Mentor Dog or Teacher?

Calming signals and more obvious body language are examples of conspecific communication in the animal kingdom. There are far more nuanced and subtle signs that humans will inevitably miss. For example, a dog ‘sees’ the world through sense of smell and can decipher another dog’s intent via pheromone signaling. A mature dog will build up a reservoir of knowledge and experience and learn, often the hard way, how to deal with a situation. An on-looking, less mature dog may, through intuition, pick up on this and mimic the other’s behaviour – allelomimetic behaviour. Thus, our senior dog has unwittingly evolved into a ‘mentor dog’.

Dogs will form readily into a hierarchy in a conspecific ‘pack’, ‘group’ or ‘family’ (different adjectives meaning much the same but used in different contexts). However, in a heterospecific family the hierarchy is more fluid – if it exists at all. Accordingly, one dog ‘reprimanding’ another may be a natural occurrence; on the other hand a human ‘reprimanding’ a dog may be thought of as abuse!  Whilst we may disagree with many of Cesar Millan’s methods, he is an advocate of introducing a newly arrived dog to his ‘Dog Psychology Centre’ via the existing pack and that many problems, actual or potential, are resolved this way (Millan, 2008).

Turid Rugaas is of the opinion that it is not possible to train a dog to become a mentor to other dogs but we can reinforce subtle ‘calming signals’ (Rugaas, 1997). This assumes that we, the human, is capable of recognising them in the first place. These include head turning, softening the eyes, blinking, paw lifting, turning away, lowering tail, licking the nose, shake off, sneezing, freezing, walking slowly, pacing, scratching, using slow movements, play bow, stretching, sitting down, down, yawning, sniffing, curving on approach, ‘mirror, matching and balancing’, splitting up (two or more dogs), and tail wagging…….. Interestingly, Turid does not mention the ‘head tilt’. Perhaps this is not considered a calming signal, rather an appeasement gesture (to OUR eyes) fine tuned after millennia of domestication! This is also known as ‘triangulation’ or ‘orientation reflex’ – in an attempt to accurately pin-point a sound. A primeval reflex when out hunting. The converse, of course, is threatening signals, perhaps not so subtle and more obvious to the human eye!

A mentor dog can be any size or breed; more importantly they will display calm assertiveness, authority and, the all elusive ‘energy’. They will invariably possess ‘A’ type personality (see previous blog) and will instinctively aid another dog which is showing difficulties in a given social situation (Duno – Modern Dog, 2010). Some mentor dogs will work with aggressive dogs, simply through having no choice and are ‘used’ to it; but many will not.

Mentor personality types may be described thus: 1. Monitor: Quietly confident and assertive.  2. Constant: Confident and calm but showing little interaction. 3. Nanny: Gentle, confident, relaxed and playful. 4. Clown: Confident, exuberant, highly interactive. Four very different personalities but note the recurring word: CONFIDENT – one emotion over which we, as the dog parent, can exert much influence!  

Millan, Cesar (2008) – Cesar’s Way, Hodder & Stoughton (UK).
Rugaas, Turid (1997) – On Talking Terms with Dogs, Dogwise Publishing (Wenatchee, WA).

Mentor or teacher?

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