Is My Dog a Psychopath? What Predators May Tell Us About the Insanity Defense

Posted in: Criminal Law

Last week, my dog K killed a rabbit. The other two dogs in my family, B and C, chased the bunny with K but then stopped when the lagomorph hid under the deck. B and C promptly turned their attention elsewhere, but K kept staring at the rabbit and waiting for her to emerge from her hiding spot. Like B and C, the humans too began attending to other matters. Only K remained transfixed by the furry little girl concealing herself in the dirt.

When everything had been quiet for fifteen minutes, the rabbit tentatively hopped out from under the deck. Perhaps she had not seen K’s Husky-blue eyes gazing at her intently. K immediately pounced on the small creature, picked her up by the neck, and bit down hard, at which point he began eating his prey as fast as he had felled her. My husband yelled at K while this was happening, but K was reluctant to part with his trophy. Bright red oxygen-rich blood covered K’s mouth and paws, two dots of which remained on his muzzle the next morning.

Our older daughter told me she had closed her eyes for the whole ordeal. She could not watch. And why, my daughter asked, did K smile as he entered the house covered in blood? Why would he look so happy when he had just done something so violent?

I began to explain that K is incapable of feeling empathy for a rabbit. I had to be specific because some dogs do feel for the small mammals who seem only to stimulate K’s prey drive. K looks like a wolf, but I am not sure that this does much to explain his indifference to rabbits’ pain. If he could eat other dogs, my daughter said with accusation in her voice, he would. I doubted that this was true. Everything about K’s behavior with other dogs (including B and C) suggested that he wanted to play with them, enjoyed sleeping with his head resting on their backs, and genuinely loved them. K is not an aspiring cannibal, I said. To his mind, there is all the difference in the world between dogs and rabbits. He has a lot of empathy for the former while experiencing none for the latter. He was happy and proud when he entered the house because he had no idea that anyone could be upset about what he had just done.

Does this mean that K lacks a theory of mind? A theory of mind refers to an organism’s ability to imagine what the world looks like from someone else’s perspective. Consider an example. You close your eyes and tell me to place some number of quarters into my hand and then make a fist. I take two quarters and then do as instructed. You ask me how many quarters you would say are in my fist if you were asked right now. If I had a theory of mind, I would say that you could guess any number between zero and perhaps eleven or twelve but that you would not know how many quarters because you didn’t see what I did or hear about it from me. Lacking a theory of mind, however, I would say that if asked how many quarters were in my fist, you would say two. I would make this prediction because I would assume everyone shared my perspective. I could not evaluate things from your perspective. Because I knew that there were two quarters, I would assume that you knew there were two as well. When young children say to a perfect stranger, “Teddy is really mean, right?” or, “You know I don’t like dodgeball!,” they are assuming the stranger knows these things because the child knows them. They lack a theory of mind.

Does K lack a theory of mind when it comes to rabbits? I think not. In order to most effectively pursue her and anticipate where the rabbit would go, K needed to have some idea of what the rabbit might be thinking and planning. To be an effective hunter, K would have to read the rabbit, through her eyes and her movements. To read another’s emotions in that way is sometimes called “cognitive empathy.” That is, you know what someone else is feeling and therefore what she might do under particular circumstances, but you do not necessarily feel what she feels. There is no “hot empathy” or emotional empathy such that the rabbit’s suffering would feel unpleasant to K and thereby deter him from stalking and killing his prey.

Imagine how you would feel if you yelled at a small child, and the child then backed away from you, crying, and wound up in the street, in front of a speeding vehicle that took the child’s life. You would likely feel a sense of regret over scaring the child and maybe sadness about her death. A rabbit typically cries out in the seconds before she dies. Many of us would find that sound heartbreaking, but K, who might understand what it signifies, would not.

Is My Dog a Psychopath?

As I was explaining to my daughter why K appeared untouched by the suffering and death he had inflicted, something struck me. My description of K sounded like what I might have said about a human with psychopathy, sociopathy, or antisocial personality disorder (basically synonyms for what afflicts what I will now simply call a “psychopath”). If a human had just murdered (let alone begun eating) someone and then walked into the house smiling, still covered in his victim’s blood, “here we have a psychopath” would be one hypothesis for the sort of person before us. Specifically, we might say that we are looking at a psychopath with bloodlust. Is it possible that the hypothesis would hold true for K as well?

I don’t know whether nonhuman animals can be psychopaths. I have heard one person say that cats can be, but I have no direct knowledge or experience of that. Assuming that dogs are capable of psychopathy, however, I am confident that K falls well outside that category.

