Home > Dog Behavior, Pet Ponderings > Dogs: Assumptions can hurt

Dogs: Assumptions can hurt

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

We humans often make assumptions about our dogs.

“He ate my shoes because he was mad that I left him at home.”

“She got into the trash because she was trying to get back at me.”

“He was bad dog because he wouldn’t listen to me.”

“She looks guilty, therefore she must have done it.”

But I wonder how often we actually take the time to examine the reasons behind the behavior?

This past week, I had the misfortune of having someone make some unflattering assumptions about me. It was not a good feeling. I felt hurt and embarrassed and yes, guilty, even though I had no reason to feel so. I think what bothered me most is that no one bothered to ask me what had happened or why. They just assumed I was guilty.

As I tried to come to a better understanding of how and why something like this could happen, I started thinking about how applicable my situation was to what happens to dogs – an assumption of guilt without seeking to understand.

Sad Looking Chocolate LabHow often have I assigned guilt to one of my dogs because of a guilty look? How often have I made assumptions about my dogs’ behaviors without seeking to understand why or who or what had caused it?

Because they can’t tell us what happened or because we don’t have all the knowledge and skills to understand them, we tend to make a lot of assumptions about our dogs. We assume the one looking most guilty must be the one who got into the trash or destroyed our favorite pair of shoes. We assume that a dog acting out must be a just a bad dog or be mentally unbalanced. Rarely, do we stop to observe the root cause of a dog’s behavior to better understand why they are behaving a certain way.

Most people assume a dog looks guilty because they ARE guilty, but what is often missed is how much our behavior impacts our dog’s behavior. It is often a reflection of what WE are doing. Studies now show that tone of voice and an owner’s behavior has a lot more to do with a dog’s guilty look than actual guilt.

A dog who bites may be a bad dog in our eyes, but he could just as easily be reacting to a sound or another trigger in his environment that makes them fearful and stressed.  (A friend recently shared a story of a dog that turned into “Cujo” whenever she heard a common sound in the house. Turns out the dog had started to associate the noise with people coming up behind her and scaring her. She could no longer hear them.)

Sometimes a physical impairment can also cause a dog to behave oddly. I’ll never forget the story one animal rescuer told me about a dog she fostered and later adopted. The dog had been poorly treated by his previous family because they thought he was stupid and stubborn and because he wouldn’t listen to their commands. Imagine her surprise when she took the dog in to foster and discovered he was deaf! The owners had never taken the time to observe his behavior long enough to realize he could not hear them. They had just assumed he was a bad dog – for four years!

As I look back on my experience last week, I can’t help but feel fortunate. As a human being, I have the ability to address my issue directly. I can use my voice to share how a person’s assumptions were wrong. I can use emails and paper documentation as evidence.

Dogs, however, only have us to rely on. I may not have always done so in the past, but I intend to be a much better steward of my dog’s trust. When I find myself assuming, I am going to stop and observe instead. There’s so much more that gets accomplished when one asks questions first, don’t you think?

  1. Jen
    September 15, 2013 at 11:12 PM

    Assumptions can hurt, and assumptions can be dangerous! Great post, and thanks for the reminder.

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 9:25 PM

      Yes they can Jen. Thank you for summing it up so perfectly!

  2. September 16, 2013 at 12:29 AM

    So well said!
    Funny enough, I find myself observing and seeking to understand more with dogs/animals than I do other people. Same lesson/advice applies, just a different species. What can I say – I’m a bit of a cynic and notsomuch a people person.

    • September 16, 2013 at 3:16 AM

      Jen K. said my thoughts exactly 😛

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 6:59 AM

      I do that too Jen. I just wish I had known then what I know now.

  3. September 16, 2013 at 1:38 AM

    It made me think back to when Paddi came to live with us. He had not been given the training as a puppy and his ‘ naughty’ behaviour stemmed from this but how easy it would have been to assume he did all the awful things on purpose. After just a few months of showing him what was expected and praising him – away went the naughty behaviour and guilty looks! We make assumptions about our fellow creatures at our peril.

  4. September 16, 2013 at 3:32 AM

    I hope you’ve got your ‘unflattering assumptions’ issue sorted Mel. It’s not a good feeling. Kind of like Chinese Whispers where things get distorted and before you know it you’re on the verge of being done for slander!!

    I’m with Jen K. I try and observe my dogs and get inside their heads as much as I can. It makes life easier for all of us. I’m still struggling on a few things with Frankie, lol.

