Dogs Really Aren’t Good Go-To Animals for How We Should Live






If you think and behave like a dog, you might find yourself in a lot of trouble.

An interesting new book written by businessman Scott MacDonald and his rescue dog, Sadie, called Think Like a Dog: How Dogs Teach Us to Be Happy in Life and Successful at Workcaught my eye a few weeks ago, and because I’m interested in “all things dog” I wanted to know more about what Mr. MacDonald and Dog Sadie had to say. I also had a few emails from people asking me what I thought about the book and recently talked with a man who wants to write something along the lines of Think Like a Dog. Having grown up with a wonderful businessman father who also wrote business self-help material, I truly enjoyed Mr. MacDonald and Sadie’s book. However, it also made me realize, once again, that dogs really aren’t very good models or metaphors for how humans should live despite a good number of people who use them for these purposes.

Mr. MacDonald and dog Sadie’s book got me thinking about different aspects of dog behavior. I must admit that the book’s description that reads, “They’re “loyal, loving, and big-hearted―dogs are our best friends for a good reason. Yet they have much more to offer than just love and friendship,” made me feel uncomfortable because dogs are not always “loyal, loving, and big-hearted” and they surely aren’t “our best friends.” They do, however, offer more than “just love and friendship.” (See “Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?“) Anyone who knows dogs and is fluent in dog (dog-literate) knows: (i) there is no universal dog because there are significant individual within-species differences in personality among them, (ii) dogs actually are rather picky in choosing their human and canine friends—they’re surely not indiscriminate “love muffins,” and (iii) there are many people who simply don’t like dogs and don’t consider them to be their best or even distant friends. Indeed, in various locales, dog abuse is on the rise and numerous dogs, including “homed” dogs, live highly stressed lives because they’re forced to adapt to human-dominated environs in which we control just about all aspects of their lives, including when they can go out and where they can walk, run or have fun, with whom they’re allowed to romp around here and there, what they eat and how, when, and where, and when and where they’re allowed to pee, poop, rest or sleep. Some people also dress up their dogs and shower them with perfumes and other odiferous scents about which dogs don’t give a hoot or a bark, or in fact, find annoying or aversive.

It turns out that many seemingly happy-go-lucky dogs actually live highly stressed lives as they try to adapt to their captive human-centered existence. They’re not in the moment Zen-like beings who take anything that comes there a way in stride. In Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, Jessica Pierce and I note that dogs are typically portrayed as happy-go-lucky members of our extended human families, without a care in the world, and the phrase “It’s a dog’s life” is sometimes used to describe days filled with indolence and pleasure. Aside from trained working dogs, all our dog companions do, after all, is sleep, laze around, eat, play, and hang out with friends. What could be easier, especially when someone reliably plops down a bowl of food several times a day? However, living as the companions of humans comes with some important compromises on the part of dogs. To adapt to human environments and expectations, dogs must sacrifice some of their “dogness.” Despite our best efforts to provide a good life, and without quite realizing it, we usually ask them to live like us rather than like dogs. However, in order to successfully allow and even encourage our dogs to be dogs, we need to understand who dogs really are and how to help them express their dogness within our world. We also stress that viewing dogs as captive beings, which many truly are, isn’t a negative statement. Our homed dog companions are captive animals in that they’re just about completely dependent on humans to provide for their physical, emotional, and social needs. This doesn’t mean that dogs can’t be happy in human homes, but rather, humans often have a good deal of work to do to ensure that their canine and other housemates live with as many freedoms as possible. (See “Dogs, Captivity, and Freedom: Unleash Them Whenever You Can” for further discussion of what it means to be captive.)

Mythical mutts and made-up dogs

“Given how dogs actually sense the world, think, feel, live, and behave, I often ponder if they’re wondering something like, “Why in the world would humans want to be like me?”

It’s rather common for some people to use the ways in which dogs supposedly live as models or metaphors for how humans should live to have the best lives possible. These include, for example, they realize that multi-tasking doesn’t work, they don’t have polarizing, relationship-busting beliefs, they practice self-regulation, they focus on the present, and they express themselves freely. While some of these traits might characterize some dogs, they really don’t characterize who dogs are, how they think, or how they behave as a whole. (See “Dogs Live in the Present and Other Harmful Myths” and Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.) People who use dogs as the go-to animal for how we should strive to live usually focus on a mythical made-up dog, view them as being the same or very similar and ignore the fact that dogs are unique individuals, and uncritically go on to portray them as we would like them to be and as if there’s a “universal dog.” They cherry-pick different traits that might be useful to follow but usually ignore the big picture of how dogs actually think and live and brush aside significant individual differences among them.

