From the beginning of my life with animals I have seen parallels between their behavior and that of the people around me. I have seen them form friendships, show empathy, and grieve lost loved ones. I have also long been told by scientists, trainers, animal lovers, and behavior experts that those parallels don’t exist. Animals are not as cognitively advanced, don’t have emotions, have no concept of “love” or “friendship”, and certainly aren’t capable of “bad” behavior seen in humans – or so the common wisdom went. Fortunately for me, the animals, and mankind at large, science had a change of heart and is now proving that animals are as behaviorally and emotionally complex as we are. Or, put another way – we are not as complex and unique as we once believed!
Nowhere has this denial of complexity in animal behavior been more striking, to me, than in the areas of less desirable “human” behavior. A long held popular belief, particularly among the uber animal lover set, has been that our beloved animals are not capable of intentionally bad behavior. That is thought to be part of the more “evil” side of the human race, and animals are somehow much more virtuous. Ha! I have seen animals kill for joy, not for food. I have seen them “cheat”, lie, and deceive. If you accept that they are complex individuals, living in complicated societies, then you have to also accept that intentional bad behavior is a possibility.
Lying is one of the areas that is finally being explored by behavioral scientists. A recent study seems to indicate that dogs do, in fact, lie. It stands to reason – lying is used typically for the purpose of putting yourself in a better position, gaining something you want, or getting out of trouble. Why would it not be an integral part of any complex society? Science may be starting to prove that it is, but I had unequivocal proof a quarter of a century ago!
Truman the Deceiver
I was visiting my aunt and uncle, who had a lovely German Shepherd named Truman. We had not yet added dogs to our own family, and my experiences with them had not been positive. Most dogs I’d met were ill mannered, often dirty (being around barns, with no grooming), and all in all never struck me as nearly as smart as Lassie. So, I did not feel that I was missing anything by excluding them from the menagerie we’d begun to build.
Admittedly, Truman was among the rare dogs I’d actually liked. He was sweet, handsome, and easy to be around. While I liked being around him, it was not enough to change my mind about wanting a dog. That is, until he showed me just how clever, and deceptive, a dog could be!
We had turned up the street where my aunt and uncle lived. As we approached the house, they told me to watch the front window. The right front corner of their house was where the living room was. It was a study in white – flooring, walls, furniture, artwork – and it was the one room in the house that Truman was forbidden to enter. While in their home, I’d seen him dutifully staying on the edges of the room.
As I looked to the big window that looked out from this room, there was something a bit out of place. There, resting on the back of the white couch, was Truman’s large head. As the car turned into the driveway, the head vanished. I commented on this, and was already impressed that he knew enough to use the couch when alone and get off when we returned.
“Just wait,” my uncle said.
The front door is centered between the living room, on the right, and the stairs to the upper floor, on the left. As we entered the house, my uncle directed me to look to the top of the stairs. There was Truman. He was not sitting at the top of the stairs – that wouldn’t be convincing enough. No, he was laying on the landing, head between his paws as if napping. At the sight of us, he jumped up as if surprised, and went into his “happy dance”.
I was enchanted! That was a level of thought and planning I had never imagined in a dog! Sure, it was all in the name of deception – but if a dog could be that smart, then that was an animal I wanted to live with! It was in that moment that I decided dogs would become a part of my life – a decision that has brought some of the greatest joy into my life.
Admittedly, our animal friends are not intentionally “naughty” nearly as much as people attribute to them. Things characterized as “misbehavior” are, more often than not a misunderstanding. However, if we want to acknowledge the complexity of the thoughts and emotions of our animal friends, we have to also accept that they aren’t pure and angelic. In my view, that makes them all the more interesting!
Be good to your animals!