Dogs Live in the Present and Other Harmful Myths
It's essential to separate unsupported beliefs from facts about dog behavior.
Posted February 9, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
In a recent essay by Dr. Bobby Hoffman titled "Five Reasons Why Your Pet May Be Smarter Than You" we read: "Motivation research reveals at least five evidence-based strategies that dogs and many other pets regularly use, approaches that are often elusive and sporadic for their human owners. These include: pets realize that multi-tasking doesn’t work; pets don’t have polarizing, relationship-busting beliefs; pets practice self-regulation; pets focus on the present, and pets express themselves freely."
One problem is that no references are provided for these claims, and some are patently false.
Another problem is that talking about "the dog" is very misleading because of the enormous amount of individual variation in behavior and personality even among littermates and siblings.
Here, I simply want to offer some cautionary comments about what we know and don't know about dog behavior and how they view their worlds. The list of select and recent references below contains detailed information about what we've learned from the ever-growing field of canine science. Some emails I received about this essay also offer some interesting stories and raise some concerns and questions about how dogs live and negotiate their worlds.
I read Dr. Hoffman's piece because I'm interested in just about everything dog, and soon after, a few emails popped up in my inbox giving examples of how these peoples' dogs don't use these strategies or posing questions about some of the author's claims about how dogs live and who they are, asking if there really is evidence for these statements.
For example, one person wrote, "Wait a minute, it's clear that dogs do not live in the present," and another, Terri, noted, "My dog multi-tasks quite a lot; she's able to play, sniff, and look around for her best friend, Marie, and she always knows where I am at a dog park." Another wrote that the major difficulty of their living with their dog Henry is that "he doesn't have much self-control because of his past experiences with other humans."
One email I received from Peter was particularly interesting in that the writer asked, "How does a dog practice self-regulation and also express themselves freely and often inappropriately at least according to human standards?" Peter went on to write, "My dog knows what she's supposed to do in most situations—I guess this is self-regulation—however, she all-too-often expresses herself freely when she lets her nose and sniffing instincts go wild. For her, 'self-regulation' and free expression go hand-in-hand. What do you think?"
As I was putting the final touches on this essay, I received this very thoughtful note from Amanda: "I enjoyed this essay, but why does it seem like everyone who lives with a dog feels they are dog experts? It would be nice if people who write about dogs read about what we know and don't know. My dog Amanda-Dog multi-tasks very well, makes snap judgments about other dogs and people that often are right on the mark, can be a loose cannon, is severely influenced by past abuse, and knows what she can do and shouldn't do in the presence of certain people."
After I read "Five Reasons Why Your Pet May Be Smarter Than You," I thought that while there are some "truths" in the piece, there also are myths and inconsistencies. Just because dogs don't do things like we do or become bothered by the same things we are doesn't mean that they don't do similar things doggy-style or have similar feelings of anxiety and frustration.
Let me point out a few claims for which there aren't any data of which I'm aware of.
For example, we read, "Pets realize that multi-tasking doesn’t work" and "Take a look at any pet and you will see that when they are engaged in an activity, they are NOT focused on anything else. All attention and effort is driven in a singular direction. Whether it is eating, playing, or just plain old pooping, Fido strives to be most successful at the specific task s/he has at hand (or paw, as it were!) and effectively ignores everything else that is a distraction!"
This isn't necessarily so for many dogs, and Terri's comment above makes this clear. While many or most dogs likely can and do focus intensely on one activity at a given time, they also multi-task, some doing it very well.
For example, when male dogs simply pee or scent-mark, they often scan their surroundings to see if there's another dog watching them and change their behavior if they're being watched. When they're being observed, they may lift a leg and not urinate, with the intention of telling another dog they're peeing when they're not. This is called "dry marking" and a few seconds later they may decide to lift a leg and pee. (See, for example, "Pissing Matches in Dogs: Territorial, Lots of Fun, or Both?" and "Butts and Noses: Secrets and Lessons from Dog Parks.") Likewise, when they're sniffing the ground or the body of another dog, they can easily be distracted by a sound or by the presence of another dog, friend or foe.
Concerning the claim "Pets don’t have polarizing, relationship-busting beliefs," the author writes, "They accept and love you unconditionally, even when you stay out late or are seen indiscreetly petting other animals."
This is not so; dogs are not unconditional lovers. While the dogs with whom I've shared my home and heart might not have gotten all that upset when I came home late, said hello, paid attention to another dog, or rarely forgot to feed them, I couldn't do anything I wanted without violating their trust in me.
Once, by accident, I tripped over one of my canine companions and stepped on his tail. He yelped, ran away, and avoided me for a few days. Maybe he still loved me, but it was clear that there were conditions about how he expressed it, and on a few occasions I thought I lost him.
Likewise, when I was treating a senior dog with some pills he simply hated, he actively avoided me until I stopped jamming them down his throat. It took some time for him to approach me with his tail up and wagging. (See "What's a Good Life for an Old Dog?")
I have many other stories like these for the dogs with whom I lived and from other people, so assuming dogs will love you no matter what you believe or what you do is a bit too fast for me. Some might while others might not, and it's important to know why some individuals do and others don't.
