Aggression Unleashed: Do Dogs Mean to Be Mean?
If Aggression Leads to More Aggression, How Do You Respond?
Growling at a person’s face or lunging at other dogs while on a walk are
potentially serious aggressive behaviors that can result in biting. Without a
good understanding of dog aggression and proper responses to such behavior,
owners often find themselves confused about what to do. The behaviour may
seem harmless at first glance but is likely to be repeated in other
circumstances and eventually grow to be a more serious problem.
Growling, baring teeth, and biting is part of every normal dog’s
behavioural repertoire. But that does not make aggression appropriate in most
situations. Whether your dog tries to bite strangers who reach to pet her
during a walk, unfamiliar dogs trotting by her, or the dogs and people in her
own household, it is never acceptable behaviour for companion dogs to bite.
DOGS ARE INTEGRATED into our lives and our families, yet sometimes our
interactions with them can be dangerous. According to the Centers for
Disease Control, 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year. Most
of these bites do not require medical attention, and many dog bites (especially
those inflicted by small dogs or family pets) are not reported to public health
authorities. However, hundreds of thousands of people require medical
attention, including emergency treatment and reconstructive surgery, for dog
bites each year.
Why Do Dogs Behave Aggressively?
At its simplest, aggression can be defined as behaviour that injures—or at least
intends to injure—its target. Because there is a “cost” to aggression (that is,
the biting dog might be bitten as well), the function of growling, snarling,
staring, and even snapping and biting is to increase the distance between the
aggressor and the target. Aggressive behaviour can be seen in many situations,
but in most cases, it is motivated by fear or defence of things that have high
value to the dog.
Aggressive behaviour is part of the normal range of behaviours available to
all dogs. But knowing that it is typical or understanding its evolutionary
the purpose is not enough when we are trying to manage aggression in our own
pets. A critical piece in managing aggression—or any undesired behaviour—is
to understand your particular dog’s motivation, fears, and reactivity. Each
a dog has a story.
Is my dog aggressive because she is dominant? This is very unlikely. The
the perception that dogs bite their owners or other familiar people because they
are competing for “alpha status” has largely been replaced by the realization
that dogs bite for defensive reasons that are not related to a social hierarchy.
Although this might contradict some of the information we receive from the
Internet and other media, it is a conclusion based on the science of dog
behaviour. Behaviour studies of free-roaming feral dog groups in India, for
example, have shown neither a strong hierarchy component nor persistent
aggressive interactions between members, except when breeding and raising
Why do we no longer interpret biting as an expression of dominance? First,
dogs who bite their owners most often look, in their body language, fearful
and uncertain. Second, much of the outdated “dominance theory” of dog bites
are based on captive wolf behaviour, which is not analogous to either wild
wolves or domestic dogs. People often respond to this misconception by
asserting their own dominance and thereby put themselves at risk of being
bitten by a fearful dog.
Should I punish aggression to nip it in the bud? You might receive
confusing, conflicting advice about what to do if your dog snaps or bites. One
of the more common pieces of advice is that such dogs should be punished
for their aggression. Some suggest that the owner should assert dominance
over a dog, they perceive as challenging their authority. The dominance myth
came about from two rationales, both of which have now been shown to be
false. The first was that wolves living in groups have a dominance hierarchy
that they maintain by fighting with one another. This assumption was based
on early research in the 1940s, observing unrelated wolves living in captivity.
The study found a great deal of fighting between group members. Fast-forward
fifty years, when other researchers studied wolf packs in the wild.
Those results turned the dominance theory of pack behaviour upside down. A
wild wolf pack consists of parents and their offspring, both newborns and
juveniles. No fighting takes place within the wolf social group, but rather
they all work together to increase their survival—no evidence of alpha status
or aggression here!
The second false rationale deals with dogs. Behaviourists once thought that
because dogs are descended from wolves, they will act like wolves in their
social relationships. But since we now know that wolves don’t act within a
strict hierarchy, we should not assume dogs do either. Unfortunately, the
the damage was done. Dog training was already based on the assumption that the
the only way to train and “tame” a dog was to be confrontational—something we
now know is not true.
So punishment is not your best course of action at all. Rather than reduce
the risk of bites, punishment and so-called dominance activities (for example,
the alpha roll, grabbing the dog and rolling him onto his back) make it more
likely that the dog will bite again. In fact, there are several reasons not to
punish a dog who has shown aggression. Again, dogs who growl, snap or
bite people are usually expressing fear and self-defense. That fear will only
increase in the face of harsh treatment. Remember, punishing a dog who is
already showing aggressive behavior is likely to result in a bite. And we have
research to support this. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Meghan Herron found in
her study that aversive or painful treatment of dogs who already have a
history of aggression will, in fact, lead to the handler being bitten. This is
clearly a downward spiral that we want to avoid with our companion animals.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, the best and safest reaction to
aggression is to disengage immediately by stopping the interaction, turning
away, and perhaps leaving the area.
Although punishment might stop or inhibit any behavior for that moment,
the behavior itself will reappear at the next opportunity and might be driven
by even worse anxiety and arousal than it was previously. In addition, if you
want your dog to learn an alternative, unaggressive behavior in a similar
the situation, punishment will not teach that lesson.
Should I take my dog’s food or move her off the couch to show I am in
charge? You might have seen advice from various sources that says dogs
should be expected to relinquish items on request, and that this should be
taught by taking things away from them at an early age. This is misleading
and sometimes unsafe advice; taking food and toys away from your puppy,
juvenile, or adult dog only teaches her that her food or toys can be randomly
removed at any time. This would be upsetting and create anxiety for any of
us! These unfortunate efforts will make her more nervous than ever about
you coming near.
Moving your dog can be dangerous too. It is common for dogs to growl,
swing their heads, snap, or even bite when someone tries to physically move
them from their spot on the furniture, from under a table, or any time the dog
is resting comfortably. Dogs don’t appreciate being pushed, pulled, or
cornered any more than we do.
Types of Aggression
There are many types of aggression, and various systems have been
suggested to classify them. However, there is still no consensus on
terminology and whether it should refer to the target of the aggression or to
the presumed function.
We’ll mostly be discussing aggression where the targets are familiar
people. In this context, it is useful to think about aggression as either self-defense
or defense of valued resources. Defensive aggression can appear to
be offensive when the dog is lunging and snapping at her target. However,
aggression that appears offensive or self-confident can also be rooted in fear.
Functional categories of dog aggression include fear-related aggression,
aggression related to territorial defense, resource guarding, conflict, status-related
aggression (specifically referring to other household dogs), and pain
and irritability associated with the disease. Fear and defensiveness play a role in
all of these functional categories.
What Does That Mean?
Aggression: Behavior that harms, or threatens to harm, another
individual. Because aggressive behavior has a cost for the aggressor
(who might get hurt as well), the function of aggression is often to
increase the distance between the aggressor and the target.
Fear-related aggression: Aggression used as self-defense. Such
aggression may be a last resort for dogs who otherwise cannot escape,
or it can also be a preemptive behavior when they anticipate a threat.
Territorial aggression: Defensive aggression associated with the
arrival of an intruder in or near the house, yard, car, or other area
perceived by the dog as her territory. Territorial aggression is usually
facilitated—made worse—by the presence of other household
members. It is most common for territorial aggression to be
associated with fear.
