Making a Living in The World: Anthropology, the Evolution of Behaviour, and Training Dogs

An anthropologist learns from Dinjii Zhuh Elders in the Northwest Territories about the economics of animal behaviour, and why this matters to dogs.

Anthropology, the evolution of behaviour, and training dogs: Dogs by the Mackenzie river
Dogs by the east branch of the Nagwichoonjik (Mackenzie River) in Ehdiitat (Mackenzie Delta). Photo:Kristi Benson

By Kristi Benson CTC
Special Correspondent

As an anthropologist, I have been given the gift of working with the Dinjii Zhuh (Gwich’in peoples) in Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Inuvik, and Tsiigehtchic for about fifteen years. These four communities form a ring around the vast Ehdiitat (or Mackenzie Delta as it is more recently known), before the Mackenzie enters Inuit lands and empties into the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The Gwich’in were signatories to Treaty 11 in 1921, and negotiated the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement in the 1980s and 1990s. It was signed in 1992. Gwich’in lands cross a beautiful stretch of subarctic in what is now known as the Northwest Territories and Yukon. There are mountains to the west and south, and in the east, the boreal forests and taiga stretch to the horizon. The formidable Nagwichoonjik or Mackenzie River travels westward across Gwich’in lands in its final stretch before it turns northward, slows, and separates into the delta.

Gwich’in lands have always provided for, and been taken care of by, the Gwich’in. For thousands of years the Gwich’in have made a living by hunting caribou and moose, harvesting berries, and fishing. Although today, Gwich’in families generally stay in town and participate in the global economy, in the past they moved across their lands seasonally, on well-placed and well-known trails that have seen tens of thousands of footprints over thousands of years.

Anthropology, the evolution of behaviour, and training dogs
Kristi Benson skijoring with dog Gracie. Photo: Yoenne Ewald

During my years working with the Gwich’in, I have sat around many kitchen tables drinking tea, with a tape recorder whirring gently nearby. During these hours, I listened to the thoughtfully-filtered knowledge built by generations of people with intricate and inextricable ties to a cultural landscape, a landscape so familiar that the maps showing Gwich’in travels and harvesting areas are—quite literally—blacked out with lines. From the earliest time I worked with Gwich’in Elders, I found one particular turn of phrase intriguing and thought-provoking: when talking about an animal’s behaviour, Elders would sometimes finish a thought or summarize with a “well, that’s how he makes a living”.

Before my time with the Gwich’in, I’d never really thought of an animal’s behaviour as being a career before (gender-marking wild animals in this way was also new and thought-provoking to me). I hadn’t considered behaviour as something that could be classified as being so baldly functional. Dzan, or muskrats, build small mounds of food on lake ice, caching the frozen vegetation for later and leaner times. They are making a living in their world. Vadzaih, or caribou, wander out onto the lake ice to find these ‘muskrat push-ups’ and devour them, earning all those calories and nutrients. The caribou are making a living, too. No one could pass the four seasons in the subarctic and not have a rather visceral understanding of how hard any animal—humans included—must work, just to stay alive: to get enough to eat, to avoid being eaten, and to stay comfortably warm.

Anthropology, the evolution of behaviour, and training dogs
The landscape south of Inuvik. Photo: Kristi  Benson.

Fitness and Adaptation: The Economy of Behaviour

Animals are not like plants. They don’t stay firmly and fixedly in one place and grow, harvesting sunlight to stay alive. Instead, animals use their senses to interpret their worlds, and based on what’s happening around them, they use their muscles and their brains to, well, do stuff. An animal’s behaviour, taken from a broad perspective, is a complex mix of natural behaviours they are born doing or grow into, and behaviours they have, based on experiences over the span of their lives, learned to do. Animals head out into their worlds to obtain food, they head out into their worlds to find mates, and they fight or flee to protect themselves or important resources.

In the scientific theory of evolution, animals are understood to evolve in ways both physical and behavioural through natural and sexual selection. Those animals that are the best at survival and reproduction in their local environments are the ones that pass along copies of themselves (or more accurately, their genes) to another generation of animals. That is to say, the animals that are the best at making a living in their world survive to pass along their particular blend of physical and behavioural characteristics. An animal that cannot get enough to eat or avoid all of life’s innumerous pitfalls will leave no offspring—and therefore disappear from an evolutionary standpoint—in any ecosystem.

