How did my collie teach my spaniel to act like a collie?
November 10, 2006 7:17 PM   Subscribe

Why does my collie mix lie down whenever he sees other dogs approaching? And, how did he teach our spaniel puppy to do the same?

I got Theo, who looks like a somewhat smaller Lassie, when he was 6 weeks old; he was raised by my old mostly shepherd mix and he's certainly never herded sheep in his life. He's four now and has been lying down when he senses dogs coming near since puppyhood. Inevitably, when we're out hiking, or even in the park, and he sees or smells people with dogs coming, he lies down in the center of the trail and waits. When they're about 15 feet away, he leaps up and joyously greets them. The first time he did it I was utterly nonplused. Since then, I've heard from other collie people that it's a collie thing and I've seen Border collies do it, and trained sheepdogs.

I'm asking now because he has taught our new puppy, a Springer Spaniel, to do it, and that is confusing my whole brain with the differences between instinctive and learned behavior. Why would a dog lie down when other dogs come by? Then, if that's some kind of instinctive behavior (and how can one species of dog have an instinctive behavior that other canids don't?) how could he successfully teach it to another dog breed who utterly doesn't have it in their heads to lie down? I've had Springers before; they don't do this - until Django, who now lies down right next to Theo and waits for the dogs to come down the trail. So what's going on?
posted by mygothlaundry to Pets & Animals (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: And by species in the second paragraph I mean breed, oops.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:22 PM on November 10, 2006

It could be calming signal behaviour - he's indicating to the strange dogs that he is not a threat to them. Since he was taken away from his littermates too early, he may overcompensate because he doesn't quite understand dog language, or it may just be that he's very polite. And dogs learn from each other all the time, they're pack animals, that's how they survive.

I don't think it's necessarily anything breed-specific.
posted by biscotti at 7:37 PM on November 10, 2006

Best answer: To answer your question about instinctive behaviors, this book talked a little about how the majority of dog specialization involves enhancing or supressing the fives steps involved in lupine prey drive. The steps are search, eye-stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite. A herding dog, for example, has a supressed kill-bite urge, and a highly enhanced eye-stalk urge. Greyhounds have an overwhelming urge to chase, and a diminished urge for everything else. So it's mostly about breeding to emphasize a certain behavior that is already there and squashing other behaviors. Sometimes wierd things happen when you mess with the prey drive and herding breeds have been known to overuse the eye-stalk. The book mentioned a border collie that they would "entertain" when they left home by leaving a ball down for him to eye. When they got home hours later, he'd still be there staring it down. Sticky dog.

I wouldnt be surprised if the behavior you're seeing from Theo is basicaly a warped pounce. Hide here and see what's coming so you know if it's attacking the flock or a friend just saying hi. When they get close enough for him to recognize, he'll jump up and greet. As for why Django is doing it, you've never seen a little kid imitate his big brother? I also read in a Stanley Coren book that the St Bernards used as rescue dogs by the monks were never formally trained either. Young dogs were merely apprenticed to older dogs, they would roam around in packs of three so that if they found someone, two dogs would stay with the person to keep him warm and one would go back and get help. It was never really known how they decided who did what.

Django does it because he thinks that's what dogs do, much like puppies raised in cat litters adopt some feline stalking movements. In general if a dog has no particular instinct to do something, then he's just copying what the other guys do because he doesn't know anything else. If he has an instinct to do something, good luck trying to supress it!
posted by hindmost at 7:37 PM on November 10, 2006

Herding dogs lie down for the same reason: it reduces the threat level they present as percieved by the stock they're herding. But most/all dogs do this with other dogs.
posted by biscotti at 7:39 PM on November 10, 2006

Response by poster: The thing, which I didn't put very well in my question, is that Theo wasn't taught to do this. My old dog, Toby, the shepherd mix who was 12 when we got Theo (who was, yes, much too young to leave his mother, and a miserable ball of fluff in a cardboard box in a parking lot,) certainly never lay down on the trail when other dogs came around. Toby was the world's friendliest dog and perfectly happy to talk to other dogs as long as they didn't distract from his important business, but he never, ever taught Theo to lie down. Theo just began doing it at about 6 months old and has never stopped. Toby used to look at him like he was crazy. I thought he was crazy too (which was fine, whatever, I love him) until numerous other people started telling me that, well, that's what ALL collies do. Which made sense in a way, some kind of instinct in a herding dog.

