Natural Dog Behavior Around the World


Village dog in the Peruvian Andes

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Here’s what I’ve learned observing dogs in more than 20 countries around the world. The first is that dogs always live with or near people. This is not a species that lives independently among its own kind. While dogs may kill the occasional vermin, they do not hunt in organized packs. They eat our food, so-called human food. Dogs scavenge and negotiate food from us (i.e beg). They depend on us more than they depend on each other. They are inextricably attached to our world, connected to people. Wherever you find humans (and really, we live everywhere) you will find dogs. No humans, no dogs.

Here’s what else I have learned. Despite the universal similarity of being cohabitants with humans, dogs live very differently in other parts of the world. North American Dogs’ lives are anomalous. They live in our homes, on leashes, vetted, crated, dog park bound, burdened with our emotional baggage, handled and touched at every corner and in every boutique dog shoppe and every daycare franchise on the continent. This is without a doubt unusual. It is not how most dogs on the planet live.

Roaming temple dog in northern Sri Lanka.

I’ve learned a lot about dogs just watching them. Here are some of my field notes in no particular order.

Dogs Roam. In Asia, Central America, and South America especially, dogs work the streets. Even dogs who have homes and wear collars with tags spend their days wandering off-leash.

Dogs seek food from us. This is true on each of the five continents I’ve visited so far. Dogs are food-seekers. They are not after ribbons or praise or attention or even our touch. They spend their waking hours working for food. Mostly they scavenge our garbage. Often they experiment with behavior so that humans give them food from their pockets, or their backpacks, or their plates – human food (no one in Sri Lanka is carrying a bag of Zukes dog treats).

Pulling at the heart strings of a hotel guest in central Sri Lanka

They’ve evolved to affect our emotions. This was one of the coolest realizations for me. Even the scrappiest dogs on the dustiest streets have “the look.” Dogs retain a juvenile looking face into adulthood, more-so than other species. And, everywhere I’ve encountered dogs they’d all adopted facial expressions that accentuate their puppy features, endearing, cute. When we see it many of us will get a rush of hormones, the same warm feeling that bonds us to our own dogs. I don’t want to ruin this romantic notion. But, at the same time, I will tell  you this face most often shows up when dogs are seeking food from us. I once ate at an outdoor restaurant in rural Costa Rica and four dogs where sitting politely about six feet from our table, each of them giving us “the look.” When we broke eye contact and continued our meal, they moved on to the next table, a respectable distance away, to try their elegantly evolved behavior on some other patrons. I will add, these dogs looked very well-fed.

They play with each other. This is less common in mature dogs. I saw it frequently with puppies and young adults.

They rarely fight. It’s usually over food and it is infrequent and usually non injurious.

Dogs use a lot of space when communicating. It’s quite rare to see dogs end up in tight spots together. They social distance. Very often I’ve seen dogs communicating with body language and facial expressions at 30 feet or more. It often appears to be about one dog asking the other may I pass or are you safe. Very frequently it looks like I see you, dude, come on through. Occasionally it’s about one dog denying access to a particular area. I remember a food court on a bluff outside a tourist spot in Colombia. Four dogs lived there. A brown short-haired  female dog about 50 pounds started to wander up the path to the parking lot and food stalls. One of the four dogs in residence, a large male, stood tall and stiff and gave her a hard look. She stopped and then hedged her bet, taking a step forward. That’s when big male bolted down the path towards her full speed. The once optimistic female tucked her tail and ran. They never got closer than 15 feet from each other. No one got hurt.

Dogs walk faster than us. We really need to pick up the pace to match their stride. Also, I’ve never seen a dog on the streets anywhere in the world run for any significant amount of time.

Sunning herself on the sidewalk in Lima, Peru.

Dogs are not naturally inclined to accept our approach and touch. Many will approach humans. Those individual dogs will often hang out for a little petting. A puppy outside a temple in Thailand stayed long enough to play with me (I had the sharp little tooth marks to show for it). But, generally speaking, dogs don’t want us reaching for them and folks elsewhere in the world don’t assume the right to touch every dog they see. Most dogs will keep a few feet between themselves and passing humans. As a result, I’ve never seen a dog behave aggressively towards a human in any other country. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. But, I suspect it is not as common as it is here.

They stop at intersections without assistance from people. I’ve seen some stop when the cross walk signal is red and then go when it turns green, though this probably has more to do with learning to follow the mass of people than the signal itself.

Napping in the market, Lima.

Dogs sleep a lot. Some sleep as much as 14 hours a day.

There aren’t many old street dogs. I don’t want to sugar coat the experience of dogs in other parts of the world. Do they seem happy? Yeah, I think so. And I also think dogs on the streets have hard lives. It’s a young dog’s game, street life. I have only seen one that looked older than maybe 5 or 6-years old. There was a 10 year old dog at the food court I mentioned above, but he belonged to a family there.

