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It's a common question: "My dog ________ (chews the furniture, rips up the carpet, eliminates in the house, etc.) when I am gone out of spite. No matter how much I punish it when I get home, it still does it. My dog knows that it has done something wrong because it looks guilty when I walk in the door."
This is actually three questions in one.
1. Your dog does it out of spite. Dogs are incapable of spite. To be spiteful, Fido must have three specific mental abilities. He must be able to understand intrinsic value--that a carpet is more valuable than dirt. Finally, he must be able to tell time. If Fido can't understand that 4:15 p.m. and 5: 37 p.m. are separated by commonly accepted units of time, then he can't possibly destroy something at 4:15 and know that you will be angry when you see it 82 minutes later. If you doubt this, ask your dog this simple request. "Fido, I want you to sit, but not right now. I want you to wait five minutes and then sit."
2. No matter how much I punish my dog, it still does it. Punishment can be connected to a specific action only if you catch your dog at the moment it starts the behavior. Delayed punishment sometimes appears to work because, if it is harsh enough, it can suppress all behavior in the owner's absence. Fido didn't chew the rug today because he was afraid to move.
3. My dog knows he has done something wrong because he looks guilty. Understanding right from wrong is an exclusively human trait. What you are seeing is actually a look of fear. Dogs are capable of making primitive associations of the A + B=C variety. An example of this type of association is "open flame + gasoline=Boom!" The flame, by itself, does not cause an explosion. Neither does the gasoline. It is only when the two are in the same place at the same time that problems occur.
A "dog's eye view" of the delayed punishment situation is the same. The dog translates the relationship this way: No punishment has ever occurred while "chewing the couch." Therefore, chewing a couch is safe--in private. The second ingredient, the owner, is also considered safe when he or she is apart from the couch. However, putting the two in the same place at the same time means trouble.
When the owner walks in the door after Fido has chewed the couch, the dog anticipates punishment and looks fearful (chewed couch + owner=punishment). If Fido has not chewed the couch, there is no fearful look, since only one of the components is present (owner + intact couch=praise).
To test this theory, find a battered piece of couch cushion (from a couch other than your own), and wait for a day when your dog does not chew the couch. Show Fido the piece of chewed couch cushion and ask him if he knows who did it. You will get exactly the same reaction from your dog as you do when it really is the culprit.
To solve most of these behavioral problems, the owners simply must learn better timing. Punishment should be given only when the dog actually begins to perform the improper behavior, firmly associating the punishment with the undesirable action. Positive reinforcement should also be used in close conjunction with a desired action.
However, if you see any signs of aggression, such as biting or guarding food or toys, contact a behaviorist or trainer immediately. If you see any sudden, unusual changes in behavior, make an appointment to see your veterinarian at the first available opportunity.
Author(s): Wilkes, Gary
Canine Library: General