Words matter. They are of particular importance when we use them to ascribe meaning to certain events. In the case of dogs, the words we use to ascribe meaning to their behavior can give us a clearer picture of their interests and needs, or they can muddy the waters of our understanding of the species we share our lives with. We humans have brought dogs into our lives. Their “problem” behaviors may be problems for us, but they are perfectly normal behaviors for dogs. Therefore, the onus is on us to understand what truly drives their behavior and to help them fit harmoniously into this bizarre human world we have imposed upon them.
Here’s a list of attributes that we often ascribe to dogs that do nothing but muddy the waters of our understanding of them.
To suggest that a dog is stubborn is to suggest that he is a moral creature – that he has some sort of conception of what is right and what is wrong, and more importantly, that he chooses what is wrong, despite knowing better. The truth is that dogs do what works for dogs. As Jean Donaldson puts it, they “are completely and innocently selfish.” They have no concept of what is right and wrong, only what serves their interests. And that’s okay. We love them for what they are.
Dogs are often labeled stubborn when they fail to perform behaviors that their owners think they “know.” So it seems that they are being defiant, purely for the sake of defiance. In reality, if you’re not getting the performance that you would like from your dog, it’s either a “what” problem or a “why” problem. Imagine him asking, “what is it, exactly, that you want me to do?” Can you answer that question? Have you proofed the behavior by introducing all the distance, duration, and distractions that you’re currently asking him to perform in? Sitting in your living room is not the same behavior as sitting 10 feet away from you at the park.
If you have significantly proofed the behavior, and your dog is fluent in that context, you’ve likely got a “why” problem. Imagine him asking, “why should I?” He may be happy to hold down-stay in the back yard for a game of fetch, but not so willing to perform the same behavior in the same context when a squirrel dashes in front of him. Why would he settle for simulated prey (the ball), when he can have the real thing?
The notion that all unwanted dog behavior is somehow rooted in an intrinsic need for dogs to assert their dominance over us is quite appealing to humans. It takes the onus off us by ascribing a personality trait to the dog that is the explanation for all our challenges with him. The dog doesn’t come when called? He’s trying to climb the social ladder. The dog is getting into the garbage? He’s trying to show us that he is the pack leader. The dog aggresses toward strangers? He’s trying to maintain his alpha status.
It’s really quite fascinating that this panacea-like rationalization resonates with many dog owners when decades of scientific research tells us otherwise; it tells us that all behavior has pathology. It doesn’t just “flow like a fountain”; it serves a purpose – a fundamental, evolutionary purpose, with adaptive significance. The root of all behavior is: 1) getting enough to eat, 2) avoiding being eaten, 3) avoiding injury or disease and 4) reproducing. Climbing the social ladder has no adaptive significance.
Imagine that you have just finished icing a cake. The doorbell rings, and you leave the kitchen to see who is at the door. When you return to the kitchen, you find your cake in pieces. Your dog looks up at you with his snout covered in icing, his head lowered and his body crouched. Surely, he’s got a guilty conscience, right? He knows better. And you can see the guilt all over his face (along with the remnants of icing).
But here’s the thing: dogs are not moral creatures. Guilt is a complex emotion that, as far as we know, dogs aren’t capable of feeling. It is far more likely that the dog is fearful; he is interpreting your posturing and teeth-grinding as unsafe, and thus, giving the appearance of feeling remorse. You’d get the same response from your dog if you stood over him, discernibly upset, while he was (for example) lying calmly on his bed. And what reason would he have to feel guilt in that context?
Eager to Please
Here’s a little known fact: Did you know that “Lassie” was actually several food-trained dogs? It’s glaringly ironic that the poster-dog for altruism was, in reality, multiple dogs that were working to serve their own interests. It’s also somewhat upsetting that the dog who is perhaps most responsible for perpetuating the myth that “good” dogs want nothing more than to please their owners was made to appear so selfless by working for food, not some imagined innate desire to please. What a missed opportunity to highlight what is truly wonderful about dogs – their dogginess. But that’s television for you.
The bottom line is this: no properly functioning living thing does stuff for free. I love my job. I love my boss. I respect my boss. But if I went to work tomorrow, and my boss said, “you’ve been doing such a great job, I’m going to go ahead and stop paying you,” I’d stop going to work. Not because I don’t like to please my boss, but because I have to make a living in this world. And so do dogs, they just have a different form of currency.