This article, “The Debate over Neutering” is likely to be the most controversial aspect of Natural Dog Training, but it is the inescapable conclusion of the belief that dogs are social by nature. Because if this is true, that dogs are the most cooperative animal on earth, then by definition, even their sexual makeup is vital to their social nature.
However, I’m not trying to convince owners not to neuter their male dogs. Every owner is entitled to do what they believe is in the best interest of their dog. From my perspective, a whole dog has more energy and this presents its own set of issues that I’m fully prepared to deal with. And from my perspective, I believe it’s easier to prevent and/or solve dog problems with energy at the surface rather than the other way around. If someone asks me my opinion, the article which follows is the basis of my response to the question. If an owner doesn’t agree with me or feel safe about going outside the mainstream conventional way of thinking, I’m fine with their choice because it doesn’t impact me. Many owners of puppies hear what I have to say, reject my advice and then we go on and work together. I will consider my educational mission in dogdom successful if owners were to say “I want to neuter my male dog because I don’t want him to have so much energy and I think he will still be healthy”.
On the other hand, I am compelled to write this article because there are those who are indeed on a soapbox and telling me and my clients that we are somehow being irresponsible, somehow contributing to the over-population of dogs in shelters, and somehow frustrating dogs with a misdirected and woe-begotten libido. Legislation and town ordinances are being proposed and enacted to compel owners of male dogs to have them neutered. In New York City a male, whole Rottweiler ended up in the shelter system after it had been stolen from its owner. When its owner finally tracked it down, he was refused his dog unless he agreed to have it neutered. It cost the man $10,000 in legal fees to get his dog back and keep him intact. This is outrageous, and it’s time to set the record straight before this propaganda campaign gets worse. There is nothing broken about a male dog and therefore it is presumptuous of us to think the most social animal on the face of the earth needs to be “fixed”.
The argument made by mainstream dogdom against whole males is based on two false judgments: 1) Male energy is in some way inimical to smooth social functioning 2) There is such a thing as “bad energy”. This mindset concerns me because it distorts our view of dogs. I will explain below why I don’t believe neutering male dogs is calming, healthful or sociologically justified.
I’ve been in the dog business all my life. As a boy I worked at my father’s kennel, “Canine College” in West Redding, Connecticut. My father, John Behan, began his career in the Army Canine Corps during WW Two, training dogs for deployment in the Pacific theater of combat. After the war, Dad was one of the first trainers to install service dogs in police departments and security applications, and he could very well have been the first trainer to apply the idea of wolves organized as a dominance hierarchy to the relationship between a dog and its owner. I am well versed in this theory.
I can distinctly remember in the sixties when the question of whether or not to neuter a male puppy started to nag at dog owners. They were beginning to hear from a growing number of veterinarians and dog experts that neutering had many benefits for male dogs, behavioral as well as medical. In those early years owners often questioned this advice (this was most true of men at that time, however now women are more willing to question modern orthodoxy) and wondered why any part of a happy, healthy puppy’s anatomy needed to be removed?
I could never see why the marketplace saw any cause for concern in the first place. I grew up with whole males as our family pets. Most of the male dogs we boarded and trained were whole. We trained police and personal protection dogs, all were whole and all were social when off-duty. When dogs misbehaved, we didn’t attribute the problem to too much testosterone. In our minds, problem behaviors represented social rather than hormonal imbalances. We believed that any dog raised and trained properly could learn to get along with anyone or any other dog or animal. If something was off in a dog’s behavior, our first impulse was to find the cause of the social imbalance and redress it. I can now see that not looking for surface biological, chemical explanations for complex social behavior was my beginning as a “natural dog trainer”.
However in the seventies, as behaviorism took over the marketplace of ideas and the commerce of dog training, the debate over neutering became more like a theological schism – with folks starting to get their hackles up. By the eighties, whoever stood on the wrong side of the inquisition was viewed as a heretic. It became virtually impossible to have a reasoned exchange of ideas on the matter. If I broached the topic at a gathering of dog folk, it provoked instant anger and so I learned to tread softly. And when puppy owners came to me for consultations or lessons, I noticed them visibly squirming at the prospect of resisting what their vet, breeder, or next door neighbor was telling them in favor of neutering.
Today there is virtually no debate on the question of neutering whatsoever. Trainers, behaviorists, breeders and veterinarians have convinced the vast majority of dog owners that there are overwhelming benefits to neutering. Castrating male puppies is now considered a basic rite of passage into human society, as automatic and necessary a procedure as a rabies vaccine. A three-pronged argument in favor of neutering has stamped out the heresy.
First of all, neutering is said to calm a dog so that he won’t become sexually frustrated, or hyperactive, and he won’t roam the countryside looking for potential mates, and the most often cited behavioral benefit, the dog won’t become aggressive. Secondly, neutering is said to improve the health of male dogs. Neutered male dogs do not get testicular cancer. Thirdly, widespread neutering is said to reduce the number of pets in circulation, and as the reasoning goes, fewer pets in dog pounds means that fewer pets will have to be destroyed.
It would thus appear that the argument in favor of neutering hasn’t a downside in sight. Advocates claim that neutering improves everything about a male dog’s physical and temperamental constitution, and yet has absolutely no impact on a dog’s personality or disposition. It’s a miracle. Neutering changes everything while it doesn’t change a thing.
However, I will argue that sexuality is so vital to the canine’s social nature we must reopen the debate on neutering. In this article I am going to present a new explanation for why sexuality evolved in nature, what its real role is in behavior and evolution, and from that perspective, we will revisit each argument that’s made in favor of neutering male dogs. My objections to neutering arise from what I’ve learned about a dog’s social nature, the nature of sociability, as well as the correlation between wholeness and health. With an almost universal rate of compliance in the neutering of male dogs, in conjunction with an exponential increase in the percentage of dogs trained through nationally certified and affordable dog training programs, and with the wealth of behavioral information available through the internet, magazines, videos and television programs, we need to ask therefore, why is there an alarming rise in rates of aggression in dogs these days, at younger and younger ages and in breeds that would have been unthinkable forty years ago? Is something amiss in modern dogdom; is something missing from our understanding on dogs?
