Remember Denver, the guilty, oh-so-guilty, looking yellow lab that was captured on video by her owner while she was being interrogated in the case of the missing cat treats?
We suggested — partly in jest — that she might be innocent, that appearances can be deceiving, not to mention misinterpreted, and that, just maybe, the cat did it.
Now — with the video having gone viral, with dog and owner having appeared on the ABC’s Good Morning America, with a line of “guilty dog” merchandise having been spawned — there’s more reason to believe that Denver might have been wrongly convicted. How guilty one looks and how guilty one is are two different things — especially when it comes to dogs.
Guilt, research shows, may be just another human emotion that dog owners anthropomorphically ascribe to dogs.
And all those behaviors Denver exhibited – avoiding eye contact, lying down, rolling into a submissive position, dropping the tail, holding down the ears or head, raising a paw – are more likely triggered by the owner’s semi-scolding tones than any feelings of “remorse.”
This reminder/revelation comes from someone who knows, who did her master’s dissertation on this very topic, and who produces one of my new favorite blogs, Dog Spies.
Julie Hecht is a New York-based behavioral researcher who has worked with Patricia McConnell and Alexandra Horowitz. She wrote her dissertation at the University of Edinburg on “Anthropomorphism and ‘guilty’ behavior in the dog,” and did her research with the Family Dog Project in Budapest, Hungary. She recently started Dog Spies, which focuses on the science behind dog behaviors and the dog-human relationship, and she divides her time between research, lecturing, blogging and working with individual pet owners.
As was my goal (plug alert) in my recently published book, “DOG, INC: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend,” she attempts to take the boring out of science, thereby making it interesting and understandable. “Scientific journals should be titled, ‘Lots of great information within, a tad boring to read!’ Dog Spies translates that information and shares it with you,” reads the introduction to her blog.
Judging from her “guilty dog” blog entry — and you know its trustworthy, because it has footnotes – Denver’s appearance, with her owners, on the ABC morning show raised her hackles a bit.
“According to the dictionary, ‘news’ is ‘information about recent events or happenings.’ I did not see any news during that morning show. Instead, I saw a bunch of morning personalities throwing out assumptions and offering the audience pleasing banter and humorous judgments about dogs. They provide no real information or ‘news’ about what happened to the cat treats.”
Here Hecht has hit on one of my pet peeves — pun definitely not intended. Rather than shedding some light, doing some research, and furthering our understanding of canines, the ABC segment — like so much of what the media, blogs included, feed us about dogs — was the kind of cutesy, substance-free fluff that reinforces misinformation and misunderstanding.
Like most everyone else, the smiling morning show hosts concluded Denver must have eaten the cat treats. When shown the empty bag and asked, “Did you do this?” Denver displays squinting eyes, averts her head and makes a highly laughable presentation of her teeth.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
Or maybe not.
Hecht cites a 2008 research paper that says 74 percent of dog owners attribute guilt to dogs, and believe dogs know when they have done something owners disapprove of. But scientific research shows that it’s not knowledge of a misdeed, or remorse, that leads to the guilty look, but an owner’s scolding. (See the New York Times piece, “It’s an Owner’s Scolding That Makes a ‘Guilty’ Dog.”)
Or, see this — a video Hecht made that shows a dog named Gidget being falsely accused:
As Alexandra Horowitz, author of “Inside of a Dog,” once put it: “We’ve trained them that when they see us angry, they give us that guilty look. I’m not saying they don’t feel guilt … I can’t test that yet. But we generate the context that prompts them to produce this look.
Why then, in the guilty dog video gone viral, does Denver show these behaviors when the other, presumed innocent family dog, Masey, does not?
“Research finds that even post-transgression, not all dogs show the ‘guilty look’ in the presence of a non-scolding owner,” Hecht says. And, transgressions aside, it might be the simple fact that Denver is a more expressively submissive dog, according to Hecht, who says part two of her entry on the “guilty dog look” will be appearing soon on her blog.
Why do dogs show what appears to be a guilty look more so than do their progenitors, wolves?
“Dogs have, for the most part, incredibly malleable and expressive faces (much more so than, say, cats) and from this, we can often see the subtleties of their eyebrows going down or up or their wide forward-facing eyes, becoming wider. All of these things could impact how humans attribute mental states to dogs,” Hecht told me.
My theory is there’s more at play — though maybe I’m giving dogs more intellectual credit than they deserve. I think mastering the guilty look is another way dogs have evolved since their domestication, and to cope with their domestication — part of their ongoing adaption to pethood. By showing submission, some of them may have have figured out, they can keep the peace, and maybe even get a belly rub or a Milkbone.
