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Run-on sentience: Are we going way overboard in attributing emotions to dogs?

Lately, it seems, hardly a month goes by without either some viral video or paper-writing scientist suggesting that — contrary to what scientists and the media think we think — dogs feel emotions much like our own, or at least a doggy version of them.

If it’s not a video, like the one above  – which is being described in the news media as a dog not just feeling remorse, but atoning for his misdeed —  it’s a new scientific paper proclaiming, yes, dogs do feel … you name it … joy, fear, anger, guilt, pride, compassion, love, shame.

(If you didn’t already think dogs feel joy, you may not be the world’s most perceptive person.)

(Some, apparently, get so overwhelmed by it that they pass out.)

This month’s emotion? Jealousy.

Dr. Christine Harris, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego — after a study involving dogs, their owners, stuffed animals,  jack-o’-lantern and children’s books – concluded that dogs showed a “primordial” form of jealousy, meaning, I guess, not as evolved, twisted, complex, nasty and, sometimes, fatal as the human form.

According to an article in the New York Times, the dog version of jealousy is “not as complex as the human emotion, but similar in that there is a social triangle and the dog is trying to make sure it, not the rival, receives the attention.”

In the study, as it’s described in a a PLoS One paper co-written by Harris, researchers compared the reactions of dogs when their owners petted and talked to a jack-o’-lantern, read a children’s book aloud, and petted and talked to a stuffed toy dog that barked and whined.

The dogs paid little attention to the jack-o’-lantern or the book. But when dog owners petted and talked to the stuffed dog, their dogs reacted, coming over, pushing their noses into the owner or stuffed dog, sometimes barking, and sniffing the rear end of the stuffed dog.

I’m not sure that’s proof of jealousy — it could just be proof that dogs are smart enough to investigate when humans are trying to dupe them. On top of that, most dogs have experience playing with stuffed toys, as opposed to plastic pumpkins and children’s books. So it’s not too astonishing they would have a more excited reaction to them.

SONY DSCIn that way, the findings of this study aren’t really too surprising, or revealing, but they are indicative, I think, of a trend — in the scientific community, in the news media, and among normal members of society — of seeing dogs more and more as humans.

The “dogs feel jealousy” study, for example — flimsy as its findings sounds– was picked up by most major news organizations.

“Study: Jealousy Is So Universal Even Dogs Feel It,” reported the New York Times.

“Study: Dogs Can Feel Jealous, Too,” said a CNN headline.

At least NPR phrased their headline as a question: “Does Your Dog Feel Jealous, Or Is That A Purely Human Flaw?”

These days, the news media doesn’t need a legitimate study to draw sweeping conclusions; a viral video will do.

The video at the top of this post has been shared — if not actually reported on with any depth — on news websites from Alabama to India.

The headlines all presume to know what the beagle is feeling, and some go so far as to explain the goal of his behavior as well: “I’m Sorry! Charlie the guilty dog showers crying baby with gifts to apologize for stealing her toy,” reads the headline in The Daily Mail.

acecouchAmazing the conclusions reporters and headline writers can reach nowadays — and the mind reading they can do — usually without ever stepping away from their computer.

My problem is not with attributing emotions to dogs. I believe they have most of the ones we do, or at least most of the desirable ones. I believe they have other magical gifts and skills we haven’t even begun to figure out. I believe studying what’s going on in their heads is a good thing — at least when it’s done by dog experts. I can even handle a little anthropomorphization; given we’re humans we tend to interpret things in human terms.

What bothers me, for starters, is presenting such findings as new, when dog owners have known most of them all along. Sometimes, it’s as if scientists and the news media are saying, oh wait, we’ve discovered dogs are not unfeeling blobs of fur, after all. Well, duh.

The problem I have is not so much ascribing emotions to dogs as it the vanity of assuming emotions are something only humans feel.

SONY DSCFeel free, scientists, to study jealousy in dogs. And feel free to study it in humans. And feel free to compare and contrast the two.

And feel free as well, video posters, to share your dog’s interesting and seemingly human-like behavior, and to offer any theories you might have.

But let’s not leap to wild conclusions, based on how things look through our human eyes. Let’s not forget that dogs have had emotions all along. Let’s not assume they are “catching up” with us in terms of their emotions and behaviors. Maybe they’ve been ahead of us all along.

And let’s not be so surprised — given the centuries man has been choreographing their evolution, and the half century or so they’ve been mostly living inside with us — that they’re picking up some of our habits, good and bad.

While we’re at it, let’s let dogs remain, at least in part, dogs.

Let’s keep in mind, during all this, what we can learn from them. Are dogs lagging behind us, in terms of developing a sense of jealousy, or are they exhibiting a purer form of what we homo sapiens have taken to ridiculous extremes?

And let’s at least keep our minds open to the possibility that, when it comes to what dog and man can learn from each other,  we may not always be the teachers, or the role models, in that equation.

(Photos: Ace in Monterey, California, at home on the couch, and with a panhandler in Portland, Maine; by John Woestendiek / ohmidog!)

Homeless woman’s dog shot to death in park

First she lost her job, then she lost the home she shared with her son — a temporary motel room.

