The One Dimensional Dog

young boy and dog playing with a stick in the ocean

Play or a contest of dominance?

The last few weeks have left millions of dogs feeling the way I’d feel with my parents at a dinner party where other parents were talking about their kids getting ready to attend medical or law school, after they finish competing in the Olympics or return from the junior astronaut program at Cape Canaveral. The social media outlets have been rife with stories of dogs; dogs pulling unconscious owners off of train tracks, getting their families out of burning houses, grieving at gravesides, raising litters of kittens or piglets or the odd squirrel, guiding blind dogs, even winning the grand prize in Britains Got Talent show. How the heck is a pet dog suppose to live up to that?

The complete irony is that while dogs are out there being heroes, performers, parents, and damn good friends, the range and sophistication of their abilities remains unrealized by many of us, not least of all by the very people who should know better; dog trainers, or as some label themselves, rehabilitators or psychologists. When dogs behave in ways we approve of we ascribe them with emotions and behaviors as varied and rich as our own. They are selfless, loving, brave and intelligent. Should they behave in ways we do not approve of they are……dominant. Growl at a person to keep them away-dominant. Jump up on someone in greeting-dominant. Rush out the door to explore the latest scents-dominant. Pull on the leash because the world beckons-dominant. It would be funny, except that it isn’t.

When trainers and owners see dogs’ behavior through a single lens they not only do a huge disservice to the dog, it’s an insult to the animals who will sit for years at a train station waiting for their never-to-return owner to step off the car. If you’ve ever been the victim of a misinterpretation of your behavior and intentions you know how upsetting it can be. It’s a popular theme of many movies, the protagonist, accused and prosecuted for a crime they did not commit spends the next hour and a half risking their life to prove their innocence. As a kid my habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink was interpreted as a way to ‘upset my mother’. Though a therapist might disagree, my real issues were laziness and immaturity. The biggest impact of the mislabeling of my lack of dishwashing behavior was that my parents took it personally, and it was upsetting to them on a whole different level than it might have otherwise been.

Does the desire to be dominant exist in dogs? It does, to a much lesser degree than currently being touted, but the desire to cooperate, avoid conflict, play and have a friend, also exist. Misinterpreting and labeling a dog’s behavior as ‘dominant’ often causes them be treated in ways that range from merely inappropriate to downright cruel. This can lead to a further degradation in their behavior and unfortunately in the scripts of many dogs’ lives there is no last minute reprieve from the governor.

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20 comments so far

  1. Camille on

    Unfortunately many of us haven’t been trained to understand the nuances of a dog’s behavior and are frightened by what we don’t understand i.e., dominence. A dog who is frightened may act out in a dominent way which can be scary.

    For a long time I didn’t want to be responsible for my dog’s behavior. I was frightened and as I learned more about what he was expressing by his behavior, I knew that it was going to be a long haul to begin to change it, and I was going to have to be the one doing a lot of the changing! I reallly didn’t know if I was up for it. Magically, I wanted the perfect dog and didn’t want to have to change what I was doing.

    It finally came down to doing the work or putting the dog down, so I had to look long and hard at myself and see what I was willing to do……what kind of a person I really was.

    I now think both my dog and I are are benefiting from the humbling work we both have to do to learn how to be in this world.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You hit it on the head when you said their behavior is scary to us. But rather than say they have acted out in a ‘dominant’ way which is adding a ‘reason’ for their behavior we can just say the dog is behaving in an ‘aggressive’ way. We are better off describing the behavior, not adding our own interpretation of their ‘intention’ for the behavior.

  2. dogdaz on

    Great thought provoking piece, I absolutely agree that we misinterpret behavior so often both in animals and humans. Maybe you could talk to that crazy judge in Maryland who just stamped all pit bulls as agressive, giving no hope for interpretation in the future. – DogDaz

    • fearfuldogs on

      Crazy? Maybe. Ill-informed, yes. Lacking in critical thinking skills? Sounds like it. Unfortunate in a judge.