Let’s also consider how they actually sense their world–how they acquire the information they need to make decisions about how to act in similar and various situations, recognizing that different dogs will likely use the same input differently. If we truly thought like dogs and acted on dog-like thoughts using the information they have, we would get in a lot of trouble especially if we acquired and used it dog-style. For example, most, if not all dogs follow their noses when they’re allowed to. They’re essentially “nosed animals,” as dog researcher, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, aptly calls them. Many are highly attracted to canine and human butts and groins in ways that most if not all humans find disgusting, and a good deal of how dogs think, act, and live is greatly influenced by various odors they seek out with much zeal or happen to come across in their daily activities. Because they “sniff first and ask questions later,” something we don’t typically do, and for many good reasons, we can’t really imagine with much accuracy what they’re thinking about much of the time. The same goes for how they use other sensory capacities that are very different from our own. (See “Dogs: An Exciting Journey Through Their Sensory Worlds,” “Dogs Watch Us Carefully and Read Our Faces Very Well,” “How Dogs Hear and Speak With the World Around Them,” “How Dogs See the World: Some Facts About the Canine Cosmos,” “Dogs Should Be ‘Unleashed’ to Sniff to Their Noses’ Content,” and links therein.)

All in all, if dogs were to use social media like Facebook, it would more appropriately be called Nosebook or Buttbook and it would be unwise for us to mirror the lessons we find there that typically work for our canine companions and clearly wouldn’t work for us. Given how dogs actually sense the world, think, feel, live, and behave, I often ponder if they’re wondering something like, “Why in the world would humans want to be like me?”

Source: Charles, Pexels free download

Dogs aren’t the best go-to animals for how we should live

While Think Like a Dog is a very interesting read and I learned a number of things that could help people along, the dog metaphor was bothersome because of the reasons I mentioned above and some other misleading statements that misrepresent how dogs actually think and view their canine cosmos. Furthermore, many people who write about how dogs can teach us various life lessons base their claims on their own dog and the assumption that all, or even most or many dogs, are just like them. They ignore their dog’s unique personalities and dispositions. What we might be able to learn from Sadie, for example, might be very different from the lessons we might learn from dogs Mary, Harry, and Joe, the guidance we’d be better off not following.

Mr. MacDonald’s Sadie seems to fall within the arena of canine companions who could truly teach us some valuable life lessons, and he’s very fortunate to have her in his life and as a co-author. A more accurate subtitle for Mr. MacDonald and Dog Sadie’s book would have been something like, “How Some Dogs Teach Us to Be Happy in Life and Successful at Work” or “How Sadie Taught Me to Be Happy in Life and Successful at Work.” I’m not nitpicking here. One of the most exciting aspects of studying dog behavior is coming to understand why they’re so different, even littermates who grow up in similar conditions.

While some dogs can surely teach us some very valuable life lessons, suggesting that many, if not most dogs are models who we should follow, is misleading. They aren’t necessarily the best go-to animals for how we should live, and it’s difficult to suggest other nonhumans who would be. Individual dogs far too often are misrepresented as who we imagine them to be, and when they’re discussed as if they’re a collective of similar beings, another misleading characterization, they really don’t think and live like they’re portrayed, as if they’re the same or even very similar.

Kudos to Sadie for being a model for teaching Mr. MacDonald how to succeed and to be happy. They’re surely lucky to have one another. As I wrote above, one of the most exciting aspects of studying dogs and paying close attention to individual differences is how much we can learn about how the past influences their behavior and how they also have thoughts and feelings of the future and what they anticipate awaits them in different situations. (See “Do Dogs Hold Grudges?“) Behavior patterns that are entirely dog appropriate very often aren’t close to being human appropriate.

What makes the fields of cognitive ethology—the study of animal minds—and canine science so exciting is that there is so much fascinating research to be done. Stay tuned for more discussions of the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs, why there are marked individual differences among them, and the different sorts of lessons we might learn from them, a few of which might help us along and many or most of which surely would not.

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

Author’s Books on Amazon

A Dogs Life – Editor’s Comments

A dogs life is an idiom that most people are familiar with and is generally used in the context of describing someone with an unpleasant and unhappy life. Clearly all dogs lives are not unhappy and some might say most dogs lives are happy and carefree. So what is a dogs life really like and are their really some behavioral aspects of a dogs life that we as humans can learn from and even emulate? The jury is out but in the meantime why not share your views on this hot topic.

Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published 31 books, won many awards for his research on animal behavior, animal emotions, compassionate conservation, and animal protection, has worked closely with Jane Goodall, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. Marc's latest books are Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (with Jessica Pierce) and he also publishes regularly for Psychology Today. Currently, Marc and Jessica are writing a book about what the world will be like for dogs as and when humans disappear (Dogs Gone Wild: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans, Princeton University Press, 202?). In 1986 Marc won the Master's age-graded Tour de France. His homepage is
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