“My dog is such a drama queen!”
“My dog is so manipulative, she overreacts to everything!”
“That dog is not really afraid, she’s just being a diva.”
Have you heard any of these?
A few months back, I posted the following picture on the Observation Skills for Training Dogs group for comments. I felt like it was a good example of showing that photos can be deceptive, as I have previously written.
I solicited observations, and got some good ones. Zani is the smaller dog on the right. The observations about her included that her mouth was shut tightly, her body and facial muscles looked tense, her ears were slightly back, and she had whale eye. She was also sitting very close to the gate. The consensus was that she looked stressed.
So what was the problem?
I had interrupted her routine.
Zani has the most freedom to come and go in the house of any of my dogs. She gets along with everybody and is safe with objects and furniture. She has little routines she follows where she checks after the other dogs when they have eaten. She is my crumb vacuum, being interested in sniffing out and eating the tiniest pieces of food. She is an extremely persistent little hound dog.
In the picture I had prevented her from making her rounds by closing the gate. She wanted to go in the other room to see if Cricket had left crumbs (she always did, and I would generally give Zani permission to go get them). She sat there staring at me like that for at least 10 minutes, her eyes boring into me, while I ate my breakfast.
I published the photo with the intent of demonstrating that photos can be deceptive, that the situation Zani was in was no big deal. Zani is a little hard for me to live sometimes with all these “overreactions.” But was it an overreaction? And was it a deceptive photo or not?
(Taking deep breath): I was wrong. It is not a good example of a deceptive photo.
The body language captured in the photo is that of a (slightly) stressed dog, and she was stressed. Just because I define a stressful situation differently, and am tempted to find her actions overdone and cute, doesn’t mean she wasn’t stressed. To deny that is to be a bit of a jerk.
Here’s another example.
In both of the above photos in the collage, Zani is sitting on the bed. In the one on the left, her eyes are open wide, her ears are forward. Her head is a tiny bit cocked in her “I’m paying attention” pose. Now, how about the one on the right? What is wrong? Her ears are hanging straight down flat and her eyes are squinty. The set of her eyebrows looks tense. Her head is no longer cocked and nose is a little bit down. The set of her mouth may be a little different, but it’s hard to tell because her head position is slightly different. But she definitely looks unhappy.
The problem this time: another dog was in her way on the bed. She couldn’t get under the covers.
What a drama queen, right? Again, no.
Taking Our Dogs Seriously
The term “drama queen” has implications that just aren’t appropriate for a dog. It’s a critical term for a person who overreacts to things (in the view of the person using the term), usually in such a way as to maximize attention, and even to put a guilt trip on someone else.
Even though dogs like attention, Zani’s actions do not have the goal of making me feel bad. Although we learn more about dogs’ cognitive skills all the time, there’s a much simpler explanation for Zani’s behavior. The flat ears and woeful expression are an indicator of her own feelings. She is frustrated.
It is perfectly possible, common even, for a dog to learn that certain actions such as whining or looking pathetic can get desirable behaviors from humans. That’s reinforcement in action. Their behavior can get reinforced by our responses. Dogs learn to bark, whine, or tremble to get us to notice them and take action.
And indeed, there is one behavior common to the above pictures and the ones below that is that kind of learned, reinforced behavior. In all the photos, Zani is looking at me. I heavily reinforce polite eye contact, so it has become a way for my dogs to ask for something. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t reinforced all the little body language nuances that make up Zani’s stress/frustration/appeasement responses. She came to me with those. And I’m pretty careful in general about what behaviors I reinforce in my dogs.
But this wasn’t supposed to be about psychoanalyzing Zani. It’s about changing my own assumptions.
I need to take Zani’s frustrations and stresses seriously, not just brush them away as cute, silly, or annoying. I imagine that my occasional irritation with her is a defense mechanism in part. I can’t always act on what she wants. But I need to change my internal response.
I need to remind myself that this house, with my other dogs and me, and the places Zani gets to go–these things are Zani’s world. She is utterly dependent on me. She has things she likes and dislikes, things she looks forward to or not. They are perfectly real and important to her. I give her as much freedom and as many choices and fun activities as I can. But she has huge limits on her world, like almost all pets, and has real feelings about the things she likes and dislikes in it. She has a right to that.
Many people think, I’m sure, that I am overly solicitous, or even spoil my dogs. To me, it’s important to maintain my empathy for their dependent situation. I intend to remind myself, on seeing Zani’s stress or frustration, that she is not overreacting or trying to manipulate me. I want my response to be, “How can I make her life more fun? More pleasant? Is there a way she and the other dogs can get what they want?” Or when I can’t do anything about it, at least not take it personally when she looks like that!
It’s popular in some quarters to say that we need to add stress to dogs’ lives in order that they learn to cope with it. This is often used as an excuse for using punishment. Indeed, animals and humans alike need to learn coping skills. But I find that my dogs’ lives have plenty of stress in them, and my time is better spent minimizing it than maximizing it. Not to mention that Zani copes beautifully with most everyday stressors. She’s not freaking out, getting aggressive or depressed, developing stereotypies. She just gets sad in her own way, then sighs and goes off to a comfortable dog bed.
Zani is both sensitive and expressive. She’s a little soft hound dog who wears her heart on her sleeve. I just need to remember that most of the time there is no agenda regarding my thoughts and feelings, although she certainly would like to affect my behavior as it relates to the things she wants.
Here are two final photos of Zani. In the first one, she is worried that I may take another dog for a ride. Her tail is tucked, and thought it’s hard to see, her back is a little arched. She’s looking up appealingly.
In the second one, she is in the car but I have put her in the other dog’s crate. She has no objections to crates in general, but again, I messed up her routine. There are those flat ears again.
What we are seeing are her sensitivity and her feelings. She’s worried in the first photo and bothered in the second. Actually, when I think about it, I like it that she feels free enough in her life to be that expressive. I’ll do my best to do right by her, and not think of this tender, sweet little dog as a drama queen.
- My webinar: 2/19/14: Over Threshold: The Changing Definition (still available as a recording!)
- Which Dog is Playing?
- Invisible Cues
- How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
- More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)