Behavior is fascinating: I have spent most of my life, especially the last 16 years, trying to understand animals. Particularly, what motivates them to do those things they do. Much of this fascination is simply due to intellectual curiosity, because animal behavior is really super incredibly interesting. Of course, that may be an individual bias, as I found out when my family made a special trip years ago to the Bronx Zoo to see the Silverback Gorilla exhibit. I stood mesmerized by the animals while my family already had gone through the zoo, visited the souvenir shop, and were having a snack. I think it may have been the feces-smearing juvenile gorillas that drove them away, but I’m not entirely sure. I have also been mesmerized watching animals in much more mundane situations, like a doe and her fawns in my back woods or my little flock of 8 parakeets out on their bird “play shelf.” I am told that, as a pre-schooler, I would lie down on the sidewalk to watch the ants.
Why bother? Although other people may not find animal behavior as riveting as I do, there is a practical reason to strive to understand why animals do what they do. Mainly, there are things our animals do that we like and things they do that we don’t like. One of the BIG things they do that is perfectly natural and appropriate for them but objectionable to us is a display of aggression. But, if we can understand what motivates the behavior that we are not particularly happy about, we can come up with strategies to anticipate, manage, and minimize the potentially unpleasant or even dangerous situations that may occur as a consequence.
Aggression: Without a doubt, the most common reason people seek help from me for their dogs is for some kind of aggression. And in almost every case, as we carefully review the details of the patient’s history, it becomes crystal clear that certain situations make the dog feel threatened and that is the root cause of the problem. The dogs are not power-hungry, dominant dogs who just want to boss us all around. Much more likely, the dogs are put in threatening situations and are responding with the only tools at their disposal.
Human misbehavior: Time after time, I hear a story of dramatic human misbehavior around a dog that translates into a bite, and everyone blames the dogs. Some real life examples:
*Late at night, a drunk houseguest seeks out the family’s stranger-wary dog, who has removed himself and is sleeping in another room. She approaches the dog loudly and abruptly flops down to hug him. He bites her face.
*A little Dachshund, who is scared to death of strangers, is muzzled and restrained on a visitor’s lap while the visitor is instructed to pet her to “show her that you’re friendly.” Anyone want to guess what happens when the muzzle is removed and the visitor is instructed to pet her once more? Yup, a bite to the offending hand.
No choices: With domesticated animals, especially those living in our homes with complicated social dynamics and tons of rules (where to pee, what to chew, etc.), we have taken away pretty much all of their choices and it us up to us to not put our pets in situations that exceed their abilities to cope. And for the record, not all dogs like all touch from all people at all times. Most dogs like some touch from some people at some times, although there are dogs out there with low sociability who generally don’t go for snuggling, even with people in their inner social circle.
What kind of a dog would I be? One of my possibly quirky pastimes is to imagine what kind of dog I would be, were I a dog. When I see and hear how people treat their dogs, especially the anxious, introverted, emotionally sensitive dogs, it makes me really glad I am a human being. While the opposable thumbs and highly developed pre-frontal cortex are pretty awesome (with the possible exception of the ability to contemplate mortality), I am most happy that I live in a time and place where I can make decisions about most of the situations in which I find myself. I make a point of negotiating my world based on my comfort zones.
But, if I were a dog, I might just bite. I might be especially prone to snap at that obnoxious stranger, whom I have never met before and claims that “Dogs Love Me” as he abruptly inserts himself right into my personal space with not an ounce of etiquette, canine or human. Trust me, there is no one on the planet whom all dogs love. Usually the “Dogs Love Me” folks are welcomed by the uber-sociable, extroverted canine population but are at risk of being bitten by more sensitive, introverted dogs. The “Dogs Love Me” is a huge red flag, perhaps even a target, and people must protect their sensitive dogs from these well-meaning but misguided people.
I am glad I am not a dog, subject to the whims and fancies of people who, well-meaning, may just be egotistical and uneducated enough to push me to my limits. Because, you know, I just might bite. And that could cost me my life.