Do dogs behave out of spite?

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 3/3/13
By: Gail T. Fisher

In behavior consultations with dog owners to discuss how to approach and eliminate their dogs’ undesirable behaviors, many owners ascribe motives such as “spite” for their dog’s actions. Recently, an owner accused her dog of being spiteful. “Why else,” she asked, “would he lift his leg the minute I left the house? This went on for four years!” She attributed his behavior to anger at being left alone, and a desire to punish her for leaving.

Acting out of spite is deliberate and purposeful behavior designed to hurt, annoy, or otherwise punish. For a dog to be spiteful, he has to understand that lifting his leg inside bothers his owner, and he is purposely doing it to her. It also presumes the dog understands that lifting his leg the minute she leaves will punish her when she returns home in three hours. It’s as if he’s thinking, “Ha! That’ll teach her to leave me alone!” But dogs don’t think that way.

The fact is dogs aren’t motivated by spite or vindictiveness. That is uniquely human. If vindictively trying to teach Mom a lesson, or punish her for leaving him alone is not what motivated this dog, why is he lifting his leg the minute his owner leaves?

For four years, in a misguided effort change her dog’s leg-lifting behavior, the owner would admonish her dog just before she left the house. She tried telling him what she wanted in no uncertain terms, saying, “Don’t you dare lift your leg. You BE GOOD!” The tone of her voice and scolding expression instantly created anxiety in her dog. In an effort to alleviate his stress, he lifted his leg.

Another probable reason that this behavior didn’t change is that the dog doesn’t understand that there’s anything wrong with lifting his leg when he’s alone in the house. While it might seem as if his behavior is premeditated, it isn’t. He isn’t chastised when he’s alone, so he’s never made a connection between his actions, and his owner’s distress when she returns several hours later.

So after four years of this behavior, what might she do to get him to stop? She started crating him when she left the house. After a few months, she left him loose again and he was fine. Crating him simply prevented him from urinating as soon as she left the house. Breaking his habit taught him to hold it while she was gone. Her happiness and the reward of a long walk when she got home, reinforced his continence.

Good dog training starts with putting the dog in a position to perform the desired behavior. Positive training techniques reward good behavior rather than always looking for and punishing bad behavior, especially under the assumption that the dog is behaving purposefully and spitefully. It’s a much more pleasant and positive way to go through life.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2013. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.