If You Think Your Pet's a Jerk, Think Again

Pets aren't little people, so if you're going to apply labels like that, ask yourself these questions first. They're often the first step in solving behaviour issues in dogs and cats.

A chocolate Lab and a ginger cat cuddle together, looking up. If you think your pet's a jerk, think again.
New Africa/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD  

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When it comes to understanding dogs, cats, and other pets, there’s a common pitfall that applies to many of us: thinking of them like people. Don’t get me wrong: many of the ways that we talk about pets, share a constant stream of photos of them, and baby them are delightful and show just how central they are to our family life. 

But if it means that we treat them like people when in fact—because they are a different species—they need something else, then that can be a problem. 

There’s a wonderful quote from Dr. Sam Gaines near the beginning of my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She says we need to,

“Think Dog! Despite a wealth of research into the domestic dog and a greater understanding of how they behave, think, feel, and interact with us and their peers, many owners/guardians continue to treat dogs either as wolves or little people and/or fail to understand and acknowledge what dogs actually are. This can have a huge impact on their physical and mental health.”

It’s common for us to take a human-centred (or anthropocentric) view. But the lives of our cats and dogs are better when we understand their particular needs as a species. 

If we treat them like little people, it shows we don’t understand things from their perspective, something that could really improve our relationship with them. 

In a post on this website on our common ground with dogs, Kristi Benson said,  

“Many of the misconceptions about dog behaviour and in particular, dogs’ motivations, are born from anthropocentrism.” 

This is often because we assume cats and dogs are experiencing human emotions and behaving like people, as she goes on to explain: 

“Dog trainers regularly greet dog owners who lament that their dogs have some exceedingly human motivations: greed, evil stubbornness, and revenge are certainly in the top ten, but there are many others.”

It’s sadly true. And it’s not just dogs that are afflicted by this; cats, too, are commonly misunderstood. It’s not unheard of for people to be aghast at their cat doing some completely normal thing, like scratching.

Cats have some environmental needs that are known as the five pillars of a healthy feline environment.  Unfortunately failing to provide cats with what they need  can lead to behaviour issues. This is the biggest welfare issue affecting pet cats according to a study that canvassed pet experts for their opinion. That’s why education is so important. Prof. Cathy Dwyer (co-author of the research) told me, 

“I would most want cat owners to understand more about cat behaviour – why cats do what they do, what they need for good welfare and how we can provide that for them.”

There’s been a wonderful burgeoning of research into canine and feline science in recent years which means we know more about them than ever before. And although it takes time for this knowledge to become widespread, there are many dog and cat guardians who really want this information and are keen to apply it to their everyday lives. This is wonderful (and yes, I’m including the amazing people who read this blog among them!).

Unfortunately there are still many people who—observing a behaviour issue in their dog or cat—call them spiteful or a jerk. 

It isn’t a good idea to think of pet behaviour issues in this way. And it doesn’t help to resolve the issue. 

Unfortunately there’s still a lot of misinformation out there, so many well-intentioned pet guardians are getting bad advice through no fault of their own, and this only adds to the issue.

But your dog isn’t a jerk. And your cat isn’t a psychopath. If you think that (as anything other than a loving term of endearment) there are some questions you should ask yourself. These include:

And so on. This isn’t a definitive list.

Of course, sometimes dark humour can help us through difficult times, so if that’s what you’re doing—and you’re also looking out for your pet—that’s fine. But sometimes people blame their pet for behaviour issues and don’t question how to resolve them.  

The answers to these questions will help guide you towards a solution. And never feel embarrassed about asking for help; behaviour issues are very, very common, and there are good dog trainers, cat behaviourists, veterinarians and veterinary behaviourists who are there if you need them.  

So instead of getting frustrated with your pet’s behaviour, there are many things you can do. And they start from recognizing what your pet needs.

Ultimately, this helps us too because there’s nothing nicer than sharing your home with a happy cat or dog.

For dog guardians, there’s a checklist for a happy dog at the end of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy which helps you identify what you’re already doing right and think about some of the changes you might like to make to improve your pet’s life. 

And if your dog is shy, fearful, or reactive, check out my new book, Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog which is available for pre-order now. Rory Cellan-Jones, author of Sophie From Romania, says Bark! is "an invaluable guide to the science behind taking a rescue dog on a journey away from fear.

For cat guardians, there’s a similar checklist for a happy cat at the end of Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, which is also available from all good bookstores. 

Canadians can get signed copies of Purr with this link and get signed copies of Wag with this link

And of course, if you’d like to join the almost 5,000 people who subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology, you can sign up here and get my free guides to a happy cat and happy dog.

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