Q & A With Pet Expert Arden Moore
Q. My 10-year-old Bichon Frise sometimes goes to the bathroom in the house when no one is home. As soon as I walk in the front door, I know what Rascal has done without seeing the accident. She acts incredibly guilty, with downcast eyes and tail between her legs. If she feels so bad when she misbehaves, why does she continue to do it? Also, I think she sometimes urinates on the floor to get even with me for being gone for too long. The longer I am away from home, the more likely she is to have an accident. Is she trying to get revenge?
A. Many owners consider their pets to be members of the family, as well they should. But sometimes, we take this idea too far by attaching human emotions and motives to our dog’s behavior. Unlike humans, dogs don’t feel guilty when they have done something we think is wrong. They do, however, react to our body language and tone of voice, and they quickly learn to read and respond to our emotions.
In Rascal’s case, she has figured out that if she has an accident in the house, you will be angry when you get home. It’s very simple in her mind because unlike a human, she can’t grasp complicated ideas like, “I had an accident and five hours later, Mom is going to come home, see it, and get mad at me because now she has to clean it up.” All Rascal knows is that if she has had an accident, you are angry when you come home. Dogs have no concept of cause and effect, so unfortunately, she doesn’t realize that if she didn’t go to the bathroom in the house, you would not be mad.
So, if Rascal doesn’t know she did something wrong, why does she look so guilty? Dogs often behave submissively when their owners are angry, in the hopes of ending the conflict. In wolf packs, subordinate members behave submissively in front of the more dominant wolves to avoid fights. Rascal tucks her tail and hangs her head when she senses or anticipates your anger to illustrate her submissiveness to you, her pack leader. Signs of submissive behavior include a cringing posture, lowered ears, downcast eyes, and a tucked tail. A canine pack leader would most likely accept this behavioral apology and move one. Unhappily, people tend to become even angrier when confronted by such signs of “guilt,” which makes the poor dog cringe even more.
As for the possibility of Rascal going to the bathroom in the house to get even with you for leaving her alone too long, dogs do not have the capacity to think in these terms. Revenge remains an exclusively human endeavor, and something only a complex brain can calculate. Dogs don’t have the mental ability or the emotional complexity to grasp the concept of getting even.
Rascal’s accidents are most likely the result of her inability to hold her urine for long periods of time. She may be suffering from a urinary tract infection or another medical condition that makes it hard for her to hold a full bladder for an extended period of time. Older dogs often have trouble with incontinence and sometimes need medication to remedy the problem. Take Rascal to your veterinarian for a complete physical evaluation. In the meantime, try not to leave her along for too long to help her avoid accidents. This might mean asking a neighbor or professional pet sitter to come over and let her out to relieve herself on days you know you’ll be gone for a long period of time.
Confounded by your canine? Frustrated by your feline? Relax. Pet expert Arden Moore is here to deliver the real truth about cats, dogs…and you with her column appropriately called, “Oh Behave!”
On a regular basis, Arden will unleash excerpts from her two award-winning books, The Dog Behavior Answer Book (named the top training and behavior book by the Dog Writers Association of America) and The Cat Behavior Answer Book (named the top training and behavior book by the Cat Writers Association). Learn more about Arden Moore, who also hosts a weekly radio show called “Oh Behave!” on Pet Life Radio (www.petliferadio.com) by visiting her Four Legged Life website (www.fourleggedlife.com).