Whole Dog Journal's Blog August 13, 2012

Do Animals Have Free Will and “Personal Responsibility” for Their Actions?

Posted at 11:39AM - Comments: (20)

Ages ago, I edited a horse magazine, and for a time, published a column written by the noted animal communicator Penelope Smith. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to Smith each month, and as we discussed the column, we’d sometimes veer off into a talk about a general topic having to do with animals and our relationships with them. Despite my preconceptions of someone who purports to “talk to the animals” as being nutty, I found Smith to be incredibly insightful, wise, and humorous. She was empathetic and yet practical. I bought several of her books on “interspecies communication” and was fascinated by her accounts of experiences with hundreds of animals.

At some point, I asked Smith that if she was able to telepathically communicate with animals at pretty much any distance, was she ever troubled by the plight of, say, animals locked in a shelter somewhere?

As usual, her answer surprised me. I’m paraphrasing a conversation that took place 20 years ago, but my memory was that she took the position that while it’s indeed sad for us to see any animal in pain or distress or at risk of being killed, that the animals themselves had to take some amount of responsibility for their unfortunate situations. Her belief was that all beings choose their lives and bodies – and that, in the case of (as one example) a dog in a shelter, that individual makes choices every day that could lead him out of a shelter or cause him to be euthanized.

I’ve thought about that conversation countless times over the years – and in the majority of cases, I’ve thought about it in relation to the plight of animals in shelters or in the homes of abusers or hoarders. Aren’t they completely at the mercy of humans, for better or worse? Or are they there as a result of their own actions or inactions?

I think about this when, in the kennels of my local shelter, I come across a super smart, friendly, well-mannered dog who practically grabs me by the lapels and seems to say, “I need help to get out of here. I’ll be a good dog and I want a nice family. Help?” Some dogs seem to inspire, if not demand, that the shelter staff and volunteers put their maximum efforts into finding a good home on their behalf.

But I also think about the concept of “personal responsibility” and free will as they relate to animals, when I come across a dog who is doing nothing whatsoever to help himself get adopted – the one who won’t engage with visitors to the kennels, or who acts like a crazed jack-in-the-box in the “get acquainted” room, or attacks an adopter’s dog or cat within minutes of arriving at a potentially good home. Of course, it makes just as much sense to explain these things as a lack of exposure to humans, a lack of training, and a lack of proper socialization. And while as a volunteer at the shelter, I certainly try to give all the dogs some positive exposure to humans, training, and social opportunities, I sometimes find myself saying to a dog, “Hey, do yourself a favor and behave yourself in front of these nice people who are looking for a family pet, will ya?”

If a dog behaves aggressively toward humans and is euthanized – was this partly his own fault, for failing to control his desire or instinct to bite? Or was it entirely a man-made tragedy, because he wasn’t properly socialized, trained, and managed?

What do you think? Do you think dogs are completely at our mercy in this world for their fate, or do you think they are somewhat (or largely) responsible for their own fates?

Either way, it’s interesting to ponder.

Comments (20)

Really? Now we are contemplating whether or not animals have higher reasoning capabilities? The animals in the shelter are acting just like what they are - animals. This Penelope Smith is clearly over empathizing with animals and substituting her thoughts for theirs. The fact that she is taken seriously very worrisome. Yes, you would like your dog to behave when it would be helpful to them. But that is your reasoning, not theirs. And a dog"who practically grabs me by the lapels and seems to say, "I need help to get out of here. I'll be a good dog and I want a nice family. Help?"? Dogs have evolved over centuries to understand and use what helps them survive with humans, their main source of food, shelter and care. In other words what you are responding to is a dog's (much like a baby's) ability to manipulate you. They have learned to tap into our nurturing and protective instincts in order to survive. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement... just don't anthropomorphize them, it's not fair.

Posted by: C Ruth | September 17, 2012 2:16 PM    Report this comment

Really? Now we are contemplating whether or not animals have higher reasoning capabilities? The animals in the shelter are acting just like what they are - animals. This Penelope Smith is clearly over empathizing with animals and substituting her thoughts for theirs. The fact that she is taken seriously very worrisome. Yes, you would like your dog to behave when it would be helpful to them. But that is your reasoning, not theirs. And a dog"who practically grabs me by the lapels and seems to say, "I need help to get out of here. I'll be a good dog and I want a nice family. Help?"? Dogs have evolved over centuries to understand and use what helps them survive with humans, their main source of food, shelter and care. In other words what you are responding to is a dog's (much like a baby's) ability to manipulate you. They have learned to tap into our nurturing and protective instincts in order to survive. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement... just don't anthropomorphize them, it's not fair.