Why sex and what is sex?
It might be surprising to many people to learn that the purpose of sexuality in animals is currently in scientific limbo. Surely something as fundamental as sexuality would have been figured out by now, and yet the truth is that it remains a subject of intense scientific debate. Jared Diamond in the “Third Ape” quips that science has the right answer; it just doesn’t know which one it is yet. I would argue that if science doesn’t know which one it is, then it doesn’t know the answer. On multiple choice tests if you don’t check an answer, you still get it wrong.
We jump straightaway to the issue of sexuality because most instances of canine aggression are attributed to a “drive to dominate” and this is supposedly in response to the universal mandate within every organism to compete for mates in order to disseminate its genes. Currently gene replication is seen as the mainspring to evolutionary psychology. If males are competing to secure breeding privileges certainly this could cause social discord.
However, if we’re going to say that male dogs become more social by virtue of being neutered, then this means that male sexual energy can be anti-social, which then immediately contradicts the most basic observation one can make about the nature of dogs, i.e. they are highly sexual in direct proportion to the degree to which they are highly social. This is a particularly inconvenient fact because elsewhere in mainstream biology the sexuality of Bonobos, labeled by evolutionary behaviorists the “social ape,” is lauded as the defining feature of their sociability. Bonobos use sexual pleasuring in every interaction, between members of the opposite sex, same sex, parent and offspring. And yet when it comes to the dog, canine behaviorism represents what I call the “New Puritanism”. All of a sudden sexuality in dogs (and dogs make Bonobos look chaste in comparison) has become a bad energy.
Just as every feather on a bird contributes to its ability to fly, wouldn’t every aspect of a dog’s nature contribute to its ability to cooperate, since the overriding feature of the canine nature is an innate and compulsive sociability?
My thesis is that sexuality evolved as an emotional transformer so that emotion could move from the simple Predator-Prey modality (Instinct), through the Male-Female modality (Sexuality), on its way to elaborating into complex personality traits (Social or Drive energy.) Sexuality is a transformer through which raw energy evolves into refined energy. This is why adolescence and coming of age is considered so critical in the social development of human beings. Our sexuality is how we mature.
A Brief Overview of the Role Sexuality Plays in Nature
This is my rock bottom principle. It takes new energy to be social. Sexuality is first and foremost about making new energy because every social contact is an act of creation in abject defiance of instinct. An act of creation requires new energy in order to get past the limiting effect of an instinct. An instinct always travels the path of least resistance, whereas a social act is always the path of highest resistance and it takes energy to get water to move uphill. So just as each day plants absorb solar energy – new energy – to create the carbon bonds of new plant growth and nourish existing tissues, animals likewise need new energy (each and every time) to not only grow, but simply to maintain existing social bonds. This is the main reason why dogs can’t possibly be social by instinct, since an instinct is about maintaining stasis, whereas sociability is about adding energy in direct contravention to the status quo. The best of dog buddies are constantly smelling each other no matter how well they get along or “know” each other, because this is how new energy is added to their emotional bond.
Where does new energy come from? From old energy.
An animal by virtue of its physiological and neurological makeup acquires a “bio-static charge” merely by contact with the external world, just as a spring driven toy car that’s rolled along the ground becomes wound up with an internal tension. Simply by being sentient an animal acquires a standing, whole body state of tension just like that toy car being rolled against the floor. Then, when it perceives something in its environment as a re-leaser from this charge, it feels this as a pull of attraction, what we call emotion.
Next, when an animal experiences resistance to the expression of its emotion, it acquires “unresolved emotion” which accrues to become an organism’s “emotional mass”. Unresolved emotion serves many behavioral functions in the moderation of consciousness, one of which is as an energy reserve for critical moments. In this way we can think of an animal’s body as an emotional battery, the deepest layers of which come up to the surface in moments of crisis or dramatic change.
However, the most important understanding is that while this energy may be latent, it is by no means dormant. As a lump sum aggregate mass, it serves as an emotional beings “emotional center-of-gravity” and just like a physical center-of-gravity, it can move anywhere in the body. When the e-cog is triggered by external stimuli, this movement of unresolved emotion as a lump sum composite is experienced by the individual as sexual energy.
So first there is emotion as a release from bio-static pressure, and behavior in this modality proceeds according to the simple Predator-Prey instinctual conduit. However, when the expression of emotion through the prey making conduit meets resistance, unresolved emotion is produced, and the release from unresolved emotion becomes organized as a state of physical sensuality, i.e. sexual (Male/Female) and this is what an animal experiences as new energy. Simply by watching any two dogs interact, one can see each individual evolving to occupy one of these complementary polarities, and then even more importantly, exchanging these roles if the interaction really gets going. We call this play but what’s really happening is that they are each turning the others’ stress reserves into new energy and this makes them both feel sensual. In short, sexual animals are more social because they have a higher capacity to feel energized by being close to other beings. When another being moves, the observing animal feels just as if it’s being energized rather than destabilized (as in an instinct). Ultimately, this feeling of new energy evolves into a permanent emotional bond that is constantly renewed by physical proximity and constant physical contact. Therefore, by definition, it is an oxymoron to say that a dog is social by instinct as is embodied in the popular expression, “dogs are pack animals”. No, dogs are group animals and this is because they are highly sexual beings.
Another way of saying all of the above is that a sexual nature allows an individual to project its “self” (e-cog) out of its body and into another body. And the greater the sexual capacity of an individual, the greater the gap it can project beyond and thereby secure a new connection.
Below we will examine the myths that inspire people to believe in the benefits of neutering.
The Calming Myth
Where did the idea arise that neutering is a calming influence on a dog and why have these observed changes in behavior been interpreted as being beneficial?
