But do dogs go through this complex process, or is their negative response to a certain situation born out of anxiety, fear, or a learned aversion to steer clear of something?
In fact, 'hate' in the way scientists define it, is not an emotion experienced by dogs. Indeed, their emotional development stops before they develop such complex emotions and instead the dog's reaction is actually an aversion or learned anxiety.
Signs a Dog has an Aversion to Something
A fearful or anxious dog shows a number of classic behaviors, some well-known, others not so. For example, on meeting a dreaded larger dog in the park, a fearful dog may pull to try and go in the opposite direction. This isn't a sign of hate, but of aversion - it the same way we pull our hand away from a hot candle flame. We don't hate the candle, but realize it will hurt if we leave a finger in the flame.
Other signs that indicate inner distress include excessive yawning, lip licking, raising a paw, and a submissive roll to display the belly.
Conversely, an anxious dog may become aggressive in order to avoid the thing that makes them worried. This is often because they've learned that growling or snapping makes the situation go away, hence rewarding their aggression so it becomes a learned behavior.
- Ears drop
- Involuntary urination
- Excessive yawning
- Lip licking
- Pulling away or avoiding the object
A History of Doggy Dislikes
Take the dog that growled at their master when they go to put the dog in the car. The out-dated dominance theory of dog behavior would say the dog is trying to dominate the owner and exert their will, rather than do what the owner wishes. In turn, this was considered a dangerous trend since if the dog was allowed to get away with not getting in the car, they would challenge the owner in other areas of daily life and eventually take control.
However, we now know the dominance theory to be flawed and incorrect. The likelihood is the dog is growling because they associate car travel with feeling nauseous or visiting the vet. This makes the dog anxious, and they may become desperate enough to try avoiding the dreaded activity by growling. If the dog has previously learned that growling means they get their own way, this is a highly effective means of influencing events. (Please note, this doesn't mean you should never back down to a growling dog as you may well be injured if you continue to press a stressed dog.)
The difference is in the outcome. Further press the stressed dog to get into the car and they may bite you. However, realize their dislike is passed on an aversion and this gives you the option to desensitise the dog to car travel and remove the problem without conflict.
The Science of Canine Negative Reactions
Taking the 'big dog' example, it's likely the dog once encountered a large dog that was a bit too rough and this made them anxious. Their 'two plus two equals four' thinking, went along the lines that big dogs are dangerous and therefore best avoided. Then the dog learns that when they shake fearfully and pull away from the big dog, their owner picks them up. This reinforces to the dog that they were right to be fearful in the first instance.
The signs the owner sees include the dog pulling away and shaking as if exhibiting a strong dislike or 'hate' of big dogs, whereas this is not the case but the dog's frightened or anxious and taking steps to alleviate their distress.
Supporting a Dog with Aversive Behaviors
Instead, it is best to desensitize the dog slowly, with a carefully staged exposure to the dreaded event or object.
Let's take the example of a dog that's fearful of large dogs. The first stage is to enlist the help of a friend who owns a big dog. Have them stand at the end of the street, a sufficient distance away that your dog remains relaxed. Praise and reward your dog for remaining calm, despite the big dog in the distance. Then have the friend step the big dog one pace closer. If your dog remains calm, then continue to praise and reward them. Finish the session on a positive note, and resume the next time with the big dog at this new closer distance.
Over time, the big dog becomes closer whilst your dog remains calm. The constant encouragement helps them understand there's nothing to worry about and builds their confidence.
How to React When Your Dog Doesn't Like Something:
Do not force them further into the situation.
Try to pinpoint what exactly is causing their fear or anxiety.
Work on desensitizing them from their fear.