Doggy Decisions

Dogs enjoy burden-free decision making, why would we change this?

For the most part dogs appear to have a carefree existence. They don’t appear to be burdened by worries like us humans. The simple answer to this is that they have no concept of what future is. They live for the day and don’t worry about tomorrow.

It follows that dogs make their decisions without concern of the long term consequences, only the immediate consequences. Their decisions are made in an instant, they don’t spend time weighing up the pros and cons for ages before deciding what to do. Their decisions are based upon their past experiences and their feelings. One of the other enviable features of doggy decision making is that once they have made a decision they stick with it and follow it to its conclusion. We, as humans, only have an indication of what is going on in the dog’s mind through its body language and actions.

Dog’s behaviour often reflects an eagerness to please

Many owners find the concept that their pet’s mind operates so simply difficult to marry with their dog’s actual behaviour, which appears to them to be very complex – almost human at times. Dogs do indeed have simple minds but are highly attuned to human facial expressions and body language and are keen to please us.

For humans, having a concept of future allows us to plan complex ideas and structure but it also brings the heavy burden of worry. Some people may wish their pets had a concept of future because it would allow them to have more complex thought processes and potentially a more profound relationship with their owner. However, would we really want to burden dogs with the ability to worry that would come as part of that package?

Avoidance behaviour

Some decision making in both dogs and humans is innate, natural, and occurs as a behavioural defence mechanism. A good example of this is ‘avoidance behaviour’. This occurs when a being, consciously or unconsciously, tries to escape an unpleasant situation. Avoidance behaviour does not require previous experience of a situation. Most dogs, when confronted with an oncoming car, will avoid it even without previous experience of being run over. Avoidance behaviour is not associated with fear because you can only be fearful of something that you have previously experienced.

Owners make decisions based on long-term benefits to their dog

Responsible dog owners regularly make decisions to subject their dog to short-term ‘pain’ for expected long-term gain. Surgical neutering, weight-reduction programs, chemotherapy and vaccinations, can all cause the dog some degree of very short or somewhat longer-term suffering or pain. The owner’s expectation is that these procedures will bring about a good outcome in terms of quantity and/or quality of life that will outweigh the shorter-term ‘harms’. Indeed, not subjecting a dog to such potentially unpleasant experiences is perceived by society as not meeting a dog owner’s duty of care.

Therefore it is acceptable for a responsible owner to subject their dog to an experience it may perceive as unpleasant, even though the dog will have no concept of potential benefits in the long term. If the dog had to make such decisions it would choose to avoid any immediate short term pain because it has no concept of the long term; it only has an understanding of now.

Vets choose treatment based on scientific evidence

Vets frequently have to make clinical decisions regarding a dog’s treatment and nowadays are being encouraged by their Universities and Professional Organisations to base their decisions on ‘Evidence Based Veterinary Medicine’ (EBVM). This means that vets should use the current best scientific evidence to make decisions about the care of individual patients. This principle has been used for at least the last 10 years to guide human medicine and it seems very reasonable that the same principle should guide vets too.

Politicians create policies around dog ownership based on ideology, pressure groups or populist views

Politicians occasionally create policies which have an impact on dogs and their owners. Policy and its enactment are frequently driven by ideology, pressure groups or populist views. This is a complex process and sometimes serves other agendas and does not enhance the quality of dogs’ lives.

Summary:

  • Avoidance behaviour is innate and requires no thought process or fear
  • Doggy decisions are immediate and made to avoid something unpleasant or engage with something pleasant. Once a decision is made they stick with it
  • Owners make balanced decisions on their dog’s care to benefit their overall quality of life, even if it means immediate short term discomfort
  • Vets make clinical decisions on a dog’s treatment based on scientific evidence (Evidence Based Veterinary Medicine)
  • Politicians make policy decisions regarding dogs in society based on ideology, pressure groups or populist views.

The dog’s world is very simple and so is its decision making process. A dog’s ability to stick with a decision once it has made it’s mind up is very admirable. Owners have to make decisions about their dogs which can result in short term suffering for long term benefits, and this is perfectly acceptable as long as any suffering in not unnecessary. When vets and politicians make decisions about dogs, they should rely on scientific evidence and not be swayed by rubbish science and ideology.

David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®

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