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.

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No true Scotsman … er … dog-lover

The other day, we were at a restaurant with our little dog, Picasso. While there, a couple of ladies sat down next to us with their own dogs — three of them. Not a problem. However, during the course of our visit and meal, there were occasions when then dogs barked.

This rankled me somewhat, and I made a comment that I think it rude for owners to subject others in a closed environment like a restaurant where dog-barking is not a distraction that is expected or appreciated. Serious conversation ensued:

– Dogs (like humans) need to be put into the environment about which you want to train them.
– Fair enough. But maybe something like the environment without imposing on people around you?
– But how would that be an authentic context?

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Hominoid Effect on Barking

What is it about barking dogs that is so incredibly irritating and that provokes malignant and murderous thoughts toward an entire species? Barking seems to penetrate my rational shield in piercing pulses of petulance, weakening the shield’s primary purpose to both contain and guard against undisciplined emotional arousals. There’s some elemental receptor within the primitive, “reptilian” core of my human brain that barking offends. Or maybe it’s not offense, but rather a type of harmony which forces my beast to high, involuntary alert.

Judging by the distance I must travel to reach the more ‘developed’ regions nearer the surface of my gray matter, Godzilla (reference to reptilian) herself might frolic care-free and unfettered within the reptilian wilderness area of my brain, with full-choral reverberation in concert with the canine emissions that cruelly enjoin my attention.

When I regroup to assert my more rational side, of course I know it’s not a “fault” that the dogs bark. It is the nature of a dog to protect his “home” by barking to ward off unfamiliar scents, sounds, and unknown or unwanted presences. But how natural is it, and is it natural or necessary to bark Continue reading