Dogs and Holiday Seasons

There’s a tradition in the U.S. called Thanksgiving, which, since 1941, has been celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Traditionally, families gather together to share big meals, usually centered on a whole turkey, along with all “the fixings’” — mashed potatoes, dressing, cranberry sauce, and yams, with pumpkin pie for dessert.

It can be a really big deal, with preparation beginning early in the morning, the feast happening in mid-afternoon, and the festivities dragging on long into the night. And in modern times, it’s not just limited to family events. People living far from home often gather with unrelated loved ones for “Friendsgiving” dinners as well.

Either way, I’d bet you’d never guess that an event like this is an extremely dog-like thing for human beings to do.

Sharing a meal together is one of the most primal human activities, something our species has been doing for as long as we’ve been human, and something we’ve inherited from our primate ancestors and beyond. And, while our human Thanksgiving involves a lot less direct hunting and killing in order to provide the meal, those elements are still involved.

Someone still had to earn the money to go to the store, and someone else had to raise and kill the turkey, after all. And even the people who provided the vegetables still had to harvest them, which is just a form of hunting involving much more passive prey.

Providing for Our Dogs

At the same time, we have become the providers for our dogs, so they generally do not get a lot of experience at hunting, with a pack or alone. But because eating is one of the primary needs for all animals, this doesn’t mean that dogs don’t naturally know how to hunt. This ability is deeply instinctual, so even if little Fluffy has never chased down a deer with other dogs, the knowledge of how to do it is built-in.

The hunt part involves the chase and the kill, and you can see evidence of those instincts in a lot of things that dogs do. If they run after things, like cars, kids, skateboards, or bicycles, that’s just exhibiting the chase behavior. Herding, bumping or nipping at people’s heels or calves are also part of what they’d do to subdue prey.

When they shake a toy repeatedly, that’s mimicking how a dog would kill a small animal. And even an action as innocuous as chasing a tennis ball or flying disc can trigger a dog’s prey drive even if that dog has never shown any signs of hunting before.

As with a lot of things dogs do, especially those involved with eating, there’s a lot of ritual involved. Hunger triggers the dogs to start following their noses to find prey. Once the prey is found, then the tracking begins and sight kicks in. The chase is followed by the kill, which is often a well-coordinated attack. Once the prey is brought down, then the feasting begins with priority given to certain leader dogs, who get to eat first.

That really isn’t all that different than Thanksgiving. Think of your own holiday dinners — whether this one or something else — and how many little elements remain the same year after year. Quite often, at the human Thanksgiving, it will be an alpha male who carves the turkey, and the young of the pack are frequently placed at a separate table from the adults. Generally (although it’s changing), the women will be in charge of the cooking itself, unless there’s a barbecue or grill involved. And, if it’s a sit-down dinner, nobody eats until everyone has been served. There’s often a verbal ritual of giving thanks before eating as well.

It’s all a lot more civilized than chasing down something in the woods and killing it with our teeth — and yet, it’s even more ritualized. In reality, leave out any one of these elements and everything would be fine. Yet, for some people, not following all of the traditions would “ruin” the holiday.

One thing we can learn from dogs: the hunt does not have to go perfectly as long as everyone eats together in the end. And, especially in those hectic holiday times, that’s where we can take our assurance. It isn’t about how we celebrate — it’s that we celebrate together in the first place.

Stay calm, and bon appétit!

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