Defensive aggression: A nonspecific term that describes aggressive
behaviors motivated by self-defense, territorial defense, and defense
Resource guarding: Defense of resources perceived by the aggressor
as having a high value. Examples are food, toys, resting places, and
Conflict-related aggression: Aggression directed toward owners
(and family members) in contexts that create conflict between the
dog’s drives and her ability to inhibit the behavior. Triggers can
include threatening postures by often unaware owners, punishment,
physical manipulation, and other interactions.
Status-related aggression: Aggression between household dogs
related to resources, social and physical access to desired locations,
and postural provocations.
Pain-related aggression: Aggression that occurs directly as a result
Irritable aggression: Aggression associated with disease but not
directly as a result of pain.
Predatory behavior: Behavior that is motivated by the instinct to
detect, pursue, and kill for food. Unlike overtly aggressive behaviors,
the objective of predatory behavior is not to increase the distance
between the aggressor (dog) and the target (prey).
When they perceive a threat, dogs have limited options to stay safe. When
possible, it is often safest for them to flee. This is clearly not possible when a
dog is cornered in the living room, restrained on a veterinary exam table, or
attached to a leash. If escape is not possible, dogs will often attempt to
diffuse the threat with appeasing signals, such as lip licking, averting the
eyes, turning the head, rolling over onto the back, or urination and other
appeasement behaviors. If the threat persists—for example, if the unfamiliar
person continues to reach out to pet the dog when she is uncertain about
being touched—the dog threatens by stiffening, growling, baring teeth, orbiting.
Defensive behavior stems from fear or uncertainty. A dog in defensive
the mode has options: run away, submit, or threaten in an attempt to use bravado
to stop the unwanted social encounter. Defensive behavior functions to
prevent an opponent or perceived menace from gaining an advantage, not to
actually “win” the encounter.
Why Is Force-Free Training Important?
Most dog bites to people result from fear and self-defense on the part
of the dog. Preventing and minimizing the risk of biting includes
being sure that your dog is not placed in a situation in which she feels
threatened enough to bite. Force-free training emphasizes positive
reinforcement and avoids leash tugs, shock, physical manipulations,
and threats. Keep these things in mind:
Dogs have no agenda. They live in the here and now and will
protect themselves if frightened.
Dogs in our homes rely 100 percent on us, their human family,
to feed, walk, shelter, and love them. It is important to extend
this to humaneness in training.
Any training method—including use of aversive tools, such as
shock collars or other sources of pain—can result in a “wellbehaved”
a dog who performs the commands, but maybe quite
frightened and unreliable. In fact, studies have shown that using
these types of training devices and techniques increases anxiety
in dogs and diminishes their interactions with humans who use
them. Ethical and humane methods train just as effectively and
result in less stress and, therefore, less risk of fear-related biting.
Science-based training relies on well-established principles of
learning. If your goal is to have a happy dog who is eager to do
the things you ask her to do, use positive reinforcement to ensure
this will happen.
As their keepers and owners, we have a responsibility to ensure
that our dogs are treated with kindness.
Assuming that your dog disobeys to spite you or is out to get you
is detrimental to your bond with your pet and is simply not true.
If your dog does not respond to a request, it may mean she
doesn’t understand what you are asking, is distracted by
something more important to her at the moment, or is too
anxious or fearful to respond.
Is That Really True?
If your dog is allowed to sleep on the bed, walk-in in front of you, or run
through a door before you, she will become alpha. This common
misconception has resulted in unneeded harsh handling and confrontations
between people and dogs. Using common sense, it is easy to see why a dog
would want to pull on the leash or run into the yard—there are things to see,
bladders to empty, and squirrels to chase. This behavior can be resolved by
teaching the dog to walk on a loose leash, with the help of a force-free trainer, and teaching her to sit before
dashing through doorways (a great example of a “life reward,” getting to do
what she wants by complying with the request for sitting). As far as sharing a
bed—if your dog has a history of growling, snapping, or biting on the bed,
keeping her off is a safe step. If there is no history of aggression in the bed,
however, it might be inconsequential. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Victoria L.
Voith found that there was no association between “spoiling behaviors,” such
as sleeping on the bed, and behavior problems. There is no evidence that
allowing dogs on the owners’ bed contributes to aggressive behavior.
My dog is aggressive toward strangers because she is protecting me.
Unless your dog is specifically trained to bite (and release) on command, as
military and police dogs are, it is very unlikely that her stranger-directed
aggression is related to protecting you. It’s much more likely that your dog is
lunging at strangers because she is protecting herself. Having you nearby is
probably increasing her tendency to be aggressive when frightened. Just as
two dogs in a yard will bark at passersby more vigorously and vociferously
than one will, your dog is most likely feeling that she has a backup when she
is with you and so can be more overtly aggressive.
Rolling on her back means a dog wants a belly rub. What a dog means or
wants when she rolls on her back is all about context. True, your dog might
paw you for attention and then roll onto her back as a not-so-subtle hint. But
this posture is also a common way for dogs to signal discomfort with an
interaction—especially if your dog has any history of aggression. It’s a
canine appeasement signal, intended to tell you the dog is uncomfortable and
needs you to step back and discontinue what you’re doing. If such a dog were
to get a belly rub, it is very likely she would escalate her defensiveness by
How can you tell the difference? If your dog rolls onto her back after she
initiates an interaction with you and is clearly seeking attention, it should be
fine to pet her. However, if the interaction is initiated by you or another
person (for example, you’ve called your dog several times to no effect, at
which point you approach her and she rolls onto her back), it is safest to
discontinue the interaction and walk away. If you aren’t sure, don’t rub the
dog’s belly; it’s certainly not the way dogs interact with one another.
Socializing a puppy to children will prevent her from being aggressive to
children when she grows up. Even well-socialized puppies and dogs can
experience fear or pain or can guard high-value possessions. When children
are too young or impulsive to follow the rules of dog management, it is safest
to separate the dog so that both are safe. Alternatively, an adult can be
assigned to actively supervise, preferably with a leash on the dog. If there is
any history of aggression, the dog should be leashed or securely separated
when children are present.
The Difference Between Normal and Abnormal Aggression
Some behavior problems that bother owners may just be part of the normal
behavior repertoire of dogs. The perception of the “problem” in these cases is
in the eye of the beholder. The behavior might be normal for the animal but still
unwanted or inappropriate for the human. In the case of aggression, it is also
On the other hand, behavior problems can also be abnormal or atypical.
For example, animals might bite when they are sick or in pain. Aggressive
behavior might be manifested in abnormal ways. So how do you tell the
difference between normal and abnormal behavior?
Growling, snapping, and biting serve important functions in the normal
behavior repertoire of dogs and are used to communicate in social situations
both to people and to other dogs. For example, growling with or without an
inhibited bite (snapping, orbiting with little resulting injury) serves to warn
fight. This is territorial aggression, with the aggression redirected to the
other dogs because the dogs cannot get direct access to the primary target.
This is fear-related aggression; the guest continued an
the interaction that was uncomfortable for the dog.
Apart from its function in normal dog behavior, aggression may result
from almost any aspect of the disease. In addition, fever, nausea, joint pain, and
other health problems can increase irritability and, therefore, biting.
