Most people think that Darwin created the phrase “Survival of the Fittest.” He didn’t. Darwin himself attributed the phrase to Herbert Spencer. Darwin’s encapsulation of evolution is slightly different:

“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”

The problem in understanding this concept is that the word “fit” has several meanings – and most people use the wrong one. Most references to the Spencer quote imply that the “fittest” means individuals that are stronger, faster and tougher than their fellows. I don’t think that’s a correct understanding of his words. In my dictionary, the first definition of fit is …adapted or suited: appropriate.  I think that is what is meant by both Spencer and Darwin — survival of the ones who fit their environment as hand to glove.  In my dictionary, it’s not until definition number five that you get to the meaning most people use — “in good physical condition; in good health” Additionally, all three of the definitions attributed to biology refer to an animal’s ability to reproduce and pass along genetic traits to offspring.

What’s that got to do with dogs?

If you’re wondering how this affects our knowledge of dogs, consider this: There are lots of dogs out there who are generally fearful. Virtually everyone who comes in contact with them assumes their behavior is the result of abuse. These animals are invariably treated with kind gloves and often their behavior is incredibly “unfit” – meaning they are the square pegs in the round holes of their owners’ lives.

Often this super gentle treatment continues, even though the dog’s behavior is potentially dangerous to themselves or others. The quickest way for these dogs to escape an unpleasant event or consequence is to merely appear fearful. If they were pampered children, we could call them crybabies. They respond both from an innate, instinctive tendency and a long history of successful manipulation of humans. If this sounds funny, consider this example:

A few years ago I was asked to “fix” the coyotes at the Phoenix Zoo. They were wild coyotes who had lived in a single compound for ten years. Once a year they were caught by their keepers so they could get a veterinary examination. The first year, they were lured into their “night house”, an air-cooled, concrete area with two chain-link runs and a common, unfenced floor about 15 feet square. After the first year, they never went into the night house again – as far as the keepers knew. This forced the keepers to catch them in a large net once a year.

On the last experience, Bob, the male, had tried to dart away from the net and ran smack into a cactus. I was told that because of the emotional trauma associated with these two incidents, they were afraid of humans and stayed in their den until everyone was gone. The result was that even with a lovely elevated viewing area, guests of the zoo almost never saw the coyotes.

My first observation started by entering their compound. It was natural desert landscape, about 200 x 200 feet. I stood in the middle of the compound by a large saguaro cactus and had one of the keepers start walking the perimeter of the fence. The coyotes obediently moved about 20 yards in front of the keeper and passed my location. As they went by, I noticed that neither of the animals had their ears laid back or tails tucked. In fairness, Bob couldn’t tuck his tail – it was amputated after he got in a fight with a wild coyote.

Regardless, neither of the animals gave any indication they were afraid of the keeper. Each time they made a circuit around the compound, I moved a little closer to their pathway. Each time they passed their ears were still up and they moved at a constant pace. About the third time around they both saw me but didn’t change their gate or posture. This continued until I was about five feet from them as they went by. They were fully aware of my presence. It was obvious that they weren’t afraid of humans. They simply didn’t like humans that tried to capture them.

The correlation here is pretty obvious. If captive wild animals behave similarly to captive domestic animals, it may imply a genetic similarity that is not dependent on abuse. The wolves at the zoo displayed the same caution as the coyotes, though they had not experienced the “trauma” of running into cactus. Dogs that are more fearful than normal may simply be more like their wild ancestors. In nature, an ultra-cautious animal is likely to stay alive where a less cautious animal might die.

For group living animals, having a broad spectrum of behavioral types can act to insure survival of the species. The individual on its own may not “fit” every circumstance but the group may possess collective variety that insures that someone will step up and solve the problem. That means that if all wolves were fearless they might not have survived. It is not difficult to imagine how having more cautious animals around might actually be of benefit to the group. Wolves that are not fearless may nip at the flanks of a prey animal to harass it while the heavy hitters catch up. Another thought comes to mind that may surprise you – what if “generally fearful” dogs aren’t always generally fearful? What if their ability to adapt to the environment is intact and they can lose their fear? You already know that’s true. Here’s why.

The Magic Salon and Magic Hands

I worked in shelters for eight years and I’ve worked as a behaviorist for about 25. I have good hands with fearful dogs. I know when to apply firm handling and when to back off. Groomers display their excellence through the same medium – great handling. Over time, a groomer develops a “no nonsense” relationship and the dog adapts to it, usually loving their groomer as much or more than their owners. That means my best example of fearful dogs not being generally fearful is at your own front door. I have worked with many dogs with serious behavior problems. I always ask how they do at the groomer. “Oh, Max just loves our groomer. She can do anything with him.” This was said about a dog that wouldn’t come out of the closet when guests were in the home. The dog was only comfortable in the company of the owner, her husband and their teenage daughter…and their groomer.

Fearful behavior is something great groomers handle in style. Many trainers don’t. The use of firm, controlled restraint allows the terrified dog to learn to be passive during grooming. The same process can be used to correct their behavior in the home.

Even if you don’t want to offer behavior and training services, your knowledge is precious. If you did go into the home, you could offer your clients advice that would make their lives better. If you don’t wish to do that, start working with a good trainer who is open to admitting that you are a better handler. The combination of your skills and their skills can make a huge difference in your clients’ lives – and they will thank you for it. Ending the coddling is the first step toward freedom. The secret to improving the lives of fearful dogs isn’t treating them with kind gloves, the solution is to teach them to fit their owner’s lives, hand in glove.