It seems to me that most of our views on animal husbandry have trickled down to us from life on the farm. Animal sciences and veterinary medicine arose from the agrarian need to manage cows, sheep, chickens and horses in an efficient and cost effective way, and in tight quarters. As a boy I remember “Smokey”, a chestnut horse that my father raised from a colt into a magnificent stallion. When Smokey didn’t get enough exercise he became agitated and might even kick down his stall door. When other horses rode past our property, it was questionable whether or not the fences would contain him. I forget exactly at what age he was “gelded” as the procedure is called in horses but I remember the event and recall that the horse was far more tractable thereafter. If someone rode by our farm, he’d get excited, but the fence seemed a whole lot stronger. This mellowing effect I’m sure is the general rule in livestock. When males are castrated they become more docile and easier for the farmer to manage as tension between them abates. (Recently however, some of my horse-owning clients have told me that their stallions are far more tractable than their gelded males.)
Then in the latter half of the 20th century, as the pet market developed, the veterinary field began to concentrate and specialize on cats and dogs, however, because of these barnyard beginnings the same theory used to account for the social behavior of livestock was applied to dogs, and there has been little examination of the many discrepancies in the theory. Therefore we have a wide acceptance of the theory that the social organization of canines is analogous to large animals and poultry; that being, a society founded on a dominant and submissive hierarchy of rank, a sophisticated version of the so-called “pecking order.”
The social life of canines is universally interpreted as the struggle for status to secure the right to pass on one’s genes. Among wolves, only the dominant pair breed and the “competition” is so pronounced that inferior females don’t even come into estrus. Given this evidence, the drive to reproduce has been traditionally seen as the mainspring to any group’s workings. Therefore, were the sexual mechanism to be deactivated by removal of the sexual glands, a potentially wild animal would be tamed. And in fact, when dogs are neutered changes in their behavior are often reported, and so the prevailing model is seemingly confirmed – as well as the stream of logic that suggests a male dog be neutered as an antidote to an excitable or unruly nature. Allegedly, what is innate and wild about a male dog is what’s wrong with him.
Yet there are two flagrant flaws to applying this model for horses, cows, sheep and chickens to dogs. One, we don’t live with horses, cows, sheep or chickens. We keep them penned up, harnessed when in public, and when we’re done for the day we leave them behind in a barn, paddock or chicken coop. Dogs on the other hand, participate in every aspect of human life. Secondly, livestock are prey animals whereas the dog evolved from the wolf, a predator. While a stronger case can be made that the social life of prey animals revolves around a competition for breeding rites (which in my view still isn’t accurate), wolves and dogs on the other hand march to a more complex cadence; one far more intricate even than other predators such as lions, cats or bears which attack prey that they can overpower singly.
But I understand the reasoning. If one views sexuality as being synonymous with sexual intercourse, then of course it would seem logical that the highest expressions of sexual energy are courtship and breeding behaviors, and competition for mates. One might also think that I’m saying that a whole dog needs to copulate in order to feel fulfilled. But I’m not. As a matter of fact, active stud dogs are more sexually frustrated than sexually naïve dogs when they’re not breeding and this is because copulation can never yield a full measure of wholeness. Procreation isn’t the fundamental purpose sexuality evolved to serve in nature.
In my model of animal behavior, I’m using the term sexuality in a far more neutral sense: in fact the term sensuality might be more apt. In my view, sexual/sensuality is, at its core, a feeling of resonance with one’s surroundings, be it with one’s environmental circumstances (for example a feeling of expansiveness while standing in a large, open field) or with one’s “temperamental” circumstances (for example a feeling of warm, physical rapport with a fellow human being or an animal). Another word we could substitute for my meaning of the term sexuality is “animal magnetism”. (Walt Whitman and the naturalist romantics from the 19th century would have no problem with this broader view of sexual/sensuality as I’m using it here. The idea of sexuality in its largest sense as a state of physical sensuality is in fact the traditional viewpoint. Whereas in our modern denatured times, sexuality has become a hyper sensation that is not natural and is not a true feeling.)
If an animal can feel resonance, it can likewise feel dissonance. In fact, the greater the potential of any organism to feel resonance, the greater the potential for that organism to feel dissonance. This is why animals can become stressed and possibly disoriented, whereas when insects are disturbed, they become excited and exhibit no lag time between disturbance and an automatically generated response that deals in a precise manner with the source of a disturbance. Animals being that they have a sexual nature have to “pick up” their “magnetic” bearings in order to feel how to proceed, like a homing pigeon orbiting two or three times when released before it knows the way home. So because sexual/sensuality represents a whole-body phenomenon that is primarily about inter-personal dynamics, and is not limited to the animal’s genitalia, therefore a dog does not need to breed to feel sensually fulfilled. Its body is how it connects to its surroundings and in creative ways that yield new energy, and new energy is the fundamental motive for all behavior, – not gene replication.
My premise is that sexuality is only thirdly about procreation and gene mixing, it is secondarily about recreation; and it is primarily about creation, by which I mean the merging of the emotional energies of two individuals via a process of sensual differentiation (one becomes prey, one becomes predator, one becomes female, the other becomes male, one becomes Active/Direct, to the other as Reactive/Indirect) in a synchronized response to change. These roles are interchanged (and irregardless of each one’s sex) until they form one social being.
In their book Dogs, the Drs. Raymond and Lorna Coppinger raise an important point about the domestication process of dogs. Early man could not have domesticated the wolf by deliberate intent because it would have been impossible to confine a large enough breeding population of wolves over the number of generations required to produce a domesticated version. They note how wolves are almost impossible to contain even with the high chain-link fences and elaborate gate mechanisms available to modern researchers. So even if some wolves were seized as cubs and tamed by early man, the fact remains that when they reached sexual maturation they would have fled to the wild to breed, never to return, and all the scarce resources that had been poured into them, what would be the difference between life and death for a people in the short run, would be running off with the wolves as well. The first versions of proto-dog, once it reached maturity, wouldn’t have been capable of being a companion let alone a working partner with early humans because it would have quickly left to sow its wild oats given that in their model, the dissemination of genes is the overarching principle to animal behavior.
