We discuss Patricia McConnell's new book, The Education of Will.
In her new book, The Education of Will, animal behavior pro Patricia McConnell goes somewhat off script, or at least, off the script that her readers have been enthusiastically following over the course of more than a dozen books and booklets she’s authored/ coauthored over the years. In it, she explores the ways early trauma can affect a dog’s behavior, and most certainly affected her own.
Bark: Do you think you would have recognized your need for therapy if Willie hadn’t been such a troubled dog?
Patricia McConnell: There is no question that my reaction to Willie’s behavior forced me to recognize that, although I had worked hard in therapy years before, I still had a long way to go to resolve the baggage from my past. I am eternally grateful to him for that. Willie’s fears and reactivity brought out many of my own, and at one point, I realized that I either had to find him another home or dig deeper to resolve the fear and shame I had buried for decades. As a form of therapy and self-awareness, one of the things I did to recover was to write about things that had happened to me. It was only after reading the works of others—including After Silence by Nancy Venable Raine, Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown —that I began to think about turning my writing into a memoir. I felt that if my story could help one person as much as those books helped me, it would be worth the five years it took me to complete it.
Bk: You write about the “chilling” anger that Willie expressed, but there are some who would dispute that a dog can feel true anger. What makes you certain that’s what Willie was displaying?
PM: Anger is an extremely primitive emotion, and is regulated in the brain and body of all mammals by the same anatomy and physiology found in humans. As I say in For the Love of a Dog, neurobiologist Dr. John Ratey calls anger “the second universal emotion.” Scientists who work with a vast range of mammalian species, from primates to mice, rarely hesitate to describe individual mammals as being angry. In addition, facial expressions of fear and anger are similar in people and dogs. Fearful faces have widened eyes, often with dilated pupils, and the corners of the mouth are retracted. Angry faces have narrowed, “cold” eyes, and the corners of the mouth are pushed inward. That’s the face that Willie displayed on occasion, looking exactly like the human faces of anger studied by psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman.
Of course, we can’t know that dogs experience the emotions of fear and anger as we do. We have a more connections between the pre-frontal cortex and our amygdala and hippocampus, which no doubt allow us to mediate emotion with reason. But in people and dogs, the feeling of being afraid or angry is probably more similar than different, because it has the same inherent function—to protect us from danger.
But, it is indeed possible for a dog to be angry, even though I would argue that centuries of domestication have made that a relatively rare event. What’s important is to not confound what people call “aggression” with anger. Aggression is an action, not an emotion, and most behavior that is labeled as aggressive is indeed based on fear. My dog Willie was both a bundle of fear and one of those uncommon dogs who appeared to be overcome with rage in certain situations. That was part of why it took so long and so much work to turn him around.
Bk: You note that excessive sniffing might indicate future aggressive tendencies. Have any studies been done on this?
PM: I know of no study that has investigated a relationship between vigorous sniffing behavior and intraspecific aggression, but that would be a fantastic topic for a dissertation. I’ve seen correlations between obsessive sniffing and dog-dog aggression cases in my office for more than 15 years, and have also heard other trainers and behaviorists refer to it. Maybe this will inspire someone to do the research.
Bk: You also mention the enteric nervous system, what some have called the “brain in the gut.” Could there have been a connection between Willie’s digestion troubles and his behavioral problems?
PM: Absolutely! This is another issue that begs for more research. Many trainers and behaviorists have seen correlations between behavioral problems related to fear or reactivity and an unsettled gut.
Bk: Do you think we burden dogs with our own expectations?
PM: I do worry about our current expectations of dogs. Not just as individuals who we want to fill so many varied social roles, but also as individuals whose behavior is supposed to be, well, almost perfect. I remember the day when a parent’s response to child being bitten was, “What did you do to that dog? Didn’t I tell you not to bother her when she’s eating?” I’m not saying we should go back to the “good old days,” because they weren’t always so good—not for us or for dogs. And I love so much of the current focus on both science and soul in training, exemplified by what we read in Bark magazine. But I do worry that we are imposing expectations on dogs that are as much a burden as an opportunity.
Bk: As part of our 20th anniversary celebration, we will be asking dog-world luminaries to comment on what they consider to be the biggest advancements/changes they’ve witnessed in dogdom during the past two decades. What’s your take?
