Believe it or not, I do have a sense of humor about dogs. And I do find lots of things about dogs to be funny. One of the things I don’t find funny is the disconnect many people seem to have about dog behavior. I find things like “guilty dog” videos very upsetting in fact, because often what’s happening is the person behind the camera is exploiting their dog’s fear for the sake of a few laughs. Dogs who look guilty are dogs who are afraid. Guilt is a human construct and thinking that a dog “knows” he did something wrong is very self-serving and in many ways, removes responsibility from what often amounts to a human failure. The dog who went into the trash and had a party? Yea, he doesn’t feel guilty about that. That guilty look most likely comes from a history of punishment. And because punishment is defined by the animal and not by us, the punishment can be something as seemingly innocuous as a sharp intake of breath, or an exclaimed “Oh my God! What happened in here?” when you come in the front door. So, that dog who looks guilty is probably thinking “I don’t like it when she acts upset or angry” and not “Oh man, I really shouldn’t have done that”- especially if the trash party happened hours ago. Dogs are constantly looking to us for cues and can read us very well. They tune into things like posture and tone of voice and they make associations. So, think about it this way: dog had a trash party hours ago, you come home, see trash party and react. Your dog may be associating your reaction with seeing him and not the trash party. You coming home can easily become a time of fear, rather than a time of joy. Why? Because fear is easy to install and hard to uninstall. I see this every single time I open the pots and pans cabinet and Hazel hunkers away. She’s afraid of those pots and pans. Because they are noisy and startling when they hit the floor. The way that fear manifests itself is EXACTLY the same as how one might visualize guilt in a different situation. She slinks over to her bed, her head is low, her ears are back, she turns away and makes herself look as small as possible. Lest anyone with less of a sense of humor than me think I let this go on without attempting to fix it, rest assured that I do lots of counterconditioning via happy talk and food, and it has gotten better. But, that fear? It’s there, it’s real and the association has been made- pots and pans are loud and scary and to be avoided. And all it took was one time- too close, too noisy. Unintentional punishment, but punishment nonetheless. That popular guilty dog with the big “smile”- he’s pretty much being tortured for being a dog. That smile is an appeasement signal- a way dogs communicate to show discomfort or fear. This short post from Patricia McConnell pretty much sums up how I feel about the whole thing. So yea, I have no sense of humor when it comes to making dogs feel bad (aka punishing them) for being dogs and doing things dogs do. Dogs are opportunists. They’ll get into trash, they’ll steal socks or shoes. It’s up to us to not let those things happen in the first place and we do this via training and management.
A while back, I posted a picture of Hazel having a plastic bag party and captioned it “Naughty”, knowing there might be some who thought I was doing exactly what I am talking about above, but also knowing that I was not. She was in no way punished for her party, I merely cleaned up the mess and made sure the bags were more carefully tucked away. There was one comment, and because the people who follow our page and blog are overwhelmingly awesome, the picture was defended as being what I intended it to be: a dog caught in a funny moment of mischief. I didn’t take offense at the comment, in fact, I was secretly pleased that an anti-shamer spoke up.