The Coppingers’ developed the “Village Dump” scenario in order to account for how man might have inadvertently domesticated the wolf without having to house and care for breeding stock. Once humans settled in villages, a steady source of garbage was freely available and would have selected across an entire genome for the most approachable individuals. The last wolves to leave and the first to return ate the most garbage and might have developed an affinity for humans. A Russian fox breeding experiment seemingly verifies the premise that it takes relatively few generations selecting for approachability to produce a domesticated version of the fox. Also, the fact that every village in the third world has its set of village dogs that don’t actually belong to anyone is more compelling evidence that scavenging at the village dump may have brought proto-dog into close affiliation with humans.
However, the fact that when proto-dog reached sexual maturity, it didn’t head for the hills could also reinforce my argument that sexuality is inseparable from hunting a large, dangerous prey animal that lies beyond the physical capacity of such a predator. I believe this is a more plausible theory because the simple fact remains that there are no domesticated versions of the fox anywhere in the world, which as the Russian breeding experiment reveals, would have required a short span of time to effect. Where are the “fox-dogs”?
All the current scenarios for domestication hinge on the concept of neotony, i.e. the retention of infantile characteristics into adulthood. Stephen Budiansky in “The Truth About Dogs” claims this is the source of the various breeds of dogs. However in an energy model, neotony isn’t the retention of infantile characteristics into adulthood; rather it’s the phase of life when the physical/sensual channel, whereby raw emotion evolves into social energy, is at its most pronounced and the threshold of “projection” of the e-cog into another individual is at its lowest. This is why infant puppies mount other puppies. They are not exhibiting a drive to dominate or a sexual reflex out of context; rather they are manifesting the highly evolved sexual transformer.
In other words, even when an adult animal makes social contact with another animal, it’s not the adult mind that’s being engaged: it’s the infant mind coming up to the surface due to the softening effects that incur in such an individual as it perceives (and if it perceives) the pure positive, emotional value of what it’s attracted to. The resulting state of sensual alignment then secures an actual physical connection (via emotional projection) as the two parties exchange the aforementioned roles in order to become each other’s emotional counterbalance. The young of every species are much more social than when they mature into adults because this is when the higher processes of their brain are not yet highly developed. The infant mind turns the stress of change into a stronger force of attraction because the puppy mind remains intimately integrated with the sexual module. The higher processes of the nervous system detach it from this intimate degree of integration and render the adult mind. It’s precisely because there is such a channel; and that the channel persists into adulthood as the basis of social behavior (and to neutralize the limiting effects of a highly developed nervous system), that the phenomenon is even available to and malleable by selective breeding in the first place.
Just as Serpell in “The Domestic Dog” points out that the fetus in the womb is a highly specialized organism that evolved to adapt to a specific environmental niche, i.e. the womb, likewise in a “network consciousness” way of looking at social behavior and evolution, so too is the infant puppy. It’s not undeveloped in the sense of being un-evolved. Rather, I call the puppy mind a “social stem cell” capable of devolving from the adult form and re-evolving in response to whatever emotional environment it currently finds itself in.
At any rate, it doesn’t matter to my theory of behavior which domestication scenario proves true, or even what specific animal is the true ancestor of the domestic dog. My theory rests on one demonstrable, observable and testable fact, that the drive to hunt in dogs is stronger than the drive to reproduce or even to survive. This is why dogs can be trained to hunt past the point of satiation, why untrained dogs chase deer they are never, ever going to catch, not to mention that dogs chase cars that do kill them, and why it is even possible to have a police dog eagerly dash into gunfire. Not that such a dog is aware of danger and therefore capable of courage in the human sense of the term; that in fact is just the point. Because such a dog is so sensualized by the drive to hunt and craves physical contact above all else, is why it’s oblivious to the possibility of danger. No other animal can be trained to perform such a feat. Gunfire, stick hits, knock-down, drag-out fights are converted into physical stimulants by such a dog’s “puppy mind”.
Therefore, because sexuality serves a function far bigger than reproduction (i.e. the drive-to-make-contact-with-the-path-of-highest-resistance), because this makes the most energy, and because the domestication process amplified the emotional/sexual capacity of the wolf (or some other closely related ancestor), this accounts for the domestication of the dog and is also why no other species of animal but the wolf can produce a domesticated version as varied and as adaptable as the dog. The wolf stands alone in this regard because it must feel which prey is becoming vulnerable since its main prey is physically superior to wolves. Wolves evolved to project its “self” (e-cog) into prey animals and then “reads” what’s going on “out there” by virtue of what it feels “in here.”
The ability to cross the genetic/instinctual divide that separates man from beast is a matter of emotional capacity, and the one and only animal with the emotional capacity to bridge the gap between animal and human, is the dog. And since sexual/sensuality is that mechanism of trans-species communication that co-evolved with the wolf’s capacity to hunt a physically superior prey, there is no need for dog to breed in order to feel sexually/sensually fulfilled. I maintain that the highly sexual nature of dogs is precisely why they are able to eschew a life of the wild because only contact with man can complete the dog’s deepest emotional circuitry. So just as the hunt involves sexuality as a transformer between prey and predator, the connection between man and proto-dog likewise revolved around the hunt and became a means of communication and emotional bonding that was more gratifying than anything else proto-dog could possibly do.