Posted by: C Ruth | September 17, 2012 2:15 PM    Report this comment

An animal is as responsible for their fate as children - in other words, no, they are not responsible! No-one, be it animal, child or adult, chooses to be abused and/or abandoned. Yes, behaviour can be controlled by animals as it can by people, but behaviour and why and how we do things is incredibly complex. It's nature and nurture and we shouldn't be so quick to judge. Dogs in shelters didn't ask to be born, didn't want to be in a family that didn't want them anymore and even if they could understand that their behaviour is bad, there is no way animals can know that they would end up in a shelter if they behaved badly... How can they!

Posted by: WTDT | August 17, 2012 1:58 PM    Report this comment

I do not believe that an animal can understand the second step ramification. Yes if they growl at you and you say "no" they understand that growling will result in "no". reaction. If they don't bring you the ball they know you will walk away (IF that has happened before). Those examples to me are first step ramifications to an action. However, to leap to the conclusion that they know what a shelter even is or that they will be put down if they do this or that is an impossbile leap for me to believe. There is the example of the dog that gets into the trash day after day and when you come home you yell, get mad and put the dog outside while you clean. When you come home the dog hides. The dog does NOT think when he is eating the food out of the trash that you will eventually come home and see it and they end result is outside. What they do know is when you see trash on the floor you will put them outside. Try it. Take the dog for a walk and have a neighbor dump your trash and come home. The dog will hide.

Posted by: krisw | August 15, 2012 11:53 AM    Report this comment

It's an interesting concept that I have wondered about; I am working on a book on dogs' decision-making. But I hadn't gone so far as to consider holding dogs responsible for ending up in shelters, puppy mills, etc. I do think that humans have to take the responsibility for our cruel treatment of animals and take steps to stop it, not blame the animals. But in their day-to-day lives, yes, I believe that dogs do make choices that affect the quality of their lives and their relationships with other dogs, with humans, and with other creatures in their lives.

Posted by: Pam H | August 15, 2012 9:49 AM    Report this comment

Interesting dilemma. Niether humans nor animals have total control of their fate really. Personally I would try to understand this in terms of Divine Providence. If the perfect dog gets euthenized what good has come from the death. What can be learned. How were the living impacted by the event.

Posted by: Jim M | August 14, 2012 10:37 PM    Report this comment

The first time I ever went to a shelter, I was amazed at the antics I saw in cage after cage, trying to get my attention. I also noticed that there were a few poor beasts curled up in the corner of the kennel, back to the door attacking it. I thought I couldn't handle the noise either, and would be depressed to be trapped there, having to listen to the circus act every time a new person came through. I feel bad for all of them because their behavior wasn't normal, but exaggerated. These are animials at their worst, trying to 'keep hope alive', and only some get that if they act up, someone will notice that they deserve to get out. Act up HOW is the $100,000 question! You are trying on each dog based on their 5 second act as you walk by. They know this and are desperate.

Posted by: Railhas | August 14, 2012 6:36 PM    Report this comment

I am in full agreement with the comment made by Amy M.

Blaming a dog for being in a shelter, abused, or euthanized is one more example of blaming the victim. One might just as well say a woman who dresses provocatively deserves to be raped, or a child who doesn't obey deserves to be beaten.

Animals are just that, and their behavior has everything to do with the degree of socialization and training they have received. Those that are incurably aggressive and vicious have not made a conscious decision to be so. Instead, some traumatic experience, or brain malfunction has caused it.

Posted by: Michelle S | August 14, 2012 6:05 PM    Report this comment

I thought about it, for a brief second. I believe, no. Do the dogs in puppy mills choose to be there? Do the dogs, in other countries, that we have seen in crates to be eaten, sigh, choose to be there? Of course not. R.S.

Posted by: Unknown | August 14, 2012 5:59 PM    Report this comment

Perhaps, shelter dogs who do not respond to potential adoptive families have learned, from their previous environment(s), to expect bad treatment from all humans, or they are grief-stricken at leaving the people they loved who treated them well but could not keep them, or the dog perceives that the potential adoptive family is just not right for him/her.