Some aggressive behavior, however, appears to be exaggerated and
perhaps unprovoked and does not fit into the expected pattern of dog
behavior. Dogs showing abnormal aggression might behave in a way that is
unpredictable and exaggerated in response to the trigger. This kind of
response is sometimes described as an impulsivity disorder or as “rage
syndrome”—a term that is often used by dog owners and even trainers but is
not recognized by behavior scientists. While a “normal” aggressive dog may
bite when the owner pushes her off the sofa (a recognized provocation for
dogs) but not at other times, an “abnormal” dog may bite when the
provocation is as subtle as a pat on the head. These abnormal dogs may be
less likely to warn with a growl and may become extremely emotionally
aroused—along with trembling, dilated pupils, and even disorientation.
A study by this chapter’s author, Dr. Ilana Reisner, showed that aggressive
dogs have lower levels of serotonin metabolites (brain neurotransmitters
associated with mood) in their spinal fluid than unaggressive dogs. The
neurotransmitter serotonin has been associated with mood regulation and a
delay or inhibition of acting in potentially self-harmful ways. In its absence
or dysfunction, dogs and other species might be more likely to act
impulsively and aggressively.
Serotonin dysfunction is just one example of many physiological problems
that might lead to aggressiveness. Highly stressed or anxious dogs are
physiologically on edge because of abnormal function of the hypothalamicpituitary-
adrenal (HPA) axis (the connection between the brain and the
adrenal glands), which results in the release of corticosteroids, the fight-or-flight
body chemicals. In this state, behavioral arousal is intense and dogs are likely
to defensively bite without “rational” warning or inhibited behavior.
Aggression by anxious dogs thus often appears abnormal. Ultimately, such
behavior is maladaptive and even self-destructive; it certainly doesn’t help
the dog lives a normal canine life.
Always Start with a Veterinary Visit
Behavior changes should always raise a red flag that the dog may be sick or
in pain. If your dog’s behavior—including activity level, any unusual
aggression, nervousness, social behavior, or change in appetite—is new,
different, or simply doesn’t make sense, start by making an appointment with
your dog’s veterinarian for an examination and health assessment. It is
common to discover that biting dogs have joint pain, ear infections, or other
health problems. In fact, the disease is almost always expressed by a change in
behavior. Only when your dog’s physical health has been addressed can you
focus specifically on the behavior changes.
Problems such as infection, cancer, and even trauma, all of which can
affect the brain, can also change an animal’s behavior. To complicate things
further, aggressive behavior resulting from disease can persist long after the
disease has been treated and resolved—especially if the behavior resulted in
the dog getting something she wants. For example, a dog with a painful ear
infection may growl or bite when her ears are touched. Because this behavior
is rewarded (growling makes the hands—and therefore the pain—go away), it
might persist even after the ear infection has cleared up. Ultimately, then,
aggression as a behavior problem and as a manifestation of the disease can be
closely linked, and it may be unrealistic to try to consider them separately.
As human animals, we negotiate, discuss, argue, and manipulate verbally but
place less emphasis on the nonverbal social signals we exchange during our
own interactions every day. Our dogs cannot speak, but they have developed
a complex language through physical body postures, movements,
vocalizations, and facial expressions.
Dogs are very good at observing us, their human family members, and
reacting to even subtle changes in expression or movement. Unfortunately,
we are not always as accomplished at reading our dogs, which often results in
unwanted responses from our canine companions. We have to retrain
ourselves to pay close attention to their body language—and vocal cues too.
While canine social signaling has some genetic basis, learning is also
involved. socialization is the early basis for the
normal development of social behaviors. Puppies who are orphaned or
removed prematurely from their littermates may have limited opportunities to
learn the important “rules” of appropriate social behavior and may
misinterpret signals given by other dogs or may signal ambiguously. These
social deficits may remain, and these dogs may not do well at the dog park or
in other group-play situations.
Dogs signal (or warn) their aggressive intentions to avoid the possibility of
injury associated with fighting. The purpose of aggressive signals, one might
say, is to increase the distance between the dog and the target of the
aggression, thus decreasing the likelihood of an active and perhaps injurious
confrontation. Growling, stiffening, snarling, and snapping can serve that
However, overt aggression and biting do occur, largely because those more
subtle signals were either not perceived or were disregarded by the target, or
the event happened too quickly for the dog to assess the outcome. For fearful
and anxious dogs, this may result in an aggressive response. If people are the
target, miscommunication is usually the problem. Fights between dogs might
result when at least one of the dogs is anxious or inappropriate in her social
Dog fights can be sudden and severe. Triggers of fights between
household dogs are often related to misread social cues or resource
guarding. Other triggers include excitement and crowded spaces. As
with bites to humans, fights with other dogs are often related to fear
Although there are exceptions, many bites during a dogfight are
actually inhibited, at least to some degree. In other words, the
combatants could do more damage, but consciously control how far
they go. That being said, such altercations should be interrupted
because dogs can injure each other severely. However, it is always a
risk to personal safety to interfere with a fight. Therefore, rather than
using your hands or legs, try to interrupt fighting by throwing a
blanket or water on the combatants or by inserting a handheld baby
gate or large cushion between them. Once the fight has stopped,
safely separate the dogs and contact a qualified behavior professional
for advice on how best to manage the problem.
The Big Picture
In life, we often look at the big picture before focusing on the details, and we
can do this with dog behavior as well. It is important to observe the dog’s
overall body language before narrowing in on specific body parts, such as the
eyes or the position of the ears or tail. If you focus only on the dog’s mouth
or ears or tail, you might overlook other, equally important cues.
Dogs signal with every part of their body, right down to the hair follicles.
When a dog goes on alert, the hair along the back of the neck and between
the shoulders may stand up (raised hackles). This is part of a mechanism that
expands the dog’s silhouette, making her look bigger and more menacing to
ward off a potential threat. Piloerection is not a voluntary response but rather
is a sign of arousal, fear, or uncertainty; it tells us something about the
emotional aspect of the behavior.
DOGS CONVEY THEIR internal motivation and inclination toward aggression by
facial expression and body postures. Still, it can be a challenge to pick up on
the signals our dogs try to convey. Signaling may be too quick or subtle for
us to detect. Even a change of breathing pattern, for example, can indicate
discomfort. In addition, dogs may be physically incapable of communicating
their moods or behavioral inclinations because of characteristic breed traits
for flattened faces or floppy ears
Therefore, you must pay attention to all the clues, from the tip of the nose to
the end of the tail (assuming the dog has a tail—and if the dog doesn’t, she
will be even more challenging to read).
In addition to the dog’s behavior and signaling, it is equally important to
consider the context of aggression. Who were the people present or nearby at
the time the dog behaved aggressively? What immediately preceded the
aggression, and where did it occur?
Congruency is the term behaviorists use to mean all the dog’s signals are
consistent. Congruent signals mean the dog is comfortable with her current
decision about how to understand a situation and how to react to it. An open
mouth with a relaxed gaze and wagging tail are signals of a socially
comfortable dog giving congruent signals.
Incongruent signals mean the dog is conflicted about the risks of a
situation and how to react. This dog’s behavior could change at any moment.
A wagging tail with a lip curl and a low growl conveys incongruence; this
the dog is in conflict about what she will do next.