PM: First, let me say what a joy and an honor it’s been to contribute to The Bark magazine throughout the years! I think the success of the magazine is the perfect reflection of how our relationship with dogs has become richer and more nuanced than it was in the past. It’s also a symbol of what I think is perhaps the most important difference in dogdom: the acknowledgment that canine behavior and our relationship with dogs are important and legitimate research topics.
When I defended my dissertation in 1988, one of my committee members said, “Well done. I didn’t know anyone could actually do any decent science that involved dogs.” And look at where we are now! Our relationship with dogs is one of the world’s most miraculous and also one of the most interesting, and we can learn from it for decades and decades to come. Thank you, Bark, for helping make dogs, and dog behavior, the focus of both art and science.
Well done indeed!
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A “Dog-torate” in Occupational Therapy
Niko may very well be more popular than any Big Man on Campus has ever been. He’s not that big, and he’s actually not a man, but this Labrador Retriever spends far more time in college classrooms than most students, and he is adored. Niko is trained as a service dog, and is a key member of the Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. The goal of this program is to help students in the occupational therapy program, healthcare professionals and members of the community learn about service dogs.
The world of service dogs is filled with information that is not common knowledge. Because people are not aware of all the ways that service dogs can, well, be of service, many people are missing out on additional ways to live independently and in fully satisfying ways. More education is part of the solution.
Not very many people know all the ways that service dogs can help people with disabilities, or the proper etiquette to observe around a service dog. Fewer still are familiar with what protections the law offers to service dogs and their people. This lack of knowledge usually means that people may behave in ways that are annoying or unhelpful in the presence of a service dog. For occupational therapists, such gaps in their knowledge could mean doing their jobs less effectively. Service dogs are often underutilized in plans to help a person achieve independence and improve their higher quality of life. The Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa aims to change that. With Niko’s help, professors at OU-Tulsa are able to educate students about service dogs with practical, interactive hands-on experience and demonstrations.
By teaching students and other members of the community about service dogs, Niko helps reduce the barriers faced by people who need and work with service dogs every day, and that means that people’s lives are enhanced by the program. Over 500 people receive education each year through the Professor Paws Project, which was developed by Assistant Professor Mary Isaacson. To honor this contribution to the community, the City of Tulsa has just designated May 9, 2017 as “Professor Paws Day”. On that day, Niko will officially walk in the graduation ceremonies. (Think of it as Niko receiving his “Dog-torate”.)
Niko is not the first service dog to be involved with the education of occupational therapy students at OU-Tulsa. Before Isaacson trained Niko, she trained a service dog named Samson, and began incorporating him into her classroom instruction. Samson regularly attended classes, which allowed her to demonstrate the specific ways that a service dog can have an impact on a person’s daily life. Whether it is opening the fridge, retrieving dropped items, helping remove someone’s socks, or turning lights on and off, students were able to see what a difference such assistance can make to a person with a disability.
After training, Samson was placed with a high school student with cerebral palsy. That was 6 years ago, and now Samson lives on a college campus and continues to assist the same person. Having Samson participate in classes during his training and before his placement was so beneficial to students that people recognized the value of having a dog present on campus permanently.
As a result, the goal all along for Niko has been different than for Samson. Rather than being placed with someone as a service dog or working directly with patients, Niko will remain at OU-Tulsa in order to continue educating people about service dogs. As far as staff at the university know, the Professor Paws Project is the only program of its kind. However, its success suggests that this might not be true for long.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
They have different styles
Daisy and Cooper are both ice cream-loving dogs. When their guardian takes them through the drive thru of a fast food restaurant, they share an ice cream cone. Just for laughs, watch the way each dog eats. They definitely have different styles!
The first time I watched this, I felt sympathy for Cooper as he watched Daisy lick the ice cream while he had to wait. Waiting helps dogs practice dealing with frustration and developing self-control is good for them, so I wasn’t opposed to requiring him to be patient. I just felt for Cooper watching another dog eat what he so clearly wanted. After watching it, I was impressed with everyone in the car. The guardian controlled the situation so that each dog was able to enjoy a treat. Daisy was remarkably calm considering that she must have known that she was right next to a dog who could swallow the entire cone in less than a second. Cooper admirably waited his turn despite his eagerness to eat the ice cream.
Could your dogs share a single cone, and if so, how would you make sure they each got some?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Little dogs pee more often on walks
Scent marking is a common form of communication across a wide range of mammals. Although dogs can scent mark in various ways, they most often use urine, which is obvious to anyone who has watched dogs pee here, there and everywhere out on walks or during play time.
