The Problem of Fault in Dogs

The other night, I was having a conversation about a couple of dogs that had attacked my little puppy while he was on leash and the attackers were not. During the course of the conversation, we used words like “fault” and “responsibility,” which turned the conversation decidedly philosophical.  What is “fault” and “responsibility” as it applies to a dog?  One end of the continuum would say that no dog is at fault — only the human (owner) is, because the human is supposed to be the Alpha (dominant ranking) of the pack that includes this dog and, therefore, the human establishes the pack parameters.  Apart from a dog having an owner, how does “fault” and “responsibility” shake out, if it can — is it true “no dog is at fault”?

I like philosophical questions, especially for matters that I know will come up time and time again. And while I can’t hold a candle to one of my favorite theologians, C.S.Lewis (with particular relevance to his book, “The Problem of Pain”), let the exploring begin!

We’ve got the following elements all mashed together that we’re trying to sort out:

  • Nature of dogs.
  • Individual dog personalities.
  • Human affect on dogs.
  • What is an environment.
  • Reasoning, free will, and responsibility.

Pack Balance & Attributing Desire to Dogs

Dogs are social, pack critters.  In every dog-dog and human-dog interaction, one will emerge dominant because social structure is a part of dog make up.  Clear ranking — the higher on the rank, the more “dominant” the dog in that position. Where the ranking is confused, dogs will, themselves, be confused until the pecking order is established either by them or the other dogs/humans. César calls that “pack balance.”

In describing the balance phenomenon, he and all other dog trainers or consultants whose websites I read through all consistently say pretty much the same thing: some dogs “want” to be dominant.  Some will vie for the position constantly, even after the pecking order in a pack (or household) is established.

But to say “want” applies some anthropomorphism* to canine motivations, doesn’t it?  Martin Deeley on César’s site writes: “[a certain behavior is a ] sign of dominance, an indication that this dog wants to be leader of the pack, and sees himself as independent with a will of his own.”

“See himself as independent”… this is where my need to sort convention from reality kicks in.  Can a dog change his attitude (to take the anthropomorphic metaphor a bit further) to not want top-dog status or realize he’s not independent;  or, are the human metaphors we’re using misdirecting our understanding?

Beware Analysis by Analogy or Metaphor

Of course, it makes sense to describe things in terms most of us can relate to.  To do that, we apply terms (use conventions) we know work in one context to a similar-looking context in order to be able to talk about it.

Often times, the convention consists of comparing one thing to something else; but other times, we apply the conventions without keeping in mind any significant differences.  We can reach a point where the conventions we use to describe a phenomenon by comparing it to something else loses the ‘comparative’ aspect and become confused with that something else.  That is, we over-extend a metaphor without realizing where we crossed the line.

Then we have been snared into possible fallacy. (See notes in the Comments area below the post.) In this case, we are comparing dogs to humans.  We have to be circumspect with how far we apply the human conventions of describing behaviors of dogs because we all know that dogs ain’t humans.

But let’s assume that our conventions are close enough, and we acknowledge that each dog, like each human, has its own constitution — traits that are particular to the make up of each individual dog.  We’ll call that personality.  We also acknowledge that dogs, as part of the a genus canis lupus familiaris have behavioral (as well as physical) characteristics that they must have in order to be part of the taxonomological group we call “canine.”

And as with any adaptive life form, what the dog “is” at any point in time is a result of its environment, viz., conditioning.  I don’t know a single pet owner who has not commented on the free-ishness of their companion’s “will,” so let’s also assume there’s some measure of that.  We can conclude that what it has been exposed to in the course of its life, combined with canine instincts and individual propensities, conspire to give us the individual we see before us right now.

Nothing Has No Environment

So, we have this thing we call environment.  There can never be no environment … no, I don’t mean that in hillbilly-speak. That is to say that we are never, at any point in our existence, not surrounded by something.  Even if we were in outer space, the environment is a vacuum.  (Of course, this is one environment we can’t adapt to without lots of technological help to make our survival in it possible.)

Environments are a universal and they are a given.  And environments are filled with things and interactions, which we, as an adaptive species, deal with in order to survive.  We’ll call those environmental conditions.  As a participant, we are also part of the environment.

