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Can Dogs be Sociopaths?
Let's imagine you have a dog that sleeps on the bed and growls when you roll over; they'll steal food off your plate, or even bite if you try to take a toy away from them. A friend was half-serious when they suggested your dog might be a sociopath and this set you thinking: Can dogs be sociopaths?
This is such a good question for so many reasons. Of course, to answer the question, it first helps to understand what a sociopath is (the old word for this was 'psychopath', which summons up visions of serial killers!)
Indeed, in human terms, a sociopath is a person who has no understanding of the feelings of others (lacks empathy), is focussed solely on their own needs, is charming and uses that charm to manipulate and get what they want. All of which sounds quite like some dogs.
But, and it's a big but, for people, being a sociopath is a personality disorder that goes against the way society functions. For dogs, their apparent 'selfishness' is about how dogs evolved and communicate, and how well we teach them manners. So does this make them sociopaths?
Signs a Dog is a Sociopath
Following the logic above, a dog that gets their own way regardless of the wishes of their owner is sociopath (...or strong-willed...or poorly trained?) Signs that a dog is a 'sociopath' would, therefore, include stealing food, sleeping where they want, refusing to do as instructed, and being aggressive in the face of confrontation.
However, there is a strong argument to say that the dog is merely 'being a dog' and not teaching the dog that they're not allowed on furniture is the reason they sleep on the bed.
Indeed, any behavior where the dog self-determines what actions they take could be considered sociopathic. Any behavior where the dog exerts their own will could thus be looked at as sociopathic, such as pulling on walks, jumping up at people, scratching the carpet, digging in the garden, stealing food, or toileting in the house.
But it doesn't take much thought to realize that this is no more the dog being sociopathic than a spoilt child who screams in the superstore when a parent refuses them candy. Again, this is where things get delightfully complicated.
A true sociopath can't empathize with another person's point of view. Thus the screaming child deep down understands their behavior is distressing to the parent but does it anyway. A true sociopath has no internal moral compass to tell them their actions are wrong. They may learn by observation how to pretend to empathize, but they are incapable of doing so.
So if a dog behaves selfishly and has no appreciation of how that makes an owner feel, is the dog a sociopath or are they just being a dog?
History of Dogs as Sociopaths
A history of dogs as sociopaths is really a history of dog training. Without training, then dogs behave as they wish, which includes putting their needs first and not obeying any rules. With training, the dog can be taught what is acceptable behavior and what is needed to live in harmony with their human guardians.
An interesting twist is to look at particular dog breeds and the role they play in human society. Take guarding breeds such as the German Shepherd or the Rottweiler. Over successive generations, man has selected dogs that have a heightened sense of protectiveness and therefore a greater ability to guard and defend against predators or intruders. If a dog is highly protective and will attack strangers, does this make them a sociopath?
It ticks a lot of the boxes for being a sociopath, since the dog is acting on their impulse to defend their territory. Which makes an interesting debate about whether such lack of empathy for the intruder makes the dog sociopathic or not.
The Science of Dogs Being Sociopathic
Is it your experience that your dog lacks empathy?
Many owners would argue the exact opposite, and that their dog is extremely sensitive to their moods and emotions. When in a state of distress, who hasn't been comforted by their pet dog? Which raises the question about what makes the difference between a poorly behaved dog focussed fully on getting what they want and a loving pet?
Much of the difference is in the dog's early experiences and socialization, which is carried forward into later life by the use of reward-based training. The latter teaches the dog the rules of behavior which are acceptable and, therefore, how to live side-by-side with their humans.
Training a Dog to Be a Sociopath
In reality, training a dog to be a sociopath is the exact opposite of what every responsible owner desires. It is much better to raise a responsible canine citizen through a combination of early socialization of the puppy and then continuing with ongoing reward-based training.
Socialization takes advantage of the puppy's ability to learn from new experiences, process them, and accept them as normal. In essence, this makes for a friendly, well-adjusted dog that doesn't act purely out of instinct. Without socialization, the dog is thrown back into survival mode where they regard everything as a threat and act mainly to protect themselves.
To socialize a puppy requires the owner to expose the pup to several different sights, sounds, and smells each day...but in a positive way so the pup regards them as not a threat. A good example is to take the puppy in your arms and wait outside a pet store, and have people passing by give the puppy a treat. This shows the pup that people are nothing to be frightened of and can bring good things.
Likewise, reward-based training teaches the dog the rules. This is a training method whereby the dog is motivated to behave correctly, with the inducement of a treat as a reward. The dog then seeks to repeat the action which is pleasing to the owner, in order to win that treat. Using this method you can teach the dog to jump down from the sofa when you desire to sit there or to sleep on a dog bed rather than the bed.
So are poorly socialized, poorly trained dogs sociopathic? What do you think?
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 04/27/2018, edited: 04/06/2020
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