Psychology Today: Why Some Stray Dogs Have Joined the Greek Riots

Harry Truman said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” In modern Athens, though, some of the dogs themselves have become political animals.

In the Greek capital, any dogs found roaming the streets are taken in, neutered, and given vaccinations. Then they’re outfitted with a blue collar, denoting their “stray” status, and released back into the city where they sleep peacefully on the streets, sidewalks, and even at the Parthenon, where they’ve become something of a tourist attraction.

Greece has been rocked recently by violent protests over the government’s “austerity program1.” And some of the city’s stray dogs have now seemingly joined the rioters, perhaps in a show of solidarity.

The AP reports: “Photographers have documented the presence of several yellowish dogs at boisterous anti-government protests over the years, barking and baring their teeth at police in what appears to be canine political statements. One, Kanellos … was a constant companion for over a decade to anarchist rioters until he died, in July 2008.”

Kanellos still has his own Facebook page, with 10,000+ fans and a song dedicated to him. According to the New York Post, one fan asked, “What brings him to the riots? Does he believe in the overthrow of private ownership? Does he see the rioters as his pack?”

Since not all the stray dogs in Athens have joined the protesters, and since we don’t have enough details on how the two or three dogs who have are behaving, it’s a mistake to try and draw any conclusions about all canine behavior from this phenomenon. Nevertheless, whenever we come upon a unique, naturally-occurring behavior in dogs (i.e., one that happens spontaneously and isn’t induced in a laboratory experiment designed to prove how “smart” dogs are), it gives us an opportunity to examine whether the current models of behavior can satisfactorily explain the anomaly.

The Pack Leader Perspective.
We’re told by alpha theorists that dogs have a deeply-embedded instinct to obey a strong authority figure, or alpha male. If that instinct were holding true in Athens, wouldn’t the dogs be obeying the police, and not siding with the protesters? And if these dogs see the protesters as alpha males, which is possible, I suppose – as long as you ignore the fact that dogs can’t think conceptually or symbolically – then why are these animals acting in such a highly independent manner? They never look to the rioters for cues on how to behave. No one is telling them what to do. They just show up on their own and do whatever they feel like.

The Behavioral Science Explanation.
Behavioral scientists would tell us that the dogs’ behaviors are being reinforced. “It doesn’t matter what the reinforcement is,” they would tell us. “If it’s a learned behavior, then there must be some form of reinforcement taking place.” Yet according to the AP, the dogs “are very frightened when riot police use stun grenades.” If the dogs still attend these demonstrations, despite such strong aversive experiences, what could be so reinforcing for them?

The Dog-as-Predator, Police-as-Prey Theory.
Both the alpha theory and operant conditioning have lost much of their sheen in the scientific community recently, if not in the dog training world. For the alpha theory this may be due, in part, to the fact that wolves who live near garbage dumps don’t form packs. And since coyotes sometimes do, but only when they need to hunt large prey, pack formation is now seen as a function of prey size, nothing more.

Still, we usually think of prey as running for their lives. In this case, the police are standing their ground and moving toward, not away from, the protesters. They’re also firing tear gas and stun guns at them. Still, in most cases the police are more passive in nature (a prey-like quality), while the protesters are more animated. Could this be the answer?

An Energy Theory.
As most readers know, I’m a proponent of an energy theory of behavior; one that states that all canine behavior and learning can be described through some very simple principles of energy, such as attraction and resistance, and tension and release. Are these dogs feeling the tension in the streets, and trying to find a way to release their own tension? This seems plausible. But why are these dogs so attracted to the protesters?

The Darwinian Perspective.
Since evolution is a continuous process, could we find an answer to the puzzle here? If so, perhaps the following syllogism might explain things:

1) Evolution is a process of change, where overall tendency is for simpler forms evolve into those that are more complex. 2) The complexity of modern human culture is the result of evolutionary changes, some of which came about because of our close relationship with domesticated dogs. 3) Since the goal of the protesters is to implement change, and the goal of the government is to resist it, dogs are acting as agents for change/evolution.

The Freudian Perspective.
Sigmund Freud’s ideas on consciousness were derived, in part, from Darwin’s theory. I’ve written a few articles here explaining why I think Freud is relevant to understanding dogs, in part because the human/canine bond is a reflection of the Freudian dynamic of the Id and Ego, i.e., the dog’s owner acts as a governing mechanism for the dog’s wildest impulses2. I also wrote an article explaining how I think  dogs are capable of sensing our desires and acting on them. With all this in mind:

1) Human consciousness operates via two energetic mechanisms, the Id and the Ego, a dynamic that can also be seen in how dogs relate to their owners. 2) Every society has its own Id (the unrestrained impulses of its people) and Ego (a government designed to keep a lid on the aggressive energies of its citizens). 3) Since dogs are almost pure Id, they gravitate more toward the side of the anarchists than to the police.

Quite frankly, we may not have enough data to come to any solid conclusions about why the “riot dogs” have joined the protesters. Still, it’s clear that the old ways of looking at canine behavior and learning, fall terribly short in explaining what’s going on.

In my article, “Why Do Dogs Like to Kiss Us?” I said that a wolf makes a living with his teeth while a dog makes a living with his heart. On the face of it, this sounds like a feel-good homily you’d find stitched on a pillow at a doggie boutique. But it’s actually true. In order to be accepted into our homes dogs had to sublimate their urge to bite into pro-social behaviors, just as anyone living in a civilized society has to sublimate their aggression to avoid being ostracized or sent to jail. And while no dog has the mental capacity to understand what it means to submit to a human being’s superior rank or status, neither does any dog have the ability to not submit to our wishes and desires, even when we’re unaware that we’re communicating those things to our dogs.

The protesters want change. Dogs are designed to help them out.

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