Last Thursday, Tina Lambert lost her dog, too, when, while staying in a park, a stranger shot and killed her Rottweiler mix after the dog growled at him.

Lambert has been staying in Memorial Park in Sumter, S.C., with her son and two dogs, WLTX reported.

They were gathered by a bench Thursday when a man walked up, leading her dog, Ayakashi, to growl. The man fired one shot, killing the dog. Lambert said her dog was on a leash.

“There was my dog, she had a hole in her chest this big” said Lambert. “He blew a hole in her, she was gone. She took a couple breaths and that was all there was to it.”

Lambert says the man made a remark, laughed and ran to is car.

He later went to the Sumter Police Department to file a report saying he acted in self defense. The man, who police haven’t identified publicly, told officers the dog was unleashed.

Residents living near the park say Lambert’s dogs are friendly, and always on their leashes.

Sumter Police say because of the man’s concealed carry permit, and his claim that the dog was unleashed, no charges will be filed.

Lambert said she plans to dispute that decision.

Mighty Casey passes out

A family in western Pennsylvania says their schnauzer got so excited about seeing their daughter for the first time in two years that she passed out — the schnauzer, that is.

A video of the reunion was posted on YouTube four days ago.

Rebecca Svetina and her husband, Miha, have been living in Slovenia and returned home to have a wedding reception at the home of Rebecca’s parents in Murrysville.

Miha was recording the reunion to show his relatives overseas how excited Casey gets when Rebecca returns home, but this time, something happened that never happened before – Casey passed out.

“We never expected her to pass out, but luckily she’s fine,” Rebecca told WTAE in Pittsburgh.

“I think our hearts stopped a little bit as well until she came back and started running around, and we knew everything would be OK,” said Miha.

Both were surprised when the video of the 9-year-old schnauzer went viral — approaching 17 million views by this morning — and prompting calls from news organizations around the world.

The next day, we woke up to a crazy day. The views went sky high,” Miha Svetina said. “It’s so genuine. It’s so cute. There are so many things going on in the world. People are actually excited when they see something so nice and dogs are just awesome.”

“The only thing I’m going to do is shoot it”


That police in St. Clair Shores in Michigan saw killing a dog as the preferable way to stop her barking has been pretty well documented in dash cam videos that have become public.

As soon as they pulled up at the scene, their dashboard camera recorded remarks they were making inside their patrol car, like “The only thing I’m going to do is shoot it” and “I don’t do snares. I don’t do dogs … I’ll shoot the f—ing thing.”

lexieBut why there were 15 bullet holes in Lexie, a dog police officers only admitted to shooting four times, is a question that may go unanswered — at least until a federal lawsuit filed by the dog’s owner comes to trial.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month, stems from the November 2013 shooting of Lexie, a 44-pound mixed breed who was the subject of a barking dog complaint filed by a neighbor.

Lexie’s owner, Brittay Preston, filed the lawsuit against the city of St. Clair Shores, two police officers and an animal control officer, according to Fox News in Detroit. It alleges a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure.

The lawsuit seeks money damages, and assurances that St. Clair Township police will “train their officers so that there’s not another incident where they respond to a barking dog complaint by killing it,” said Preston’s attorney, Chris Olson.

Preston was at work and the dog was under the care of a grandfather, who suffers from dementia and forgot to let Lexie back inside during a cold night.

Officers, after discussing their alternatives in the patrol car, approached the home and eventually persuaded the grandfather to let the dog in the house. After he agreed to do so, they shot the dog saying she lunged at them in a threatening manner.

Attorney Olson said the discussion recorded by the dash came shows the shooting was premeditated.

“Neighbors complained of a dog that was barking. [Police] showed up. The first thing that they said out of their mouths was they don’t like dogs; they don’t do dogs; they’re going to shoot the dog anyway. And that’s exactly what they did,” he said.

“Then they shot the dog again, instead of trying to take care of the dog, getting some care of the dog to prevent it from dying, they did what they intended to do. They made sure that the dog died. They shot it again, and then the dog walked into the animal control van and then when we picked up the dog it had extra bullet holes,” he added.

A necropsy conducted by a veterinarians found 15 bullet holes in Lexie.

Officers, after shooting and wounding the dog, can be heard discussing what to do next, including “choking it out” and “using a shovel,” according to the lawsuit.

One officer remarked that would be a bad idea because “you know this is going to be all over Facebook in about an hour.”

“We’re saddened when anyone loses a pet, but since the city and its employees are being sued, the city will certainly defend the lawsuit,” St. Clair Shores City Attorney Robert Ihrie said in a statement. “The complaint that was filed is filled with innuendo, speculation and half truths, and I have no doubt when it’s held up to the light of day, the truth will bear itself out in court.”

(Photo: from the Justice for Lexie Facebook page)

Harley is Reese again: One family’s happy reunion is another family’s sad loss

reese-harley

It’s always nice to read about a happy reunion between a family and their lost dog — except maybe when the dog being reunited is one you thought was your own.

The Miller family of Tyler, Texas, lost their dog Reese, a Maltese, seven years ago. They were visiting family outside of Dallas when the little white dog ran off.

