Dec 24 2012

Dear Santa, Why Is My Dog Is Being ‘Spiteful’?

Does this story sound familiar to you? 

You come home late from work to find your dog left you a “present” on your new rug. You were only 45 minutes late getting home from work, so you stare at your dog and ask sternly: “What did you do???” Expecting some form of an answer, you stare at him while he cowers in the corner of the living room. Your next move is to change into something more appropriate for getting on your hands and knees to pick up poop. It is there, in your bedroom, that you find your favorite Manolo Blahnik pumps chewed into tiny little pieces. You look for Fido as you yell louder, and there he is, cowering behind the love seat and peeing on your newly refinished hard wood floors.

Watching your dog’s behavior and having been through this before, you are convinced your pet was angry, acted spitefully and is now feeling guilty.

But is he? Now let’s give you the dog’s perspective.

  • I’m so happy you’re home. I missed you and I really had to go to the bathroom badly. You were in such a hurry this morning I never had a chance to go before you left for work. There was a loud thunderstorm today and I was so scared. Why are you yelling and being so aggressive? What’s wrong? You won’t stop waving your arms and staring at me. Wait, where are you going? I really need to be let out! Why are you running towards me with your shoes in your hands? I don’t understand. Are you going to hit me? I’m really frightened. I’m really scared and can’t hold my bladder anymore. I’m looking away from you and trying to appear small to show you that you are the boss. You are leaning over me and reaching for my collar. I’m really nervous . . . what do I do now?

Even though we love our pets like family members, they are not human beings. Their social habits and ways of communicating are much different from ours. For instance, we perceive urinating and defecating as bad things. Animals do not. To them these are natural behaviors that have no negative connotations. Another example would be how we greet each other. When humans meet someone new we keep our personal space and give a handshake. We would never approach a stranger and lick his hand or sniff their body. However, that would be completely normal in the canine world.

So, why did Fido ‘destroy’ your house? We humans would be certain it was out of spite or anger. However, here are some likely reasons:

  • You were in a rush that morning and did not stay at the door to see if he actually eliminated in the yard. He obediently came inside when you called him without realizing that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to go out again until much later.
  • Since thunderstorms make him nervous, the physical need to defecate coupled with the stress of the storm made it impossible for him to maintain control of his bowels. Haven’t we all experienced the need for an immediate bathroom break when we get nervous or anxious?
  • Dogs chew things to help relieve tension (just like we tend to smoke, bite our nails, or pace). Chewing the shoes helped him cope with the stress while he was alone. Since you wear this ‘favorite’ pair a lot, he was able to get them to release some of your scent which helped to comfort him.

Dogs are only able to make associations to things that are happening in the present or to actions that happen just a few seconds before a consequence. The last thing he did before you began acting ‘aggressively’ toward him was to greet you happily at the front door. When you began yelling at him he could have perceived your anger with him at his greeting you happily when you returned home. He may think twice about meeting you at the door when you come home and may decide to hide somewhere instead (our perception could be he is hiding because he did something ‘wrong’). When you continued to yell, he could have urinated behind the couch out of submission or fear. Keep in mind dogs will urinate solely to show their submission to you. Remember, you still haven’t let him outside, and it is harder to hold a full bladder under stressful circumstances.

Body language is a very strong form of communication for dogs. Even though Fido did not understand why you were upset, he tried his best to calm you down. He lowered his head, looked away and tried to appear small. This was his way to show you he was submissive to you and a signal for you to ‘please stop’. If humans lower their head and look away, they appear to look ‘guilty’. You then leaned over him, continued to stare, yelled (as if to “growl”) and then reached for his neck to grab his collar. These are all increasingly dominant gestures and he was out of passive ways to protect himself. In the dog world, it would have been acceptable for him to now step things up to a growl and you in return might have escalated your response. If dogs could call behaviorists, I’m sure they’d complain about a lot of ‘unprovoked’ aggression by their humans!

If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, the above scenario might be a common occurrence in your home. If your dog urinates or defecates inappropriately, chews destructively, or even acts aggressively, call your veterinarian. If there is no medical cause, training and behavior modification could help to resolve the communication gap that exists between our species. Once you achieve a level of mutual understanding, the companionship with your dog could be one of the most rewarding relationships you’ll ever have.

iStock_000010179099XSmall, Sad Dog
Scared, Sad & Confused
Dr. Tracy Lynn Cohen-Grady was born in Queens, NY, but grew up in Rockland County and graduated from Clarkstown North High School. Veterinary Medicine is her second career and she graduated from the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in May, 2000.
She has been practicing small animal medicine and surgery for the past 12 years in northern Bergen County, NJ.Her professional interests lie in canine behavior, internal medicine, nutrition, and dentistry. Her goals are to create and strengthen strong human-animal bonds. She takes pleasure in helping her clients maintain their pet’s health through each of their life-stages – from baby to geriatric.She volunteers her time for Rescue organizations like Greyhound rescue and Bully Baby Rescue, as well as several human cancer organizations. She also volunteers her time to schools and children’s organizations geared around pet education, science and health.

When not working, Dr. Cohen enjoys athletic training, cooking/baking, swimming, reading, knitting, and cuddling up with her children.

Besides sharing her home with her husband and 2 daughters, she has 2 Pit Bull Terrier mixes, Boudreaux and Josie, both of whom were rescued from the shelter, and 3 adorable rats.


By Tracy Cohen-Grady, DVM

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