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 6:58 AM

      Stil working on it Sue. It helped that I had evidence.

  5. September 16, 2013 at 7:03 AM

    You are so, SO right! I’m very lucky because it is extremely rare that my dogs give me an opportunity to jump to assumptions, but if (when?) it happens, I am going to remember your words and ask questions first. Thank you for sharing and I hope you have gotten your own experience cleared up!

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 9:24 PM

      Thanks for your thoughts Morgan. My dogs are so good that it is pretty rare that I make assumptions, but I’m human so I know I sometimes do it with both humans and dogs. My experience is clearing up a bit, but not as well as I would have liked. Thank you.

  6. September 16, 2013 at 7:05 AM

    I couldn’t agree more Mel. Having just dealt with something similar to what you are saying it sucks when someone assumes something before asking, especially when they don’t take into account your previous actions. I’m sorry you had to deal with something like this.

    As far as observing dogs and assuming things, over the years I have learned to try and not base a book on its cover. Jen K pretty much nailed it!

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 9:23 PM

      I know you can relate Jen, especially since it is so recent for you. Yes. Jen K definitely nailed it. 🙂

  7. September 16, 2013 at 7:10 AM

    Very interesting post. I try not to assume with my dogs, but sometime I am guilty. I’m sorry you had to deal with some negative attention. That is never fun, but you seem to have pulled through!

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 9:22 PM

      Thanks Jill. I think it’s partly my fault for not addressing it sooner. I was too busy licking my wounds. I try not to do it to my dogs either. I wish I had been better at that when I was younger and a new dog owner.

  8. September 16, 2013 at 8:34 AM

    Great thoughts. It is so true in every part of our lives, sadly. You know what they say about the word assume….it makes an ass of u and me.

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 9:21 PM

      Yes indeed Miss Roxy. I definitely do.

  9. September 16, 2013 at 1:55 PM

    I was blamed for almost two years for chewing electrical cords around the house when it was my cat bro Bert the whole time! Humans definitely do get it wrong sometimes!

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 9:17 PM

      Oh no Miss Emma! Say it ain’t so! So glad your human figured it out.

  10. September 16, 2013 at 3:04 PM

    If our dogs misbehaved, they would often look guilty or upset, but we learned that they only looked that way because we raised our voices. I think I’ve always tried to be good at trying to figure out why they have misbehaved. Hubby would get frustrated when Sheba would dig holes in the yard, “why does she do that??” She was never misbehaving, it was just fun to dig holes! Now that Kobi is getting older there have been some new issues, so we are learning again that we need to try to figure out why he does some things wrong. He doesn’t listen, because he doesn’t hear us sometimes. Or he has an accident in the house simply because he forgets he needs to go out every so often….so we’ve learned to go back to the puppy days, and make sure he goes out on a regular basis whether he’s looking to or not!

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 9:17 PM

      It can be tough when they start to regress Jan. Your dogs are lucky to have you. They are safe knowing you will always watch for what they are telling you.

  11. September 16, 2013 at 8:13 PM

    Such good advice – for humans as well as for dogs. Judgement without facts is always a bad thing.

    • Mel
      September 16, 2013 at 9:16 PM

      Thanks SlimDoggy. I agree. Congrats on your new program btw!

  12. September 19, 2013 at 6:01 PM

    There is a classic story about Gelert the Irish Wolfhound, which speaks to your post. Gelert was given to Prince Llewelyn of Wales by King John of England in the year 1210.

    As the legend goes, the prince left Gelert to protect his baby, while he was out. When he returned home he found the cradle overturned and the baby missing. Gelert had blood about him. The prince thought the dog had killed the baby. He kills Gelert instantly with a sword. Only to find the baby safe underneath the cradle and a dead wolf nearby.

    The prince was devastated and is said to have never smiled again.

    Abridged from http://www.owning-a-giant-dog.com/Gelert.html
    Retrieved September 19, 2013.

  13. kimberlygauthier
    September 19, 2013 at 11:14 PM

    This is a frustration of mine. When I think of how many people surrender their dog, because they all of a sudden developed a bad behavior, I get sad. I actually overheard a woman talking about how she encouraged a friend to have her “bad dog” put down if it couldn’t behave. I knew the woman so I asked if her friend had considered hiring a dog trainer; she acted as if I suggested hiring a witch doctor. So sad 😦

    • Mel
      September 20, 2013 at 5:53 AM

      Ugh! That just makes my blood boil Kimberly. I wonder if she would put her kids down if they misbehaved?

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