Do dogs think?

Pets and people.
Oct. 6 2005 10:48 AM

Do Dogs Think?

Owners assume their pet's brain works like their own. That's a big mistake.

This has been adapted from Katz on Dogs, which is being published this week. 

Download an MP3 audio version Jon Katz reading this piece here, or sign up to get all of Slate's free daily podcasts.

Click on image to enlarge. Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Blue, Heather's normally affectionate and obedient Rottweiler, began tearing up the house shortly after Heather went back to work as an accountant after several years at home. The contents of the trash cans were strewn all over the house. A favorite comforter was destroyed. Then Blue began peeing all over Heather's expensive new living room carpet and systematically ripped through cables and electrical wires.

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 "I know exactly what's going on," Heather told her vet when she called seeking help. "Blue is angry with me for leaving her alone. She's punishing me. She always looks guilty when I come home, so she knows she's been bad. She knows she shouldn't be doing those things."

Heather's assessment was typical of many dog owners' diagnoses of behavioral problems. And her vet agreed, suggesting "separation anxiety" and prescribing anti-anxiety medication for Blue. Heather also hired a trainer, who confirmed the diagnosis.

Blue, they concluded, was resentful at her owner's absence and was misbehaving to regain the attention that she'd once monopolized. After all, Blue didn't transgress like this when Heather went out shopping or took in a movie with friends. It must be punitive. Heather's mother even recalled Heather, as a child, throwing tantrums when she went off to work. Heather and Blue had become so close, she joked, that they were acting alike.

So Heather shut Blue in the kitchen with a toddler gate, removing countertop food and garbage. Things calmed down. Heather began to relax and gave Blue the run of the house again.

Heather, a friend of a friend, had called me for counsel as well. But since she, her vet, her trainer, and her mother had all reached the same conclusion, and since the rampaging had stopped, I didn't give the situation much thought.

A month later, though, Heather was back on the phone: Blue had relapsed. She yowled piteously when confined to the kitchen or basement. Worse, she was showing signs of aggression with people and other dogs and refusing to obey even simple commands that were once routine. On one late-night walk, Blue attacked a terrier walking nearby, opening wounds that needed stitches.

Blue's problems had grown so serious that kennels wouldn't board the dog and the vet wouldn't examine her without a muzzle. Heather was thinking of finding her another home, turning her over to a rescue group, possibly even euthanizing her.

"She's out of control," Heather complained, exhausted, angry, and frightened. She sounded betrayed—a dog she'd loved and cared for was turning on her because she went to work. "I caused this by leaving her," Heather confessed, guiltily. But was she supposed to quit her job to stay home with her dog?

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