Urination, and other forms of scent marking, allow animals to convey a large amount of information in an indirect manner. That means that they can communicate without direct interactions. That has the advantage of avoiding the costs of social interactions, which can include stress, the energetic costs of interacting and potential injury. In many species, body size is closely correlated with competitive ability, which is why scent marking may be especially important to smaller individuals, who may be unlikely to fare well in direct encounters.
Dogs have an enormous size range for a single species, but only recently has the effect of size on frequency of scent marking been investigated. Researchers wondered whether smaller dogs take advantage of the indirect nature of scent marking through urine to be more competitive with larger dogs.
In the recent study, “Scent marking in shelter dogs: Effects of body size”, researchers walked 281 shelter dogs (mostly mixed breeds) that they categorized by size. Small dogs measured 33 cm or less at the withers, large dogs measured 50 cm or more, and medium dogs were above 33 cm but less than 50 cm. They recorded urinations during the first 20 minutes of each walk, noting whether they were directed at a target or not. (Targeted urinations were those that occurred after sniffing a spot on the ground or on some other surface, and those that involved urinating somewhere other than the ground even without sniffing it first.) The study found that smaller dogs marked more often than medium or large dogs and that they were more likely to direct their urine at targets compared to large dogs. Though smaller bladder capacities of smaller dogs could explain increased frequency of urination, that cannot account for the increased frequency of urinating on targets.
As expected, males also marked more frequently and directed their urine at targets more often than female dogs did. The length of time that dogs had spent in the shelter was positively associated with frequency of directed urinations, but not with total number of urinations. Size had no effect on the frequency of defecations on walks, but dogs who had been at the shelter longer were a little bit more likely to defecate on walks.
The authors concluded that smaller dogs use scent marking in the form of urination more frequently that medium or large dogs. It is possible that they are using scent marks in order to avoid direct interactions.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
This action has many meanings
The eyes may be the mirror to the soul, and careful observations of both the mouth and the tail can yield all sorts of information about a dog’s intentions and emotional state, but the ears are a different matter altogether. The ears are more challenging to read and understand, and they usually have to be viewed in conjunction with other visual signals to make a useful interpretation. That is especially true when the ears are pulled back or held close to the head.
Ears that are tucked close to the head often indicate negative emotions. One possibility is sadness, which often results in ears that are tucked down close to the sides of the head. Dogs may show this when a favorite person departs. I once saw a dog pull his ears back like this when he saw some of his dog buddies playing but he couldn’t join them because he was on a stay.
Ears that are pulled back often indicate fearfulness, especially if combined with other facial signals associated with this emotion, such as a fear grimace in which the corners of the dog’s mouth are pulled back or dilated pupils. Sometimes dogs put their ears back when they are nervous, and that will often be combined with tongue flicks, panting, tension in the body, or other signs of anxiety. This is a common behavior in dogs who must be in the car but dislike road trips, or dogs who are overwhelmed by too many children at once.
When a dog’s ears are in their natural resting position, it typically indicates that a dog is comfortable in the situation. When dogs greet each other, it is common to see one dog maintain his natural ear posture, suggesting that he is at ease, while another dog puts them back, indicating the opposite. Putting the ears back in this context may be an appeasement behavior.
There are at least two more possible meanings associated with ears that are pulled back. Dogs who are about to bite often pin their ears tightly to the head. It has been suggested that this may simply protect them from injury by keeping them out of the way of any teeth in the vicinity that mean business. Finally, males will pull their ears back when they are courting a female, and this action is one of many that means he is interested in her.
The motion of pulling the ears back is quite obvious, but the meaning is not always so apparent.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
During their first appointment, my clients told me that their dog had “severe territorial aggression,” and that they had been advised to euthanize him. I looked at the wide-eyed and quaking Hound mix hiding under a chair and had a strong suspicion that the label given to this dog was far from accurate.
As it turned out, the dog was actually terrified of strangers. Not only was his problematic behavior based in fear and totally unrelated to any concept of territory, he had never hurt anyone. He whined, barked and showed his teeth to anyone he didn’t know who got too close to him, giving them an awful scare, but even when people tried to pet him (unwise, but it happened!), he didn’t bite.
Over the years, situations like this have made me increasingly disillusioned about the labels that are so often applied to dogs’ behavior problems. I find that labeling often does more harm than good, especially when the label is wrong.
