CNN recently reported that the current first family will be breaking presidential tradition by opting not to have a pet in the White House. This is not surprising. Everything we know about the daily behavior of POTUS 45 suggests that most animals, especially dogs, would not be comfortable in this White House.
Dogs are highly social, strongly empathetic animals. Their lives are largely built on reading the emotions of humans and other dogs and responding to them. If you walk up to a dog and behave erratically or belligerently, that dog is going to react. Badly. Dogs are great at sensing a lack of empathy and potentially dangerous social partners.
POTUS 45 behaves erratically and belligerently in person and on-line. Whether interacting with the press, with his staff or members of congress, in trade negotiations, or even the families of fallen soldiers, his behavior is relatively unpredictable and inconsistent, swinging from mood to mood and often displaying a lack of consonance between words, emotive stance, and actions at any given time. A dog in the white house would observe this disconnect, be constantly on guard, nervous, and probably really unhappy.
More than a century of research in the biological and behavioral sciences demonstrates that dogs, humans, and many highly-social mammals, share specific patterns and tendencies when it comes to living in groups. When foraging for food, spending quality social time bonding, or grouping together to defend against threat, a social mammal needs to know that her group mates have her back. An individual, be it a dog or a human, who lashes out at every perceived slight, who has wildly contradictory behavior from one day to the next, and who seems incapable of empathizing with many around him, spells bad news for everyone in the group.
In most social mammalian species those individuals who are erratic in their allegiances, who bully, or who can’t seem to empathize with others seldom do well. These individuals have trouble building and maintaining partnerships and coalitions except through violence and coercion. And there is robust evidence that such coalitions are temporary and generally unstable without the long-term benefits of mutual investment and social trust. In fact, most often unpredictable bullies are turned on by other members and sidelined or even kicked out of the group.
Over our evolutionary histories humans and dogs have developed preferences for group-mates who are relatively predictable, cooperative, and empathetic. These capacities are keys to being successful in a social species. Their absence in POTUS 45 is a critical factor in why dogs, and most humans, are very uncomfortable with him.
Some have erroneously called POTUS 45 an “alpha male,” the label often given to dominant individuals in primate and canid groups. They see him as being “in charge” with his arrogance and bullying behavior enabling him to dominate others. But this is dead wrong. There are, on occasion, alphas who rise in power purely through intimidation and aggression, but such cases are rare and almost always short-lived. Most alphas are clever at social negotiation, at bonding and at creating close alliances. Even when they are highly aggressive, they do so judiciously and always on concert with social partners in their close circle. Regardless, successful alphas are above all else predictable, and they spend more of their time making bonds than breaking them.
So what wisdom can we take from a dog’s likely response to living in the current White House?
Unpredictability, lack of empathy, and bullying are signs of poor social partner and an even worse leader. Dogs know it, many people know that, but the US electoral system did not recognize it in 2016. But now we are stuck with it and the immense challenges of inequality, climate change, and social injustice stare us in the face.
To remediate this conflict I suggest we listen to the dogs, and data from social and biological scientists, and take a page from our evolving bodies and minds. Let’s take a lesson from this president’s avoidance of bringing an animal companion into the White House…it is explicit recognition that dogs are very good at judging core characteristics of successful group living in social species and are sending us humans a signal. Let’s be good social mammals and respond accordingly. We humans need to double down on our collaboration and coalition building, and empathize more than ever in order to right the wrongs being asserted, and implemented, all around us.