  3. rangerskat on

    As always, very well put. One of my dogs is very high status and the other highly reactive. When I observe the same behavior from each of them it can have very different meanings. If all you see is the tail up, weight forward approach to another dog it’s easy to think that it only means one thing. If you look closer and see that my high status, calm, confident, well-socialized Ranger also has soft eyes, relaxed, confident bearing and a gently waving plume of a tail you realize that he’s like the high powered host at a party welcoming you to his home. The fearful, reactive, unsocialized Finna on the other hand, if you look closely has darting eyes looking for another way out, tension in all her muscles and her little stub of a tail is quivering with tension. She’s working herself up to a fight if she can’t frighten the other dog away. Fortunately, most dogs get the difference between what Ranger and Finna are saying; too many people do not.

    I’ve had people label both of my dogs dominant. Interestingly when they say it about Ranger they usually act like it’s a good thing and when they say it about Finna it is definitely a bad thing. It interests me that no one has ever warned me about Ranger when he comes over and puts his head in my lap or paws on my chair but if Finna does that I need to “put her in her place because she’s being dominant.” I figure that when my fearful Finna climbs in my lap at the vet’s she’s doing it because she is scared and feels safer in my lap. I also recognize that when she’s mouthing my wrist she’s trying to self-soothe with the only tool she’s confident works–chewing motions. I don’t appreciate that particular technique and I’m working hard to give her other ways to soothe herself (with some success I might add) but I don’t freak out and label her as dominant.just because she uses the only tools she’s confident about. And for the record I do not let her use me as a chew toy. I just don’t come unglued about it when she tries in times of stress to mouth me the same way she’ll mouth Ranger when they play wrestle together.

    Obviously, you struck a nerve with this post; sorry to have gone on so long.

    • fearfuldogs on

      No apologies necessary! Always interesting to hear about other people’s insights into their dogs. Thanks for sharing them.

  4. Jessica Ross on

    While I agree that there are more facets to dog behavior than most people realize and aspects like aggression and dominance are very misunderstood we have to be careful not too go too far to the other side, either. We cannot anthropomorphize dogs. They are not people and do not share many of the thoughts and motivations that people experience. A dog is a dog and needs to be understood and addressed as such.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Why is so bad to anthropomorphize dogs? They do share many of the same motivations as people. They are motivated to eat, procreate, stay safe and do things that make them feel good. Their reward systems are not unlike our own. We both have a mammalian brain and more and more studies indicate that dogs are pretty darn good at understanding what we are thinking, even if we do not share the same thoughts.

      If not having the same thoughts and motivations was reason enough not to use our own experience as a way to understand those of some else, we’d be wise not to assume anything about anyone, human or otherwise, since we can never be sure with any certainty what they are thinking or their motivations. We’d then have to toss out compassion, sympathy and empathy from our repertoire of emotions for guiding us in relationships.

      That dogs are not humans should be strikingly obvious to all of us. Are we that limited in our capacity to think and reason that we cannot on one hand hold the thought that a dog might be feeling scared and insecure (or proud and happy), and compare it with our experience of feeling scared and insecure (proud and happy), and on the other the understanding that we are interacting with a dog and not a human?

      I do understand that there are people who will make assumptions about a dog’s motivation based on reasoning that at this point in time we have no reason to think they’re capable of. That a dog would know which of our shoes was our favorite in order to chew so as to most effectively let us know they are angry, jealous or vengeful, is unlikely. But can’t we, with our supposedly superior brains sort this out, without having to give up the useful tool of anthropomorphism?

      • Jessica Ross on

        You are taking it in reverse and going too far. People are people and dogs are dogs. Of course we cannot throw out sympathy, empathy, compassion, etc. when we are dealing with people but dogs do not operate exactly like people. They are capable of love and some other emotions but their motivations are different. You can compare but the problem is when that comparison is taken too far and creates problems. Far too many people are not able to separate dog and human. That is where a lot of behavioral issues are created or amplified. The shoe example you gave does happen, and more often than you think. Similar to people who assume their dog tears up their house because they are angry that they leave them all day rather than that the dog is anxious and trying to relieve that anxiety the way dogs do. Or a person who gives a long speech to their dog when they do something right or wrong and does not realize that a dog’s mind works differently so they are not comprehending what the person is saying. Another example, on the training field there’s someone who comes out and makes statements like “my dog thinks ___” and then attributes a human motivation or emotion to the dog. Because she cannot look past this anthropomorphized way of thinking about her dog she cannot progress him in the training. She is too busy worrying about him like he is a human rather than looking at his dog motivations. If dog’s brains didn’t work differently then they would have a concept of time, they would be able to relate a reward or correction minutes or hours later, they would not have the motivations we know they have.