It’s not surprising that we want to label dogs’ behavior issues: it matches the system we use for people. In the realm of human health care, labels are necessary because billing codes are required for insurance coverage of both treatment and medications.
Having a label for a dog’s behavior problem may also make it easier for us to access information and resources. Learning that it is a known syndrome or problem often makes us feel better even before there’s any discussion about what to do to improve the behavior. It’s a natural human tendency—just naming a problem can give us a sense of control over it. But sadly, mislabeling interferes with arriving at an appropriate response to the problem, whatever the problem turns out to be.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to labeling behavior problems is that it provides a verbal shorthand that speeds up communication. There’s an appealing simplicity to using a short phrase or two to identify a dog’s issue rather than going into great detail about each incident, especially when many people are involved. (It’s not unusual for an evaluation team to include a behaviorist, a veterinarian and a trainer, as well as other experts.)
On the other hand, describing the behavior in detail lends an accuracy to the situation that labels sometime obscure.
For example, every year, multiple clients seek my help with separation anxiety because they have been told (erroneously) that their dog suffers from it. The dog may be showing behaviors often associated with separation anxiety —including excessive barking, eliminating indoors or destructive chewing—but the real problem can often be revealed with a thorough description of the dog’s behavior before, during and after the guardian’s departure.
When the real issue is boredom, incomplete house training or a simple (which is not to say easy!) case of adolescence, changing the undesirable behavior by approaching it as a case of separation anxiety is unlikely to be successful. Rather than medication and complex protocols to desensitize the dog to departures and the cues that precede them, the real solution could be to add activities and enrichment opportunities, return to Housetraining 101 or provide a long exercise session before putting the dog in a crate with appropriate, long lasting chewables.
It is also common for people to consult with me because their dog is “protective” of them. Lila brought in Banjo because every time anyone got near Lila, Banjo barked, growled and lunged. Lila was concerned that he would hurt someone, but delighted by his bold confidence. Trouble was, after taking a case history and observing Banjo in a variety of contexts, I could tell that he was not protecting her so much as he was possessing her. He guarded toys, food, sleeping spaces and anything he considered of value, including Lila. He was not her brave protector, but an insecure dog who considered her to be the best bone in the world, and he was not going to let someone else have her. Mislabeling Banjo’s behavior as “protectiveness” rather than of “possessiveness” hindered attempts to change this behavior, and interfered with Lila’s understanding of who Banjo was.
Another negative of labeling behavior problems is that it oversimplifies the situation. If a dog is called a “fear biter” or even labeled with the more professional sounding “fear-based aggression,” it implies a simplicity that is just not there. Even among the many dogs whose fear drives aggressive behavior, differences are enormous. Dealing with a dog who is afraid of red-headed children (and therefore reacts badly when in the presence of one) because he was once traumatized by an attack from such a child requires a very targeted approach to overcoming that fear. Modifying such a specific behavior is different than working with dogs who are afraid of everything; dogs who missed out on socialization early on but are great with familiar people; or even dogs who panic and bite as a reaction to loud noises such as gun shots, fireworks or the crash of pot hitting a tile floor.
A related drawback of labeling behavior problems is that the label implies a solution, again, much like the human medical model, in which a diagnosis necessarily points to a specific treatment. Boxed-in thinking about how to change undesirable behavior can short circuit continued investigation. Using the label “arousal-based aggression” gives the impression that the situation is thoroughly understood and that all that is needed is an appropriate behavior modification program, one that emphasizes predictability and includes exercises to help the dog learn to practice self-control. However, that label may mask the dog’s anxiety and the need for intervention to address it.
Then, there’s the issue of shame; giving a dog’s problem a label makes it seem more serious and alarming to many guardians and may also make them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their dog’s behavior. That’s especially true of any label that includes the word “aggressive,” which carries such a stigma. It’s too bad that a stigma exists, but since it does, it makes sense to be mindful of it when discussing dogs’ behavior with their guardians. People are often devastated to be told that their dog is aggressive, especially if the dog is sweet and loving within the family. It can be even harder for a family whose dog is behaving out of character due to an injury or other physical ailment to accept a label of “aggression.” If the dog is in such pain that the problem behavior is just the dog’s attempt to keep people from touching him because he has learned it will hurt, I would rather say that— even if it is long and a little unwieldy—than call the dog aggressive. Even if it is modified by the term “pain-induced,” the word makes people feel bad, and that’s not helpful.
