Dogs don’t think like people

Dogs are complex creatures with sophisticated thinking ability. But dogs don’t think like people. They can solve problems/puzzles. They can understand hundreds of words, if taught to do so. MRI brain studies also prove they experience many of the same emotions as people, including love, joy, happiness, and grief. It’s only natural that most people assume their dogs understand cause and effect. Those people are wrong.

Picture of a Boston Terrier tilting his head to illustrate Dogs Don't Think Like People

If dogs could put the two things together, they’d never do most of the stuff that gets them in trouble. For example; Simon (Fran’s 4-year-old Boston Terrier) likes to eat grass. Every time he eats grass, he pukes. Every single time. He doesn’t like that part. Not at all. It’s obvious to any human that eating grass makes Simon throw up. It’s never crossed Simon’s mind that maybe, just maybe, eating grass isn’t a good thing to do. 

The link between “cause” and “effect” is missing in dogs’ brains.

There’s only now

At least part of the reason is because dogs don’t seem to have the same kind of memory that people do. If the grass consumption was further ago than “now,” it’s slipped from his awareness.

A more classic example is the case of dogs and house-breaking. If a dog had an accident in the house while the people were away, very old conventional training had you rubbing the dog’s face in it and screaming “No!” even if it happened hours before. Fortunately, that nonsense has gone by the wayside. The only thing it accomplished wasn’t the goal. It taught dogs that people “finding” a mess was bad. So they learned to hide it, instead of learning not to do it.

Instant gratification

It’s crucial, when teaching your dog anything, to react instantly. Don’t let any time elapse between action and praise/reward. If your dog drops the wad of grass when you say “Leave it!” his reward has to come right away. If you’re late with the reward, he’s already grabbed another tuft and is merrily chewing away. So you find yourself rewarding chewing grass, instead of rewarding the drop. And because he’s so darn fast grabbing it, that’s why Simon’s on leash, even in his own yard.

Cause and effect is missing in dogs’s thought processes. And, adaptable and trainable as they are, so is generalization. People generalize all day, every day. Once you know how to use a spoon, you know how every spoon works. Everywhere. No matter the size, shape, color, texture, or material. All spoons work the same, and every person can use every spoon everywhere. But a dog’s “spoon” in the kitchen is different from the “spoon” in the dining room. They can be taught to generalize, but it’s not part of the original package. 

And that’s why your dog doesn’t know “Sit!” when you’re at the vet’s office, or the groomer, or at Grandma’s house. Just a couple of minutes “training” your dog to sit wherever you are will do the trick. It’s kind of funny to watch, because you can almost see the light bulb turn on in their brains when they get it. “Oh, you mean this sit? Really? That’s all I have to do?”

Try it at home

It’s easy, and fun, to try with your own dog. If there’s something you always do with your dog try changing it just a little. Friends of ours had a routine where each of their five dogs went with “dad” to the pantry every night to get an M & M candy before bed. They would all sit politely in the same order and wait for their piece of candy. (Despite what you’ve heard about chocolate being poisonous to dogs, one M & M won’t matter to most dogs.) It would have blown their little minds if Dad had moved the routine over by the fridge. 

We’re not advocating confusing your dogs on a regular basis. What we are saying is that trying familiar things in new surroundings will expand your dog’s thinking and let both of you have a little bit of fun. Change up your routine and let us know how your dog reacts. It can be eye-opening for both of you!

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No guarantees on dogs

A friend of ours has a sick dog. Even the veterinary specialists can’t quite figure out what’s wrong with her. The dog has wonky liver values, is reluctant to eat and sometimes lethargic. She’s only five years old. Our friend did everything right when he was looking for a puppy five years ago. But there are no guarantees on dogs.

Mistakes of the past

When he was searching for a responsible puppy and breeder, he did everything right. He’s involved in his breed’s club, and found a responsible breeder. He made sure all the health tests were done on the sire and dam of the litter. He went a step further. His older dog went blind at a young age from a genetic disease. So he made sure the parents were both tested for that, as well. 

Picture of a Cocker Spaniel standing in grass to illustrate dogs don't come with guarantees

And he brought home a lovely puppy girl. They were off to a wonderful start, for the first three years. Our friend’s preferred dog sport is agility and his puppy loved it, too. Then she started feeling ill. She was coming up lame. And not wanting to run. 

Again, our friend did everything right. He’s taken her for every test the vets recommended. He treated her with the medicines they prescribed. Fortunately, he has medical insurance on his dog, and most of the impressive expenses incurred have been covered. Even the cancer drug they tried.

Art and science

Unfortunately, no one’s been able to find an exact cause, or a cure, for what ails the dog. He brings her to our obedience club’s Rally class, just to be able to do something with her. Because she doesn’t want to run the way dogs need to for agility competition.

Is our friend disappointed? Of course he is. But he’s also willing to do what’s best for the dog he got. He’s sticking with his girl, taking her to her physical therapy, getting the  regular blood tests, adjusting meds and diet as needed. Because dogs are family.

Not giving up

He’s still hoping to find an answer that will let his dog return to the bouncy, mischievous girl she used to be. He isn’t giving up on his dog. 

We all live with uncertainty. We open ourselves up to the unconditional love of dogs, even though we know that one day we’ll have to mourn them. It’s never long enough, whether it’s long and fulfilled, or short and sweet. Because dogs don’t come with guarantees.