      • KellyK on

        I think anthropomorphism becomes a problem when you assume, without evidence, that you know what’s going on in a dog’s head. As long as you’re basing your assumptions on their actual observed behavior and signals, you’re on much safer ground. Emotions are pretty easy to read if you pay attention and are aware of dog body language. Thoughts and motivations aren’t as apparent, so assumptions about those can be shaky.

        For example, I’m still working on loose-leash walking with my dog. She’ll walk right beside me for a few steps, then speed up, hit the end of her leash and stop (generally because I stop as soon as I feel her pull). The observable facts are that my normal walking pace is slower than hers, she’s excited (tail wags, bouncy body movements), she’s not paying a whole lot of attention to me (because she’s sniffing not looking at me), and she wants to go forward (because that’s what she’s doing). Assuming that she’s trying to be dominant, wants to make me late for work, is irritated by my slowness, or believes that she’s training for the Iditarod is silly, because I don’t have evidence for any of those conclusions. What I have evidence for is that she wants to go forward (obvious by her body language) and that either she thinks pulling has at least a decent chance of making that happen or that she doesn’t realize she’s “pulling” until the leash gets tight. So it makes sense for me to work on teaching her that doing what I want gets her what she wants. It doesn’t make sense to ascribe other motivations I don’t have visible evidence for.

    • fearfuldogs on

      In truth none of my dogs has seen the news about hero dogs so their self-esteem remains unaffected (I hope!). I only used those examples to help get a point across.

  5. fearfuldogs on

    I won’t argue with dogs being dogs and people being people.

    That too many people think that dogs think just like people doesn’t mean that anthropomorphism is bad anymore than that some people abuse antibiotics makes them bad.

    If someone thinks that their dog is angry being left alone all day, it should be easy enough for them to also understand that as a social animal (like humans) being left alone could be anxiety producing. This situation only seems to emphasis how similar we are in yet another respect.

    When it comes to causing dogs suffering and stress it is my opinion that we do far more harm to them by not imagining them to be more like us. The problem isn’t that someone thinks that their dog is angry for being left home alone for too many hours a day, it’s that they leave them home alone for too many hours!

    If they really did believe that their dogs thought just like people how could they come to the conclusion that it was ok to leave them in a crate, or tied to chain, or alone in a house or apartment, with nothing to do, day after day, and expect them to be ok with it. We wouldn’t do it to our kids.

    People are no better at sorting out what they are being rewarded or punished for hours later, without language to explain it to them. We know from studies that both humans and animals are better at learning when either reinforcement or punishment occur sooner rather than later after a behavior. We are again similar in this regard.

    As for not being able to tell time, please tell that to my cocker spaniel who seems to know exactly when it’s time for me to get away from my computer and serve her dinner 😉

  6. Lynn on

    One of the reasons I like this site so much is precisely because of your analogies between a dog’s and a human’s experience. That kind of anthropomorphic approach has been much, much more useful in understanding and helping my dogs than the (mercifully brief) period I spent pretending to be an alpha, pack-leading she-wolf. We humans already have all the power, so a little empathy goes a long way. Oh, here come my girls now, dashing in to remind me it’s time for walkies. They’re 15 minutes fast, but then so is the clock….

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Lynn. I do understand Jessica’s concerns. As a dog trainer myself I am frequently having to give people reality checks about what we do know, and what is probably safe to assume about the reasons for a dog’s behavior.

      When handling a fearful dog, or any dog for that matter, we need to be prepared to give a dog appropriate feedback so as to increase or decrease behaviors. And it’s important to keep in mind that if we address the emotion prompting the behavior, we are likely to address the behavior as well. I find it easier for people to understand how to do this when I use these kinds of analogies.