It’s common for people who are told that their dog is “fear aggressive” to be more daunted and overwhelmed than if they are told that their dog is fearful, and is acting the way he does because he can’t say, “Please, oh please, don’t come any closer—you’re scaring me! And for heaven’s sake, don’t pet me because I can’t handle that except from my closest friends.” If people understand that dogs are barking, growling or biting because they are desperate to increase the distance between themselves and whatever scares them—other dogs, people, trash cans, bicycles—and will only stop if we can help them overcome their fears, there’s less judgment and more hope. Focusing on the behavior itself— what the dog does—and discussing the motivation behind it avoids problems that can arise with simply labeling the behavior.
I recently consulted with a family whose dog was a victim of a labeling error that had hindered their ability to help him. This family’s sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home and because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she had referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. One complication with this particular label is that there is no agreement across disciplines about what it means. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.
It was a challenge to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they just kept saying, “He pees everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” and then detailing the clean-up, which was no doubt considerable given that the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent inquiry, however, I was finally able to get a fuller picture; it turned out not to be a housetraining problem after all. The dog’s housetraining was solid, but he peed during greetings. As a puppy, he urinated whenever he greeted anyone, but now he only did it when greeting the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached for the dog.
Recognizing that the inappropriate urination was a specific type of social issue (often called “submissive urination” and somewhat unusual in dogs older than 12 to 18 months of age) rather than one of bladder control— or not knowing or caring where it was appropriate to eliminate— made it easier to address the real issue: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Though he thought he was doing right by his dog by being firm and applying stern, consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach. I was able to help the family by teaching the husband kinder, gentler and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence the dog’s behavior. As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a housetraining problem would have achieved this result, which had the added benefit of improving the overall family dynamic as well.
The temptation to put a name on a problem is strong, and many of us are quick to embrace it. However, while labeling seems like an intuitively obvious approach, the downsides are too important and too numerous for me to be on board with it. Labels can get in the way of seeing the dog, focusing our attention on a pathology and turning the dog into an example of a specific behavior problem rather than what he or she actually is: a complex individual and a unique case.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s extremely contagious behavior
Dogs frequently join in when they hear other dogs howl, and even in response to wolves doing it. In this clip from the movie Zootopia, the filmmakers nailed the contagious nature of this canine behavior for comic effect.
In the next video, a dog in front of a television that is playing this movie clip begins to vocalize in response to the realistic howling. The additional howling by the German Shepherd enhances the movie soundtrack considerably. Please note another amusing feature in the video. I refer to the large number of toys on the chair and the massive collection of bones and chews that are piled in the corner. I’m sure this décor is familiar to many of us!
All around the world, dogs are howling, and we know that this behavior is contagious. Please let me know if your dog responds to the howling in Zootopia!
News: Guest Posts
Is your dog guilty of either offense?
Taking many male dogs out for a walk can be like taking your own little watering can out for a spin—a splash on the light post, a few drops for the fire hydrant, a dribble over an old pile of poop, a good soaking of the neighbor’s prize roses. Males aim their urine for marking purposes, so there’s no doubt that they are able to direct the stream quite accurately.
They are able to put their precious urine where they want it to go, but I’ve yet to see a dog who purposely avoided spraying something in the great outdoors. For the most part, that matters very little to us humans. One patch of grass or tree is pretty much like the next from our perspective. Yet there are times when I wish that dogs would try to avoid dousing various things that get in the way, especially their own leash and any other dogs who are out on the walk with them. I’ve never seen a dog make any effort to make sure that these objects stay dry as they share their liquid calling cards with the neighborhood.
Leashes get wet pretty regularly on walks. Few people have avoided this little drawback of dog guardianship. It happens especially often with dogs who turn around multiple times before lifting a leg. Many dogs do this, circling two, three, four or more times in essentially the same spot before peeing. This behavior serves to tangle them up in the leash or at least to step over it, leaving the leash in the perfect spot to get caught in a urine stream. It’s irksome for anyone holding the leash or who owns the house where the leash is to be hung up later, isn’t it?
Also at risk of being hit by pee is any other dog in the vicinity, especially if both are on leash, guaranteeing that they are in close proximity to one another. Since dogs out on walks together so often sniff the ground together and make little effort to get away from one another, I suppose it’s inevitable that someone gets peed on. As one is still stiffing an amazing smell, the other one decides to mark that exact spot, paying no attention to the fact that his buddy’s head is in the way. Sigh.
