I was having an interesting chat with a puppy owner the other day, he said that when their pup is denied something, it will pee in ‘protest’. He believed the puppy was trying to ‘get him back’, show his annoyance after the event, ‘get even’ if you like, by urinating on the floor. This got me thinking, I have heard owners before saying their pups will ‘protest’, either via toileting or vocalising etc, but is this really what these pups are doing? Protesting? Getting their owners back and showing their annoyance at an event which has actually passed? Are pups capable of that kind of memory and indeed thought? And more so, that feeling of needing or wanting revenge, and actually gaining revenge? Anthropomorphism, and canine emotion generally, may help us to see.
Anthropomorphism, is quite simply, attributing a human emotion to an animal, inanimate object or concept. I’m certain you have all done this, have you ever said of the weather, it is ‘fierce’? We have ascribed a human quality or emotion, to something non-human. Much like if we say of our dogs, if they do something we perceive as naughty, we say they are ‘guilty’ and have a look of ‘guilt’. We sometimes even think this is quite sweet and funny, however all we are really doing is attributing to that puppy what WE think they SHOULD be feeling at that moment. Are they actually feeling bad about what they did? Feeling guilty? Unlikely. We need to be really careful when doing this, if we assume our pups are feeling emotions which firstly, they may not be and secondly, may not even be capable of, we will then treat them how we feel they SHOULD be treated due to this perceived emotion. If we are wrong, this is a dangerous place to be, treating our puppy in such a way which is not appropriate to the emotion they are actually feeling. For example, we see ‘guilt’, when in fact it is fear.
When looking at the situation with the owner I mentioned, the pup was peeing, the owner believed, due to protest. A ‘I am going to do this to you, because you did that to me’. If we break this down a bit, what thought process does the pup have to go through to achieve this goal of ‘revenge’.
- Firstly, he needs what we may term ‘theory of mind’ to be able to recognise that YOU (another individual) had the intent to wrong him in some way, and to take it in that context, so he needs to be able to predict other individuals thoughts
- The puppy would need to gain some form of reinforcement or satisfaction from ‘gaining revenge’
- The puppy would need to have the complexity of thought to be able to recognise thoughts and emotions in others, thereby predicting how the owner will feel after he has ‘protested’ and recognise when his owner DOES feel this way
So, if this puppy were indeed protesting, or ‘getting the owner back’, he would need to be aware that this wee, a normal bodily function, was ‘wrong’, that the owner perceives it as ‘wrong’, that if he does it his owner will feel ‘hurt’, and that his owner will associate this wee, with the event prior to the wee taking place. That is a LOT for a puppy to be capable of don’t you think? I would hazard a guess this urination is anxiety based, derived from frustration in a given situation of being unable to communicate his desire effectively to gain a resource and being denied an object/item he feels is essential to survival.
If we look at children, their emotional development is something which changes over time, they are not born with a set list of emotions which are present and functioning from birth. As children age, they are able to feel more and more emotional states, largely gaining in complexity as they grow. Studies have suggested that dogs have the same mind, or emotional capabilities, of a 2.5 year old child. So certainly dogs do indeed have emotions, but certainly not on the same scale as you and I.
So, if we are basing our dogs emotions on a 2.5 year old child, what emotional range do they have ?
- Calm/arousal – a range of excitement levels
Children generally do not experience emotions such as shame, pride or guilt until after the 2.5 year period, so we can somewhat presume dogs do not possess these emotions. We must remember that the rate in which our dogs will experience all the above emotions is QUICK, they will have felt all the emotions they will feel throughout life by around 6 months old.
So, what emotions will your dog likely NOT feel?
Have you ever spoken to someone and they tell you their pup raided the bin whilst they were out, or went to the loo in the house, and they came home to this unpleasantness! They then explain that they came in and saw the mess and ‘she knew what she’d done she looked really guilty about it, she knew it was naughty’. Well this is just not the case. The behaviours you see, the hiding, the tail tucked under the body, the wide eyes and the ears back, are all fear related. The dog has learned, when there is rubbish on the floor, or wee on the floor, when you walk in, punishment ensues (please remember ‘punishment’ does NOT always mean aversive treatment). A dog does not know that wee/poo is ‘bad’, it’s just a normal bodily function, they have no concept of it being ‘horrible’. Why would they feel guilty for going to the toilet?? It is a learned behaviour due to prior punishment for the same event occurring.
The world of canine (or animal!) emotion is a fascinating one and there is SO much scientific research being done as we speak, trying to find out more all the time. Canine behaviour is a fast paced subject!
I realise this article isn’t so much ‘training’ related, but I still felt it was important that we looked at emotion in our dogs, and what they do/don’t feel and are/aren’t capable of. Generally speaking, it may well not do our dogs any harm for us to attribute OUR emotion in a certain context to a dog, but be aware of it and be cautious of actively changing how you treat your dog due to how YOU perceive it may feel.
If you would like more information about this subject, or about the 1-2-1’s I offer, just get in touch!