The importance of ritual

By Scott Hunt – The Dog Grumbler

I LIKE to keep pointing out the differences between the ways humans and dogs communicate. It is important to understand this if we are to build successful dog/human relationships and like much in our busy lives, it is easy to forget.

A dog’s brain — for our purposes — is structured around a massive smell processor; ours around a massive language processor. We need to process our thoughts and experiences through words. Dogs cannot do this.

To a dog communication is about smells and what actually happens — the events in its life and patterns within those events. It must use body language and ritual to establish and maintain a social system.

I have spoken at length about body language. The importance and function of ritual is often misunderstood.

Dogs have become our companions because like their wolf ancestors, they are social animals and must live in structured groups. A herd, pack, flock or any group of social, non-verbal creatures cannot afford to fight over every small detail of day-to-day life, so at certain points and in certain situations, ritual functions to confirm the established order.

This manifests itself largely at mealtime, in mating season, when the group or an individual returns home and when passing through doors and gates, and so on.

You may feed two dogs simultaneously in two bowls, but invariably they will eat in turn. Dogs need to do this. It is important for the first dog to leave something, no matter how hungry it may be and equally important for the second to eat the leftovers even if it is not hungry.

Your dog may go crazy when you return home; it may need to bring you some toy or other object to celebrate your arrival. In this case, don’t make too much fuss — acknowledge the behaviour and move on.

Sometimes these rituals take on sexual overtones; if these things occur between dogs, don’t assume the behaviour is sexual, it is usually about order.

Something that might be shocking or comical in human society is often benign and logical in a pack. Don’t make a fuss if nobody is getting hurt.

These behaviours may vary between dogs; the same needs may manifest differently in different human families with different dynamics and structures, but we must remember that nature knows best.

Your dog must learn to exist in human society and you must guide it, but it is still a dog, still a social, non-verbal creature. We may not understand some of the things it does, but we should never dismiss them as pointless — nature knows what she is doing.