Dinah Miller said she never stopped searching, and hoping Reese would return: ”Every time you hear a bark, you think, that sounds like Reese,” she said. “We drove. We searched. We looked over fences. We peeped everywhere we could without getting shot.”

Last weekend, the Millers learned Reese had been found on a road in Tacoma, Wash., more than 2,000 miles away. The family received a call after a check for a microchip revealed they were the dog’s registered owners.

Reese was flown to Houston, and Dinah Miller reunited with her Monday, KHOU reported.

How Reese had gotten to Tacoma, and where she’d spent the intervening seven years, were mysteries Miller thought would go unanswered — at least until another owner surfaced.

Kelli Davis of Spanaway, Wash., said her family adopted the dog at a shelter in Mesquite, Texas, near Dallas, six years ago, and named him Harley.

Davis and her family later moved from Texas to Washington.

She said Harley recently escaped after her 2-year-old daughter unlatched the front door.

“We were running down the street trying to find him and she was crying, ‘My Harley ran away,’” said Davis. “Every day we have gone out and printed fliers and walked around the neighborhood several times a day calling his name.”

“Harley is my daughter’s best friend. That’s her little buddy. They do everything together,” she said.

Davis said Harley was listed as an owner surrender by the Texas shelter he was adopted from. When she called that shelter to find out if they had ever checked the dog for a microchip she was told that information wasn’t available. The shelter said it purges its records after five years.

“I don’t know what to do. We just lost a part of our family,” said Davis.

Miller, meanwhile, says she sympathizes with the family in Washington, but she’s keeping Reese.

(Photos: At left, “Reese” reunites with Dinah Miller and her family; at right, “Harley” when she was a member of the  Davis family) 

From homeless heroin addict to popular artist, with help from a dog named George

johnandgeorge1

A formerly homeless man who once sold his sketches for pocket change on the streets of London’s now sells them for thousands of dollars at exhibits — and credits his dog for turning his life around.

Up until a few years ago, John Dolan, 43, had been a heroin addict whose life had seen more than 300 criminal convictions, 30 stints in prison and long stretches of homelessness.

He was living on the streets when he took in George. The young Staffordshire bull terrier had been living with another homeless couple who had had acquired him in exchange for a can of beer. They’d found housing, but not dog-friendly housing, and George needed a home.

Dolan, who hadn’t exactly been living a life of responsibility, was worried about whether he was up to having a dog.

“How was I going to cope with him? I couldn’t even cope with myself,” he told the Guardian.

georgeBut George, he noticed, had a way of looking him in the eye when he talked, and the two quickly bonded. Dolan says it was the fear of losing George if he went to prison again that led him to give up crime.

“He’s like my child in a sense and I feel obliged to keep a roof over his head and keep him warm,” he said.

Of course, George was helping Dolan out in other ways, too. Dolan made more money panhandling when George was at his side. Still, Dolan says, he felt embarassed by begging.

“Sitting there holding out my hand was so embarrassing, so degrading. I didn’t like to look at people as they went past. I picked up the pen mainly so I could bury my head in a drawing pad.”

He started drawing the buildings, and drawing George, and, sitting with his dog on the sidewalk, he would sell the drawings for whatever he could get.

Then he was discovered. First he was commissioned to do some drawings for a book. Then a gallery director, Richard Howard-Griffin, asked if he would draw some large streetscapes for him.

dolanbookLast fall he had his first exhibit. His second is now underway at the Howard Griffin Gallery in London, with proceeds being donated to The Big Issue Foundation and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. 

Another exhibit, in Los Angeles, is in the works. And Dolan has published a book, “John and George: The Dog Who Changed My Life.”

Dolan has a home now, but  still sits on the street and draws, with George.

“I feel like he’s a guardian angel. If it hadn’t been for him I’d have never picked up my pen.”

(Top pPhoto: David Levene / the Guardian)

Dragger of dog gets 10-year sentence


A South Carolina man who dragged a pit bull mix behind his pick-up truck for two miles received the state’s maximum penalty for animal cruelty.

Circuit Judge Letitia Verdin sentenced Roger Dennis Owens of Greenville to five years in prison Tuesday for ill treatment of animals. He received another 5 1/2 years for habitual traffic offenses.

“This is one of the cruelest things that I’ve seen since I’ve been on the bench,” Verdin said.

Andra-GraceOwens dragged the dog behind his truck for at least two miles on Nov. 29 — even as witnesses tried to get him to stop, according to the Greenville News.

Witnesses said the dog was tied to an open truck bed with her front paws on the gate while her hind legs were dragged across the road. The dog was running, trying to keep up with the truck, which was being driven at high speeds.

Two witnesses pursued Owens, following a trail of blood on the road until they found the dog, said Assistant Solicitor Julie Anders.

The dog, now named Andra Grace, was taken to a veterinary clinic for treatment, and more than $16,000 was donated to help pay for her care.

She has since been adopted.

Owens’ attorney, public defender Elizabeth Powers Price, said her client has cared for dogs his whole life but had been drinking that day.

You can learn more about Andra Grace on the Justice for Andra Grace Facebook page.


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