Why is it so important to observe and understand your dog’s social
signals? Because they provide the most direct path to the dog’s current
emotional state as well as her intentions. By watching our dogs, we can see
that aggression is always provoked in some way, and it can often be
anticipated and therefore avoided. Some communications are rather subtle but
Breed Differences in Signaling
There are breed differences in a dog’s ability to display social signals:
Breeds with long, dangling ears or docked tails (Cocker,
Brittany, and English Springer Spaniels, and others) cannot use
these body parts very well to signal their social inclinations.
Shar-Peis and Pugs and some other breeds have reduced and
folded ears and limited ability to move them.
The ears of Doberman Pinschers and Great Danes, among other
breeds, are still traditionally altered with plastic surgery
(although this is becoming less popular around the world).
Cropped ears create a misleadingly aggressive look because the
ears are artificially erect.
Curly-coated breeds such as Poodles cannot signal arousal with
raised hackles (piloerection).
Some short-nosed breeds, such as Bulldogs (English and
French), Boston Terriers, and Pugs may be physically incapable
of a lip curl, which can be an effective warning signal of
Breeds such as the Akita and Chow Chow have fairly stoic facial
expressions and may give abbreviated or inconspicuous displays
(such as lip curls with growls), leading some people to comment
that they might attack without warning or provocation.
Dogs with permanently curled tails, such as Chow Chows and
Shar-Peis, have more trouble lowering or tucking their tail than
Labrador Retrievers and other straight-tailed breeds.
The Old English Sheepdog has floppy ears, a bushy coat, and
hair covering her eyes and cannot transmit the full set of signals
that a German Shepherd can.
Dogs with long hair around their face, eyes, and lips may have
dilated pupils (indicating high autonomic arousal, or activation
of the “fight or flight” system) or may snarl (show their teeth)
without it being evident.
Why Are Reading My Dog’s Signals So Important?
Your ability to read your dog is critical to being able to predict her behavior.
Most dog aggression is provoked and predictable, so it is key to learn the
signals and understand the context. In fact, if you watch your dog’s reactions
to the world around her, including people, other dogs, and all kinds of
environmental stimuli, you will have a better idea of her progress as you help
her maneuver through potentially frightening situations. For example, your
fearful dog might show initial nervousness and even avoidance when
particular people approach on the sidewalk: her tail might go down and her
pace might slow, her ears move backward, her eyes widen, and she might lick
her lips. These are all signs of discomfort with the situation she is in, and you
can’t ignore them.
How should you respond? This would be an excellent time to give the
approaching person a wide berth while talking softly and reassuringly to your
dog. Rather than slowing or forcing her to walk close to the person, you can
effectively avoid escalating her fear by walking briskly in another direction,
behind a parked car, or across the street. If you have picked the correct course
of action, your dog’s body language will show decreased concern by walking
fast again, tail held higher, ears relaxed. Offering some food to redirect her
worry is an excellent distracter as well.
By watching your dog carefully, you can anticipate the triggers of her fear
and, ultimately, prevent the fear from escalating into aggression. Remember,
this is not “giving in” to your dog, but rather respecting her emotional state
and allowing her to learn to trust you to protect her from harm and let you
make the decisions about what is or is not a threat.
Ultimately, you must be proactive, stay alert to your dog’s signals, and
protect your dog from situations she can only respond to as a dog. By doing
so, not only do you protect your dog and avoid unwanted behavior like biting,
but ultimately you will also form a stronger relationship as she learns that she
can trust you to decide what is best for her.
Management: How Do We Begin?
Even though we all love our dogs, we must acknowledge that they might, in
certain situations, bite. In fact, any dog, including the floppy-eared family pet
you share your bed with, may bite. As with any of life’s risks, the likelihood
doesn’t necessarily mean you should not take that chance—if it is outweighed
by the benefits. Veterinarians, who must sometimes do unpleasant things, like
touch a painful paw, are certainly aware of this. What can you do in day-to-day
encounters to prevent aggression and, especially, biting?
Know your dog. Each dog is an individual with her own temperament
and sensitivities. Aggressiveness is influenced by physical health as well
as the dog’s reactivity, experience, and personality (including genetic
temperament). Do you have a reactive or resource-guarding dog or one
who is frightened of noises? Consider this when weighing your dog’s
risk for aggression and plan accordingly.
Be aware that the risk of aggression may increase with behavioral
maturity. Behavioral maturity occurs later than physical maturity. If
your puppy or immature dog seems frightened or nervous in the face of
unfamiliar people or situations, there may be an increased chance that
she will express that fear through biting when she is a mature adult, at
one to three years of age. Scheduling an appointment with a veterinary
behaviorist when things first change will give you the information you
need so that you know what to do.
Know, avoid, and lessen your dog’s triggers for biting. An everyday
the situation might be meaningless to one dog but a grave threat to another.
For example, consider what happens when you approach an unchewed
rawhide bone lying near your resting dog. While your dog might open
one eye at your approach and then go back to sleep, your neighbor’s dog
might guard the bone with a growl and a lunge.
Be aware of canine communication and body language. Dogs usually
signal their fear, arousal, and uncertainty. It’s a good idea to watch your
dog’s face, eyes, head, tail, and body posture to decipher what she is
saying. Generally speaking, it’s not good to assume your dog will accept
certain people, dogs, situations, or events. If she seems nervous, take
your dog away from the situation as soon as you can.
Understand the typical provocations of aggression for all dogs.
• Defending oneself
• Being disturbed while resting
• Physical manipulation, pushing, pulling
• Being disturbed while in a denlike area
• Being disturbed while on a high-value bed
• Defending the home, yard, car, and another territory
• Being approached when behind a fence, in a car, or in a crate
• Defending high-value resources that are approached, touched, or
The following are some behavioral management tools to help you deal
with aggression realistically and safely.
The best strategy for dealing with aggressive behavior is to prevent it from
happening in the first place. But if you are faced with a growling or lunging
dog in an emergency situation, it is important to remove yourself from the
interaction as quickly as possible. Remember our earlier discussion about
punishment and how it can escalate aggression? If your own dog is growling
at you or attempting to bite, turn and walk away.
After you have safely removed yourself, consider the situation. If the
trigger is simple to figure out (for example, you were reaching to clip on a
leash when your reluctant dog had withdrawn into a corner), it can be equally
simple to avoid the problem the next time (call the dog to you rather than
cornering her). In some situations, avoidance is the solution.
In other cases, and when it is safe to do so, it is also important to work with
the dog to teach her to accept such approaches or interactions. Changing the
mood of the interaction from exasperation to cheerfulness can help. A tossed
handful of treats can coax food-loving dogs out of their hiding spots, and the
same food can be used as a lure to move the dog to the door. Rather than
defending herself from an angry owner, your dog would now view the
situation as much safer and more enticing.
The Resource-Guarding Dog
If your dog claims ownership of an item that isn’t dangerous, such as a tissue
from the trash, you might decide to just let her have it. Don’t take it away
unless you are confident that your dog is unconcerned when “her” things are
taken. A good strategy when you need to take something away is to offer
something else in the trade. This method can be effective, but it is important to
be careful. Dogs are awfully quick, and they can take the treat you offer,
return to the item just as you reach for it, and still inflict a bite. A better
strategy is to throw the delectable treat a distance away so that the dog has to
leave the item behind. You then have a chance to pick it up before the dog
can return. Or try the two-treat method of trading with one treatment to get the dog
to come to you and then luring her away into another room with the other.