People love dogs. Just like you and me, people around the world love dogs. Many dogs have homes and warm beds, even ones who roam the streets all day. Letting the dogs wander freely appears to be how their humans express love (I do not recommend we do that here). People have small dogs they carry in backpacks or in the baskets of their scooters. Others have large dogs. Most dogs are a natural mix of genes, some are specific breeds. The range is similar to what we see here. People around the world laugh at their dogs’ silly antics. Also like you and me, they sometimes get frustrated calling their dog in at the end of the day (I saw a puppy in Peru who seemed to insist he needed just a bit more time romping with a friend on the cobble stone streets of Cuzco.) People worry after their dogs, keep photos of them, and mourn them when they are gone.

People and dogs. We’ve been together for as long as there has been history and probably longer. We’ve co-evolved. We are interconnected. Dogs as a species, most certainly, would not go on without us. They’d evolve into something else or disappear. Humans as a species would likely survive without dogs. But, it wouldn’t be the same. People around the world know that, too. It wouldn’t be the same at all.

Michael Baugh teaches dog behavior in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training.

The Gift of a “Perfect” Dog


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I sit on the floor because I’m having a moment. Okay, here’s the truth. When I say I’m having a moment I mean I’m having a cry. Stella, my old retriever mix, gets up slowly and walks over to me. I don’t know why I’m crying. Maybe it was a sad story on the radio or an email about a client’s dog. Maybe neither of us knows why I’m crying but here she is, leaning in, sniffing my face, the tears. And, maybe neither of us knows why she walked over to me, why she is so gentle, why she seems to care. It’s just her way. And, here’s the other truth. It’s why I’m sitting on the floor. This is her gift and she offers it just the same every time and I know that.

This will be the summer that Stella turns 13. She was 5-months when I pointed to her cage at the Houston SPCA and said “That one. I want her.” We didn’t know she was sick at first , distemper, respiratory then neurological, usually fatal. But, I knew what we were up against when we finally got the diagnosis. The week after we adopted Stella distemper swept through the SPCA and killed half the dogs there. The first time I sat on the floor and cried with Stella was a couple weeks after we brought her home. I was holding her. She was all legs even then, twitching uncontrollably, crying because she was so uncomfortable, crying because she didn’t know why. I was crying because I did.

That was the worst night. The ones after were better. Stella did what we all hoped for but didn’t dare say aloud. She lived. She lived for months and then years and then a decade and more. She learned to swim and to dive and to climb steep paths to the top of red rocks. Stella grew to be strong and clever and awkward and weird. She is long-legged and small-headed and remarkably beautiful but only at just the right angle. And even now I sometimes look at her and think, that one. .

We brought Stewie home when Stella was barely 18-months. He was small and scrappy, fresh from a run through a tropical storm and a close call with a speeding car. The vet said he was 2 or 3. He had a collar but no tags. Testicles but no microchip. I put up signs and called the shelters but no one claimed him. And, here’s the truth. I could understand why. He was a hot mess, shitting and pissing indiscriminately, claws like an iguana and a piercing scream at the sight of nail clippers. He wasn’t crate trained or leash trained or anything trained. No wonder no one claimed him except us. My partner, Tim, was at the sink when he rather stoically pointed to Stewie and said (as if issuing an edict) “We can keep him.”

Stewie learned potty training and pedicures, but also paths to the top of red rocks. That brush with a fast-moving car faded with quickly passing years (though, he’s still afraid of storms). Stewie is about 14 or 15 now, the last 12 with us. It’s been 12 years of Stella and Stewie, of I want her and we can keep him. It’s been hard for a long time to imagine one without the other, each of them so a part of the other, so a part of us. They were each a gift, dubious and imperfect. Now they are treasured gifts, imperfect still, but perfectly fitted to our lives and to our hearts.

We all want the perfect dog. But, here’s the truth. Perfect isn’t packaged up for us to get. It’s not the right breed, or the right breeder, or the right boot camp we send our dog away to. Perfect is years of giving. Perfect is vet visits and cleaning up messes and nail trims. Perfect is swims and leash walks and hikes up steep red-rock paths. Perfect is awkward and scrappy, her and him, month after month, year after year. Perfect isn’t something you buy. Perfect is something you create, the giving and the receiving, the forging of a friendship (maybe a best friendship), with a being who will never speak a word but communicates so beautifully nonetheless. Perfect is earned. Perfect is dried tears at the end of the day, near the end of a life well lived, with a good girl and a good boy, on the floor.