      I’m pleased to find out that it has been helpful to someone! Hope you enjoyed your walk.

  7. fearfuldogs on

    Yes Kelly it’s true that ultimately all we have as trainers is observable behaviors which either increase or decrease based on how we or the environment responds to them.

    The tricky part is that when we’re working with fearful dogs it can be unproductive to focus only on behavior (I’m not saying you do this, just saying!). I often hear people say that we should wait for ‘calm behavior’ before rewarding a dog, or else we’d be rewarding ‘not calm’ behavior. But we know that we are always also working in the realm of classical conditioning and can also address the emotion, by providing rewards regardless of the behavior. This can often lead to positive changes in behavior, even though the dog was going bonkers when we handed out the cheese.

    It’s fun to watch it happen.

    • KellyK on

      Yeah, I agree with that. (And I’m really glad to have gotten that from reading your blog, because I have in the past been worried about reinforcing fear.)

      I really like your distinction between behaviors and emotions and the importance of looking at both. I think trying to address emotions still falls within the bounds of what’s observable, because body language makes it really clear that a dog is scared or stressed out and if a treat helps them calm down, you can see that too.

      I think what I was getting at is that you don’t get into trouble until you start assuming things as true that you have no basis for. It’s not the anthropomorphism so much as the assumptions. (Like, my dog has a couple people she’s scared of. One of them figures that she must have been abused by someone with similar characteristics. I think that’s a pretty big leap when it could just as easily be that this person got into her crate to get her out while they were house-sitting. To me, that seems like the kind of thing Jessica’s concerned about–assuming the dog is angry at you or getting back at you.)

      • rangerskat on

        I’ve been following all of this discussion with great interest and would like to add my little bit. This morning when I let Finna out into the fenced yard there was a wood rat that she promptly pounced and killed. (I keep my predators confined; if you come to them you deserve whatever you get). She then buried it under some leaves and grass. The observed fact is that she buried the rat she killed. If I’m attributing human motivations to her I could say she was trying to hide the evidence of her crime or that she was sad and wanted to give the rat a funereal to name a couple possible human motivations. If I’m attributing dog emotions to her action I’d say she was storing this cool toy for later–just like she does with other toys, treats, and chews.

        I think where we get in trouble with anthropomorphism is when we assign purely human motivations to our dogs. I don’t think Finna considered killing a rat to be any sort of crime. I’d say that she was acting in the way that her predatory hard wiring dictates. When I observe fearful posture and behaviors I think it is very appropriate to ask myself how I’d feel in that situation and what would make me feel better and then apply those ideas to the task of helping Finna cope. In short I’m saying I think anthropomorphism is a really helpful tool as long as we remember that the motivations of a dog are not always congruent to the motivations of a human.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Yes. At the end of the day, dogs are dogs.

        It would be fabulous if everyone took the time to learn more about dog behavior and cognition. And we have a huge obstacle to surmount given the misinformation being presented as ‘fact’ on television.

        When someone is living with a fearful dog and needs to learn how to respond appropriately to that dog in order to humanely and effectively help them, I can give them a lecture on fear based behavior in dogs (which I would gladly do 😉 or to save time and make it simple for them, say; treat them the way you’d like to be treated if you were scared enough to poop your pants. Or something like that 😉

      • KellyK on

        That makes tons of sense. And I had to chuckle at the mental image of Finna killing and burying the rat. My dog goes into full predator mode where rats and mice are concerned. My cats no longer get mouse-shaped toys, because Diamond tears them apart in about six seconds. Reba, our current foster, isn’t quite as predatory, but the only mouse I’ve seen in the house, she cornered. And then when Matt took it outside, she walked around the room, looking and sniffing, apparently to make sure there weren’t any more.

  8. Wendy on

    When people start with dominance as an explanation for unwanted behaviour I “slap” em with (see under website) the position statement of the AVSAB. First sentence of dog ethology class was” dogs are opportunists”, and it has helped me in dealing with my dogs.
    Also very hard to know the difference between observation and interpretation, even for me sometimes.


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