Shut the door and return to safely discard the item.
Keep in mind that you are simply redirecting your dog’s attention away
from something you want to take away. Once your dog is a safe distance
from the item, any food given is not likely to be linked with the thing she
abandoned. Is this bribery? In away. But there is nothing wrong with bribing
or enticing a dog to move from one place to another. In fact, it is a humane
method of moving a dog who might otherwise be reluctant or confused. You
can always take it a step further and teach your dog to relinquish items when
What about food-guarding dogs? It is very important that, first, you do not
take your dog’s chew toys or food away while your dog is engaged in
chewing or eating. Second, for safety, dogs who guard their food should be
fed in a secure, separate location without interference. Third, with puppies
(with whom it is still safe to attempt handling exercises), try to associate your
approach and touch with adding a delicious treat. Teach your puppy that your
presence is thrilling and wonderful—not something to be feared.
Moving Your Dog from One Place to Another
A helpful and safe strategy is to teach your dog to move from one place to
another on cue. Again, as an emergency measure, a handful of tossed food
can do wonders to transform a fearful, reactive dog into one who is focused
on kibble. For a longer-term solution, take the time to teach cues such as
“off” (the bed), “come” (from anywhere, anytime), and even “go-to” (a
particular spot). Using positive reinforcement to teach these tasks will result
in a happily compliant dog and will avoid the need to reach for the collar of a
reluctant or nervous dog. (See chapters 3 and 7 for more information on
Making Interactions Predictable and Safe
For any dog, but especially for those who are nervous or anxious, it is
important to establish a routine and predictable vocabulary. As discussed in
chapter 7, make it a point to ask your dog to sit before she gets all sorts of
things she may want. Instead of food, we are using the “life reward” of the
open door or the tossed ball. These exercises are not intended to force
“payment for services,” but rather are an excellent way to make our dogs’
lives as predictable as possible. By asking them to sit before getting positive
things for themselves, we teach them to look to us for guidance and allow us
to make decisions for them. With enough repetition and consistency, they are
only too glad to hand the responsibility for their well-being over to us. Just as
we try to teach impulsive children to say “please,” we are asking our dogs to
do the same thing before they receive things.
For nervous dogs, this is critical for several reasons. First, stress is
increased when dogs don’t know what to expect at any given moment, and
our goal is to reduce their stress so that we can also reduce the chances of
fear-related aggression. Second, nervous, worried dogs (like many of us when
we are anxious) are motivated to take care of themselves by taking the
situation into their own paws.
This has been discussed in other chapters in this book, but it is worth just a
short mention here. If your dog has learned that her place is safe when things
are calm, it will be much easier for her to go there when things are chaotic
and she should not be part of the action. A safe haven allows your dog to take
a break from the chaos of parties and playdates and provides safety for both
your pet and your visitors. Use this area to keep your dog away from triggers
that are known to cause aggressive responses. (For more on safe
havens/refuges, see chapter 8.)
Harsh treatment and punishment are not necessary when you’re managing
your dog’s behavior, and at worst are likely to increase anxiety and
aggression. There is no need to use leash pops (a quick tug on the leash),
shock collars, alpha rolls (flipping the dog onto her back), dominance downs
(physically restraining the dog on her side), growling, hitting, or other
aversive interactions with dogs. Such treatment is not recommended for any
canine behavior problem, but it is particularly ill-advised in managing
Meeting Your Dog’s Daily Needs
All dogs must have their needs met. Make sure to meet your dog’s daily
needs for social interaction, exploration, exercise, and play. This does not
need to be a two-hour walk; it can just be a short stroll—a five-to-ten-minute
sniff walk a few times a week. Dogs love to sniff and chew and should have
safe outlets for those behaviors as well. Finally, dogs need to be with their
people on their own terms. Some dogs like petting and stroking, but some do
not. Please realize that your dog may be happiest just sitting at your feet
while you read your e-mail, or lounging on your bed. But find a way to safely
interact with your dog that is satisfying to both of you.
Dog Basic Training
Would be able to adapt to novel tasks. But there was only one way to
find out for sure.
Helen, eager to see how Callie would do with the training, helped me
load her into the car, and the three of us headed to CPT with the head coil to
see Mark work his magic.
Helen entered with Callie, while I placed the head coil on the floor.
Mark looked at it and nodded. “This should be easy. Did you bring
From puppy training, I knew that soft treats are best. You can cut them
up into tiny pieces so the dog doesn’t fill up too quickly. And the dog can
consume them easily without getting distracted by crunching on a hard
biscuit. The only treats I could find around the house were some hot dogs that
had been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. I had no idea how long they’d
been there, but they smelled okay, and Callie loved them. I handed Mark a
baggie full of sliced-up hot dogs.
“First,” he said, “let’s start with the clicker.”
A training clicker is a small device about the size of a USB flash drive
that, unsurprisingly, makes a loud click when pressed. Dogs can hear the
clicker from across the room. The advantage of using one is that it always
makes the same sound, which is not the case with vocal commands. Because
it’s almost impossible to screw up, the clicker is a useful tool for beginners
like me. Its operation is simple: when the dog does something correct, you
click. For this to work, however, you first have to teach the dog that a click
equals a reward. This is classic classical conditioning. Just like Pavlov.
Callie tracked the bag of hot dogs as I handed it to Mark. Then she
dutifully sat at his feet, tail sweeping the floor. Mark clicked and immediately
gave her a piece of hot dog. Callie got even more excited. She could barely
At this point, what Callie was doing was unimportant. Mark
periodically clicked and handed her a reward. He was establishing the
association of each click with a transfer of reward, making it a conditioned
stimulus. It didn’t take long. A dozen click-rewards, and Callie understood
the association. With the meaning of the clicker established, Callie was ready
to learn a behavior. I could immediately see how the clicker was going to
make this easier.
Mark explained another advantage of using the clicker. “We are going
to shape her behavior. Initially, anything Callie does that is close to the
desired behavior will be rewarded. The clicker makes it absolutely clear to
her that she has done something correctly. This way, she won’t get
conditioned to just my voice or your voice.”
The clicker gives instantaneous feedback, making it clear to a dog that
she has done something good without wasting time fumbling for the treats.
Unlike a human, a dog’s memory for what she has just done appears to be
very limited. The longer the interval between the desired behavior and the
subsequent reward, the less likely the dog will make the association. This
phenomenon is called temporal discounting. Research in rats suggests that a
reward given four seconds after a desired behavior is roughly half as effective
as one given immediately. If the handler is deeply involved with the dog,
using hand signals and vocal commands, he might not be able to give a
reward for a while. This is especially true of complex behaviors. The clicker
solves this problem by giving instantaneous feedback.
Mark was beginning to lure Callie into the head coil. Reaching into the
coil with a hot dog in one hand and the clicker in the other, Mark had already
succeeded in getting Callie to place her nose inside. Each time she did so,
Mark clicked, praised her, and gave her a bit of hot dog.