However, springer spaniels are not herding dogs. And Toby, who was very German Shepherd in all his ways, tried valiantly to train Theo to be a shepherd and failed. Yet now, Theo has succeeded where Toby failed: he's turned a spaniel into a collie. It's mysterious.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:58 PM on November 10, 2006

he's turned a spaniel into a collie

Really, he hasn't, he's just taught him one of his own dog-communication quirks. Like people picking up saying "howdy" instead of "hi".
posted by biscotti at 8:08 PM on November 10, 2006

Best answer: Think of it this way: You have a friend with OCD. He feels compelled to wash his hands 50 times a day. You, hanging out with him, feel no overwhelming need to wash your hands as often, but he can't stop himself because that's what he feels he HAS to do. If your friend has a kid without OCD, he might still wash his hands 50 times a day because he just grows up thinking that this is what everyone does, and so acquires the habit.

Toby didn't do it because he didn't need to. Theo did because his instincts say that this is right. And Django in any situation where he's not 100% of what to do, is going to look to Theo and imitate.
posted by hindmost at 8:30 PM on November 10, 2006

There's strong evidence that a great deal of canine social behavior is learned rather than being instinctive. Puppies learn by observing and imitating what older dogs in their pack do.

It's doubtful that the older dog was trying to train the younger one to act in a certain way. It's rather that it's normal for younger dogs to learn from older dogs and to act like them.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:43 PM on November 10, 2006

Theo is the dominant dog. My brother had a rescue dalmatian who would race out of the house if she saw an open door. My lab--who came to the house as a puppy-- would follow her, but after Buzz died, Lennon stood put when the door was open unless the humans told her it was ok to come with them.

No one taught Lennon to fetch; that was bred into her.
posted by brujita at 9:17 PM on November 10, 2006

I had a yorkie that took me 6 months to housebreak using a doggie door. The yorkie on his own picked a corner of the yard to do all his business. When the yorkie was several years old, we brought home a 6 week old lab.

The yorkie liked the lab and they played well together. The lab puppy only peed in the house once. The yorkie took over the housebreaking duties of the new puppy. Everytime the lab started to squat in the house, the yorkie would nip at her and herd her out the dogdoor into the appropriate corner of the yard. I was amazed and very pleased.
posted by JujuB at 9:52 PM on November 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

huh. our black labrador, rosie, who we have had since she was 12 weeks old, also lies down when other dogs are approaching. i've had 3 other black labs growing up, but never seen this behaviour in any of them. i've often wondered how rosie learned to do this and why. thanks for the insight.
posted by netsirk at 11:31 AM on November 11, 2006

I interpret Theo's act as a power tactic, designed to give your pack an advantage over the approaching pack; by pretending to be a sentinel, he's transforming the situation from one of equals meeting on neither's territory, in which there is a considerable potential for conflict, to one of a pack passing through meeting another on its home territory, where the advantage is definitely to the home team, and the chance of conflict is greatly reduced.

Hindmost's answer is quite interesting; if dogs have inherited a tool kit from wolves to help with "prey drive," it seems reasonable to guess they may have received one for dealing with other packs, an important primary task for their ancestors, too.

Watching herding dogs perform with sheep is so astounding, I sometimes wonder if the relationship between the ancestors of dogs and their prey could almost have approached a kind of symbiosis. A healthy pack of dogs seems about as well suited to taking care of a herd of ruminants as humans 20,000 years ago would have been, in terms of protecting them from (other) predators, moving them around to good pasturage, culling the aged and diseased from the herd, and perhaps even some selective breeding. The herd, in this flight of fantasy, might have even gotten a better deal from the dogs, as measured by a head tax-- the proportion of the herd slaughtered by the shepherd.
posted by jamjam at 2:18 PM on November 11, 2006

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