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Let dogs say no

Since when are dogs expected to allow anyone to do anything to/with them? Take away their food bowl. Let anyone pet them. Allow other dogs to get within sniffing distance. How about we let dogs say no?

Pictures of a Boston Terrier puppy to illustrate let dogs say no

Our first dog was a Boston Terrier named “Spunky.” He was a fantastic dog, a phenomenal best friend for two little girls. He was well-mannered, gentle, and lived up to his name. When we would try to do something to him, like pet him when he was eating, our mother would say “How would you like it if someone did that to you?” So we wouldn’t. On his behalf, our mother said “No!”

Boundaries are good

Dogs are amazing, smart, adaptable critters. They also do better when new stuff is introduced slowly, other beings respect their boundaries, and they’re allowed to be themselves.

Most dogs also give clear indicators when they’re uncomfortable or frightened. There are usually many clues before a dog will bite or snap. If a dog is licking its lip, turning its head away, or you can see the whites of their eyes, they’re sending a message that they’re not comfortable. It does the dog a disservice to allow whatever’s happening to continue.

As dog trainers, we tell all our students that distance is your friend. If your dog isn’t comfortable with something, back off until they relax. If the event that made them uncomfortable is one they need to get used to, do it gradually. One sure sign that a dog is doing okay is if they’ll take treats from you. When you reach their comfort boundary, they may stop taking those morsels.

It happened in the shop all the time. Dogs would come in thinking they were someplace where bad or scary things happen. We gave them the time, and distance, they needed to get used to the idea of “trying on” harnesses. Some dogs never got there. That’s okay – we just guided their owners for the fittings.

We told you not to do that

We’re reminded of a series of incidents with our bookstore cat, many years ago. A good friend of ours brought each of her four children to the shop. And, when each one was about four or five years old, they would be petting Merlyn, the cat. He was a typical cat – he loved pets until he didn’t, and then grabbed your hand with his teeth to let you know he was done. 

We knew Merlyn’s signs of “enough!” very well. And we told the children “That’s enough, now. Merlyn’s tired of being petted.” And, in turn, Merlyn grabbed their hands. He never broke skin, but he did leave dents.

And each child went running over to their mother, crying “The cat bit me!” And each one heard “What did you do?” Obviously, if it hadn’t been a friend, we wouldn’t have let it happen. But we knew how our friend would react. It was important to her that her children learn to a) listen and b) respect animals.

Let dogs say no

Strangers don’t have to pet your dog. No matter how little, fuzzy, and cute your dog is. You and your family are the only ones your dog has to put up with. Tango, Fran’s 13-year-old Brussels Griffon, didn’t like much of anybody but Fran. It was important to us that he change, so we did it gradually. Everyone he met was given a handful of treats to toss on the floor near him. Then a little closer to them. Then, step-by-step, take the cookies from their hands. Over time, Tango grew a bunch of cookie-people friends. Now he’s the sweetest old guy. And anybody is allowed to pet him. But it worked because this dog was allowed to say “no!”

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Testing dog DNA

The last few years have seen a whole new industry arise – testing dog DNA. Many people are curious about their mixed-breed dog’s origins. Why they look the way they do. If their tendency to “herd” is natural, etc. And it’s understandable that people want to know. But, in the long run, what difference does it make?

Every dog is an individual with their own personality. Dogs of the same breed, even the same litter, are never identical either in looks or personality. Just like people. And their genetic make-up is just one indicator. The old argument of “nature vs. nurture” is never resolved toward one side. It’s always a combination of personality and upbringing, training and instinct.

Flawed results

A story by the CBC tested the accuracy of four different companies doing dog DNA tests. They submitted samples from two mixed-breed dogs, one purebred dog, and one human reporter. They also, essentially, lied to the testing companies, both about the purebred dog and the person. The results they got for each individual, from each company, were wildly different. And rather hard to believe.

The oddest part about these, and most other dog DNA test results we’ve heard about, is how very unlikely the results seem to be. According to people we know who’ve had the tests done on their dogs, there are apparently hordes of Chow Chows and Chihuahuas reproducing indiscriminately at a great rate out there. We don’t know about you, but we’ve never seen either a Chow Chow or a Chihuahua running loose.

Indigenous roots

Many of the dog DNA results also came back positive for “village dog breeds” or some ancient breeds that no longer exist. It’s a good cover story – but most people would rather know if their fluffy puppy has Poodle or Shih Tzu, not ancient native dog genes. It seems to be a cop-out. Evolution says that all dogs probably have common ancestry. So no big surprises.

Picture of a random street dog to illustrate dog DNA

As far as the human DNA leading a couple of the companies to list origin breeds rather than test failure, it’s predictable. People tend to find what they’re looking for, regardless of what the truth might be. We first learned that lesson many years ago, watching a sit-com called “The Governor and JJ.” In this episode, two book review groups’ books got mixed up. One group, which focused on nature and wildlife, got a sex-education text book. The other group, which was to review the sex education book, got a book on river otters. That second group concluded that their book was rife with obscenity and immorality. They found what they were looking for.

Have fun with it

The upshot is that, if you decide to test your dog’s DNA, don’t take any results as absolute fact. It’s fun to satisfy our curiosity. But it doesn’t change your dog or how you feel about them.

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