The Mythical Dog: prideful, spiteful, and stubborn

Iggy looking intense
Iggy. Stubborn? Willful? Or bred to do things that were not always convenient?

Humans and dogs are both very special animals. We enjoy a symbiotic relationship of mutualism which has allowed each of our species to propagate and thrive in ways our nearest relatives cannot approach. Because humans and dogs enjoy such a uniquely inter-personal relationship, and because we have bred dogs, or allowed certain individual dogs to breed, for so long, dogs can interpret our body language and facial expressions to a degree no other animal can. Humans can also interpret dog behavior in very useful ways, but we also often misinterpret dog behavior, and mis-assign it human qualities. While both species share some cognitive and emotional propensities (we both behave based on histories of reinforcement, and we both experience love), it is a mistake to think that just because dogs can make some choices, that all of their behaviors are based on choice. We also tend to think that because dogs can experience some of the emotions we can, that they experience all the emotions we do. These tendencies can be frustrating, and even harmful, for dog and human, alike. Among the most insidious, and inaccurate, of these behavioral mis-assignments, is the label, “stubborn”.

Humans are uniquely able to act in ways which are not really in our own best interest. Dogs experience, and respond to, basic emotions like love, fear, joy, and anger; it is doubtful dogs feel more complex emotions like pride, guilt, or shame. While it is not yet possible to prove they do not feel these things, many studies have been done exploring these possibilities, and there is no evidence that dogs feel these complex, or culturally-based, emotions. Whether dogs can or cannot feel these emotions, what we know for sure is that they never act in a way they perceive to be less rewarding than other behavioral options. We humans are uniquely able to make choices that harm us or our loved ones, even when we can understand rationally that these choices are relatively harmful, or less likely to bring rewarding outcomes. We make these poor choices out of pride, spite, and stubbornness. Whether or not they can feel pride or spite, dogs will not make choices based on these traits. Furthermore, when humans claim a dog is behaving stubbornly, it is actually because the humans do not understand what motivates a dog’s behavior. Stubbornness is a quality uniquely human.

A hungry dog will accept food, as long as they feel safe enough to do so. Humans probably will, but may not, due to pride regarding the acceptance of charity – and they may even make this choice on behalf of their offspring; we do this out of pride. While it is unclear, (though doubtful) whether dogs can feel the emotion we call pride, they definitely don’t refuse to do things, or insist on doing things, because of pride. When they have a choice, they will always choose behavior with the strongest history of reinforcement. Some argue that is not a choice, but semantics are not the topic of this post. Dogs do not behave pridefully.

A frightened dog  will run away from danger, or fight against a dangerous foe out of perceived danger, in order to cause the danger to go away. Humans may understand that their actions will have a harmful effect on themselves and others (as opposed to the need for self-defense or sustenance), and still choose to harm another being, out of spite. This is an example of the ability to infer the emotions of another, as a result our own actions. While dogs can predict how some of their actions will cause others to behave, they do not appear to recognize how their actions cause others to feel (this does not mean dogs do not empathize, it only means that dogs act to change behavior, not feelings). Humans can do that, but dogs cannot. Dogs also do not have ability to recognize how their actions will affect the behavior of others at a much later time (the limit of a dog’s ability to make plans based on how their behavior will affect other animals’ behavior is limited to 2-7 seconds). Humans can do that, but dogs cannot. Dogs don’t soil in the house to teach us lessons, or to spite us, and they don’t destroy our things to punish us for leaving them alone. It is a mistake to think dogs, or other animals, do things we don’t like in order to hurt us, or to teach us lessons. Dogs do not behave spitefully.

A dog can perceive one behavior as being more rewarding than another, and then learn that a different behavior will be more rewarding, and it will choose the more rewarding behavior (humans will make the more rewarding choice almost all the time). If the dog doesn’t choose the new, more rewarding behavior, it is because they have not yet understood the new behavior to be more rewarding. While different individuals may find different reinforcements to be rewarding, dogs will always choose the more rewarding behavior according to their own perception. Humans can understand a new behavior to be more rewarding and still not choose it, because they are prideful, and don’t want to admit they were wrong, or in order to spite another person. We call this being stubborn. We see examples of this in human behavior all the time: congressional gridlock, marital spats, aggressive driving; stubborn behavior is so common in humans, we experience it every day. We let pride or spite inhibit our rational ability to change our behavior in order to live better or longer. This is a problem uniquely human, and yet we stubbornly mis-assign this ability to dogs, rather than looking deeper, and learning how to actually change the behavior we don’t like. It is a common mistake to think dogs are behaving stubbornly, when actually we have simply failed to recognize why the dog is doing the behavior, what kind of behavior it is, and how to change it. We either don’t reinforce a new behavior, so the dog engages in the old behavior; or we don’t recognize the dog is afraid, and behaving in a predictable way given they are afraid; or we don’t understand that the dog is doing something they were bred to do.  Because we don‘t understand these behaviors, we utilize a classic human coping mechanism called projection. Instead of taking responsibility for our own lack of skill or expertise, we project our frustration onto our dogs, and label them as stubborn. Dogs do not behave stubbornly.

There are many definitions of “stubborn”, but two words that appear in some of the definitions are “mulish” and “dogged”.  In fact, what people mean when they describe mules or dogs (or any animal other than humans) as stubborn, are very predictable results from different kinds of stimulus. Dogs can’t be stubborn, and neither can mules. Much of the time when we are frustrated by our dogs, or when we are tempted to label our dogs as stubborn, it is because we are not recognizing, or not respecting, some fundamental aspect of what it means to be a dog.

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