One might counter that their male dog would rather breed with a female in heat than be by their side if the opportunity presented itself, and the Drs. Coppingers likewise maintain that the drive to hunt in dogs is not that strong. But I would counter that this is because such a dog’s emotional capacity was never developed and was actually inhibited by its manner of raising and training. (Interestingly the Coppingers are accomplished sled dog breeders, trainers and racers and I would point out that the drive to pull the sled with the group of dogs feeding off each other’s energy, and the proclivity of such dogs to howl in unison, is the very sensual/sexual capacity I’m arguing for as the fundamental essence of the canine social nature. Imagine harnessing a pack of cats together!)
Every protection dog trainer knows that a dog in drive could care less about a female in heat on the training field. It’s only after the training session when the dog comes down from its “Drive” that it would be distracted by a female in heat. I own a male and a female German shepherd and twice a year my female comes into heat. If I left my male dog outside he would indeed tear down the gate to the yard and breed with her, and this is a bi-annual period of great inconvenience around the Behan household. Nevertheless, when I let my male outdoors and he immediately runs to the gate where the female flags her tail, when I fire up my tractor and head off into the woods to gather some firewood, he immediately leaves her behind because he would rather be part of that hunt.
Now because most of the sexual/sensual behaviors that belong to this social-making domain manifest on a far subtler plane of physical expression than overt acts of copulation, they have been mistakenly attributed to other faculties of intelligence, such as thinking or instinct. For example, when a dog goes around an obstacle toward an object of attraction as opposed to fruitlessly pursuing a straightforward approach or giving up altogether, in reality this is a function of sensual alignment with the object of desire. The feat of “intelligence” does not represent a dog figuring out that one way could be better than another; sensuality means orienting according to the cardinal points of the compass. You may have noticed that when you train a dog to not go in one direction, it only means don’t go in that direction. One still has to go around the compass. Also, when dogs meet and greet, they are sensually orienting and aligning with each other, not displaying dominance and submission and thereby figuring out a hierarchy of relative rank. If this latter explanation were true, then why do dogs investigate their own urine and poop? Are they placing themselves into their own internal hierarchy of rank?
On occasion of course, a feeling of physical rapport does indeed lead to procreation (although we see with humans that it is far more often in pursuit of recreation rather than a drive to procreate), and hormones have a lot to do with intensifying a state of sensual alignment to the point of mating. However in most species, hormones raise the individual’s emotional capacity so that they can get past the limiting effects of instinct that maintain social and flight distances, whereas in dogs the exact opposite is happening. The overt sex hormones decrease the emotional capacity of canines so that their feeling of resonance collapses into sexual reflexes that are species-specific to how canines copulate. But even here we can still see the tell-tale signature of emotional fusion as the governing principle to the canine makeup as manifested by the canine copulatory tie with male and female interlocked for as long as an hour or two; a position of compromise which again defies all mainstream biological explanation.
The fundamental and most important function of sexuality is to facilitate the communication of energy between animals, and most especially, between species. Furthermore, by definition this produces sociability because sociability in the grand scheme of things is how “the network” adds energy to the system in order to offset entropy. Therefore, species of animals co-evolve to create an ecosystem just as plants co-evolve to generate a life-giving atmosphere, and just as participants in an economy through their collective purchases and services co-evolve to generate wealth, i.e. new energy as in the expansion of an economy. In all of nature, the highest expression of this evolved form of symbiotic communication predicated on a physical/sensual rapport is the relationship that has evolved between dog and man.
If all of the above is true, what happens when a dog is neutered?
Because sexuality is a far bigger phenomenon than genitalia and reproduction, even a neutered dog remains fundamentally a sexual animal, so we are just talking about a few clicks on a gradient if temperament were to be visualized on a clock face. Every dog has a temperamental “flaw”, a set point toward which it gravitates in order to deal with stress. Some dogs like to be at 5:29, some orient to 11:59 etc., and these various polarities play out as diametrically different behaviors. Each individual has the entire code, but they orient to a preferred “polarity” and in this way the phenomenon of temperament accounts for variability within a litter as it simultaneously accounts for variability between breeds. It’s a simple fractal equation elaborating into an unbelievably intricate expression on every level of organization, from the internal makeup of the individual, to the external makeup of the group, to the makeup of the entire canine genome and its inter-relatedness with other species.
Running parallel with the confusion of sexuality with reproduction is the confusion of sexuality with hormones. Hormones do not cause behavior: they support behavior in the sense that they amplify the feeling of resonance and sustain a force of attraction despite a high rate of change or a high degree of resistance in the surroundings. For this reason the military drafts young men that are at the peak of a testosterone-addled worldview because they entertain a ridiculous belief in their invulnerability. Green soldiers actually chafe for combat to break the boredom of peacetime deployment. Stephen Ambrose writes that the first wave of Allied forces hitting the beaches at Normandy were troops that had never seen combat. The assault planners knew that given the overwhelming odds against success, they didn’t want to ask combat veterans: who had long since lost the blinding flush of testosterone to the cold hard reality of warfare, to entertain that the impossible was possible.
If a lust for action, which is actually a lust for energy, also invokes a blind-like faith in one’s sense of invulnerability and unlimited potential, what’s so bad about that? How does that make testosterone an anti-social hormone? Hormones do not cause sexuality: hormones support sexuality. Hormones do not create energy: they exist in service to emotion in order to make energy.
Seeing sexuality as a function of hormones also makes us think that a state of sexual attractiveness can only occur between individuals of the same species. Yet if we were to revisit how wolves hunt, or look again at dogs working livestock, we might note that they are sexually attracted to their prey because this is how a straightforward Drive-To-Make-Contact is deflected into circular, indirect manners of approach that are context specific, i.e. in resonance with what the sheep and even the human sheepherder are doing. A properly trained working dog circles the sheep with the same drive as they do were they to dive in and grab a sheep with a full-mouth bite. In other words, the simple prey drive manifests into complex social behaviors because the physical resistance of the situation is transformed by an organism’s sexual nature, into an even stronger feeling of attraction, although now one that is imbued with an incredible degree of nuance and refinement as a circular style of release. And with the emotional experience of this higher level of complexity, the dog derives an even deeper feeling of wholeness and contentedness. In fact I contend that a properly channeled dog working sheep derives more emotional satisfaction then a dog actually killing one.
