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Do Dogs Really Bite Someone for "No Reason at All"? Take Two

Dogs are not robotic machines.

When Holly Bit Cesar Redux

A recent comment for my piece called "Holly Bites Cesar: When You Hit a Dog There's a Price to Pay" made me think about why dogs and other nonhuman animals (animals) do the things they do. The comment began, "I can't believe how many people are defending the actions of the dog in this video. The dog repeatedly bit the owners for no reason at all." The dog, Holly, also bit Mr. Millan, for very clear reasons, which could have been the very same reasons for which she bit her humans.

Just as I began writing this brief essay, I received a few emails directly related to this statement, as if it were a fact. Not a single one agreed that Holly bit her humans or Mr. Millan for no reason at all, and viewing the video of this encounter makes it clear that Holly had good reasons for doing what she did.

The showdown with Holly: "I didn't see that coming"

In my original essay I wrote:

I recently received a video of Holly, a dog, being hit—cuffed in the neck—by, and later biting, Cesar Millan. I had not seen it before. In this video, Mr. Millan moves closer to Holly while she's eating. Holly eats faster as he moves in and immediately moves away as he continues to approach her. Holly gives him plenty of warnings—don't come any closer—because she needs her space to feel safe. Mr. Millan ignores these warnings then cuffs her in the soft part of her neck; you can see this at 0:44 of the video.

After talking briefly with Holly's human companion, and with Holly appearing to be relaxed but still stressed, Mr. Millan swipes at her face and Holly then snaps at and bites him on the hand, drawing blood; you can see this at 3:44 of the video. Mr. Millan admits he "didn't see that coming." He goes on to back her into a corner.

Please note that the original link for the video is no longer available, and the timing above refers to this early version. In the new video, at around 1:13 Holly gets rather aggressive because of Mr Millan's repeated intrusions and he gets bitten. He then says to the dog's human, "I didn't see that coming."

How could Mr. Millan not have seen that Holly was incredibly upset and fearful? In this particular case, it's highly likely that Holly was experiencing a wide range of emotions including fear and perhaps uncertainty, and, when Mr. Millan entered too far into her personal space Holly did all she could, which was to bite him. She didn't like what happened and neither would we.

Dogs are not mindless and unfeeling robots: There are reasons for their actions

Dogs are not mindless and unfeeling robots. Dogs, like other animals, do what they do for a single reason, or for more than one reason. We shouldn't be underestimating the cognitive and emotional capacities of any animals, and recent research has clearly shown that dogs know more than we give them credit for (please see, for example, "Dogs Remember More Than You Think"). They also experience rich and deep emotions, ranging from outright joy and pleasure to sadness, depression, and fear (please see "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?", "Theory of Mind and Play: Ape Exceptionalism Is Too Narrow, and numerous essays here).

Enough's enough: Leave me alone or try something else

Holly had at least one reason, if not a number of reasons, for biting Mr. Millan. Even a casual viewing of this video makes this transparently clear. Holly had had it. She clearly was saying something like, "Enough's enough, leave me alone or try something else." Dogs do what they do for one or more reasons, and we must pay careful attention to, and respect, what they are telling us. There was indeed a price to pay for repeatedly ignoring Holly telling Mr. Millan to back off.

Anonymous and ad hominem comments will not be accepted.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.

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