With every click-reward, Mark pulled the food back a little bit, shaping
her behavior gradually. Within ten repetitions, he had Callie crouching in the
coil with her snout poking out the other end. Some gentle pressure on her
rump indicated that she should lie down in the coil. As soon as she did, Mark
clicked and exclaimed, “Good coil!” Callie wagged her tail and licked the hot
dog from his hand.
I couldn’t believe how quickly Mark had gotten Callie where she
needed to be.
“How is the positioning?” he asked.
Callie was lying down in a sphinx position in the coil. Her paws hung
over the near edge. She would need to move back a little bit.
“We’ll want her head in the center.” Mark nudged her back an inch and
“You can shape her behavior at home too,” he said. “I think she’ll do
really well with this.”
A woman walked into CPT with a border collie.
“This is Melissa Cate,” Mark said. “Melissa runs some of our agility
classes at CPT. She’s interested in volunteering her dog for the MRI.”
“Mark told me about the Dog Project.” Pointing to her dog, she said,
“This is McKenzie.”
McKenzie was Melissa’s three-year-old border collie. Melissa had
begun agility competitions a few years earlier with her boxer, Zeke, who had
reached the highest ranks. Zeke was now eight years old and slowing down a
bit, so Melissa had gotten McKenzie as a puppy to keep competing in agility.
They had been going strong ever since.
McKenzie was leggy and lean, about thirty-five pounds, with a long,
thin head that would easily fit in the head coil. She trotted over to me and
stared long and hard. She quickly realized that I was not a herdable animal
and moved on to check out Helen.
Callie zoomed over and assumed a play bow with her front legs flat and
her rump in the air, tail wagging like a vibrating string. We let the two dogs
off-leash and they ran around the room. Callie did orbits around McKenzie,
who seemed indifferent to the newbie dog.
It was time for McKenzie’s try with the head coil. With a dog treat,
Melissa had no trouble coaxing her into the coil. Nibbling the food out of
Melissa’s hand, McKenzie appeared unaware of the coil altogether. In agility
competition, the dogs run through a serpentine tunnel, and McKenzie was
completely comfortable in an enclosed space.
After a few minutes, Melissa commanded McKenzie to lie down.
“Platz,” she said, using the German word for “down.” Mark explained that
German words are commonly used in dog training because of the popular
Schutzhund competitions. These began as training programs and tests for
German shepherds but evolved into a full-fledged sport involving tracking,
obedience, and protection phases.
With McKenzie lying down in the head coil, Melissa backed away to
the other side of the room. McKenzie didn’t budge. In fact, she stayed
motionless for a solid minute. When I saw what a well-trained dog like
McKenzie could do, I knew we could really do this. If the dogs would go into
the head coil, they would go into the MRI.
The Scanner Dilemma
H I L E A N D R E W A N D I W E R E pretty sure we could figure out how to
scan a dog’s brain, we had neglected to consider a minor, though
important, detail: Where? The Dog Project needed a home.
The lab had been captivated with the “big question”—figuring out what
goes on in a dog’s brain. Details like the type of brain scanner, or where to
find it, were just that: details. Up until this point, I hadn’t been concerned.
The best part of being a scientist is when the ideas are coming so fast and
furious that you can’t even write them down. You don’t have time to worry
about details. They just get in the way.
But eventually, we had to confront the practical aspects of pulling this
off. And the first detail was finding an MRI facility that would let us bring
dogs into its scanner.
Yerkes National Primate Research Center, located about a mile from the main
Emory campus was our first choice for MRI scanning. Nestled in a valley
lined with southern pines, Yerkes seemed ideal. It was a short drive from the
lab, so we could easily move our equipment there. And because it was off the
main street, it was also quiet and peaceful. The last thing we wanted was to
scare a potential canine subject with a trip through a busy intersection. From
a dog’s perspective, I imagined Yerkes would look like a walk in the woods.
Yerkes also specialized in the study of animals—primarily monkeys.
Andrew and I congratulated each other on our good fortune. We had come up
with the idea of scanning the brain of a fully awake dog, and one of the
premier facilities for the study of animals turned out to be right in our
backyard. In fact, there are only eight such facilities in the United States.
Yerkes even had an MRI scanner dedicated specifically to the study of
animals. A friend and colleague of mine, Leonard Howell, was director of the
Yerkes Imaging Center and invited us to take a look at how they scan
Although the Yerkes MRI center is unusual in the sense that it was
purposely built for the study of how primate brains function, it is actually not
that unusual to have such a facility at a veterinary school or even at a high tech
veterinarian hospital. Any and all medical diagnostic tests performed on
humans are now also done on animals. The challenge with obtaining an MRI
of an animal, however, is that the subject must remain absolutely still. In a
veterinary setting, this means sedating the animal with medication. But
sedating an animal means that you can no longer study how the brain
Leonard had pioneered a new approach to studying monkeys’ brains.
Instead of sedating the monkeys, he had figured out how to scan their brains
while fully awake. This was a big deal for neuroscientists. When you
administer drugs that render the subject unconscious, you change brain
function in a major way. How this happens is not really understood. While
the unconscious state is interesting for its own sake, most neuroscientists
spend their time trying to figure out how the conscious brain works. Having
conscious subjects, animals or human is critical.
Working with monkeys is a dangerous business. Monkeys are mean.
Not if-you-don’t-give-me-food-I’ll-ignore-you mean. More like if you don’t give
your-face-for-dessert mean. This presents certain logistical problems for
scanning their brains, especially if they are to remain fully awake.
What’s more, because they are closely related to humans, diseases can
pass between the species with ease. For instance, HIV, the virus that causes
AIDS is believed to have originated in African chimpanzees. Monkeys
harbor a strain of the herpes virus that is fatal to humans, which can be
passed along if, for example, one spits on you, which monkeys often do. The
monkeys also have to be protected from us. If humans can catch diseases
from monkeys, the opposite is also true. Monkeys are particularly susceptible
to tuberculosis. For all of these reasons, scientists must take extraordinary
safety precautions to work around monkeys.
Andrew and I made special arrangements to see how Leonard and his
team scanned the brains of fully awake monkeys. After registering at the
security desk, we were escorted through a series of keyed doors and
deposited in a changing room.
“You need to gown up,” Leonard’s assistant instructed. “From this
point forward, everyone must be fully protected. This means gown, face
mask, and eye shield.”
The so-called eye shields covered our faces entirely and were
claustrophobic. They also had a tendency to fog up. The face masks were the
surgical type. The combination of shield and mask made a speech about as
effective as talking into a pillow.
Our first stop was the training lab. Three oven-sized stainless steel
boxes lined one wall. They resembled small refrigerators, but the hasp-type
handle suggested something akin to a pottery kiln.
“These are the training boxes,” the assistant said. Opening one revealed
a sterile interior with white enameled walls and a cubby for devices allowing
tubes and wires to snake out to various pieces of monitoring equipment.
On the other side of the room sat an upright tube constructed from PVC
plumbing material. A foot in diameter and three feet tall, the top end was
capped with clear Plexiglas. A four-inch slot was cut in the center of the cap,
and a plastic shelf sat below the slot.
The assistant explained, “This is the restraint device. The monkey has a
collar around its neck that fits into the slot. With its head poking through, it
rests its chin on the shelf.”
Andrew pointed to a pair of hoses that were attached to the bottom of
the device. “What are these for?”
