Updated November 29, 2020
We all love funny animal pictures but sometimes we come across ones that are just so wrong we can only shudder. It’s when the interpretation of the animal’s behaviour results in them being blamed for behaviour where they are actually the victims.
The use of human motivations to explain animal behaviour is called ‘anthropomorphism’, and although it can be valid sometimes, usually it’s miles off the mark. The true explanations are often much simpler and more logical. It’s just that to see them, you have to stop thinking like a human and attempt to get inside their experience.
Let’s start with the ‘vindictive’ dog. You hear people say all the time, “when I leave him alone he takes it out on me by destroying something.”
Destruction may be motivated by many things, but especially boredom, frustration or anxiety. For some dogs, especially young ones, it’s just fun. It’s never revenge but it’s easy to see why people make this mistake. After all, I know if this happens in my house it’s always a day I’ve not spent enough time with the dogs. They are missing something important and we should pity them, not blame them for vengeance.
The dog who destroys things when the owner is out often suffers from Separation Anxiety. The clue is that the destruction is not random. It is usually directed at an entry or exit point, often where the owner left or towards a safe zone. It makes you weep to see these pictures being used for a laugh. I think any person who finds it funny should be punished by experiencing, just for five seconds, the distress these dogs feel all day.
How about the ‘guilty’ dogs? The story usually goes: owner returns home to find her dog acting guilty. She gets suspicious and, sure enough, the sofa cushions are shredded in tiny pieces across the lounge room.
This certainly looks like guilt. Except it’s not. The dog is not remembering behaviour from during he day and feeling remorseful. No, this dog just knows that if his owner comes home when there is chewed stuff lying around then all hell is about to break loose. There is no connection to the act of doing it. Just the knowledge from past experience that in this context bad things are about to happen.
So what do you think the answer to who is guilty? Answer: neither. The dog that does not look guilty is just as likely to have been the culprit. The question should be: “Who’s the anxious one?” as the dog who looks guilty is just very anxious about what is about to happen, whereas the other dog is able to cope better. This is an important point; the owner who perceives guilt may punish that dog thinking he will get ‘the message’. The only message is: shredded stuff = distressing owner behaviour.
The dog like nearly all animals, lives entirely in the moment. They do remember things so they can learn; as you can see from the fearful dogs above fear is a very good teacher. The trick is that for learning to occur, cause and effect need to be very close together in time. As for connecting two events more than a few minutes apart- forget it, they live in the present. Aren’t they lucky!
Isn’t it better to know that our dogs don’t hold grudges or feel guilty for things they’ve done? Too right.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!