From the Editor: Working Dogs –
Reasoned Perception or Illogical Vision
In the News
Evolutionary Changes in Domesticated Dogs:
the Broken Covenant of the Wild, Part I
The Gentrification of Working Breeds
Qimmiit Utirtut is Four Years-Old!
Sledge Dog Memorial Fund Update
Behavior Notebook: Curious Naturalist
Remembering a Stunning Achievement
Book Review: The Polar World: the Unique Vision of Sir Wally Herbert
IMHO: You, a Reader of The Fan Hitch
Winter in North Greenland
Lars Reimers, 1994; courtesy Greenland Tourism
by Niko Tinbergen
Dutch born Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen (1907-1988) was an ethologist. (Ethology is the branch of zoology which studies the behavior of animals in their natural habitat.) He was a friend and contemporary of Konrad Lorenz, considered the father of ethology. Tinbergen, along with Lorenz and colleague Karl von Frisch shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns in animals. This was the first time the Nobel prize was awarded for work in sociobiology or ethology.
In 1932, Tinbergen lived amongst the Inuit of Kungmiut, Greenland (southeast coast, due west of Iceland), becoming a part of their hunter-gather lives. He describes his observations of the behavior of the settlement's sledge dogs in his book, Curious Naturalist, excerpted below. Note that Tinbergen's observation of the dogs being "…certainly closely related to Wolves..." based on similar behavior, has long since been proven incorrect (see The Inuit Dog: Its Provenance, Environment and History by Ian Kenneth MacRury, 1991).
Chapter Two: Arctic Interludes
"… we had a wonderful opportunity for studying the behaviour of the Huskies. The ancestry of these dogs is only vaguely known. They are certainly closely related to Wolves and what we saw of their behaviour confirmed this. Their voice is similar to that of wolves and the outbursts of their long-drawn, high-pitched howls were by now a familiar sound to us…. There were 35 hunters in Kungmiut… about 20 possessed a full pack of 6-10 dogs. Each pack lived round their owner’s house and in winter, when they were well fed, they did not stray from home.
… these packs defended group territories. All members of a pack joined in fighting other dogs off, the males being more aggressive than the females. This tendency to join forces when attacking strange dogs was the more striking since within each pack relations were far from friendly. Yet there was no system of individual territories; each dog had complete freedom of movement in the territory of its own pack. The frictions within the pack arose over matters of social rank. … each dog knew its companions individually. Each of them knew exactly, having learnt by (sometimes bitter) experience, which ones he had to avoid and which he could dominate without fear of retaliation.
In most packs the top dog was a strong male; next to him was his favorite wife. Such a leader claimed possession of everything he wanted; a growl or even a frown was enough to make the others withdraw or even bolt. At the bottom was the weakest dog, male or female; this poor wretch had a miserable life, walking or even crawling around at a safe distance from the others, its tail between its legs, glancing anxiously at this or that dog, never daring to take any food in which any of the others was interested, and even being in a state of terror when, on rare occasions, he could gather courage to approach a female on heat. The only time when such a dog seemed to be reasonably free of inhibitions was when he joined in the pack's attack on a trespassing neighbour.
The clashes between neighboring packs were extremely interesting to watch. If they met at the boundary between their two territories, where the issues were even, neither group attacked. The males, and more particularly the leaders, growled at each other, and every now and then they then lifted a leg and urinated – 'planting a scent flag' as…a means of staking out a territory.... The state of tension in these strongly aroused, yet inhibited, champions also showed itself … they took it out on their own pack and the unfortunate dog of low rank who happened to come too near was growled at, or severely mauled.
…clashes occurred when a pack found neighbors trespassing and could chase them off because they were ‘in their rights'. This happened often to the leader dog and one of his lower-ranking buddies belonging to the Eskimo next to us. These two dogs were irresistibly attracted to our refuse bin and whenever they got the chance they would trespass and have a go at it. They had a very bad conscience, however, and were always casting furtive glances over their shoulders. As soon as our dogs turned up, the intruders turned tail. The subsequent chase began in silence. But once the intruders reached their own ground they began to yap in the typical, resentful way of dogs in a state of powerless fury while ours barked the self-asserted challenge of the rightful owners. We knew what would happen next: the beaten leader suddenly turned upon his weaker brother and for half a minute or so would give him a pitiless strafing….
We were fascinated by the group territories… the place and size of the group territory were affected by food. We could extend a pack's territory by providing food outside their original territory.
The dogs' territories were so small because they did not need to roam far for their food; their master provided it at his front door. The fact that 'our' dogs, once they had befriended us, followed us so readily to new sites where we provided food, whereas dogs of other packs did not, is an additional fact of interest. From the way our dogs treated us we were sure, to them, super-leader dogs, and I believe that when a leader takes his pack to a new hunting area they will follow him. We could make our dogs invade other packs' territories to a certain extent by sheer authority; the strange dogs were afraid of us as super-leaders, and our dogs knew it.
A leader dog is not merely feared by others; he is also, in a sense, respected. By this I mean that the other dogs are not only afraid of him, they are attracted as well, and they also tend to join the leader in whatever he is doing, following his initiative. Translated into terms of human contact, I think dogs meet their leader with a mixture of fear, affection, compliance ands respect – and this description also comes, I think, very near to characterizing a dog's attitude to its master.
…immature dogs don't join in the defence of the territory… half-grown dogs did not learn to avoid strange territories either. As long as they were very young they stayed with their mother, and so were prevented from trespassing by their attachment to her. But later, when they went out on their own, they frequently trespassed in different territories. They just went where their fancy took them; and were chased away whenever they intruded. Yet they just yelped and ran, without ever learning to avoid such areas. We followed the behaviour of two young males carefully and found… that when they were about eight months old they suddenly began to join their pack in fights with their neighbours. In the very same week their trespassing upon other territories became a thing of the past. And it was probably no coincidence that in the same week both made their first attempts to mate with a female in their own pack.
What struck us particularly was the sudden mastering of this particular learning task (avoiding strange territories) just when their fighting and mating behaviour appeared. There was not a sudden development of their learning capacities in general, because they had learned a great number of things before; it was a case of learning in one special situation, which seemed to be impossible to the dogs as long as their tendencies to defend the group territory and to mate were still dormant. This opened my eyes to the possibility that learning, and perhaps other higher mental abilities, might be very much more dependent on ‘mood' or internal condition than we often realise; this still seems to me a problem which deserves much closer study than has been devoted to it."
Excerpted by permission from Curious Naturalist by Niko Tinbergen. Copyright © 1959 by Basic Books; Library of Congress catalog number 59-13750. The Fan Hitch was limited to a total of 1151 words, and sections had to be omitted in order to remain within compliance with The Perseus Books Group's conditions for reproduction. However, what you have read has not been taken out of context. Curious Naturalist is now out of print but may be available on the secondary market.
Special thanks to Stijn Heijs for finding this material and suggesting it for The Fan Hitch.