The other big one for me is the word dominant. I no longer bristle internally when I hear the word, but it does make me wonder what people are thinking about their dogs. For me, this happens for a few reasons. I think of dogs that I see in shelters, pictures of them on volunteer’s laps, kissing them, “hugging” them by standing on their back legs and I think it’s sweet. I’m pretty sure the people in the pictures think it’s sweet, too and these pictures often get used to help promote an adoptable dog. Then the dog gets adopted, the new owners start having problems- and they are often the very same behaviors that were presented as sweet. Lap dog, loves to cuddle, etc. Suddenly, the things that were cute in the shelter are not so cute in real life. He thinks he’s dominant. Why? He jumps on people, he has taken over the couch or the bed, he counter-surfs. He pulls on leash, has to be out ahead of me. Might this just be a dog who has had no training? A dog who is not well-versed in the “things acceptable to humans” category? Dominance is just so simple an explanation, which has helped it stick. And again, it removes responsibility from humans for mistakes they might be making, or that were made in the past by previous owners. And this in no way, pertains to adopted dogs only. Puppies can quickly go from cute little love bugs to pesky little monsters and described as dominant, too. I hear it all the time. Is he pawing at me because he thinks he’s dominant? No, he’s pawing at you because he wants your attention (dogs are social beings after all) and at some point, pawing worked. And because it worked, pawing behavior increased. Pawing was reinforced. And just like punishment whether we meant to reinforce it or not matters naught. Reinforcement is also defined by the animal. I hear the word dominant and wonder if people really think their dogs think they’re in charge? These animals who are reliant on us for virtually everything are trying to make a statement about their status in the hierarchy by sitting on our laps? We can do better than this, and our dogs deserve it. They deserve for us to think critically about their behavior and to question things that might not feel right to us. They deserve us to ask the question “what’s happening when he’s doing A, B or C?” and get an answer that doesn’t rely on one single, seemingly catch-all word. That dog who was a love bug, lap dog at the shelter may very well be the same at home and it’s got nothing to do with the D-word. He just hasn’t been taught what’s okay and what’s not yet. What do I mean by that? I mean that we, as this dog’s new person aren’t cool with him jumping on guests or would like a little corner of sofa to be able to sit on ourselves. That part? 100% up to us.
One thing I’ll give you is that dogs may be dominant is some regards, just not the way we think. Most of us make important decisions based on our dogs health and well-being. Where do we go on vacation? How long can we be away? How long is too long to be out of the house during the day? These decisions are important and driven by our care and love for them. So, if making decisions based on keeping my dogs happy and healthy means they are dominant over me, sign me up. I’ll gladly own that one. This may seem silly, but personally, I don’t think it’s any sillier than the other explanation. My life with dogs drives my life in many ways, it’s a determining factor in many things. I’m okay with that.
I have a hard time reconciling how we say we love dogs (though I believe we do, just not in the most species appropriate ways) and yet subject them to these lines of thinking, which often inform how we behave with them and treat them. Dogs do what works for dogs. And if what they are doing doesn’t work for us, the onus is on us to help them make changes. Applying labels often colors our ability to do so effectively. The guilty dog should be guilty- he did something “wrong” according to us. Asking ourselves the question “What could I have done differently to avoid (insert guilt-inducing behavior here) happening in the first place?” often falls by the wayside when there’s laughs to be had and myths to be propagated. Same with using dominance as an explanation- it puts the onus of behavior on an animal who does not speak our language, until we teach him. And even when we do that, we often make it very confusing. Sometimes it’s okay to be on the couch or bed, sometimes it’s not and sometimes we’re loving and sweet and want to cuddle on the bed or couch and sometimes we want Fido out of the way and aren’t so nice about it.
Dogs don’t come with a “How to live with humans” manual. They come with a genome that is what it is. It’s social, and jumpy, and barky and hungry and wants to be comfortable. That’s overly simplified- but a lot of things that just exist in dogs because, well, they’re dogs, are often the things that cause us the most grief. It’s got nothing to do with a Planet of the Apes style take-over of the human race and everything to do with DNA. Dogs are social, they are opportunistic and they are not born speaking English. We can help them be appropriately social (greeting without jumping), less destructively opportunistic (chew toys instead of shoe toys) and we can teach them our language by training them so they do more of what we do like and less of what we don’t.
We hear it often: “Dogs deserve better.” And they do. They deserve us to gain a real understanding of their behavior and to adjust ours accordingly, so that we can meet at a sweet spot in the middle. A spot where we can laugh at their antics and not because we are shaming them and a spot where we can allow them in our laps without fear they are going to steal the remote, the credit cards or hold us down until we agree to fork over all the cookies from the jar.
And if information emerges in the future tells me that I am wrong about all of this, I’ll chew my own shoe. And then I’ll evolve my thinking. And change my behavior accordingly. Because dog behavior is fascinating to me and if it turns out that my dog does in fact want to dominate me, I’ll start thinking about how to best protect the cookie jar. And the credit cards. But, you can bet that if it turns out dogs do feel guilt, I won’t be making any videos for y’all to laugh at. Instead, I’ll be doing my best to set my dog up for success so that guilt is never part of the equation.