad Lorenz and Nikko Tinbergen and now used by scientists to study the behavior of all kinds of wild and domestic animals. "My hope is that the scientific study of dogs will help us to help them have better lives," she says.
Smuts' interest in the social lives of dogs started about 10 years ago, when she returned from a long period of fieldwork studying baboons in East Africa. She brought back plenty of videotaped footage to analyze in Ann Arbor so she could study baboon interactions in great detail. After a short time in town, she started feeling lonesome for the company of animals and adopted an eight-month-old German shepherd-Belgian sheepdog mix who looks a lot like a black timber wolf with big ears. Smuts named her Safi Kabisa, Swahili slang for "totally awesome."
Like many dog owners, Smuts quickly developed a strong bond with Safi, but her long years of studying the social lives of wild animals made her realize it was also important for Safi to spend some time with creatures of her own kind. "So I fenced in my backyard and started inviting friends and neighbors with young dogs to stop by," she explains. "Some days there were six or seven dogs playing in the yard, and I would be watching, just the way anyone enjoys watching dogs play with each other. I remember thinking everything would be perfect now if I just had baboons in my backyard. Then I thought, wait a minute, I do have some highly complex social animals right here that I can study."
Starting with the half-dozen dogs in her backyard, then branching out to include many others, Smuts started taking a serious look at how dogs play. With graduate student Erika Bauer she developed an ethogram, a written description of each body movement and vocal signal the dogs used to initiate play and each behavior the animals used during play in which one dog assumed a dominant position. They expanded the study to include other dogs and have now videotaped more than 100 hours involving 810 separate play bouts between 20 different dogs playing in various pairs and triads.
Canine Commandment #1: 'Thou shalt not pick up your playmate's ball!'
Smuts has noticed that Safi, who is the alpha animal in all group situations that Smuts has seen, often intervenes to help housemate Bahati, a dingo-like dog Smuts also rescued, when Bahati is "losing" in play-fights. Safi also comes to the aid of puppies who are being treated too roughly. Smuts and her friends have nicknamed Safi "the Supervisor." Smuts sees this as an animal precursor of moral behavior, an issue that her friend and colleague Frans de Waal investigates in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Harvard University Press, 1996). In fact, de Waal cites Safi as an example of a dominant dog who has been known to "teach" other dogs the rules of proper canine behavior, including one of the cardinal rules: "Thou shalt not pick up my ball."
Smuts has been invited to talk about triangular relationships among dogs at several conferences on human behavior. But her main intention in studying canine triads is not to illuminate the bewildering array of emotional alliances and betrayals that so often characterize triangular relationships among humans. Rather, by studying the social lives of dogs and other animals through painstaking analysis of their gestures in a wide variety of situations, she hopes to achieve a better understanding of animal communication and social cognition.
In addition to her study of dogs, for example, she is currently analyzing greeting behavior among baboons, using a detailed ethogram specific to this aspect of baboon behavior. While most male baboon greetings are highly asymmetrical, with the more dominant animal usually mounting the other, she has found that among older males who have formed strong alliances with each other, greeting behaviors are much more symmetrical, with first one, then the other taking turns in the dominant role. "It's as if the cooperation and equality that characterize their relationship is reflected in and communicated by this greeting behavior," Smuts says.
Visual signals including body postures and tail carriage are often more common than vocal signals when baboon or canine individuals relate to each other "up close and personal," Smuts notes, so deciphering body language is crucial in understanding how animals establish, maintain and negotiate their relationships.
'I assumed Safi was a sentient being with the kind of wisdom I had discovered in the wild animals I had known.'
In videotaping the interactions of dogs and analyzing the videotapes, Smuts employs the same scientific approach that she used with baboons and dolphins. But she is quick to acknowledge that her interest in dogs also has a personal dimension. "With wild animals, your relationship is very limited," she says. "You can't really have much of a relationship with themit might do them harm. But there has always been a part of me that needed and wanted to have close relationships with animals."
Growing up on Long Island, New York, then in Birmingham, Michigan, Smuts had a family dog and rescued injured birds. At age 13, she resolved to study chimpanzees when she read an article in National Geographic on Jane Goodall's work at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Through high school and undergraduate work at Harvard, chimps remained her focus, leading her to select Stanford University for graduate study because Goodall was there.
In 1975, Smuts started to realize her dream, traveling to Gombe to study female chimps. In the middle of the night a few weeks after she arrived, henchmen of African strongman Laurent Kabila kidnapped Smuts, a Dutch field assistant and two Stanford undergraduates. (Kabila later became president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was assassinated last year.) "I was the one they picked to carry back the ransom message," says Smuts, who was 24 at the time. "They never told me why I was selected, but I think it was because I was so sick with parasites that they were afraid I was going to die if they held on to me." All of the students were eventually released, but when Smuts got out of the hospital, Gombe was closed to non-Tanzanian researchers and she found herself starting over with another speciesbaboons.
In recent years, Smuts has written about her relationship with the animals she has studied, describing a series of experiences that have expanded her sense of what is possible in interspecies relations. In "Encounters with Animal Minds," published last year in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Smuts describes how her beliefs have informed her relationship with Safi.
"I assumed from the start that she was a sentient being with the kind of wisdom I had discovered in the wild animals I had known," she writes. "As much as possible, I tried to surrender expectations about who she was or what she could or could not do based on her species identity. I communicated with her in the richest way possible, using words, nonverbal vocalizations, body language, gestures and facial expressions."
When Smuts wakes up in the morning, she and Safi stretch together, "synchronous movements expressing our emotional alignment, in the way of wild animals." Hiking in the Wyoming Rockies with Safi leading the way, Smuts trusts the dog to protect and guide her, just as Smuts takes the lead in the human world of cars and other dangers.
"The more freedom Safi has to express her wild self," Smuts says, "the more I delight, and the more I delight, the more she expresses herself. As with the baboons, I get to relinquish my separate, analytic self, turning myself over to the deeper wisdom of an animal whose ancestors adapted to this North American landscape long before mine did."
No matter how close she feels to Safi, though, Smuts is convinced that to have a full life, Safi also needs the company of other dogs. In town, one of Safi's best friends is a black Labrador retriever who works as a TheraPaws dog at the U-M Hospital, helping to cheer up patients. On his collar he wears an official M-Card that bears the name "Bunny Black."
Nearly 40 percent of all American families have a dog, yet the vast majorityabout 75 percentare one-dog households. Many of these dogs rarely get the chance to socialize with others of their kind, a situation that Smuts believes contributes to an array of canine behavior problems, including excessive chewing, scratching and barking.
"I'm on a sort of crusade to get people to see the value of having at least two dogs," Smuts says. "Or if it's impossible to have more than one dog, then find a neighbor or friend who's in the same boat. And invite them over. Like people, dogs are a highly social species."