We know environmental conditions can change; and adaptive species will change with them.  With that in mind, consider this story: a rescued dog is seriously screwed up on a variety of levels.  It has regularly endured a wide variety of unspeakable treatment & living conditions over many years, including over what might be considered in human terms (convention) as its formative years.  It is in a new environment now, learning healthy pack behaviors and being canine and human socialized — therapy.  One day, a young lady whom the dog knows well on a very friendly basis steps into the dog’s environment wearing a high-school uniform, and the dog goes ballistic (in a bad way).

Still using human convention in judgment, we could say that this dog has suffered some trauma in the course of its life that it has clearly associated with school uniforms as part of the environment from which it was rescued.  While this dog’s environmental conditions have changed, it has some residual code in its operating system.  I call that scar tissue.

An odd question that pops into my mind right this second is: are environments responsible; or are environmental elements responsible for how adaptive creatures adapt (or don’t adapt)? In any case, are we expecting that the new environment will reprogram the bad code? Or, as with humans, will this dog have “baggage” for the rest of its life.

Tautological Trap of Our Own Making

Anyway, we have this premise that says, “it’s never a dog’s fault,”  implying that if we humans have an urge to judge fault, it is ascribed to the human(s) most prominent in the dog’s environment.

There is something tautological*, perhaps circular, about this.  When are humans not part of the “environment”?  This question is usefully ambiguous — are humans always part of the “environment”; and is there a concept of ‘environment’ where humans are merely an environmental element like rainstorms are to Puerto Vallarta during the rainy season?

The question is as fascinating as it is apparently impossible for me to penetrate because, beneath the question, I struggle with whether a human in the environment makes that human responsible for any affect it has on other adaptive creatures.  I’m not one to let humanity off the hook for its affect on the planet, but I’d still like to be clear on what we’re talking about before I accept the blame.  Blame – there’s another loaded term.

Of course we have to beware of not confusing moral responsibility with cause-and-effect responsibility.  If an off-leash dog attacks and injures your on-leash dog, the attacker-dog is cause-and-effect responsible for the injuries your dog suffers.  Biting in with its teeth, it rips the skin.  One-to-one, easy-breezy correspondence.   That pretty much adds up to Duh.  Where we begin to drift into fuzziness is in attaching moral culpability to the attacking dog: “This dog is evil.”

“It’s never a dog’s fault” then poses an interesting dilemma. Something about the dog’s behavior is judgeable, but the dog’s behavior is not culpable.

Is this where the anthropomorphizing convention falls apart?  Humans can be responsible because of our intellect and free(er) will whereas lower life forms such as dogs, not having our moral capacity or reasoning, cannot be held culpable?  The premise, then, is that reason, free will, and moral capacity establishes fault, responsibility, and culpability. Creatures that live in the here and now, without these characteristics & abilities, can only be shaped by higher, culpable powers.  I’m still not buying it.

OK, if your head is not spinning, it should be.  Mine is, and I’m writing this!

It Is What It Is…Right Now

The reason I haven’t reached the buying-it part is that my mind is still stuck on the factor of conditioning, personal, in-born tendencies such as the desire to be head of pack, and some willfulness.  Exploring those angles further: if a dog in a human household (its pack), even with other dogs in the household, understands its non-dominant rank, when it gets outside the pack confines, then what can we say is governing its behavior?

I have a suspicion that my fellow conversationalist on the topic would argue that the learnings and conditioning of the pack’s supposed Alpha remain part of the dog’s operating system. If the ranking system at home is screwed up and confused, then the underlying instinctual operating system of this dog in search of “pack balance” takes over.

If this dog was not part of a human pack, it would still be operating under this system.  This system is part of being dog.  Its behaviors pursuant to the operating system are still influenced by environment & native temperament. The dog is acting like a dog. In that sense, it can be responsible.  It also has its own, personal propensities. In this sense, we can evaluate it as we would anything else that has qualities & willfulness particular to it. It is culpable.

