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Monday, December 26, 2011

Dogs don't "get even"

Donna told me her dog "gets even" with her whenever she has to leave him home alone for a few hours.

"He'll run out the door as soon as I get home and then he'll go over to the woodshed and stand there and bark at me.  Then he won't come in when I call him.  He just barks and wags his tail and plays his keep-away game. He gets mad at me when I leave him, and that's how he gets back at me."

"Donna," I offered, "he's not doing it to get even with you.  Dogs don't think that way."

"Mine does," she insisted.  "He's always done that.  He does not like it when I leave him!" 
  • He's always done that.  
  • He does not like it when I leave him!
Both statements are probably correct.  But to chain them together, in a cause-and-effect way, is to create a false premise.  Granted, dogs usually aren't happy when we leave them home alone.  However, Donna's mistake is to connect his unhappiness with what she perceives to be a willful, vengeful, premeditated act.  As human-like and  intelligent as our dogs may seem to us, they simply don't think that way...which says a lot for dogs, if you really think about it.  Only humans, with consciences, are spiteful enough to plan revenge.  Dogs are blessed to live life "in the moment."  When Donna is gone, her dog is unhappy.  When Donna returns, the unhappiness is forgotten and replaced with an outburst of energy.  Some dogs maul their owners upon return.  Some pee.  Others grab an object in their mouths and race around the room.  Some will, spontaneously and without provocation, start a three-second fight with other pets in the household.  Others, like Donna's, will run outside and play keep-away.  All of these are simply outbursts of pent-up energy, as natural as the fizz that spurts out of a shaken soda can.

When Donna's dog does this, she probably reacts in a way that gratifies the dog for his behavior.  Any attention she shows him,  whether positive or negative, suits the dog, who's just glad to have her back home.  Since habits develop quickly, the dog's keep-away behavior is now simply routine.  It's an outburst of energy and represents no malicious thoughts of revenge on the dog's part.

Reshaping the behavior would be pretty easy.  Donna could meet him at the door with a treat in her hand and ask him to sit until she got inside, closed the door behind her, and was able to offer him a follow-up treat.  She could also teach the dog to "curb" at the door when she opens it.  The easiest and most universally successful approach for most people in similar situations is to simply ignore the dog for the first few minutes of their arrival home.

When dog owners misinterpret their dogs' behaviors, communication and understanding break down.  Frustration ensues, and the situation often worsens.  "Anthropomorphism" is that mouthful that means "attributing human characteristics and behaviors to animals."  While the dogs who share our lives seem pretty  human to all of us, we must remember that their brains process information as animals, without a sense of "yesterdays," "tomorrows," or "what ifs."  Without a sense of "tomorrow," there's no reason to "plan ahead" with schemes of revengeful acts.  There is only the here and now.  

Actually, that's pretty darn intelligent thinking, isn't it!

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