Animals looking for a home will communicate with you about whether or not they want to be your pet -- this has happened to me three times -- but always with cats. The first time, the stray cat and I agreed that my home was the right place for her; I in turn promised I would take good care of her all her life (which I did). The second time, I adopted a stray kitten who lived with me for about 5 years and then let me know that it was time for him to find another home (he was welcome to stay with me but he just didn't). The third time was when I was at the MSPCA and passed by the room with cats -- one tiger kitty immediately communicated to me know that he and I would be wonderful together; unfortunately, I could not adopt him due to my then current living circumstances.

I now have only two dogs but no cats. Both dogs were purchased when they were young puppies. The first dog, Lily, is very happy to be with me and we communicate well. The second, Merlin, a male, was disappointed that his home does not include a male human; he really prefers men but has become reconciled to making his home with just a female human and a female dog. Our communication is still being learned.

Posted by: margeam | August 14, 2012 4:08 PM    Report this comment

if Ms Smith made this statement to me "Her belief was that all beings choose their lives and bodies"
I would have to inquire about children who are abused and entire races of people who are murdered for being a certain religion.

Posted by: NOLAhounds | August 14, 2012 3:14 PM    Report this comment

It is an interesting topic. And the range of comments is also very interesting with some people clearly having made up their mind and having a very strong position while others are curious about what this all might mean. I believe that the more we learn about how and what other animals think, especially other animals that live with humans, the more humbled and embarrassed we will be. And since humans are animals and we can think and feel and reason and use tools and form relationships, it just stands to reason that other animals, at the very least mammals, can too. Thanks for sparking some interesting thinking!

Posted by: Anne M | August 14, 2012 12:05 PM    Report this comment

Bad habbits are one thing. Most bad habits can be changed over a 60 day period with consistent training. However, I think something like aggression - if due to lack of early socialization (were talking the first 6 month period/window) will be
a real hard one to turn around. If at all.

Posted by: Cathy E | August 14, 2012 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Bad habbits are one thing. Most bad habits can be changed over a 60 day period with consistent training. However, I think something like aggression - if due to lack of early socialization (were talking the first 6 month period/window) will be
a real hard one to turn around. If at all.

Posted by: Cathy E | August 14, 2012 10:57 AM    Report this comment

While I find it hard to accommodate the idea of dogs making choices leading to their ultimate victimization, I find it equally hard to accept that concept with humans. However, I appreciate the author's perception of the similarity, which brings us back to dogs being independent thinkers. What we know about our brains, animal brains and their functions would fit in a thimble compared to the entire knowledge base. We just don't know. Anectdotally, for the science-oriented reader above, my eleven toy dogs make good and bad choices every day. I have a visiting toy, same breed, that chooses to mount my kitchen counter when no human is around. Mine would never even consider that choice, altho a few are capable. Except when there's a bitch in heat, this pack of individuals in my house seem to think independently. Just like humans :o)

Posted by: BARB W | August 14, 2012 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Nancy, I typically enjoy your observations, thoroughness and insights in your publications. But this is a disappointing topic to offer for a discussion from "The Whole Dog". I hope that we'll be back to serious issues and scientific information - something that I fully respect this journal for and recommend it to all our puppy owners.

Posted by: OLGA B | August 14, 2012 10:44 AM    Report this comment

I agree with Paula B. I think that while animals can be very smart, they have a limited ability to reason and what the author is asking requires a level of reasoning that many adults don't even utilize (i.e. those in prison or jail, etc.).

But, maybe animals have more than most people give them credit for, too.

It sure is an interesting topic.

Posted by: Pamela W | August 14, 2012 10:26 AM    Report this comment

Interesting discussion. As with people, there are those who excel given difficult upbringings and those with the most resources that do poorly.
Then there are alot of folks in the middle. Ones who would do better if they had some time and attention given to them. Someone special to show them how to be successful.
Could animals have the same tendencies? Are some just going to be well cared for, just because they exude cuteness and others not so well cared for because they stay distant? I do believe that we have a very big role in the quality of life for our pets. Mostly because we are the ones who bring them into this world and feel it is our duty to control them. Afterall we don't allow feral dogs, Cats yes but not dogs, at least not in the US.

Posted by: Remysmom | August 14, 2012 10:24 AM    Report this comment

An animal can only be an animal, that dogs and other pets adapt to us at all is an incredible feat. I cannot blame a dog for being in a shelter just as I cannot blame a crack baby for being an addict.

Posted by: Amy M | August 14, 2012 10:21 AM    Report this comment

I believe that placing the blame on the animal is a form of anthropomorphism.

Posted by: Paula B | August 13, 2012 1:58 PM    Report this comment

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