Stella walks up stiff-legged, her face next to mine, and I lean into the thick fur around her neck that doesn’t quite match the rest of her body. Such an odd-looking dog. Awkward. Perfect.


Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training in Houston, TX

Can You Teach a Dog to be Afraid?


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA 

It turns out people rarely ask. Instead, they just assume that if we comfort a fearful dog that we must be reinforcing fear. They grow even more concerned if we use food. The answer to the unasked question is layered and a bit technical. I usually don’t go into detail. I just reassure my fearful client that we are not, in fact, reinforcing or rewarding their dog’s fear.

The truth is we can teach fear, but not in the way most people are worried about. The process is called associative learning, sometimes called classical conditioning or (more commonly) Pavlovian conditioning. Don’t go to sleep. It’s pretty interesting stuff. When I was much younger I taught my dog to stay out of the basement. When she was a puppy, the first time she peered down the basement steps I dropped a book and it made a loud bang on the hardwood floor. She startled and ran away from the door, never to return again. Ever. Seriously, she never went into the basement. I associated the open basement door with a loud and startling noise. The open door was forever frightening enough that she never approached it again. I taught her to be afraid of it.

Some trainers teach dogs to fear the beep on a shock collar. The dog only has to get shocked once after the beep for it to work. It’s a learned fear. Even a minor car crash can teach dogs to be afraid of the car forever. Car sickness can do that too. I once worked with a dog who was terrified of the garbage truck. At first she learned to fear the sound of the truck in the distance. Before too long she had learned to fear Wednesday mornings (garbage day). Benign things, a beep, a car ride, or a day of the week, become frightening because of the terror they once predicted predict.

John Watson became both renown and notorious when, building on Pavlov’s findings, he conducted the infamous Little Albert experiment. He taught a 9-month old baby to fear soft furry animals by associating them with a loud startling noise. The child ended up having a phobia of rats, bunnies, even dogs. Ethical restrictions would prohibit this type of research today. Still, governments used this part of behavior science to elicit extreme fear responses associated with otherwise unremarkable words, gestures, or environmental triggers. They did this by associating those things with torture including beatings, shock, sleep deprivation, drugs, and hypnosis.  It’s a dark and not-so-distant part of our history and an interesting revelation of how emotions work.

Yes, fear can be learned. Lot’s of dogs have learned to be afraid of people, places, and situations. But, using food never taught a dog to be afraid. The function of fearful behavior is to escape something scary. It’s not to earn a bit of cheese. Maybe this example will help.

What if I gave my dog some cheese for looking at a man she was afraid of. This guy is cool; he’s just sitting there. But, what if my hypothetical dog has had a hard time with men in the past? What if now they are all pretty much suspect? So, she looks at this guy with her ears back and tail tucked (obviously afraid). Is offering the cheese going to make her more fearful of men in the future (because that is the definition of reinforcement). The short answer is no. Let’s break this down.

  • My dog refuses the food. This is a typical behavior when dogs are very afraid of something. The food does not register. In this case the food has no impact on future behavior or emotions. My dog remains roughly as afraid of the man as she was before.
  • My dog doesn’t get a chance to take food because the man gets up, talks to her, and reaches to pet her. In this case, her possible curiosity is met with the exact thing she feared the most. Her fear would be maintained or made worse.
  • My dog takes the food. Better yet, I present a conditioned marker (like a click or the word “yes”) when she looks. She then looks back at me and takes the food. I’ve just reinforced looking at the man and then looking away. I’ve also associated the sight of a man with food (not a startling or painful outcome). I now have the beginning of a new behavior pattern: See man; Look at him; Then look to me. I also have the beginning of some new associative learning (Seeing a man predicts food from me). In this case fear is actually reduced.

Plot twist. We need to get the order of events correct. If we present the food first and bribe the dog to approach the man, the dog may play along. She may even take the food. But if she gets too close and the man scares her our whole plan falls apart. Food + man + startle = Fear. Before long our dog will grow suspect of the food itself, and rightly so. Food in that context will elicit a fear response (likely retreat and avoidance). Dog guardians often mistake this as the dog not being interested in food or simply being stubborn. Not so. We accidentally taught her that food in this case is not a predictor of good things to come. It’s a trick.

Bottom line: Fear can be learned. In fact we remember fearful events for a very long time. Seemingly harmless triggers can get hooked into fear. Only unpleasant outcomes (think scary or painful) reinforce fear. Food can become one of those harmless triggers that get hooked into fear if we use it incorrectly (as a bribe or a lure). Food, though does not reinforce fear. It reinforces behavior. When used well food can help quell fear. So too can a kind voice, a gentle touch, a little space, and some time.

Michael Baugh is a dog behavior expert in Houston, TX. He specializes in fearful and aggressive dog training.