To me, the even more interesting question, when it comes to “the guilty look,” is whether, even before the scolding comes, dogs can sense it’s about to. Before a word comes out of the owner’s mouth, before an angry stance is even taken, can dogs sense that some displeasure is churning within us?
I, without any research or footnotes to back me, believe so. My scientific explanation for this: It’s magic.
Dogs are figuring us out. Which, until recent years, is maybe more than they could say about us. We’ve always been more concerned with their brawn than their brain, more concerned with their beauty than their behavior. It’s man’s hand that has led to the vast diversity of shapes and sizes in dogs. And while breeders have begun to put a higher priority on temperament, it can still be argued that appearance is placed above all else.
Could it be, in their way – without the aid of microscopes, opposable thumbs or access to our pedigrees – dogs are looking more deeply into us than we are into them? Could it be, during their time in domestication, dogs, as a species, have amassed a wealth of knowledge on how to best get along with humans, and have become even better at doing so than humans?
I think there’s more at work than breeding and genetics and instinct when it comes to dog behavior. An ongoing and not fully understood evolution is at play in the dog-human relationship. And that is the reason – all those unanswered questions about behavior, coupled with those we wrongly assume we know the answers to – why dog blogs of substance, like Hecht’s, are important.
At the same time, though, I rue the day when our understanding of dog behavior is complete — when we can explain every act of dog as stemming from some lingering instinct, or adaptation to their domestication. For then the magic will be gone.
I want all three — my science, my magic and my dog. Does that make me greedy?
Posted by jwoestendiek April 27th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: abc, adaptation, alexandra horowitz, animals, anthropomorphism, appearances, behavior, cat treats, cognition, coverage, denver, dog, dog inc., dog spies, dog-human, dogs, dogs guilty look, domestication, emotions, feelings, good morning america, guilt, guilty, guilty look, humans, inside of a dog, instinct, julie hecht, looks, media, morning show, news, patricia mcconnell, pets, relationship, remorse, scolding, submission, submissive, video, viral
The amazing and still evolving relationship between dogs and humans is the subject of “Dogs Decoded,” a NOVA episode that airs tonight.
The program looks at how dogs – domesticated for longer than any other animal on the planet — have come to understand us in a way other animals cannot, how they can read our emotions, how that relationhip evolved and where it might lead.
“Dogs Decoded” investigates new discoveries in genetics that are illuminating the origin of dogs — with revealing implications for the evolution of human culture as well. It visits Siberia, where the mystery of dogs’ domestication is being repeated in foxes. A 50-year-old breeding program is creating an entirely new kind of creature, a tame fox with some surprising similarities to man’s best friend.
The episode reveals the science behind the bond between humans and their dogs, and it spurs new questions about what this could mean for our relationships with other animal species.
Among the questions the episode explores are why dogs bark, when their predecessors, wolves, didn’t, and whether it’s a behavior that evolved so they could communicate with humans; why a hormone that humans release at birth to bond mother to baby is also released when humans interact with dogs, bonding us not just emotionally, but biologically; what makes dogs able to understand social cues, like pointing, that other animals cannot; and what clues dog DNA might hold to understanding the genetic causes of certain diseases.
Posted by jwoestendiek November 9th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, dna, dog-human, dogs, dogs decoded, domestication, evolution, genetics, humans, nova, pbs, pets, relationship, television, tv, wolves
Janice Lloyd, the voice of USA Today’s Paw Print Post, wrote a spectacularly moving piece yesterday about her brother’s golden retriever and the dog’s newfound bond with her aging father.
The dog, Lloyd writes, “has adopted my father since last Thursday, giving him a comfort he can find no place else right now.” At 93, she says, her father is showing signs of dementia, and since his wife fell and broke her hip on a recent vacation cruise, leading to a stay in a nursing home, he’s been staying with his son, Lloyd’s brother, in Delaware.
“My dad gets teary at night when he has to leave his bride in the home. He doesn’t understand why he can’t sleep with her. We explain that he can’t stay there. He thinks she seems OK and can go home. The conversation recurs nightly, often more than once.”
Sophie, the nine-year-old golden retriever, “seemed to sense immediately that Dad needed a care taker. She rose to the occasion. She curls up with him on the sofa and puts her head in his lap. My dad rubs her head and smiles at her. My brother says ‘she doesn’t even do that with me …’
“When it’s time for dad to go to bed, she goes downstairs with him and jumps up on the kingsize bed and stays the night,” Lloyd wrote. Her brother says when her father gets up early in the morning for a trip to the bathroom, he tells Sophie to wait for him in bed. When he comes back, he’ll say “Good girl, Sophie. I’m glad you stayed. Let’s go back to sleep. ”
A veteran of World War II, Lloyd’s father visits his wife in the nursing home every day, often falling asleep in a chair as he holds her hand.
