Greyhounds: some thoughts on evolution and predatory motivation
In her contribution to a workshop on greyhounds held in 2013, canine behaviourist Professor Galbiati shed some light on a fundamental but rather neglected aspect of greyhounds which deserves further thought: evolution and predatory motivation.
What follows are my own personal reflections on the subject, which I hope may prove useful in that sense.
According to a cognitive human-animal based viewpoint, every breed of dog has a motivational profile which is made up of a mixture of motivations or drives. For example, retrievers have a highly collaborative drive but a lower territorial one, whereas greyhounds have a highly predatory and competitive drive but a lower collaborative one.
Of course that doesn’t mean that greyhounds can’t collaborate, but simply that this particular drive is less prominent and so tends to emerge less. Specifically in relation to greyhounds, the predatory drive – which they share with many other breeds of dog – is aligned to physical qualities which make them excellent runners with extraordinary eyesight (translator’s note: well expressed in the English name ‘sighthounds’).
In addition, breed characteristics are not expressed automatically in the same way in every individual, as the experience of each individual dog has an essential role to play. And this is where an often underestimated aspect comes into play, when we speak of the breed characteristics of dogs, and that is that their history cannot be seen outside of the context of their relationship with man. For dogs are not wolves, and they have been living in close contact with man for thousands of years. And through selective breeding and training, man has manipulated and directed the motivational drives and physical characteristics of dogs.
A good example of this can be seen with shepherding breeds such as Border Collies. These are dogs with an extremely high predatory drive, which man has used for his own purposes: these dogs are in fact selected and trained to use only the first part of the predatory process i.e. sighting, pointing and pursuing, in order to lead the herd.
The same goes for greyhounds: in anglosaxon countries for instance, litters are planned in order to maximise the chances of producing a racing champion. Looking at things from a wider historical perspective, the question we should ask ourselves is this: given their basic motivational and physical characteristics, in what way have they been manipulated by man? Historically, greyhounds were used for hunting, and from a specific point in time onwards for racing, for the purpose of betting and entertainment. But it’s worth pointing out here that human entertainment is one thing, a dog’s entertainment quite another.
Every animal experiences pleasure in doing the things he does best, and therefore every greyhound – to a greater or lesser degree – enjoys running. Just like some of us may enjoy collecting things rather than riding a bicycle. But running isn’t the same thing as chasing a prey or racing after a lure or a live hare. So in this case man is directing a greyhound’s natural pleasure in running for aims and motivations which are his own, not the dog’s.
Going back to my initial point, it’s obvious that dogs used for racing and coursing are trained for this purpose, in other words they are dogs that are ‘built up’ on a motivational level, reinforcing their basic predatory and competitive motivations in a way that is unnatural and unbalanced. Even their kinaesthetic motivation – i.e. the pleasure they get from running – is aimed by man in just one direction: to run to hunt or to chase after a lure, and that’s it. So a greyhound selected for those kinds of activities is the way he is because man has made him that way: other natural drives, like the collaborative drive, are underdeveloped.
However greyhounds make excellent pets, affectionate and attached to those who care for them with love and respect. They are also intelligent and ready to learn, if we work with them in that way. But it is important to work with them without reinforcing what has already been reinforced beyond all limits by racing trainers. This means effectively developing those motivations which are in contrapposition to those that are emphasized in racing and coursing.
So – just to give an example which is far from exhaustive – we should work on developing a greyhound’s collaborative rather than competitive drive, his epimeletic (i.e. altruistic – whereby an animal cares for another who is ill or needs care) rather than his predatory drive, the pleasure of running for fun rather than for the aim of reaching and killing a prey.
We should also remember the notion – originating from one Charles Darwin – that what is useful in one context can be harmful in another. Now all dogs, whether they are sighthounds or not, who live in highly urbanised human environments cannot benefit in any way from having their predatory drive reinforced: quite the opposite. To chase a cat in a town puts the life of any dog at risk, so it’s not a trait that we should be encouraging as it will not help him to adapt to life in an urban context, on the contrary.
By Massimo Greco Translated by Isobel Deeley