Pushing the resulting image out of my mind, I asked, “How do you get
the monkeys to go in there?”
The assistant pointed to a metal rod on the wall. “That affixes to their
collar, and then we can steer them into the device from a safe distance.”
So far, none of this was looking appropriate for the Dog Project. I kept
silent, though, still eager to learn anything that might be useful for us. The
device kept the monkey from escaping, but it wasn’t clear what would keep
its head still.
The assistant pulled a pink block of foam from a shelf.
“This is how we immobilize the head,” he explained. “First, we make a
mold of the monkey’s head, which is then used to make a positive cast with
plaster. From that, we use a gel-type material to make a soft cast, which fits
snugly around its head. We cut holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth. This gets
clamped to the restraint device.”
“And the monkeys cooperate with this?” I asked.
“They learn,” he replied. “We shape their behavior through rewards. It
takes about six months to train a monkey to go into the restraint device.”
“What are the boxes for?” Andrew asked.
“Those are conditioning boxes. Once the monkeys are trained to go into
the restraint device, the whole rig is placed in the box. We then train them
with lights and sounds.”
“Trained for what?” I asked.
“To get addicted to drugs.”
Right. Leonard’s research group was studying the biology of drug
addiction. To understand addiction, you need to look at the whole process,
from the first time somebody uses a drug to the point he becomes addicted.
Because it is unethical, obviously, to get people addicted to drugs, Leonard
uses monkeys as a stand-in.
The assistant continued. “Once they are trained to associate cues with
drugs, we take the whole rig to the MRI scanner so we can see what is going
on in their brains while they are craving drugs. Are you ready to go down to
I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Because the MRI’s strong magnetic field affects computer equipment, the
control room is partitioned from the main scanner room. When we entered, a
young woman draped in a surgical gown was staring intently at a computer
screen with several brain images.
She was not pleased to have visitors.
“Who are you?” she snapped at me. “Have you had a TB test?”
I honestly couldn’t remember when I had last been tested for
tuberculosis. Fortunately, Andrew distracted her.
“I have!” he announced cheerfully.
Leonard’s assistant explained that we were there to observe MRI scans
of monkeys. The monkeys being scanned that particular day was from a
different research lab. Because they had not gone through Leonard’s
behavioral training, these monkeys had received a heavy dose of sedation.
One monkey, surrounded by three veterinary technicians, was in the scanner
when we entered, attached to monitors that reported vital signs like heart rate,
breathing, and body temperature. Another monkey was on a cart, recovering
from anesthesia. I almost walked right by it, until it started twitching with
muscle spasms as the sedation wore off.
We took the opportunity to explain what we were trying to do with the
Dog Project. The vet techs were not enthusiastic.
“You’re going to have to monitor them,” one said. “Vital signs and core
“How do you do that?” Andrew asked.
“Why would we do that to a dog that isn’t even sedated?” I asked.
“It’s standard operating policy to fully monitor all animals undergoing a
procedure,” she replied.
“But we’re not doing a procedure,” I protested. “The dogs will be
trained to go into the scanner willingly.”
She wasn’t buying it. “Who is going to be with the dogs?”
“Us, the dog trainer, and the owner.”
She shook her head. “I suppose you two are okay because you’re
university employees, but no outside visitors.”
Although it was clear there was no convincing this woman, I pressed
on. “Look, would you volunteer your dog to be in an experiment without
“I suppose not. Even so, you’ll have to convince the review
Andrew and I had seen enough. It surprised me that one of the nation’s
premier animal research facilities wasn’t more encouraging about the Dog
Project. But we were more determined than ever to find the right home for it.
When I got home that night, Callie and Lyra greeted me with unusual
attention. Instead of jumping up and down as they usually did, they sniffed
my feet intently. As I walked through the house they trailed me from a
respectable distance, focused on my feet.
They knew. I had tracked the monkey stink home with me.
Logistical problems aside, I realized there was no way we could do the
scanning at Yerkes with all those monkeys.
What It’s Like to Be a Dog
As with most scientific developments, it started as a series of random
thoughts and inferences that eventually led to an aha moment. While
Newton’s death planted the seed of an idea, it was my own discomfort around
groups of people that helped it grow.
For the past fifteen years, my lab has used brain-scanning technology to
understand how the human reward system works. The main tool that we use
is magnetic resonance imaging or MRI. About the size of a car, an MRI
scanner is pretty much a large tube wrapped in miles of wire. When
electricity is sent through the wire, it creates a powerful magnetic field that
can be used to see inside of a person’s brain. A standard MRI, like what you
would get if you went to a hospital, takes a picture of your brain. Scientists
soon discovered that if you took several pictures of the brain in rapid-fire, you
could see the brain in action. This is called functional MRI, or fMRI, and it
opened the black box of the human mind. With fMRI, we can measure
activity inside the brain while a person is actually doing something, like
reading or doing math or even while experiencing different types of
emotions. This allows scientists to figure out how the brain actually works
(hence the functional in fMRI).
As the leader of a research lab, it is one of my duties to hold an annual
lab party. You would think that this would be an enjoyable activity.
Inevitably it is a source of stress in our household. The dogs don’t help either.
Like me, the dogs were never properly socialized to large groups of
people, something for which I take full blame. Since we don’t have parties
often, it seemed unreasonable to make the dogs learn how to behave in such
situations. Nevertheless, one cannot completely abdicate these social
necessities, as with our once-a-year gathering of lab members.
Ignoring my antipathy, Kat and the girls threw themselves into the
preparations for the annual party. They brought all the chairs out of the
dining room and created a semicircular seating arrangement in the family
room. Nothing unusual about this, presuming that the guests are able adults
who can manage conversation while eating and drinking without tables to
place their food upon. It does not, however, account for dogs either
underfoot, in the case of Callie, or swishing big, fluffy tails around, in the
case of Lyra.
If everyone was a dog person, these parties wouldn’t present a problem.
In recent years, I have certainly become more selective in allowing people to
work in the lab, and this includes my asking whether he or she is a dog
person or, second best, a cat person. But can you really trust someone who
doesn’t have a pet? Despite my best efforts to fill the lab with animal lovers, I
have no control over spouses and partners.
Kat wanted to lock Lyra and Callie in the bedroom when the guests
arrived. The dogs weren’t accustomed to being locked up, so I feigned
ignorance and let them have free run of the party. As guests arrived, Callie
would give a perfunctory woof. Lyra just grinned and wagged her tail
excessively as the people filed in.
I could trust the dog people in the lab to keep an eye on the dogs and
prevent them from swiping food, so I slipped out to help Kat in the kitchen.
She was dishing up the hors d’oeuvres and pouring drinks. The team, while
diverse in terms of background, was predominantly American, with the
exception of one lab member from India. It was at the moment I stepped into
the kitchen when he arrived with his wife.
Their entrance was marked in dramatic fashion by an ear-piercing
“Eeeeeee! Eeeeeee! Eeeeeee!”
I rushed out of the kitchen. My colleague’s wife, wrapped in a lovely
sari had backed herself into a corner, shrieking like a bird at the mere sight
of the dogs.
This behavior baffled Callie, so she paid no further notice to her and
moved on to look for food droppings. Lyra, on the other hand, found these
vocalizations highly stimulating. She tracked right to the sound and starting
jumping up and down and barking in what appeared to me to be a request to
play. But the grimace of terror on the woman’s face indicated no such desire.
