Blaming the wrong dog: All that barking could be a message

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I often use a story about Jana and barriers to illustrate her moral development and thus the possibility of dogs learning to do the right thing. When Jana was a puppy, all she wanted was to be with me. She’d climb or jump over any barrier I placed to keep her in a puppy-safe space while I went about household chores. I taught her to wait at doorways and in the car until I gave her permission to exit. Initially, she waited because she got a food reward for doing so. Ultimately, though, it became habit. After several months, I no longer had to ask her to wait at the front door or before leaping out of the car; she did so on her own. Now, if she sees even a partial barrier — a door that is ajar, a box blocking a passageway — she asks permission before crossing it. She’s certainly not doing this out of fear of any consequence or even hope of a reward. I’ve never punished her for crossing a threshold and the days of rewarding her for waiting are long gone. Acting out of fear (or hope) of consequences is considered a low level of moral development. Jana often functions at an intermediate level of moral development, where she makes decisions based on following the rules or doing what will find favor in others’ eyes. The case can be made that some dogs function on an even higher level, doing the right thing just because it is right. I am not sure Jana is there yet, but this incident might indicate that she's on her way.

A different dimension of this incident is my immediate presumption that Jana was just barking to complain. And that it was Wylie who knocked over the wastebasket and “broke out” of the office. I know the dogs well enough that these are generally safe assumptions; but this time, I was wrong about Jana. How often, I wonder, do I scold her for something that’s not her fault — and let the guilty dog off the hook?

No one likes a tattletale. Even so, I owe Jana, a golden retriever, an apology, so I am making a very public one in the hope of sparing other dogs the pain of being unfairly accused. In multi-dog households, I am sure that this happens often.

Here’s the story. Deni and I had taken our dogs to play in the Bay, which means walking across the street to Lassing Park and splashing around in some very shallow, warm water for a while. When we got home, we rinsed the sand and saltwater off of the dogs and put them in our home office, at the back of the house, to dry. We were getting ourselves some iced tea, throwing the dog towels into the wash, and straightening up, so we didn’t join them immediately.

Jana started barking. This is not an unusual occurrence; Jana loves to bark. Often, when she is confined behind a baby gate, as was the case, she loudly announces her displeasure. We assumed this to be the case and scolded her. She barked some more. I scolded her with greater annoyance and started back toward the office to quiet her.

Then, Wylie, the German shepherd, appeared! He had knocked over a wastebasket that was blocking the dog door and let himself out. He had walked around to the side of the house, found an open door to the master bedroom, and had re-entered the house that way. Oriel, our other golden, had followed him, but, being older and wiser, she had settled quietly onto a dog bed rather than announce her presence (and her misdeed) to us.

Jana, the good dog, had stayed where we put her, even though she, too, could have escaped. She was either tattling on her siblings or voicing her frustration at the injustice of it all, I can’t really be sure which. But the fact remains that she was doing what we’d asked and the others were not. And the inescapable fact remains that I misjudged her and scolded her unfairly, for which I apologize.

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