By Gary Wilkes
Of all the disconnects between dog owners and their dogs, the biggest, most glaring, completely illogical, widely held and damaging myth is that dogs can be spiteful. Nope. Nada. Nicht. Ain’t happening. To understand my adamant belief that doggie spite doesn’t happen, conduct this simple experiment based on actual events.
Borrow a typical pair of five-month-old miniature Dachshunds. Leave them loose in your house while you go to work. Leave your rent money on the coffee table. Tell the landlord to drop by after work for the money. Yes, the little darlings are going to eat the money. No, they won’t do it out of spite. They don’t understand rent or landlords or what kind of trouble you can get into if you don’t pay on time. They don’t even understand how you get your pay or how you made the landlord appear. Also, they aren’t going to do it because they are frustrated that you aren’t there. They will do it because they like to tear things apart – it’s in their genes. If you want to test my theory further, put the rent money right next to a Dr. Scholl’s insole, well-used. OK, which item is going to be destroyed? You guessed it, the insole. That is a slam dunk. Elmer and Eddie will destroy things because A) They are dogs and B) They like stinky consumables. End of mystery? Not for most people.
Despite evidence to the contrary, it is perfectly normal for human beings to assume that this kind of destruction was done out of spite. We are, after all, humans and humans are capable of spite. If a dog does something that resembles human behavior, we naturally think it’s the same behavior. When a dog cocks its ears at something odd, we assume they are contemplating it. In reality, they are moving their ears to give slightly dissimilar signals to the brain. Changing the stereo input improves the brain’s ability to audibly locate the source of the sound. This instinctive “head-cocking” behavior is common to humans and dogs, but the contemplating part is only common to us.
It never dawns on us that maybe dogs don’t have the hardware to duplicate human-style emotions, strategies and actions. That’s what makes a belief in spite damaging. If you think your dog was spiteful, it causes a whole set of emotional difficulties. After all, if your dog was trying to get back at you for something, it’s either an act of defiance or it means you have failed somehow and your dog was justified in getting back at you. That’s not healthy. You may start to think ill of your dog or ill of yourself, though neither conclusion is warranted. Your dog loves you and you love your dog. Speculating on a dog’s sneakiness, spitefulness, anger and acting out misses that fact and weakens your bond.
To clear up the issues once and for all, here’s the bottom line. No matter how much you think it looks like spite, that motivation is impossible for dogs. No, that isn’t just my opinion. It’s a biological fact. Their brains really aren’t built for it. If you doubt the accuracy of such a firm statement, we will need to go a little deeper into the controversy for you to see the light. For starters, let’s look at the definition of spite…
Spite 1: Petty ill will or hatred with the disposition to irritate, annoy, or thwart.
A dog that bears ill will toward his owner is a pretty rare commodity. Historically, the primary reason dogs exist is to live with humans and bug the heck out of them in a non-petty, good-will-type way. They lick our faces, fetch our slippers, keep us warm and look cute. They also make adorable sounds when you rub their ears – kind of an ooohhh aaahhh that is simply irresistible.
The vast majority of dogs love their owners to the point of risking annoyance – but, and it’s a very big but, they annoy us because they simply want more of our time and affection or they want to do things that dogs like to do. It’s not the dog that has a disposition to annoy or irritate, it is the human who has a disposition to be annoyed or irritated at dogs’ natural, loving, annoying behaviors.
A big part of this misunderstanding comes from a mistaken assumption. In reality, dogs don’t understand our emotions, even if they can perceive changes in our outward emotional displays. To be spiteful, you have to be able to interpret the emotional reaction of someone else. Dogs can’t do that. (According to some women, men can’t do that, either.) Even if your dog could do that, he still wouldn’t be capable of spite.
To be spiteful you must be able to perfectly interpret human emotions AND understand “later”. Sorry, they simply can’t do that. In reality, your dog is forever a creature of “now”. He will tip over his only source of water on the hottest day of the year, repeatedly, even though it could kill him. He will dig out from under your gate to chase a cat, even though he has no idea how to get home again. To test this, ask him to “sit” – later. Sorry, it’s not going to happen. Ask yourself, if he can’t sit for a treat, later, how is he going to destroy your favorite shoes in order to make you angry, later? Face it, dogs don’t understand any form of delay. The best you can do is create a pre-learned latency from the time they hear a signal until they actually perform a behavior. That doesn’t mean they can tell time. Consider that dogs have little to no patience because they don’t grasp delayed consequences as we do. That’s why dogs who suffer from separation anxiety don’t respond when you tell them you’ll only be gone five minutes. Dogs don’t understand five minutes from now or five hours – they only understand now.
The reality is that dogs simply aren’t humans. They are like us in many ways, but completely incapable of understanding concepts such as time as a linear continuum and extrinsic value. They do things because of internal motivations that have nothing to do with the way we feel. They chew things for fun. If it’s a five dollar wallet or a $5,000 pair of hearing aids, it’s all about the crunch. It’s not about the money. It’s not about making you angry because they didn’t get their every wish gratified. Dogs are better than that. They stand alone among all the species on this planet as our friends and devoted companions. The last thing they offer their owners is ill will for the future. The last thing they want for themselves is their master’s disapproval, now.