Ethology and veterinary practice: The worst of times for transport ethology
Thursday, March 08, 2018
Last month's brief began a discussion of the ethological challenges practitioners may see thanks to the increased number of transport animals that show up in their practices. Jake, the canine subject of that brief, represented the best of transport ethology times.
Although he came with the usual lack of reliable information, more was forthcoming when requests for it were made. He truly was the purebred dog the transporter claimed he was. And, prior to getting caught up in a complex multistate rescue/transport/foster system, Jake had lived in a companion dog setting.
This brief will consider the antithesis of the Jakes that wind up in the transport system. Axel was a 2-year-old, castrated transport presented for human and canine aggression. Unlike Jake whose history ultimately confirmed his strong companion dog breeding, Axel arrived from northern Georgia with no history except for a breed designation: Carolina dog.
But what did that mean?
Despite the lack the quality information with which transport animals often arrive at their destinations, all inevitably arrive with some sort of breed designation. When this is the case, it's only natural that those who take in these animals will zero in on this information.
Unfortunately, though, assigning breeds to dogs destined for transport may be more art than science within the rescue, shelter and adopter communities. Neither rescues nor shelters routinely do DNA testing, and both have histories of assigning breeds to the dogs in their care that will increase the animals' appeal to transport placement groups and adopters.
To put some order into the often-unregulated chaos of the transport system at its source, organizations or individuals that import transport animals began referring to the dogs based on the animal's place of origin. Initially, animals of continental U.S. origin were called "Southern dogs" because the bulk of them came from the southeastern United States.
As the flow of dogs increased, people began labeling the animals based on their known or guesstimated state of origin: Virginia, Georgia, Texas, the Carolinas, etc. Consequently, those who adopted one of these dogs would refer to the animal as their "Virginia dog," "Georgia dog," "Carolina dog," etc. (One exception to this were the "Katrina dogs" transported from multiple states hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that precipitated the transport movement.)
However, four different populations of "Carolina dogs" exist. First, we have a population of mixed breeds of stray or free-roaming companion dogs captured — or presumed captured — for transport in the Carolinas.
Next, we have a unique breed of wild dog of ancient Asian descent that lives in the southeastern United states in a variety of habitats. In addition to being wild, these dogs may display behaviors that are more cat-like than dogs of European descent. They're solitary hunters of small game, pounce on their game to catch and kill it, bury their feces, and females dig sometimes complex dens for their young.
The third group of Carolina dogs consists of the offspring of wild Carolina dogs who have mated with companion dogs. And finally, we have a small population of the wild dogs being selectively bred, primarily for show.
Dogs from all four sources may wind up in the transport/rescue system and thus veterinary practices nationwide.
What does this have to do with ethology in veterinary practice? Recall a basic principle of ethology: We can't say anything meaningful about a behavior unless we know the context in which it occurs. A key element of context is human expectations regarding the animal's behavior, because these will determine how people will respond to the animal.
The young couple who adopted Axel thought he belonged to a group of free-roaming young dogs of companion dog origins pick up in the Carolina region. What they got was a dog whose appearance and behaviors were those of a dog with a strong ancient Carolina dog heritage.
Although the owners were miffed that no one had told them they were adopting a dog with strong wild dog roots, I easily can imagine the Georgian transporter who completed Axel's records prior to shipment pointing out that his paperwork states Axel's likely Carolina dog breeding quite clearly.
If the idea of a "wild dog" immediately elicits an image of dog who attacks anything that moves, but such is not the case. Despite Axel's aggression, he didn't lash out indiscriminately at everyone — human or canine — who violated his physical territory. His pattern of aggression indicated that he maintained specific criteria regarding his targets.
And like all animals in protective mode, Axel's tolerance threshold depended on the nature of the territorial violation and what else demanded his attention at the time. When conditions were such that he stayed below his threshold, he remained calm and aloof. When he exceeded it, he would bite his perceived target multiple times in quick succession with little to no warning.
However, unlike dogs from strong companion dog roots where it's possible to get a feel for the kinds of stimuli and group dynamics that set them off, Carolina dogs evolved in a quite different physical and mental environment that positions them closer to the solitary than social end of the sociability scale.
The owner had no idea where he was born and lived prior to capture, what he experienced between capture and transport, or during the time he spent with two fosters prior to adoption, Meanwhile, Axel's highly social owners envisioned him enjoying a life with them that includes daily visits from family and friends with their kids and dogs, plus frequent visits to the dog park and doggy daycare to play with his doggy friends.
Ultimately, the clients accepted that Axel required more from them than they were willing and able to give him. I couldn't fault them for this because they weren't the kind of people who knew exactly what a Carolina dog was; they wanted one because they wanted to impress their friends.
They thought he was a companion dog who had fallen on hard times, and initially they worked diligently to make him into a pet. But while not exactly on a par with turning the proverbial sow's ear into a silk purse, turning Axel into a pet on a par with the happy-go-lucky goldens and fluffy little dogs they were used to would require a magnitude of time and commitment with no guarantees at a time in their lives when they couldn't provide this.
Sometimes the phrase "too much dog" is used to describe dogs whose needs exceed the owner's ability to fulfill them. In the past, this commonly referred to high-energy, intelligent dogs belonging to working dog breeds whose owners were unable to keep up with their dogs, let alone stay one step ahead of them.
The influx or intra- and international transport dogs from semi-wild and wild backgrounds takes this to a whole new level. When this is the case, even something like knowing the specific meaning of any breed or descriptive terms applied to the animal by the source may mean the difference between success and failure.
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