I grabbed Lyra by the collar and led her to the bedroom.
“Sorry, girl. You can’t play tonight.”
What did Lyra think was the reason that woman was screaming? If Lyra
were a person, I could have simply asked her. How else could I find out what
was going through her mind?
To truly know what a dog is thinking, you would have to be a dog.
The question of what a dog is thinking is actually an old metaphysical
debate, which has its origins in Descartes’s famous saying cogito ergo sum
—“I think, therefore I am.” Our entire human experience exists solely inside
our heads. Photons may strike our retinas, but it is only through the activity
of our brains that we have the subjective experience of seeing a rainbow or
the sublime beauty of a sunset over the ocean. Does a dog see those things?
Of course. Do they experience them the same way? Absolutely not.
When Lyra was jumping and barking at the woman wrapped in purple,
with a red dot on her forehead, Lyra experienced the same things at a
primitive level that I did. Purple. Red. Screaming. Those are the sensory
primitives. They originate in photons bouncing off dyes, pressure waves in
the air around the woman’s vocal cords. But my brain interprets those events
one way and Lyra’s brain another.
Observing Lyra’s behavior doesn’t tell us what she was thinking. From
past experience, I knew that Lyra barked and jumped in response to different
things. She barks when we’re eating. In that context, a natural assumption
would be that she wants food too. But she also barks after dropping a tennis
ball at my feet. I had no comparable frame of reference for what had attracted
her to the screaming woman that night at the party.
The question of what it is like to be a dog could be approached from
two very different perspectives. The hard approach asks the question: What is
it like for a dog to be a dog? If we could do that, then all the questions about
why a dog behaves the way it does would become clear. The problem with
being a dog, though, is that we would have no language to describe what we
felt. The best we can do is ask the related, but substantially easier question:
What would it be like for us to be a dog?
By imagining ourselves in the skin of another animal, we can recast
questions of behavior into their human equivalent. The question of why Lyra
harassed the party guest becomes: If I were Lyra, why would I bark at that
woman? Framed that way, we can form all sorts of speculations for dog
Many authors have written about the dog mind, and some have even
attempted to answer the types of questions I have posed. I will not review this
vast literature. I will, however, point out that much of it is based on two
potentially flawed assumptions—both stemming from the paradox of getting
into a dog’s mind without actually being a dog.
The first flaw comes from the human tendency to anthropomorphize or
project our own thoughts and feelings onto things that aren’t ourselves. We
can’t help it. Our brains are hardwired to project our thoughts onto other
people. This is called mentalizing, and it is critical for human social
interactions. People are able to interact with each other only because they are
constantly guessing what other people are thinking. The brevity of text
messages, for example, and the fact that we are able to communicate with
less than 140 characters at a time work because people maintain mental
models of each other. The actual linguistic content of most text exchanges is
minimal. And because humans have common elements of culture, we tend to
react in fairly similar ways. For example, if I watch a movie that makes me
sad, I can use my own reaction to intuit that the people sitting around me are
feeling the same way. I could even start a conversation with a complete
stranger based on our shared experience, using my own thoughts as a starting
point. But dogs are not the same as humans, and they certainly don’t have a
shared culture as we do. There is no avoiding the fact that when we observe
dog behavior, we view it through the filter of the human mind. Unfortunately,
much of dog literature says more about the human writer than the dog.
The second flaw is the reliance on wolf behavior to interpret dog
behavior, termed automorphism. While it is true that dogs and wolves share a
common ancestor, that does not mean that dogs are descended from wolves.
This is an important distinction. The evolutionary trajectories of wolves and
dogs diverged when some of the “wolf-dogs” started hanging out with protohumans.
Those that stuck around became dogs, and those that stayed away
became modern wolves. Modern wolves behave differently from dogs, and
they have very different social structures. Their brains are different too.
Interpreting dog behavior through the lens of wolf behavior is even worse
than anthropomorphizing: it’s a human anthropomorphizing wolf behavior
and using that flawed impression as an analogy for dog behavior.
Wolf analogies have led to many flawed training strategies based on the
idea that the human must be the “pack leader,” an approach most commonly
associated with Cesar Millan. Unfortunately, there is no scientific basis for
using the wolf’s social structure as a model for the dog-human relationship.
Dogs can’t talk, and we can’t transport ourselves into a dog’s mind to know
what its subjective experience is. Where I see a happy golden retriever
playfully jumping up and down, someone else might see a hungry dog
planning to eat her for dinner. So what can we do to better know a dog’s
Although I hadn’t yet made the connection at the party, I would soon
realize that the solution had been right in front of me all along: brain imaging.
Because all mammalian brains have substantially similar parts, a map of
canine brain activation could be referenced to its human equivalent. For
instance, if we saw activation in the reward center of the dog brain, that could
be interpreted through human experiments that result in similar activity. With
human experiments, we have a reasonably good idea of what happened to
create a particular pattern of brain activation. We know, for example, that
activity in the visual part of the brain can be caused either by photons hitting
the retina or by the person mentally imagining a scene with his eyes closed.
Similarly, if we observed activity in the visual part of a dog’s brain, and the
dog wasn’t looking at anything, we could reasonably assume that it was
forming a mental image of something. Dogs might have imaginations too!
The mapping between the brains of different species is called a functional
homology. It means that a subjective experience like imagination can map
onto both a human brain and a dog brain. The patterns of activity in the two
brains would illustrate how to transform one type of brain into the other.
Philosophers dismiss the question of what it is like to be a dog as
unanswerable, but functional homologies between dog and human brains
could provide the missing link. Although brain imaging wouldn’t tell us what
it is like for a dog to be a dog, it could provide a road map—a brain map—of
what it would be like for a human to be a dog, without the bias of the human
interpreter. If it worked, brain imaging could end up being a canine neural
translator. We could go way beyond the question of why Lyra was being
obnoxious at the party. If we could map our thoughts and feelings onto the
dog brain, we could get right to the heart of the dog-human relationship: Do
dogs love us?
It all comes down to reciprocity. If the dog-human relationship is
predominantly one-sided, with humans projecting their thoughts onto the dog
vacuously staring up at his master in the hopes of receiving a doggie treat,
then the dog is not much better than a big teddy bear—a warm, soft,
But what if the dog reciprocates in the relationship? Do dogs have some
concept of humans as something more than food dispensers? Simply knowing
that human feelings toward dogs are reciprocated in some way, even if only
partially, changes everything. It would mean that dog-human relationships
belong on the same plane as human-human relationships.
None of these questions can be answered simply by observing dogs’
behavior. They go to the heart of dogs’ subjective experience of the world
and, in particular, their subjective experience of us.
My colleague and his wife didn’t stay long. Even with the dogs locked away
we could hear Lyra barking in the bedroom above the din of the party.
Nobody was surprised when they were the first to say good-bye.
Once they left, I let the dogs out. Lyra ran to the remaining guests and,
in her state of excitement, puked up something foamy and green. The partiers
watched in disgust as Callie darted over to slurp it up.
From the chorus of “Oooh, gross!” it was clear even the animal lovers
were aghast at our dogs’ behavior. An exodus ensued.
And that is why we no longer hold lab parties at our house.
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