Now, to test this preliminary conclusion a bit further…

If we assume that a dog cannot self-will a change in attitude to realize it’s not “independent” and not “want” to be top-dog, the moral implication is that it’s nothing more than a wax ball shaped to reflect its environment. Not having reasoning abilities and the type of free will we humans have apparently & inexplicably nullifies the environmental conditioning and the individual-personality part of the equation.  There is something in this that is both true and false. My suspicion is that the human convention of “want” being equated to “self-determination” (will) falls apart when we try to determine whether reasoning is necessary to direct want and will.

That’s a very heavy philosophical point, and one that I believe is where conversations become less debate and more entrenched argumentation.

The Aspect of “Self” or “Personality”

C.S. Lewis in his book “The Problem of Pain” discussed whether animals have souls.  One argument he had was that, while animals don’t have moral souls, they have souls that can be transfigured by human interaction to take on moral capacity and, therefore, culpability.  For instance, understanding “right” from “wrong.”

I remember one of my first dogs — really super-smart — was not to enter a certain part of the pasture where the sheep were kept.  He knew this because of training.  (Can we call behavior by training “knowledge”?) One day, I was washing the dishes and looked out the window to see him slinking in a way that meant he was trying to not be detected … with a sheepward trajectory.  His body low to the ground, ears back, head darting around (i.e., not sniffing the ground), he would sneak like Wile E Coyote on his toes to a concealing spot and look around for papi.  Not detecting my surveilling him from the window, he continued on his mission. [Yes, I used surveil as a backformed verb.]  I let him make it to the sheep, whereupon I appeared to administer some castigation and penalty.

The point is, whether he learned to sneak because we taught him or he learned it because he had a conflict between the learnings and his personal desires, he displayed behaviors consistent with knowing right from wrong.


Absolutely none of this exercise is done to absolve a human from the affect he has had on his dogs.  If you know that your off-leash dog attacks on-leash dogs, and you introduce your dog into the company of on-leash dogs, you absolutely are responsible for the consequences.  You as the leader of your pack should know (or learn) enough about dogs to make sure that the animal that you are keeping you are doing so in harmony with his nature.  If you’ve screwed that up, you are responsible.

But, just as we can point to a human and say, “that guy is an over-intellectualizing putz,” we can point to this dog and say, “he’s sneaky,” or that dog and say, “that dog cannot be trusted around other dogs that are on-leash – it is unruly, badly educated; and its actions are aggressive.  If it harms my dog, it is responsible for its being a dog in its current state right now.”  What we can’t know — can we? — is how much this dog might “want” status, independence, or anything else.  The human dog behviorists certainly talk as though you can.  And I just told a story about sneaking and knowing right from wrong.

I still don’t know how to feel about this, but I don’t accept the premise that “no dog is at fault.”  Maybe I’m trapped in the confines of my head and I’m not aware of the pieces I’m not aware of in order for me to accept that dogs can never be at fault.

That would be my fault.


3 Responses

  1. I was reviewing the fallacies today — keeps them top of mind for when I’m reading media-reported stuff — and I ran across one I’d long forgotten: Reification or Hypostatization.

    This fallacy is a fallacy of ambiguity where we take everyday words (“normal usage”) involving mental constructs or concepts and argue with them as though they had substance or real existence. We argue as though something is real when it’s not. A twist on this fallacy is anthropomorphization.

    Another related fallacy is equivocation, specifically the sub-type: the quadruped. In formal logic, you can only have three “terms” in a categorical syllogism:

    1. Major premise: Nothing is better than eternal happiness.
    2. Minor premise: A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
    3. Conclusion: A ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.

    The terms: nothing, eternal happiness, ham sandwich.

    The word “nothing” in the example above has two meanings: “nothing is better” = the thing with the highest value; “better than nothing” = thing with marginal value. Two entirely different linguistic contexts with their own meanings. So, the use of ‘nothing’ two ways introduces the fourth, invalid term.

    I bring this fallacy up because sometimes, when we apply an anthropomophized concept, say, to a dog, we realize that its meaning with respect to humans isn’t quite right, so in the middle of an argument, the meaning drifts (semantic drift) to better conform to ‘dog’. But if we don’t catch that, then we are guilty of fallacy quaternio terminorum.