It's also often the case that people don't really know their dog as well as they think they do. A friend I'll call Molly once told me a story about a dog who ran right up to her, growled softly, and then began to jump on her, ostensibly, according to the dog's human, to say "Hello." When Molly got upset, the dog's human said, "Don't worry, he's fine and won't do anything."
Molly loves dogs, but as this was all happening, her dog, Henri, got nervous and began to growl softly and move between her and the other dog. Clearly, Henri was uneasy, and this made Molly uneasy; and when the offending dog's human went on to say, "He's really okay," Molly responded, "I trust my dog more than you." Good for her. Henri clearly made a judgment call and Molly was glad he did. (See "People Should Stop Saying, 'Don't Worry, My Dog's Just Fine.'")
Let's now briefly consider the claim that "Pets practice self-regulation." The author writes, "At times we act impulsively, consciously engage in risky activities, and sometimes fail to learn from our mistakes." So, too, do dogs and other animals. Some dogs act impulsively — they act before they think — some are more risk-averse than others, and numerous times I've seen dogs try something, fail, and try it again and again and fail again and again.
Dogs also can try to take on too much, get frustrated when trying to solve a problem, and ask for help from humans. Peter's comment above along with others I've received and heard at dog parks clearly show that self-regulation is hardly a universal trait among dogs. The author also writes, "our feline and canine friends consciously monitor their experience-based decisions that are designed to achieve an overall sense of well-being." Most of the people with whom I interact try to do the same. What constitutes well-being differs from person to person, as it does for dogs and other nonhumans.
The writer also claims "Pets focus on the present." This isn't so. Dogs are influenced by past events and think about and plan for the future. (See "Is Everything in a Dog’s Life Really 'Pretty Short-Lived'?" and links therein.)
Anyone who's rescued a dog who's been previously abused also knows how long it can take to rehabilitate them, if ever, so it's clear that what happened in their life isn't short-lived or over quickly.
All of the dogs with whom I've shared my home had different backgrounds, and it was thoroughly clear to me that how they responded to similar situations was greatly influenced by their past experiences. Indeed, because I hang out at dog parks a lot, I hear numerous people tell me or others how they have to, or have had to, work very hard to overcome their dogs past experiences.
I realize that this isn't necessarily a Nobel-prize winning insight, but that's why others and I are so surprised to read myths about how dogs mainly live in the present. And, the author himself writes, "Our pets happily navigate their world each day based only on personal experience and are not arbitrarily judgmental" and "our feline and canine friends consciously monitor their experience-based decisions that are designed to achieve an overall sense of well-being." He also writes, "hit a dog once with a newspaper and they will fear the daily news, forever!"
So, past experiences do in fact play a role in how dogs behave in different situations and they're not stuck in some sort of eternal present. Dogs do indeed have great memories of how different people have treated them.
Finally, do "Pets express themselves freely"? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. The author writes, "I don’t know about you, but I have rarely seen a dog or cat with low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, or one that has any notion of dissatisfaction with who they are or who they prefer to be. Pets don’t act gender appropriate, don’t care what people think of their breed or heritage, and never have bad hair days. In other words, they don’t compare themselves to others and maintain unbridled enthusiasm for who they are and what they do. Even if animals could talk, I doubt you would ever hear your dog say, 'Did you see what that Dachshund down the street was wearing today? It was horrific!'”
While it's likely dogs don't have some or all of these feelings, they don't always express themselves freely because they've learned from past experiences that there are things that are not welcomed by other dogs or humans. (See "Dog Behavior and Etiquette: Yes, No, Maybe, Do's and Don't's.") And many — far too many — dogs live with constant stress and fear. That's what "Fear Free Pets" is all about.
Some take-home messages
My take-home message is simply that we must pay careful attention to what we know and don't know about dog behavior. It's important to keep in mind that a conservative estimate is that globally, 80 to 85 percent of dogs are pretty much on their own or feral and don't share a stable home with human companions. We also need to focus on each dog as the individual they are and pay close attention to their unique personality and personal style and quirks.
Putting the time into learning to understand a dog for whom they are is a win-win for them and for their and other humans. The best and most respectful relationships have to work for all parties, and it's essential to pay attention to what we know and don't know about the behavior of our canine companions, and also pay attention to the fact that each and every dog is a unique individual. What works or is true for one dog might not work or be true for another dog. Simply put, talking about "the dog" can be very misleading.
Many people find it interesting and often troubling that there are some questions for which there should be obvious and clear answers—"yes" or "no"—but there aren't.
Concerning dog etiquette and dog-human interactions, we need to pay very careful attention to the individual dog about whom we're talking and recognize that there are some behaviors on which most humans frown, even if they're entirely and understandably dog-appropriate. So when dogs try to do certain things that could cause trouble because they can't or don't want to self-regulate, it's best to stop them from doing them even if you don't care.
Becoming fluent in dog also is critically important for learning about dog-dog and dog-human interactions and for knowing about what they're thinking and feeling, and I'm sure most, if not all dogs, would have this request on their wish list of what they want their human to do.
