There are some random (yet also connected in some ways) ideas about dogs and dog training that I wanted to try to talk about all together.
1) I have a car; and I have a driver’s license.
This does not mean that I know how to repair my car; or that I am qualified to be a race car or stunt driver! Yet for some reason just living with a dog seems to make everyone an expert. Why is that?
We take advice from our neighbors, out vets, our friends on dog behavior and what we should do if our dog barks at the doorbell. But would we listen to our dentist, vet, lawyer on advice about open heart surgery?
For some reason the commonality of living with a dog lends itself very readily to believing ourselves as holding some level of expertise on dog behavior, often based solely on past experience. I don’t know much in caring for my car beyond the regular oil change (which I even admit sadly I’m not very good at keeping up with). Just because I have a car does not make an expert in caring for one!
Likewise, just because I’ve had one car that dropped its transmission doesn’t mean all of my future cars will! Yet we tend to believe that because our first dog let the kids climb all over her, all of our future dogs will do the same without any work on our part.
Or if I have had three cars in my lifetime and have never had one drop its transmission, but my latest car is in the shop and the mechanic tells me it’s the transmission, I wouldn’t ask him “really, are you sure? I don’t see how that could be possible since I’ve never has a car do that to me before. ” Yet these are common responses we give when presented with the fact that our dogs guard tissues, or our dogs are chewing the furniture because they are not getting any walks, etc. Just because we have never seen something in our homes, doesn’t make them any less common or a reality.
2) When people see a monkey displaying certain visual signals and I explain that what they are seeing is a fear grin, or an open-mouth threat or an affiliative lip-smack, people are excited to learn what the signals mean. Yet when it comes to dogs, everyone has their own opinion about what a tail wag means or what signals that a dog is fearful.
For some reason, we don’t think of science surrounding dogs. If we all had pet monkeys (oh please no!!!!), would there be just as much hearsay surrounding interpreting their behavior?
In the fields of animal behavior, ethology and behavioral ecology, species of animals are studied to understand their behavior (which includes how they communicate). This includes dogs! There are studies out there that examine canine social behavior, communication, learning, etc. We DO know what a dog looks like when he’s fearful just like we know when a monkey is fearful!*
3) I often have clients equate some of the techniques used in training as “just like what you’d do with a child” or that their dog is “just like a child.” Upon first glance these comments seem harmless enough, but they actually carry a lot of weight and place a lot of expectations on dogs.
The notion that a “dog has to learn that a certain behavior is not okay, just like a child” is a huge fallacy. That is NOT to say that a dog shouldn’t have to learn the rules and boundaries of life with a human. Oh no, far from it! Much like we have to learn that it is not acceptable to pursue a dog seeking some alone time when he is overwhelmed because pursuing him is rude and because he is telling us he does not wish to be near us at this moment; our dogs have to learn that if you are a full grown St. Bernard it is not acceptable for you to jump up on great-grandma because that is rude!
It IS to say however that if a dog is resource guarding his kibble, it is not okay to want him not learn not to do it, “because you wouldn’t let a child get away with something like that.”** Children learn the difference between right and wrong. Children learn guilt and remorse.
Animals absolutely have emotions; animals can feel fear, joy, anxiety, etc. Animals CANNOT feel guilt and remorse; they do not develop morals. Your dog will never do something because “he knows it’s the right thing to do,” he will never “know he’s been bad.” It will never, ever, ever happen. Ever. This is a crucial thing to understand. Our relationship with our dogs cannot reach its full potential and neither we nor our dogs can truly ever thrive in that relationship if the relationship is hampered with these fallacies. (If you wondering: well then why does he look so guilty when I come home and find he’s peed in the kitchen, take a look at this summary of a recent study: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090611065839.htm)
Yes, our dogs are animals. They are dogs. This is a good thing! They are not creatures with human attributes clad in fur. This is something to celebrate! For someone who has devoted her entire adult life to the study of animal behavior, the idea that we get to share our lives with such a wonderful animal and that we can learn so much about animal behavior, cognition and learning theory from them is a wonderful gift! It’s a chance for us to all to let our inner Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall and Ivan Pavlov shine! We owe it to our dogs to treat them as the magnificent animals they are and to learn as much about their reality– the reality that is founded in science– as we can.
People are always remarking how happy Special Dark looks. I always tell them that I work very hard to make him happy… and it’s sheer joy to do that. I understand what he is saying to me, and he understands me and my expectations of him. Yes there are plenty of boundaries and rules; he is very well-behaved– and he is very happy. Knowing Special Dark is happy makes me happy, what more could I ask for? And it’s all thanks to the science behind our relationship.
*Wondering where you can learn more about these studies? Take a look at journals such as Animal Behaviour http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00033472 or Applied Animal Behaviour Science http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/01681591. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a great page on their site dedicated to listing canine studies: http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=148&Itemid=390
**With resource guarding, we want the dog to learn that we are not a threat around his kibble and that it means great things when we come around his kibble. Speak to your trainer about how to achieve this.