    [Jump back to where you were]


  2. Tautology — the majority of definitions you’ll find for this concept is “needless repetition” of a term or its equivalent or, more in the logical sphere: the form of an argument where any arrangement of terms is true without regard to terms being true or false. Basically, it is a proposition that is already true by definition, not because of any logical deduction. It cannot be false. “A crow is black, or it is not-black.” I could contend that the crow was more purple than black, and the original statement would be “true.”

    Tautological arguments aren’t in themselves fallacious, however there is a nuance in tautology which is difficult to detect but which can make an argument fallacious. This happens when the truth of a term or of a statement is assumed to be true, and all other assertions with regard to the term or statement basically just support the assumption.

    This is also argument petitio principii, begging the question, or circulus in probando, circular reasoning.

    No patriot would disagree that Obama is destroying the Constitution.

    Recast a different way: All patriots would agree that Obama is destroying the Constitution. Now let’s say that Ron says, “Destroying the Constitution requires that you disregard or subvert the principles of it, and Obama is not doing that.” Have I demonstrated Ron to be a non-patriot?

    The tautology here is in the definition of patriot in the first statement which requires agreement that Obama is destroying the Constitution. In other words, you have to already agree that Obama is destroying the constitution in order to proceed to the conclusion that Ron is a non-patriot. This is the circle.

    In our current topic, for there to be a circle, we have to assume the truth of something about a dog that a priori or by definition that absolves dogs from being considered responsible or at fault for anything at all. To do that, we could assume that it is something about humans being part of the environment that is the prime cause for natural events or that trumps any lower species of will, reasoning, or cause.

    So you can assert that free will, which makes humans morally responsible, is a necessary condition for moral actions to even exist (assuming that ‘fault’ and ‘responsibility’ are ‘moral’ by their very being). Or we can argue that reasoning is required in order to direct (make decisions about where to apply) our will that causes something else to happen, which we arbitrarily judge to be “fault” or “responsibility.”

    But even if we take the “moral” part out of it and just say that any measure of free will makes any willful creature responsible for (the cause of) the consequences of what resulted from applying its will, we could argue that humans, with free will and reasoning (just being human) is the only thing that causes consequences (in all of nature) that can be judged “fault.” Because dog’s aren’t human, nothing about humans (accept our affect on dogs) applies, including the notion of judging fault. (If they can’t judge to conclude fault, then neither judging nor fault apply.)

    We could really blow any discussion out of the water by asserting that “fault” and “responsibility” are merely mental constructs that have zero actual substance in reality except for basic, natural “cause & effect (resulting event).” But then we’d be getting into “prime cause” philosophy where determinism could argue that everything that happens (including the use of our own will to choose) has been determined by causes that extend back to the Big Bang. Reducio ad absurdum.

    The point is that there is something tautological in the thought that dogs are not responsible because of something human.

    [Jump back to where you were.]



    …neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.

    In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch, and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling?

    Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza

    Hence it follows that the emotions of the animals which are called irrational…only differ from man’s emotions to the extent that brute nature differs from human nature. Horse and man are alike carried away by the desire of procreation, but the desire of the former is equine, the desire of the latter is human…Thus, although each individual lives content and rejoices in that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being, yet the life, wherein each is content and rejoices, is nothing else but the idea, or soul, of the said individual…It follows from the foregoing proposition that there is no small difference between the joy which actuates, say, a drunkard, and the joy possessed by a philosopher.

    The horse has a horse soul, the fish has a fish soul. The second claim is Spinoza’s radical—but instantly persuasive— statement that one human being’s essence could be unintelligible to another. The drunkard is a different type of human being than the philosopher, but he is also a different creature, full stop. Are we so sure that species identification is proof against the canyons of misapprehension that separate us from, say, the monkey spider? This could be a frightening thought: accepting that no two consciousnesses can ever have transparency, or at any rate can never have certainty about it, leaves us on some level cosmically alone. Spinoza takes the notion in stride. He’d be more prone to say, Well, no doubt we sometimes understand each other.

    If we put aside the self-awareness standard—and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)—it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” pointed out that those “neurological substrates” necessary for consciousness (whatever “consciousness” is) belong to “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.


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