Back at his son’s home, Sophie is the comforter.
“When I drove him to my brother’s from the nursing home Sunday night, Sophie ran up to the side of the car where Dad was sitting. She smiled at him. My brother says Goldens smile. Now I believe it. She greeted my Dad when he got out of the car. She never left his side while we watched a little TV before going to bed.”
Sophie, she says, ”offers a comfort none of us can give him.”
(Photo by Janice Lloyd / USA Today)
Posted by jwoestendiek April 27th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: aging, animals, bond, comfort, dog, dogs, elderly, golden retriever, humans, janice lloyd, nursing home, ohmidog!, parents, paw print post, pets, psychology, relationship, sophie, usa today
Someday I am going to do a study that shows 62 percent of all studies do little more than confirm what people with a modicum of common sense already know.
Until then, I will dutifully report on them — dog-related ones, anyway.
A new Canadian study, for instance, concludes that dog owners who live alone and have limited human social support are actually just as lonely as their petless peers.
The Carleton University study’s authors, both of whom own dogs, say that pets aren’t people and can’t compensate for a lack of human relationships, the Vancouver Sun reported.
“Pet ownership isn’t the panacea we think it is,” said co-author Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at the Ottawa-based university. “… The research indicates that pets don’t fill as much of a hole as we might believe they do. If you don’t have human social support already on your side, you’re still going to fall short.”
However, the study acknowledges, dog owners who do have a social life, with human friends, are indeed less lonely than non-dog owners.
Interestingly, that finding didn’t hold true for people with cats.
The part of the study that does seem worthy of study is that dealing with how, among people who live alone and have ”insufficient” social ties, high attachment to a dog or cat can serve to only increase the pet-owner’s likelihood of loneliness and depression.
People with limited community connections, the study shows, were more likely to humanize their dog — and to nurture their relationship with their dog at the expense of their personal lives. Typically, those people were more depressed, visited the doctor more often and took more medications.
“We all know that pets can be there for us. But if that’s all you have, you run into trouble,” Pychyl said. The study’s authors also acknowledged that, often, dogs can serve as a catalyst for more social interaction.
In other words, dogs aren’t the sole cure for loneliness, but they sure can help — which most of us pretty much already knew.
The Carleton study was published in the journal Anthrozoos.
Posted by jwoestendiek April 6th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, anthrozoos, canadian, carleton university, cats, depression, dog, dogs, friends, humans, interaction, loneliness, lonely, news, ohmidog!, owners, ownership, people, pets, psychology, relationship, social, studies, study, support, timothy pychyl
There was a gem of a story in the New York Times last week — about two elderly but popular neighborhood dogs who died within a day of each other.
Both lived in an apartment building on West 86th Street. Harry died Friday evening, his friend Bix died on Saturday.
“The fact that they were not human, but were instead a pair of 14-year-old dogs, seems only to have magnified the bereavement in their building, where they had lived longer than most tenants; on their block, where Harry held court at sidewalk cafes and was known as the Mayor of 86th Street; and deep into Central Park, where Bix had been the ringleader of a 9 a.m. play group since 1997,” the article reported.
Harry was a purebred Shar-Pei. Bix, named for the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke,was a mix of Akita, Saint Bernard and German shepherd.
His 84-year-old owner, the documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, said he never knew any of his neighbors until Bix moved in, serving as an icebreaker and conversation-starter.
“Over the years, because of him, my circle of friends changed, I met people I never would have met; I came to see my whole life depending on this dog I hadn’t wanted at all,” said Pennebaker. “I’d expected having to walk him in the rain in the middle of the night. But I never expected to lose him. If ever you put a dog down, some of you goes with him.”
Rafael Curbelo, the building’s doorman, who kept a stash of treats behind his desk in the lobby, cried upon hearing the news. “Harry was my best friend here,” he said.
As has become the tradition in the dog-friendly building, two dog death announcements were posted in the elevator. Within hours, both had been inscribed with expressions of sympathy from tenants.
Posted by jwoestendiek February 1st, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, apartment, bix, bond, building, central park, d.a. pennebaker, death, dog, dog friendly, dog park, dogs, elderly, friends, harry, mix, mourning, mutt, new york, new york times, old dogs, pets, relationship, shar-pei, sharpei, west 86th street