World-renowned primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal talks in his book “Our Inner Ape” about an experiment in which physically bigger, but peaceful type of monkeys were housed together with smaller, but cantankerous and more aggressive monkeys – all of them juveniles. When the aggressive ones started a fight, the peaceful ones simply ignored them. Completely! They didn’t even look in their direction. Obviously, the physically stronger, peaceful monkeys had no need to attest their strength exactly because they were more powerful; their own safety was not in jeopardy.
The monkeys stayed together for five months, and there was rarely a physical confrontation: all, especially toward the end of the experiment, lived harmoniously with each other. Not only that, but when they were separated, the inherently aggressive monkeys continued to be more peaceful. Peacefulness, it seems, can be learned.
Genetically programed means that there is a higher or lower propensity for a behavior, but for it to occur it needs the corresponding environment. With these cranky monkeys, when aggression was not reinforced, and when they observed peacefulness in cohabitating animals that could clean their clocks if they wanted to, the aggressive propensity did not find the corresponding environment, and thus their behavior – lastingly - changed.
In our relationship with dogs, we are the more powerful species, like the bigger and stronger monkeys were. That makes us the ones in charge, the only ones who can set the stage, the corresponding environment, that allows dogs to acquire the social skills we are wanting.
I don’t believe in aggressive breeds, but also not that every dog, or breed, is a genetically clean slate. Selective breeding happens for a reason or it wouldn’t happen: humans aim and breed for certain traits, and although using the mouth is natural for all dogs, some are more active, determined and ready to aggress when pressured. A dog hardwired to overtly act more than retreat will live out those tendencies in an environment that is charged up and aggressive - that is where his nature finds fertile ground to be expressed; the predisposition to become a behavior.
Especially with these dogs it is crucial that we counter that by providing a peaceful environment, by addressing their aggression issues in non-aggressive ways, and also, while not ignoring that a problem exists, by not giving the aggressive expressions that much attention.
Here is another interesting monkey story that has to do with peace and aggression.
Stanford University Professor Robert Sapolsky studied baboons over several decades. Baboons, unlike dogs, are very hierarchical and there is a lot of pressure and bullying happening from the top down. Consequently, there is a lot of stress in the underlings, measured in the glucocorticoid levels in their urine output.
At one time, a particular colony Sapolsky observed lost about half their members when they consumed contaminated meat. None of the ruling alphas survived, and my guess is because as alphas they had priority resource access and were brutish food hoggers at the expense of low-ranking baboons who lost out on the feast.
In any case, suddenly the colony was without leaders, and interestingly the troop didn’t fall apart, but rather the aggression level dropped, and the affiliate social level rose. The whole colony thrived, and again it was lasting: After 20 years without alphas the baboons in that colony were still friendly and non-aggressive with one another, with each individual having some control, each one flourishing, contributing and cooperating with everyone else.
In 2013, I will continue to take lessons learned from dogs and people, and perhaps monkeys, to heart.
In 2013, I will continue to share with you what I know, and hopefully help more humans and their canine companions to a flourishing and harmonious coexistence.
I am wishing you, and your dogs, a healthy, happy and prosperous 2013 – and that you experience only peaceful hairless apes this year.