Hormones do not create social behavior or anti–social behavior: their function is to support social behavior. They support an individual’s ability to go out on a social limb so to speak and take up a novel social station so as to add energy to the system by maintaining an old connection or making a new one. Making social contact means taking a risk and always goes against the grain of an instinct. Instincts seek stasis, whereas sociability means change, growth. It’s a pack instinct that compels a wolf pack to kill an alien wolf straying into its territory, whereas it’s the puppy mind that would let a lone wolf in.
Hormones are released in my theory when the dog senses the potential for a common ground with a newcomer. This makes the dog feel more energized and he becomes more active and refined about making contact. Also, hormones serve to devolve an individual back to the clear emotional channel he was born with as a puppy, only now to be reconfigured in terms of the object of attraction and by which I mean as its emotional counterbalance.
When the sexual glands are removed the dog loses the energetic support of hormones. He feels less safe about extending himself emotionally, of opening up. He gravitates to his temperamental set point and resists being displaced from it. Some believe this is calmness. And I’m not saying he’s not “friendly”, – in fact he may even become hyper-friendly, i.e. socially nervous. This is but one possible manifestation of having less energy; some of these effects are subtle whereas some are overt. For example, a dog may begin to roam less because it has less energy, and so this is seen as good. But then later in life it becomes noise-sensitive or even phobic. However, because so much time has gone by no one is likely to make the connection and the dog’s sudden aversion to a loud noise is mistakenly attributed to the dog’s personality or perhaps to some negative experience.
Because emotion piggybacks on the most fundamental systems of the body, in particular the physiological and neurological processes dedicated to balance and hunger, in order for one individual to let another into its “mood”, it must “feel open” so that the new object of attraction becomes integrated into its hunger/balance makeup. Sexuality facilitates this. (Note we say physical, emotional and sexual appetite.) Whereas on the one hand a neutered dog becomes more sensitive to changes in his social environment, (and possibly more friendly as a defensive response) and becomes more resistant to “flipping polarity” to allow for new energy to come into the system. A social brittleness begins to replace a desirable flexibility because an individual will begin to need more and more to reside at his most comfortable place within the pack, his inborn temperamental inclination. Not being supported by hormonal energy, the individual will resist being displaced and moving to a new role or personality style in order to facilitate the group purpose. Therefore, change appears more threatening to neutered males. At my kennel we have a large play yard for the dogs, and it’s our experience that the neutered males had to be supervised most closely, whereas we always find the whole dog running around with a stick in its mouth as if to say, “Come on fellas, cut it out, let’s play.”
About 15 years ago my New York clients started to report that their neutered males were attacking whole males. Owners at the dog runs were telling newcomers to neuter their male puppies or otherwise their neutered dogs would pick fights with them. At first I found this hard to believe, but not for long. The judgment against male energy held by humans is now manifesting in their dogs.
Meanwhile, it’s strange that we don’t recognize the obvious good effects that sexuality imparts to sociability. We recognize that male and female dogs get along better in the same household than same sexed pairings because the overt, complementary sexual channel between them is so readily available. Similarly, we recognize that wolves are extremely social animals, and yet in the wild no pack member is spayed or neutered. And dogs are far more social than wolves because they are to the exact same degree more sexual than wolves. A wolf isn’t sexually mature until 2 years of age, whereas dogs are fertile at six months. Wolves are selective about breeding partners whereas dogs are promiscuously non–discriminating. Female wolves come into season once a year whereas female dogs come into heat twice a year. Clearly, domestication of the dog meant a further enhancement of the wolf’s already highly developed sexual capacity.
When I wrote this article about fifteen years ago, I lived with two whole males: a five-year old Corgi and a nine-year old German shepherd. Almost every day, training clients came to my farm and most of these were aggressive dogs. The vast majority of these dogs have been neutered and the most difficult of these cases are those who have been neutered at the earliest age. And yet I can open my door, let my dogs out and they will turn themselves inside and out trying to find a way to connect with such dogs. If the other dog puts up a wall, they’ll observe it. If the other dog is receptive to contact but is tentative and unsure, they’ll make themselves soft. If the other dog clearly wants to fight, they’ll give him a wide berth or approach with the most precise and delicate form of diplomatic entreaty. It isn’t because they are smart or well trained, it’s because they can feel what the other dog is feeling and they are compelled to respond sensually, rather than instinctively because that feels better. It doesn’t feel good to put a wet nose in a hot socket.
They sense the emotional balance of the new dog, and even though according to traditional dogma my dogs are on their own territory and should therefore be the ones threatened by an intruder, the opposite is the case. Barley, the Corgi, is feisty enough to take on the world and yet he is especially seductive in these tense moments, enticing the other dog to chase him while keeping close to the car in case he needs to duck under to escape the inevitable overload that immutably precedes a softening. He waits and waits and makes little entreaties until the clouds have fully cleared. Meanwhile, Illo the German shepherd will tend to root up a stick in order to find a common ground.
So, on the one hand proponents of neutering say that the procedure will change the dog’s entire outlook on life so that he’ll stop mounting, pulling his handler down the road, trying to establish dominance, peeing on the furniture, won’t have any aggressive tendencies whatsoever… it will calm him in every sense of the word. But then on the other hand, the experts say don’t worry, neutering won’t change your dog’s personality whatsoever. It won’t change anything, just as it changes everything.
Unfortunately, researchers, behaviorists, trainers, veterinarians, dog professionals and lay people alike have misinterpreted the complexities of canine social life and have reduced it to the drive to dominate in the quest for procreation. Castration is thereby seen as helping a dog adjust to our world. This might work well enough for horses and cows, but again, we don’t have to live with a horse or a cow. We don’t require these animals to cope with the degree of change that dogs are exposed to. We don’t ask them to step outside of their instinctual frames of reference as we require the dog.
