Do Dogs Think Like Humans?

Guilty looking chocolate lab

Do I look guilty?

I often wonder if I do disservice to my dogs, for thinking about them in human terms. When I’m in a training situation, it’s easy to think in doggie terms. I am actively participating in communicating with my dogs, and I get instant feedback on how well I communicate, via the dog’s behavior. However, when I am not in a training situation with them, and we are just being human and doggie, I often fallback to thinking in terms of human emotions. Words like happy, sad, pouting, mad, and concepts such as humor, revenge, spite, and others, often leap to mind when watching my dogs. I know that they don’t experience these emotions and concepts in the same way that I do, but I think many people would argue that they DO experience them, and there is my conundrum. The problem with assigning human emotions and concepts to our dogs, is that it makes it easier for people to attribute human motivations for them as well.

Sundown, a female Aussie of mine, and Midnight, a female cat that shared our home, often had exchanges that seemed to border human expression. Midnight loved sleeping on the bed and always wanted to lay in the center of it. Sundown would often jump on the bed, walk over to the center where Midnight lay, and sit right on top of her! I swear that you could see a smile cross that dogs face when she did it! Normally, Midnight refused to move. Sundown never stayed too long because the bed was usually too hot for her. Sundown liked laying on the floor better, it was cooler and she didn’t have to share it with anybody. Midnight would often stalk Sundown as she slept on the floor. She would sneak up to Sundown’s face, and nonchalantly smack Sundown with her paw. Sundown would wake up with a start, stare at the cat for a moment, and then go back to sleep. Midnight would just walk away with a smug look of satisfaction on her face.

In doggie and kitty terms, I think that Sundown was just laying claim to her property, and Midnight was just enjoying a toy. But I have no doubt that many people, if able to witness the exchanges between Sundown and Midnight, would use words like revenge, payback, satisfaction, humor, and others to describe them. Here is my problem with that. If a dog and a cat are capable of these emotions and displays, does it mean that they actively plan them? For instance if you punish a dog for a particular behavior, and he continues to display that behavior, is he doing it out of spite? Of course not! Yet many people believe that their dogs engage in such activity. Guilt is an especially heinous concept foisted on dogs. People assume that a dog knows that their behavior is wrong because the dog acts guilty when you catch them in the act. Guilt implies a sense of right and wrong. Yet study after study on the behavior of dogs tells us that dogs have no sense of right and wrong, they are amoral. The guilt display is nothing more than a reaction to a prediction. Punishment is about to happen, because circumstances are right for punishment to occur.

So now you see why I worry about humanizing my dogs. It is a natural thing to do because after all, we are human. But just remember that while these emotions may be accurate in describing a dog’s behavior from a human point of view, the reasons behind them are purely doggie in nature, and most likely have nothing to do with their human equivalents.