When we learn the basics of dog behavior and when we learn more about dogs as individuals and why they do certain things, the dogs and their and other humans benefit. And, while we can learn some life lessons from dogs, they matter because they're alive, have intrinsic value, and are feeling beings. (See "Why Dogs Matter.") We must be very careful not to embellish them and we must critically distinguish false beliefs from what we know and don't know.
Amanda's comment, "Why does it seem like everyone who lives with a dog feels they are dog experts? It would be nice if people who write about dogs read about what we know and don't know" rings true. While some dogs or other companion animals might practice some of these strategies listed at the beginning of this post, I strongly doubt that any single dog follows most or all of them. There will also be significant individual differences among them.
I'm more than happy to wait for some data on my predictions. I'm also glad to see dogs get some good "press," but I'd like to see beliefs and myths labeled as such.
Myths, assumptions, and expectations based on these and other false beliefs about dog behavior can harm, rather than help them coexist with their and other humans, and we've got to get it right.
As one of my colleagues wrote to me after I bounced some parts of this essay off of them, "I'm honestly tired of telling people that dogs aren't Zen-like animals who live lovely and easy lives without a care in the world. They're not."
I agree. Dogs and other animals can have "bad days" just like us, they often worry about what's happening to them, and for far too many, their captive lives are extremely stressful. (See "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us.")
Psychology Today writer Dr. Jessica Pierce provides an extensive discussion about this in her excellent book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. And in her book Love Is All You Need, Jennifer Arnold notes that dogs live in an environment that “makes it impossible for them to alleviate their own stress and anxiety.” (p. 4) According to Arnold, "In modern society, there is no way for our dogs to keep themselves safe, and thus we are unable to afford them the freedom to meet their own needs. Instead, they must depend on our benevolence for survival.” It’s an asymmetric, one-sided relationship, one that many of us would not tolerate with another human.
The lack of detail about some common dog behaviors and their cognitive and emotional lives is what makes studying these awesome canines so exciting. And, as I wrote above, talking about "the dog" is very misleading because of the enormous amounts of individual variation in behavior and personality even among littermates and siblings. So, sweeping generalizations such as "Dogs do this or that" can be highly inaccurate. Once again, some might while some might not.
Stay tuned for further discussions of the behavior of a fascinating nonhuman being with whom many humans share their homes and their hearts and look to for wisdom and sage guidance.
Here are two comments I received, the first from Dr. Bobby Hoffman:
"Well Dr. Marc, you have much expertise in animal behavior, while I do not. Unfortunately, your interpretations are far too literal and you clearly missed the point of my PT contribution. Pet behavior is a metaphor and may serve as an authentic model to help mediate human motivational challenges."
We were in touch after he sent this to me and Dr. Hoffman added: "I just want people to know I’m not an animal expert, but I do know how to help folks reach their goals. I guess my approach may have implied scientific evidence but clearly that was not my intention. Ironically, I do research and write about human motivational misconceptions!"
And from Anna S. in the UK:
"Thank you for your essay on dog behaviour. You are correct about many of the points you make, and the expectations I had when I began rescuing and fostering dogs came back to haunt me.
"I thought that just because I offered them a safe home and love all would be okay. I began to question myself because so much of what I had read told me that dogs would love me unconditionally, their fears and worries would disappear, they would learn to behave appropriately in different situations, and all would be just fine.
"This wasn't so even for young dogs from the same litter I brought home around three to four weeks of age. Their behaviour was very different and even after a few months of giving them a stable place to live, some never warmed up to me or anyone else. It was clear that a lot of damage was done to them and that might define who they will be for a long time.
"It is sad but that is the way it is. You write there is no "the dog" and I agree and so do many of the people I know who live with all types of dogs, rescued, pure breeds, and mutts. The best thing we can do is to love them unconditionally and hope that some might come around.
"We also need to pay attention to what we are learning from careful studies of dog behaviour and their emotions and hope that their lives are better with us than they would have been without us. The references to Dr. Pierce and to Jennifer Arnold are very helpful because I didn't realize how hard it is even for dogs who are loved to adapt to the human world. And the books listed at the end also will be useful and I only knew of a few of them. Thank you again."
American College Of Veterinary Behaviorists. Decoding Your Dog: Explaining Common Dog Behaviors and How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones. Boston, Mariner Books, 2015.
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Bekoff, Marc and Pierce, Jessica. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. Novato, California, 2019.
Berns, Gregory. What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience. New work Basic Books, 2018.
Brophey, Kim. Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog's Behavior. San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2018.
Case, Linda. Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
Coren, Stanley. "Canine Corner," Essays for Psychology Today.
Hare, Brian and Woods, Vanessa. The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. New York, Plume, 2013.
Horowitz, Alexandra (Editor). Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior: The Scientific Study of Canis familiaris. New York, Springer, 2014.
Horowitz, Alexandra. Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell. New York, Scribner, 2017.
Kaminsky, Juliane and Marshall-Pescini, Sarah (Editors). The Social Dog: Behavior and Cognition. New York, Academic Press, 2014.
Miklósi, Ádám. Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition 2nd Edition. New York, Oxford University Press, 2016.
Serpell, James (Editor). The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People 2nd Edition. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2017.