6 Facts About How Dogs Think
Scientist Marc Bekoff challenges these six common misconceptions about dogs.
Posted Apr 17, 2018 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Humans have had a love affair with dogs extending over thousands of years, and our passion continues to blossom. More households than not include a companion dog, and nearly everywhere you go, dogs will be there too. Dogs have never enjoyed so much attention from the media, either, and books and articles appear almost daily on one aspect or another of dog behavior or the human-dog relationship. Nonetheless, it seems we still don’t have a firm handle on who dogs really are and what they need from us. Persistent myths about dogs appear time and again, and undercut our ability to interact successfully with our canine friends.
In scientist Marc Bekoff’s new book, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, he takes stock of the current state of scientific knowledge about dog behavior, cognition, and emotion. He carefully lays out what we know about dogs and, perhaps even more important, what we don’t know. In the process, he challenges some common misconceptions. Here are six canine myths Bekoff busts. (His book is full of even more.)
1. Dogs don't display dominance.
As Bekoff explains, the “D word" has become a flashpoint in the world of dogs and dog training, all because of the perpetuation of incorrect information and the uncritical use of language. All animals—human and nonhuman alike—display dominance; it is a fundamental aspect of social behavior. But why some people are so uncomfortable with the idea of dominance in dogs can perhaps be explained, Bekoff suggests, by the profound harm to dogs that can result from misuse of the "D word." Which brings us to the corollary dominance myth:
1a. Dogs do display dominance, and we need to dominate them in order to get the behavior we desire.
Some people mistakenly believe that dominance is the same as aggression or bullying. So, to “dominate” a dog, you might grab her scruff and throw her to the ground and growl at her. This is cruel and ineffective (and also makes you look ridiculous). Unfortunately, the idea that we need to dominate our dogs in order to make them pliable has had a certain traction among trainers and dog owners. Which has led some people to want to just deny that dominance is a thing. This makes it difficult to understand and talk clearly about dog behavior.
The upshot: Dogs display dominance. Training methods that rely on intimidation, fear, and punishment are scientifically ungrounded, unnecessary, and unethical. (For more, see Bekoff's post on dominance.)
2. Dogs feel guilty when they eat our expensive shoes.
When it comes to dogs and guilt, confusion has blown around like dandelion seeds in the wind. As Bekoff explains, the notion that dogs don’t feel guilt comes from an overzealous reading of Alexandra Horowitz’s research, which found that humans are not good at reading dog communications related to possible guilt feelings. But she never said that dogs don’t feel the emotion of guilt, nor did she say that they do. For now, we simply need to remain agnostic and wait for additional research (though Bekoff is confident that we will discover that dogs do feel guilt).
3. Dogs live in the present.
Sometimes this is uttered as a scientific fact; sometimes it is an anodyne cliche about how “zen” dogs are—happy with the here and now, and not always fretting like we do about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. Either way, it isn’t true. We know from a range of studies that dogs anticipate and plan for the future, and have thoughts about and memories of the past. Anyone who lives with a dog rescued from an abusive or neglectful home knows this well: Past experiences shape who a dog is, and trauma leaves a mark. (See Bekoff's PT post on dogs and time.)
4. Dogs love us unconditionally.
The problem with this statement is that it gives the impression that love is a one-way street, and our dogs love us no matter who we are, what we do, or how poorly we treat them. Actually, no: Dogs have conditions, just like we do.
5. All dogs need is a soft bed and food in a bowl.
A soft bed and nutritious and tasty food are essential basics. But as I argue in my book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, dogs need a lot more from us. Dogs rely on us for intellectual and emotional stimulation and social support. To really give our dogs what they need, we must understand who they are. To do this, Bekoff says, we must become ethologists-in-training. All of us can strive to become more observant of our dogs’ behavior and can make a concerted effort to learn about the natural history, biology, and behavior of our best friends. We need to try to see the world from a dog’s perspective so that we can provide them with an interesting and meaningful life. As a small example, we may think of a dog walk as providing physical exercise to keep our dogs fit and slim. But dogs also need to be able to exercise their senses, particularly their sense of smell. On average, a dog will spend about one-third of her time sniffing, if given the choice. So we might consider making about one-third of each dog walk about letting our friend explore with his or her nose.
6. You shouldn't hug a dog.
The New York Times has a certain cachet, so when it tells readers not to hug their dogs, people listen. This article claimed that hugging dogs makes them uncomfortable and can increase the risk of bites, especially for children. Fine. This much is true: Some dogs don’t like to be hugged, and we should respect their personal space and find other ways to show our affection. The problem, notes Bekoff, is that the take-home message of “don’t hug” only applies to some dogs. Other dogs DO like to be hugged, and some like to be hugged under certain circumstances but not others, or by certain people but not others. There is no such thing as "The Dog," and we can’t generalize about what dogs like and don’t like, because each one is a unique individual. Know your dog. (Know your dog.)
Bekoff, Marc (2018). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pierce, Jessica (2016). Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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