The Pet Over–Population Myth
At first glance this aspect of the argument in favor of neutering seems compelling. If more male dogs were castrated, presumably there would be fewer litters whelped, fewer puppies needing homes and therefore fewer castaway pets. The yearly slaughter of millions of these abandoned waifs is indeed a tragedy. Were neutering able to reduce the national carnage who in their right mind would deny its merits?
Yes, there are too many dogs in America’s shelters, perfectly healthy and normal dogs, many destined to be killed. But if there are too many pets in shelters, does neutering address this issue?
The logic behind the claim that too-many-pets means too-many-problem-dogs in shelters makes as much sense as the idea that limiting the number of cars manufactured would reduce highway fatalities. If there were fewer puppies, by simple arithmetic there would be fewer candidates for the pound and perhaps this is why P.E.T.A. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an influential and in my view a radical animal rights group) is pushing for legislation that would outlaw the breeding of pet dogs altogether. Their reasoning, as it is for most advocates of neutering, is that there are too many dogs for the number of caring or responsible homes available to receive them. A reasonable argument at first glance, until one realizes that two unrelated concepts, A) an excess of dogs, and B) the condition of being unwanted, are being lumped together. And if these two concepts are accepted as an aggregate, one is then led into the faulty conclusion that it is the excess of dogs that produces the condition of their being unwanted.
First of all, has America reached the saturation point in regard to its number of pets? Consider that in France there are twice as many pets as there are children according to statistics quoted in the Reader’s Digest. (Over the last ten years however, there has been an interesting development in the northeast. It seems there aren’t enough abandoned dogs to meet demand and so humane societies are importing strays from the South as well as from around the world.) I suspect that if more American dog owners understood how dogs learn to cooperate by virtue of their sexual nature, our country could easily accommodate the number of puppies we now produce. And isn’t a high demand for pets a good thing? Life with a dog can offer one a refuge from the numbing pace of modern society, a veritable centrifuge of tension spinning us away from a sense of community and from contact with nature. Owning a dog gives one a ready excuse to go for a walk and draws one inevitably into contact with fellow dog owners. The simple act of walking a dog gives one a chance to ponder what mysteries of a vestigial and hidden wilderness are revealed by their pet’s acuity of senses.
Also, science has demonstrated that talking to and touching a pet is incredibly soothing; stroking a dog’s soft fur lowers blood pressure and reduces anxiety. Pets download the emotional burdens of an owner’s day without judgment or complaint. It may very well be that pets are responsible for preventing untold numbers of emotional and nervous breakdowns and these benefits are so widely recognized that pet-facilitated therapy is a rapidly growing field. Are there too many dogs? The politically correct answer these days may be yes, but truly, given the stresses of modern life, there are hardly enough.
In my mind, the only relevant question is where (or rather how) do unwanted pets come from? The situation is portrayed as if there are hordes of dogs sneaking around backyards, churning out puppies (irregardless of market demand) and then these winnow their way into homes across the land like an infestation of insects. Whereas most puppies (unlike kittens for example, as cats do breed freely in barns, underneath porches, in abandoned cars, etc.) do indeed start out in life wanted by someone. Pet stores, puppy mills, backyard breeders, none of which represent a source of pups that I would recommend, usually have no trouble finding willing owners for their puppies. They’re not turning out a huge surplus and then abandoning these dogs for the shelters to deal with. These outlets exist to satisfy a demand already in place; they don’t create the need, they capitalize on something already present in the marketplace. And even in those relatively rare instances when a household bitch is accidentally impregnated, in the vast majority of cases, eager people are readily found to bring the pups into their homes and lives. The linkage between too many pets, the condition of being unwanted, and the neutering issue, has been so effectively drummed into people’s minds that when I ask people if they intend to neuter their male puppy, the most common response I hear is, “Probably, we don’t intend to breed him and there are so many unwanted pets”. So what’s the problem? Don’t breed him and don’t ‘un-want’ him.
A critic might interject here that many owners get a puppy on impulse: they never would have acquired a pup if they hadn’t caught sight of that cute little doggie in the window. And when the pup outgrows the cute stage they soon fall by the wayside. This is an excellent argument against pet shops and puppy mills, but it has nothing to do with neutering. My preference is that pet shops and puppy mills be driven from business but preferably through consumer education. (However, an outright ban on inhumane breeding practices is needed.) Dogs are incredibly sensitive beings: puppies shouldn’t be put in glass cages in shopping malls and incessantly handled by curiosity seekers. But just because these operations are severely flawed doesn’t mean one can thereby link the issues of discarded pets, neutering and pet overpopulation into the same syndrome.
My critics might next counter that there would be fewer dogs discarded if only responsible people owned dogs. Yes, that would be nice.
For most of my career in dogs, my boarding and training business was located in Fairfield County, Connecticut, one of the richest areas in the country and an area that most likely has the highest percentage of neutered and spayed pets of any region in the country. By these indicators, Fairfield County is apparently a bastion of responsibility. Yet are Fairfield County’s pounds and shelters any less burdened? Are fewer pets destroyed here per capita than elsewhere? I continually heard of dogs being cast off or destroyed not because they started out as surplus flotsam, but because they developed one behavioral problem or another. Furthermore, I have never found a responsible person fail to see that euthanasia or abandonment is the most responsible approach to a serious problem. Responsible people are acting responsibly by removing a pet once they think there is no other option. A responsible owner doesn’t turn a dog loose or pawn it off on someone unsuspecting. Therefore I’ve found that affluence, rates of castration among pets or any of the so-called benchmarks of civic responsibility and compassion seem to correlate little with a pup’s chances of survival in man’s world.