First, K is an extremely empathic animal. He does not extend that empathy to rabbits, but he does feel it for almost all other dogs and for just about every human he meets. If a human in the house is sad, K quickly finds his way to that human and kisses him or her repeatedly on the face until the human has begun laughing and patting K, at which point K snuggles up next to the human and stays with him or her as long as he can. If either of the other dogs becomes upset or agitated, K begins crying. His plaintive voice is the background music to B’s and C’s barking. Some would say that K has no reason to empathize with rabbits because the latter are natural prey to the former. Yet many dogs do in fact exhibit empathy and even friendship toward so-called prey animals, so K’s lack of empathy for his victim is K-specific, much as psychopathy among humans is specific to particular humans, not a trait that all humans possess. Could we then describe K as a psychopath when it comes to rabbits, much as we might describe a participant in genocide as a psychopath with respect to his victims, even if he is warm and loving toward people of his own race, nationality, family, etc.?

To answer that question, let us return to the scene of the crime. What did K do? He lay in wait and then pounced on his victim, killing her instantly and attempting to eat her flesh. Killing without conscience can signify psychopathy, but does K exhibit any other symptoms of this disorder? Many people are relatively unfamiliar with psychopathy (beyond knowing that serial killer of women Ted Bundy received this diagnosis). So, I will describe what we might expect from K, beyond the violence, if he were a psychopath when it came to rabbits.

K might be friendly toward the rabbit, whom we shall now call R, and seek to play with her. As R relaxed and started to trust K, K could plan the most diabolical betrayal which would end in the killing of R. Maybe he would befriend all of the rabbits in the field and create hostility between them by fabricating tales of treachery by each toward the others. Before long, the various rabbits might avoid one another, leaving K as their only friend. Eventually, K would grow bored of the rabbit game, kill his ersatz buddies and move on to another field.

Had the rabbits banded together as a group to stop K, they might have succeeded, despite their relative size and strength disadvantages as individuals. Among Bonobos, for example, smaller females reportedly unite successfully to protect another female from an aggressive male, and female-on-female aggression is also rare. A similar approach might have saved our rabbit in the Psychopath K (PK) scenario. While PK would have been deploying a “divide and conquer” strategy, the rabbits could have responded with a “unite and conquer” defense.

PK’s behavior in the scenario above typifies the conduct of the human psychopath. The false friendships, the accusations against other targets, the divide and conquer strategy. K, of course, does none of these things. He attacks, kills, and eats one rabbit and then retires to his home, proud of his trophy. Like lions and other similar predators, his appetite for prey is limited. And though K can read the emotions of his victims, he generally refrains from playing head games with them. A large part of the psychopath’s conduct involves callous manipulation absent in K’s behavior. Cats, once again, might be different in this regard.

The Upshot

Where does this meditation on K the dog and psychopaths leave us? I think it brings us to the strong ambivalence about so-called “moral imbeciles” that our criminal law currently betrays. Moral imbeciles is another term for the class of people known as psychopaths, sociopaths, and patients with anti-social personality disorder. On the one hand, most states offer people with mental disorders a potential excuse for the crimes they commit. The thinking behind the excuse, called the insanity defense, is that if your mind is disturbed and different enough from the minds of other people to bring about criminal activity, we should perhaps refrain from exacting retribution. Such individuals have a disability, after all. And yet the typical state criminal code expressly excludes psychopaths from the category of mentally disordered defendants who might qualify for the defense.

This is the same ambivalence that my family had in response to K’s killing an innocent rabbit. The fact that K seemed incapable of feeling empathy for his victim sounds like an excuse. How can we blame him for doing something that he feels like doing, when nothing in his brain tells him it is wrong or immoral or that it feels horrible to a being (the bunny) who shares much of his (and our) nervous system machinery? He seems eligible for an insanity defense, just like the moral imbecile who preys on people for his own amusement because he just does not “get” what’s wrong with doing that. And yet we exclude such humans (and maybe such dogs) from the class of excused predators precisely because they are characterologically incapable of caring about the suffering of another. Far from excusing their misconduct, it perhaps marks it as the product of an evil individual, and that is exactly whom we wish to remove from our midst.

Does this mean my daughter remains upset with K for killing and eating that rabbit? No. It is difficult to stay angry at K because he is so sweet and cuddly, and he plainly feels for us when we suffer. His indifference to rabbits makes us sad, but it does not demonstrate that he is evil. We can feel compassion for a dog who kills a rabbit, so long as there is “caninity” in that dog, the expected capacity to truly love his humans and other dogs. In K’s case there is. What is missing in the moral imbecile is far more profound. He lacks a conscience, and he lacks empathy. Such a person treats others like pieces in a game. Many would say that, unlike K, a moral imbecile deserves to be punished because his actions, even those that look benign, come from a dark place that calls for eradication.

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