There’s been a lot of recent coverage concerning canine psychology in an attempt to understand our dogs’ behavior. Dogs throughout our nation’s history have at times been held higher than other species in the animal kingdom, even receiving medals as wartime heroes. They assist those of us with physical hardships in overcoming otherwise impossible obstacles, i.e. seeing-eye dogs and other working dogs. Dogs are even being integrated with CPUs and other technology (so far only as outerwear, nothing invasive) beyond ID microchips and GPS devices.
Recent articles such as this one from the NY Times are further setting the stage for a national discussion about whether dogs deserve quasi-human legal protection. At the very least, it is becoming apparent that dogs are more cognitively and behaviorally complicated than previously anticipated.
For instance, a recent article by Sarah Netherton (Univ. of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine) examines the different contexts in which dogs exhibit anxiety and how that can alter the proper remedy. In other words, she questions whether there is a one-size-fits-all approach to alleviating pathological canine cognition and the behaviors accompanying such malignant thought processes.
Kelly Ballantyne (American College of Veterinary Behaviorists) asserts that the many symptoms of a specific dog’s anxiety problems require a look into their genetics, upbringing, social interactions, and environmental cues. The thinking behind such assertions sounds as if it concerns raising children rather than just raising “dumb animals.”
One example of a context specific sign of anxiety is excessive yawning. As per the aforementioned article, a dog that yawns a few times very late in the day is most likely in need of sleep and only mildly stressed. Meanwhile, a dog that yawns profusely throughout the day is signaling to their owner that they are “fearful or anxious.” A responsible dog owner will pick up on both the symptoms of anxiety and the context in which they occur.
Ballantyne maintains that owners should spot such behaviors and immediately wonder why the behaviors occur rather than just applying an arbitrary correction, such as relegating the anxious or misbehaving dog to their crate. If a dog has separation anxiety or a phobia to loud noises then they should not be confined to their crate for exhibiting anxious behavior. In other cases however, the same symptom does indeed warrant a trip to the crate.
Drs. Netherton and Ballantyne believe that the future of dealing with unruly or anxious dogs lies in a multitude of remedies that best address the context of the behavior first and foremost. These solutions include behavioral therapy, exposure or avoidance of certain stimuli, and even psychotropic medications.
Again, this all sounds more like traditional and emerging strategies for raising children or dealing with troubled adult human beings. Is it possible that dogs do in fact deserve a classification above other animals?