Placing Human Emotions on Dogs

We as the human species unfairly place human emotions on dogs.  Have you ever heard someone say or perhaps you’ve caught yourself saying, “My dog knows he did wrong”, orGolden Retriever, dog training how about this, “My dog knows he’s guilty”, or better yet “My dog did that just to spite me because he’s mad at me.”  I’m here to tell you, dogs don’t think like that.  What we’re doing is placing human emotions on our dogs to explain their behavior.

Dogs respond in the moment to their physical surroundings, available resources, and social pressures.  They don’t sit there and think, “you know, I didn’t like it when Dad/Mom yelled at me earlier today so I’m going to rip out their cable line attached to the house and I’m going to do it when they least expect it.  I’ll show them!”  Dogs just don’t think like that.  Although we all have very smart dogs, they don’t sit there and think out plans of revenge.

What’s really happening is dogs are opportunists looking for opportunities to take, possess, and/or guard resources.  In the above example with the cable wire, it’s much simpler behavior that’s being expressed than an outrageous act of revenge.  The dog has too much unsupervised time outside with fun toys available for him to amuse himself with.  Trust me, I know this personally.  I looked out the window one day to find my young German Shepherd ripping out my professional grade landscape edging. I’m here to tell ya,  my dog Zena lived a pampered dog’s life with plenty of food, exercise, and massages. There wasn’t anything that she could possibly be upset about with me.  In fact, she adored me so much I sometimes question if she knew she was a dog.  But let’s stick to one topic for discussion here.

In a dog’s mind, Zena found the largest tug toy there was, 20 feet of edging material.  And, better yet this toy was hidden treasure since it was partly buried in the ground.  What an adventure it must’ve been for her.

It reminded me of the time when my brother and I were young kids digging a hole to visit China.  Jimmy, as I called him back then, was looking down into our huge hole when I raised the shovel to take out another load of dirt.  We were positive China would soon appear.  Unfortunately, the shovel connected with the bridge of my brother’s nose.  To this day, he still reminds me of having scarred him since boyhood.  I just wish he would understand that at age 5, I didn’t know one should first go to Engineering school prior to constructing a tunnel.   I’m happy to report though, while he may not have forgotten that tragic expedition experience, he has since forgiven me.  Thank you Jim.

But let’s go back to Zena.  She was expressing the zest for life and adventure as my brother and I had in our earlier days.  She was having the time of her life and I couldn’t help but marvel at her commitment to remove that toy from the ground.  She was tugging with all her might on one end of the edging material having successfully exposed 15 feet of it.  With another tug or two, she certainly would remove the remaining 5 feet still buried in the ground.  If I hadn’t spent so much time and sweat installing that “tug toy”, I think I would have found myself cheering her on.  But instead, it really wasn’t that funny when I thought about the work it would take to replace what she had removed.

Okay so what did I do? Well I certainly didn’t replace that edging where she could perform another search and destroy mission time and time again.  My mistake was failing to anticipate her commitment and resolve to amuse herself in my absence.  And, while the edging material was there prior to her coming into my life, I couldn’t expect her to make this extirpation.  That would be placing a human emotion on her.  Instead, I used the edging material in another part of my landscape that isn’t accessible to her and I purchased a large jolly ball (a tough but still flexible rubber ball).  She loved to pounce on that ball, carry it around and throw it just so she could  chase it again.  And, that one ball which seemed expensive at the time (approximately $24.00) was a drop in the bucket.  It certainly saved me much more money, sweat and tears from having other landscape objects destroyed.

Zena was being a dog operating in the moment, which is one of the reasons I loved her so much.  In a world that we find ourselves pondering the motive behind another person’s behavior towards us; it’s reassuring to know my dog was perfect at being a dog.  Instead of blaming her for finding a truly wonderful tug toy, I found her a new appropriate toy to occupy her time and energy.

So the next time you find yourself considering your dog’s unacceptable behavior as being a well planned out and executed act of revenge consider the following question. When my dog is being “good”, did he/she sit there and think “you know its my owner’s birthday tomorrow, so I am going to be extra nice because I love them so and this is what they would want me to do?”   I’m sorry to inform you they don’t have this forethought either. Instead, they are fun loving opportunists thinking and acting in the moment.

It’s true that dogs have and express emotions such as happiness, being sad, etc. but I hope this helps to reformat the way we unfairly place human emotions such as guilt and revenge on our dogs.  We should instead recognize and honor their true dog behavior.

About Michael Burkey

Michael Burkey is a professional dog trainer, behaviorist and owner of, a highly successful dog training company whose aim is to promote peaceful relationships between pets and families. Additionally, he is an expert trial witness, certified Canine Good Citizen (CGC) evaluator for the American Kennel Club (AKC), former Police K9 Handler, Search and Rescue (SAR) K9 Training Director and SAR K9 Handler, obedience and rally competitor and social worker. Dog training is a complex science and art requiring knowledge of behavioral science and learning. You can rely on Michael's experience, teaching methods, and integrity. He can be contacted at or 734-634-4152.
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1 Response to Placing Human Emotions on Dogs

  1. K9 Coach says:

    Great article. Every dog owner should read it… projection on anybody, even the dog usually is not the best form of communication or understanding. 🙂


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