Why Square Peg? Why it goes wrong for some dogs
Square Peg seemed to be a very apt name for my business. It came from the phrase ‘like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole’. According to the Brewer’s Dictionary of Phase & Fable the phrase means ’someone who is doing (or trying to do) a job for which they are not suited. And for many dogs today that is being a domestic pet.
Since the earliest domestication of dogs, some 10,000 years ago, man has been breeding dogs for behavior. In different breeds of dogs, through selective breeding, some traits have been amplified and some have been reduced to get the behaviors required for a certain working role. Pet dog ownership was rare and where it did exist, was basically for the amusement of the rich and royal who were instrumental in creating a new group of dogs ‘the Toys’. In todays pet dog, these innate behaviors that once characterized a dog’s working role have not disappeared but rather been stifled. When the environment in which they find themselves does not give them an alternative outlet for these drives, stress and problematic behavior can occur. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
According to the AKC (American Kennel Club) dogs that were bred for hunting fall into two main groups, the Hound Group and the Terrier Group. Within the Hound Group are both sight and scent hounds, dogs that spot their quarry and run it down (the Greyhound, Irish Wolf Hound) and dogs that hunt by tracking their scent (the Basset Hound, Beagle). They have been bred to work independently of their human counterparts who tend to follow on foot or horseback. Terriers (the Fox Terrier, West Highland Terrier) were bred to find, follow, dig out and kill vermin ranging from rats to badgers, often barking when down a hole to let their owners know where they were.
Hunting dogs have a high prey drive because they were bred to find (and kill) their prey. For this reason caution needs to be exercised in relation to other household and neighborhood pets! (cats, chickens, rats, guinea pigs etc.). As hunters they often covered long distances following a trail so are high-energy dogs. An appropriate amount of exercise is therefore important. Because they hunt by sight or smell and will follow a trail relentlessly, they tend not to be reliable off leash and often have poor recall as a result. Good fencing is also an important part of tempering their ability to wander in pursuit of a scent or sighting of potential prey. Scent hounds and terriers are also very vocal when on the trail letting their people and other dogs know where they are. A hunting dog left to his own devices (alone in his backyard) resorting to this behavior could soon become problematic as barking continuously in the urban environment is not deemed appropriate behavior! As too is the propensity for terriers to dig holes. They may be looking for something to hunt but not perhaps in their owner’s prize flower garden! Finally hunting dogs because of the nature of what they do are more independent than other breeds and tenacious in pursuit of their quarry. In terms of other forms of training they may be seen as ‘stubborn’ and therefore difficult to train but likely the reward just needs to be changed.
Herding dogs for centuries have aided human kind in controlling the movement of flocks and herds of stock. Where the hunting dog utilizes the whole predatory sequence, the eye-stalk is the key component of behaviors used by the herding dog. The Border Collie uses this technique to stare down stock. Known as a ‘header’ their job is to keep stock in a group. In contrast the Australian Cattle dog is known as a ‘heeler’ nipping at the heels of livestock to move them forward. Members of the herding group use tactics of hunter and prey to intimidate and keep control of their charges.
Herding dogs are highly active and intelligent. Not only do they need exercise, they need a job to do. If not fulfilled physically and mentally, they will seek to make their own entertainment. Problems include excessive barking, common when excited or frustrated. They will also chase things, probably anything that moves, from bikes to cars to joggers, potentially hazardous to both dog and the people concerned. They will also round up people and other animals (e.g. children and chickens, often nipping at heels to bring them into line). Completely natural to the working dog these behaviours become inappropriate and bizarre to some in a home environment where they have no alternative outlet for them. It can also result in compulsive disorders that include pacing, spinning and circling.
Guarding dogs are used to guard homes (the Doberman, Rottweiler) and livestock (the Great Pyrenees) and employed in the services (the German Shepherd, Malinois) to guard and protect. They tend to be powerfully built as a result. This can be counterproductive in a non-working environment where an under stimulated dog can use this to their advantage. They can be pushy especially with their bodies and often because of their size can unbalance or drag their human along.
In their role to guard and protect they need to be able to challenge would be intruders in their environment, exuding confidence in their ability to dissuade them from a given course of action. Dogs in this role tend to be fearless in their duty. There is therefore the potential in an untrained or neglected dog for them to be reactive towards other dogs and people.
Guarding dogs because of their function tend to form strong bonds with their owners. Sometimes however they can be too protective and possessive of people, property and things associated with their home. The dog that barks at any one who passes, or that runs at fences, or growls when someone gets too close to their human. On the converse side, because of the bond they often have with their owners, being left alone for long periods of time can cause separation anxiety issues. Guarding dogs are often very intelligent and if are lacking in mental stimulation can also be very destructive in an effort to provide excitement in their lives.
In today’s urban environment too with the many restrictions on dogs, where they can go, on lead and off lead, low tolerance of normal communication behaviour like barking, increasingly smaller sections of household land and higher density housing, it’s not hard to understand why our canine companions find it difficult at times. You can see now how the name 'Square Peg' is apt!