Some dogs clearly object to being peed on. My buddies Saylor and Marley illustrate this. Marley is a bigtime marker, and Saylor loves to follow him to sniff whatever he is sniffing. As a result, on occasion, he has inadvertently marked her head, neck or back. However, he has not done it lately, as far as I know, because Saylor now leaps out of the way. She takes advantage of her quickness and agility to avoid Marley’s pee, often jumping swiftly in whatever direction is required. It seems obvious to me that Saylor recognizes the behavioral signs of an impending pee and wants nothing to do with it. As soon as he starts to lift his leg, she is out of there.
I’m mostly accusing males of peeing on dogs and on leashes, but females can do it, too. It may be less likely for dogs who squat to pee (typical for adult females) than for dogs who lift their leg to do so (usually males), but it is by no means just a male issue.
Has your dog peed on his own leash or on one of your other dogs?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How does your dog react to people, cats and dogs?
Recently, I had a client whose resource-guarding dog reacted very differently depending on who in the household approached him when he had a toy. His responses varied with the species of the individual.
The other dogs in the house are watched closely if they come near the dog in question when he has a toy. He will go still except for his eyes, which track their every move. If they try to pick up one of his toys, he will growl and charge at them. He will take toys from them and hoard them even if they all started out with matching toys given to them by the guardians. If you only saw him around other dogs, he presents as a classic high-level resource guarder—what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine. However, he reacts very differently to the other two species sharing his home.
The human adults and the child in the household can do whatever they want with this dog’s toys. They can pick them up, remove them from the dog’s mouth, walk by them or even step on them. The dog is completely relaxed no matter what happens to his toys at the hands (or the feet) of the people in his family.
The cat can walk by toys, approach the dog while he is playing with a toy or even cuddle up with him when he has one without eliciting any reaction. If she picks up a toy up or lies down on top of one, the dog rushes over and takes it.
This dog lets people do anything related to toys, and lets the other dogs in his house do nothing related to them, but takes an intermediate stance with the cat. He is unwilling to tolerate the cat taking possession a toy, but as long as she does not attempt to do that, he does not object. It’s difficult to know exactly why this dog behaves as he does, though I think it’s safe to assume that he does not regard the dog as a human/dog cross. It’s possible that the dog’s actions are based on species, but the differences may simply reflect his response to each of the individuals in his multi-species household.
Do you have a dog who reacts differently to the various species in your home when they approach his toys?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
They show a bias against them
In a study called “Third-party social evaluations of humans by monkeys and dogs” scientists evaluated capuchin monkeys and domestic dogs to investigate their responses to people after watching them interact with other people. Specifically, researchers studied their evaluations of people who were either helpful or who refused to help another person. There’s an entire behavioral area of research involving what are called “third-party social evaluations” which simply means the study of how individuals respond to people after watching them interact with others.
In the experiment with dogs, the person pretending (for the sake of science) to be in need of help was the dog’s guardian. The dog watched as the guardian spent about 10 seconds attempting to open a clear container holding a roll of tape. In the “helper” situation, the guardian then turned to one of the people on either side of him/her and held out the container. The helper held the container so that the guardian could open it. The guardian removed the roll of tape, showed it the dog, put in back in and replaced the lid. In the “non-helper” condition, the person who the guardian turned to for help responded to the non-verbal request for assistance by turning away, at which point the guardian continued with the unsuccessful attempts to open it. In both cases, there was a person on the guardian’s other side, who was not asked for help.
At the end of this role-playing situation, both the person who was asked for help and the other person next to the guardian offered the dog treats. When the person had helped the guardian open the container, dogs were equally likely to take the treat from either person. However, when there was a refusal to help, dogs were more likely to choose the treat held by the person who was not asked for help. Dogs chose to avoid taking treats from people who were not helpful. This study found similar results in capuchin monkeys, and the same pattern is well known to occur in children.
It is interesting that dogs act as though they assume that people are okay and trust them—until they have evidence to the contrary. In this study, they gave people the benefit of the doubt, reacting just as well to people who were never asked for help as to those who did provide help. Once they observed someone refuse to help their guardian, though, they avoided taking treats from them. This matches the experience many of us have with dogs in that behaviorally healthy, well-socialized dogs seem to like and trust people in general. It as though dogs pursue a “trust unless specific information advises me to do otherwise” strategy regarding social interactions.
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