Making a living in the world: anthropology and training dogs
The mountains south of Fort McPherson. Photo: Kristi Benson

Although I hadn’t considered the behaviour of moose or grizzly bears as a job before I started working with Dinjii Zhuh Elders it does make sense to view behaviour through this lens. Of course we, as humans, aren’t the only ones who need to make a living in the world. Humans aren’t separate from animals, in any real sense: we are mammals, and our behaviour has evolved to increase our fitness, and therefore our ability to make copies of ourselves, just like any other animal’s behaviour has.

Łaii (Dogs)

So how does this relate to łaii (dogs)? As a dog trainer, I often use the very phrase I learned from my Gwich’in colleagues and interviewees: dogs, like caribou and muskrats, make a living in their world. Although nowadays, we give dogs the food they need to survive (twice a day in a nice little bowl), protect them from danger, and provide beds, shelter, and other needs, their need to make sense of their worlds and, well, do stuff is still present.

Dogs behave in the same ways that helped their forebears obtain food, find mates, and stay safe. For example, many dogs still exhibit ‘food acquisition’ or hunting behaviours, although sometimes these behaviours show up as practice or play versions. These dogs chase prey, or reasonable and fun correlates of prey like bicycles, tennis balls, cars, and frisbees. Some dogs also dismember their prey, or reasonable and fun correlates like stuffed animals, beds, couches, shoes, tissue, and paper bags. And many dogs will gnaw on bones to obtain the nutrient-rich marrow and clean their teeth—although as pets, these bones are typically Kongs, antlers, or other purpose-made chews. Most dogs kept as pets are fixed/neutered, so their mate-selection behaviours are somewhat truncated. But we can still see them, especially in play.

An animal in the wild must do a good job of protecting herself or himself, and must also protect important resources. Many dogs retain this instinct, and will protect themselves by displaying fearful or aggressive behaviour if they feel threatened. One typical context is meeting people they don’t know—although many dogs are friendly to strangers, this is by no means assured (and people who are looking to acquire puppies do well to both seek out the progeny of friendly parents and socialize their new pup broadly). When dogs behave either fearfully (by cowering, hiding, running) or aggressively (by barking, snarling, and biting) towards people they do not know, they are simply reacting in the way any animal does when faced with a threat: trying to get some distance.

Making a living in the world: A watchful wolverine must work hard
A watchful wolverine in Haines, Alaska. Photo: Richard Seeley/Shutterstock

Another context in which we frequently see a dog’s industriousness is when they guard resources like a food dish or a chew toy. From the dog’s perspective, there is no reason to go to all the work of getting food if someone will just come and take it all away. As another example, nèhtrùh, or wolverine, are well-known to behave aggressively towards people or any other animal interloper who might make a run at their food. And wolverine have a strategy that dogs, luckily, do not share: they will ‘mark’ their food with their strong-smelling urine, ensuring that no-one else would want to come within a mile of it.

“that’s where he makes his living.”
Gwichya Gwich’in Elder Pierre Benoit, speaking about
wolverines living in brushy areas, in a 2013 interview.
 Gwich’in Traditional Knowledge: Nèhtrùh (Wolverine), p 38. 

In addition to their comprehensive knowledge about the land, the weather, and the animals, Gwich’in Elders also know about how the world came to be. In stories recorded in the 1970s for CBC radio, for example, they told of a time long in the past when humans and animals spoke the same language, and co-existed as equals. Before things changed, before the world became how it is today, the animals and the humans had meetings to discuss how they should relate to each other.

Although we can’t talk to our dogs, and we can’t have meetings to discuss how we’ll relate to each other, we can do our dogs a service by recognizing that when dogs struggle to fit into a very human world, they aren’t being defiant or stubborn. Dogs, like all animals, are simply behaving in ways that have always helped them to survive and thrive: they’re making a living in their world.

Gwich’in place names from the Gwich’in Place Names Atlas online.
Gwich’in animal names are in the Teetł’it Gwich’in dialect of Fort McPherson, and are from the Gwich'in Topical Dictionary, 6th edition, 2009. They were reviewed by Eleanor Mitchell-Firth. 
Màhsì’ (thank-you) to Dr. Crystal Fraser for her review of this blog. 

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