Dogs Don’t Write Poetry

By Adam Romsdahl CPDT-KA

Have you ever heard someone talk about how their dog is plotting against them? Or doing something to spite them? Maybe you, yourself, have tried to have a conversation with your dog; Explaining how you don’t like something they do and how they need to change their ways, only to get frustrated that they didn’t heed your warning. Let me make this simple… they have no clue what you’re saying. They don’t speak English.

Dogs don’t write poetry. They don’t dwell in the past. They don’t think about their future goals. It’s not debatable. I know what you’re thinking, “You say that, but MY dog definitely understands what I said, they just don’t listen.” No. They don’t. That’s not just my opinion, science tells us so.

The part of the mammalian brain responsible for reflection and planning, the cerebral cortex, is much smaller in dogs than humans. We have the largest cortex, relatively, of all mammals and therefore have the ability/tendency to dwell in the past. We also have a habit of anthropomorphizing by putting human qualities and emotions onto non-human objects/subjects… like our pets. Though dogs do have a larger cerebral cortex than a lot of mammals, it’s still not big enough to denote such behavior as vengeance or spite. These complicated emotions aren’t just about remembering the specifics of what happened, but figuring out a tactic to “get back at you”. Including the very complicated task of deciding what would tick you off the most, and the repercussions of their actions. As much as you’d love to think they’re capable of all of this, they aren’t. Your dog doesn’t plot against you and your goldfish doesn’t remember you. Sorry. The “guilty” look your dog has when he’s done something wrong, that’s not guilt. That’s associative fear.

I used to think the absolute same thing. When I’d come home to a mess, I KNEW that guilty look and she was DEFINITELY conscious of what she did! Not true. She’s using her body language to “actively avoid” an unwanted interaction from me. These body language signals (lowered head, looking away, low curved posture, licking lips, etc.) looks, to us, an awful lot like guilt. She’s expressing these signals because either a) she’s associated a messy house with punishment or b) my frustrated and/or angry body language usually doesn’t work in her favor.

However, all of this doesn’t mean that you can’t communicate with them. You just can’t teach them logic. The sooner you come to terms with this, the better your relationship with your dog will be. There are some very interesting studies done revealing the fact that dogs can understand and adapt to human faces, tone and body language; thereby amazingly understanding human emotions. So though you may not be getting very far by using your words, your dog can still understand you; just not the rationale you wish they could comprehend. In fact, banking on human words could likely and inadvertently tell them something different than what you intended.

Why then does your dog pee on your bed when you’re gone? Well, the short answer is that they miss you. The longer answer, urination can be a sign of stress or anxiety, and although it’s common for them to tinkle when excited, elimination of the bladder is usually what animals do when they’re in distress. The reason it tends to be somewhere you inhabit often, say the bed or your favorite spot on the couch, isn’t that they know you’ll be pissed (you see what I did there?) and ruin your day; it’s because they were probably looking for you and/or find comfort in being where your scent is thickest. Remember, at least ¾’s of their world is through their nose and even though YOU can’t smell your musk still lingering on your pillow, they can. Other forms of “spiteful bad behavior” that are anxiety driven can be: excessive barking, scratching at doors, breaking into cabinets, chewing on walls, tearing up couches, etc.

So, punishing a dog for bad behavior while you’re gone is not only unproductive, it’s unfair and could potentially make the behavior worse. Remember, since these behaviors typically tend to be anxiety driven, punishing or getting angry at them you will, in fact, elevate their stress, unintentionally making things worse.

Think about it like this: your dog is consistently a “bad dog” when you’re gone. You’re getting upset every time the dog does something bad; When the dog is good, you’re elated with them! Now for the dog’s part, it’s a guessing game as to which version of you is coming home; The angry one that screams at poop on the floor or the ecstatic one that throwing treats at them like it’s a ticker tape parade. So, the action of exiting the house marks the time that your transformation occurs into either Jekyll or Hyde, and naturally, your dog gets nervous. You, recognizing your dog’s anxiety and running low on Nature’s Miracle, have now begun the process of pleading with your dog. “Be good. Be a good boy. Ok? I’m only going out for a little bit. I’ll be back soon.” The problem is that the dog can’t speak English, so they then have to interpret your body language and tone. When you take away the words, pleading and begging sounds and looks an awful lot like an animal in distress (because you sort of are). You are now, to them, panicking and leaving them behind. They do not like this. They are now stressed. They must relieve said stress…. “Bad dog”.

What’s a better way to handle leaving? Nobody has ever gained composure because someone acting like Bobby Knight yelled at them to “calm down!”. You can’t be stressed if you expect them not to be stressed. Therefore, you walking out the door trying to convince them to be calm as you’re in panic mode, will not work. You have to leave like you’ve left before and come home like you’re going to do it again. If consistency and calmness are what you want from them, you need to lead by example. This WILL be a frustrating task. When you’ve had a bad day and come home to destruction, you immediately get emotional. Logic and emotion do not marry and it’ll be “bad dog!” city. Take a breath (spelled w-h-i-s-k-e-y), clean up the mess and move on.

Exercise: Practice, practice, practice.

You can, however, try to speed up this process. Consistent repetition will help, along with what’s called errorless discrimination, otherwise known as setting them up for success. Do some practice runs. Walk out and walk back in before they get the chance to stress. Change up the amount of time you’re away. Sometimes, walk out and are back within seconds, sometimes take a couple of minutes. You can slowly work your way up to being gone for long periods of time. But here’s the rub, the most important part… ready? IGNORE THEM! This is harder to do than some might think, but it’s essential. It is strictly a human ritual to say goodbye. Dogs do not share our need for this custom. When leaving the dog park, do you ever see them go up to each of their buddies and bid them adieu? Nope. If you ignore them while leaving, over a long enough period, I promise you that they will start to treat your departures with less and less alarm and fanfare, thereby creating less “bad dog” scenarios. Always remember that training is a slow process and don’t get downhearted and lose faith if the results aren’t immediate.

Final thought: I will tell you this, your dog loves you. Sometimes they don’t display it the way you wish they would, but I guarantee you that dogs don’t write poetry. They don’t dwell on the past, and they are not plotting against you. They are only concerned about/living in the moment. Most of the time, it’s doubtful the dog even know what they themselves are stressed about. Through pairing your departure with stress, you’ve effectively created a negative association to your absence. An upset dog must relieve anxiety, hence if you avoid stressing them out, you and your dog will be happier. That’s it. Adam out!

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