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Tag: remorse

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 sound — 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 is 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!)

Another look at the “guilty look”

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?

Guilty.

Lie to me: Yellow lab can’t hide the truth

Apparently, there was no need to even question the cat after this yellow lab, in the view of his owner, all but confessed to the crime — getting into the cat treat bag.

For all those who say dogs don’t feel guilt, or something closely akin to it, explain this reaction.

Based on it, Denver, the yellow lab who is the second to be interrogated, is sent to the pen — though I would point out the evidence was entirely circumstantial, there was no DNA testing,  he was never read his rights and he received no trial before a jury of his peers.

We hope his sentence was a short one.

And we still think it’s possible the cat did it.

Why I object to the Michael Vick Project

The attempted reinvention of Michael Vick continues tonight with the premiere of BET’s “Michael Vick Project” — a quasi-documentary that focuses on his alleged redemption and glosses over the horrors he perpetrated on dogs.

As its name implies, the show stars Michael Vick, who, up to now at least, has been less than convincing in the role of the remorseful, regretful and rehabilitated fighter of dogs who managed to resecure a multi-million contract as an NFL quarterback.

The word on the show is it focuses little, and then only superficially, on the evils he committed — as has been the case with his appearances at schools and before youth groups on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States.

opinion sigThose appearances, the TV show, and his Ed Block Courage Award — all focusing on Michael Vick’s travails, Michael Vick’s ”bravery,” Michael Vick’s struggle, Michael Vick’s “redemption” — are only reinforcing the concept that one can get away with murder, or at least end up sitting pretty afterwards, at least when the perpetrator is a quarterback and the victims are dogs.

At this point, let me say that I’m all for rehabilitation, and all for second chances. In the eight years I reported about and hung out with prisoners — murderers even — I came to know, trust and, in a few cases, even respect many of them. I’m not a throw away the key kind of guy.

But allowing a convict to return to society is one thing. Seeing him return to the NFL, giving him a TV show, and topping it off with a “courage award” based on — what? — are quite another.

Michael Vick has every right to pursue and obtain those things. I’m not saying he should be banned from reaping riches, or anything else, with the possible exception of dog ownership — only that it turns my stomach to watch it all, and to watch the masses not just accept it, but throw their support behind him.

Yes, he served his time. Yes, he has a right to make a living. Yes, he can throw a football. But as for his choreographed image makeover, I’m not buying it – based on the comments he has made and his seemingless emotionless demeanor. I’ve yet to see any remorse in his face, and I’ve heard far more, from him, about his suffering than that of his dogs.

There’s no question he — and many others — are putting a lot of work into redeeming his image, but that’s different from redeeming oneself.

In an a radio interview with Dan Patrick this week to promote the TV show (it premieres tonight at 10 on BET), Vick was asked if he would still be fighting dogs if he hadn’t been caught.

“That’s the scary thing,” Vick responded. “I think about it. I would have continued to put my life in jeopardy. From a distance I would have still been involved.”

James DuBose, CEO of Dubose Entertainment, which is producing the Michael Vick Project, said, ”We hope his story will be one in which years from now, people particularly young men, will view and learn valuable lessons from.”

My fear – given that in the year since he completed his less than two-year prison sentence he’s been signed up as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, given a TV show and will be honored in March with an award – is that those lessons may not be the right ones.

ASPCA condemns Vicks return to NFL

Michael Vick’s “handlers” approached the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about conducting anti-dogfighting work with the organization, but was turned down, according to an ASPCA press release issued Friday.

“This organization and I personally have seen the acts of cruelty committed by Mr. Vick first hand — acts so heinous that the public has never laid witness to them,” Ed Sayres, president and CEO of the ASPCA said in a prepared statement.

Noting that the ASPCA helped process evidence that led to Vick’s 18-month imprisonment, Sayres condemned Vick’s return to the NFL and his signing with the Philadelphia Eagles.

“Today, it is difficult to see him in the uniform of a Philadelphia Eagle because of the startling lack of judgment and moral character he has demonstrated over the past several years. It is questionable whether he will have any credibility as an educator on the dog fighting issue.”

Vick has teamed up with the Humane Society of the United States to campaign against dogfighting.

The ASPCA statement was prompted by Vick’s interview last week on 60 Minutes:

Here is the press release in its entirety.

Read more »

Eagles sign Vick, boycotts take shape

vickjersey2My most favorite football team is now my least favorite football team: The Philadelphia Eagles have signed Michael Vick to a two-year contract.

The Philadelphia Eagles signed the disgraced quarterback — who just months ago completed his 18-month sentence for dogfighting — to a one-year deal with an option for a second year, ESPN reports.

“I think everybody deserves a second chance,” Vick said Friday, a day after signing the deal, according to the Associated Press. “We all have issues, we all deal with certain things and we all have our own set of inequities. I think as long as you are willing to come back and do it the right way and do the right things and that you’re committed, then I think you deserve it. But you only get one shot at a second chance, and I am conscious of that.”

Angry fans brought dogs and waited outside the team’s practice facility, carrying signs and banners to display their outrage.

“How could they sign Michael Vick?” said Mark Pascetta of Ridley Township. “They are supposed to be a character team. We don’t need him.”

Within hours of the announcement, Michael Vick Eagles jerseys were on sale — everywhere from the NFL’s website to that of CBS — and calls for a boycott of the Eagles were being mounted on Facebook and other websites.

Vicks will earn $1.6 million under the first year of the contract, with the second-year option worth $5.2 million. Vick can also earn an additional $3 million in incentives over the two years of the contract, ESPN reported.

The Eagles were reportedly not the first team to extend an offer to Vick. Fox Sports reported that the Cincinnati Bengals first offered Vick a two-year deal worth about $2.3 million.

Read more »

Vick heads home, may work with HSUS

Michael Vick left prison and is headed home today — and he hopes to team up with the Humane Society of the United States in a program aimed at eradicating dogfighting among urban teens.

HSUS President Wayne Pacelle said Tuesday that he recently met with Vick at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., and that Vick, who requested the meeting, wants to work with the group once he’s out of federal custody, according to Sports Illustrated.

Vick is returning to Hampton, Virginia, where he will serve the final two months of his 23-month prison sentence for dogfighting under home confinement. Vick is expected to be released to supervised probation July 20 after receiving two months off his term for good behavior.

“He indicated that he’s tremendously remorseful about this, and now he wants to be an agent of change, to work to end dogfighting and to specifically get young kids to cease any involvement in these activities,” Pacelle said.

“Sometimes folks who are reformed can be particularly strong advocates,” Pacelle said, adding the Vick would be expected to do more than simply record anti-dogfighting public service announcements. “We agree that he’s got to put boots on the ground and hit the issue hard and do it over a long time.”

Pacelle elaborates on the unlikely alliance today on his blog, Humane Nation.

Read more »