And who is going to be made responsible for conducting the responsibility litmus test? I have known homeless people who have provided a companion dog with a good life. Who is going to be anointed judge of the rest of us, and what will be their standard? Were it possible to regulate, or legislate, a responsible owner into existence, responsibility without understanding still wouldn’t be enough. Education is the key. If consumers were more aware of what it takes to raise a calm, healthy companion they wouldn’t turn to pet stores and backyard breeders in the first place.
So while responsibility has its place, my point is that responsible dog ownership need not by definition require neutering. Especially since in my view, neutering doesn’t improve a dog’s sociability, it inhibits it and can thereby hasten a dog’s banishment to the pound or euthanasia at the clinic.
Given my interpretation of canine social nature, I view the so-called unwanted pet syndrome from a different perspective. The real problem as I’ve suggested isn’t that there are too many dogs, but that there are too many dogs being misunderstood and that it is the resulting confusion and disappointment that creates an unwanted pet. The argument is being presented standing on end. It’s the process of becoming unwanted that creates the so-called excess, not the other way around. That there are vast legions of unwanted and discarded dogs is not because there are too many dogs to go around, but because we are to that degree out of touch with the social nature of dogs. This is why I find the popular view of neutering as therapeutic so vexing, for it represents the absence and not the apex in the understanding of dog behavior. To repeat, the real problem isn’t pet overpopulation, (although I do indeed wish that only a few select dogs would be bred – and these wouldn’t be the ones show dog experts would select), the core issue is that dog and man all too often can’t learn to get along precisely because the wild, natural basis of canine behavior, the relationship of sexuality to harmonious group living isn’t understood and is in fact denied.
Therefore, when people take the time to train and regulate their dog’s activities, I don’t consider neutering as being in their dog’s best interests. But then maybe for some, neutering their dog is a way they can say to themselves they’re being responsible, and then they don’t actually have to act responsibly. They can open the door and let their dog go his own way in good conscience. It’s been my experience that the majority of male dogs discarded at shelters have already been neutered. Shelter workers tell me otherwise, but I don’t see this from my own experience. Where are these un-neutered dogs coming from? The average dog owner takes his puppy to a vet clinic for shots and is always advised to neuter their dog and most people, if they are interested in raising a well–adjusted puppy, accept it since this is the only information provided them. So if most of the dogs in shelters are un-neutered, this would indicate that these whole males come from owners who resist so–called informed opinion. Or, they are resisting out of outright machismo.
Whenever I talk to shelter people they tell me that litters are tossed over the fence or dropped off all the time. But how often, and don’t those puppies find homes? Otherwise, why would shelters be importing dogs?
The Health Myth
Another myth in my view is that neutering promotes health in male dogs. Medical matters are outside my expertise but I’ll share my opinions nonetheless because I believe that whole, heal, hale and health are synonyms.
In my opinion, carcinogenic dog foods contaminated with steroids, antibiotics, chemical additives, diseased food animals processed into feed, highly-processed and therefore de-vitalized rations are the real source of most modern ailments. Fifty years ago, my father in his commercial kennel, as did most pet owners, fed mostly meat scraps and very little processed dog food as it wasn’t widely available in those days. No question dogs were much healthier then. Modern Veterinary medicine is so aligned with big dog food business that I believe they’ve conveniently forgotten how hardy dogs used to be. I now hear of dogs diagnosed as being allergic to grass. What’s coming next, an allergic reaction to air?
Once when I owned my boarding kennel, I used to care for an Irish setter over a number of years. When he was about ten years old I gave him a bath and noticed how incredibly soft the skin on his underbelly had become. And then one day, about a year later, I let him out into our exercise yard to play with other dogs and later when I checked back on things, I was horrified to see him grabbing hunks of his skin and ripping them off his belly. He was covered in blood; I wrapped him in a blanket to keep him from inflicting any more damage and then rushed him to the vet. I had never seen anything like it, but the vet then informed me that this happens sometimes with older, neutered Irish Setters.
And then there were many older, neutered male dogs that had to be given hormone additives to their diet because they had become incontinent as they aged. Strangely, when owners ask their vets about any health consequences to neutering, they never seem to mention these long-term effects. It’s always presented in a completely rosy light.
I don’t see why a dog fed a natural diet can’t live to a ripe old age with all of his glands functioning free of disease. Also, most neutered males end up fat, if not obese, which can hardly be a prescription for health. Their owners could feed them less, but they don’t, and being neutered they tend to be less active and so they don’t burn up the calories; the weight piles on. They acquire a top-heavy flaccid body conformation with an overall appearance of unfitness. Ironically, in this age of holistic medicine, whole foods, an “un-whole” dog is considered more healthful. We need to ask, how might the whole organism, particularly the endocrine system, be subtly unbalanced in ways that science is not yet able to measure? Certainly the explosion of thyroid dysfunction in dogs over the last twenty years might have something to do with the neutering, and early spaying policies that have taken hold during this same period. And amazingly, the current fad in behaviorism is now diagnosing many incidents of aggression as being due to a thyroid imbalance.
While the removal of sexual organs will preclude the development of cancer in that particular organ, has any study been done to indicate a lessening in the rate of other cancers or diseases elsewhere in the body? (Links to such studies are provided below.) Perhaps all neutering really accomplishes is to shift the site of a cancer to another organ and the real source of cancer isn’t addressed. I remember as a kid, it was a common medical practice to remove a child’s tonsils because tonsils were considered an irrelevant vestigial appendage. Our family doctor didn’t buy it, and fortunately my parents listened. Now medicine recognizes the tonsils are the first line of defense and serve to trap infectious agents before they go deeper into the body and take a more dangerous manifestation. When will we learn that every component of the body is an integral component of the whole? If health is our concern, how could neutering be healthful? I advise my clients that they should feed their dog a diet free of contaminants and industrial processing and that nourished with whole foods, a whole male is more likely to lead a vigorously healthy life than a neutered one.
Some science below:
The links below are a good survey of the latest research. But remember we don’t need science to tell us that whole = health = heal. This understanding is a function of common sense.