One stormy night, your six-year-old daughter awakens to the sound of thunder. She runs to you, scared, shaking. You comfort her and tell her that it’s just giants bowling, up in the sky. She smiles, calms down, and crawls into bed with you. You read her a story, then, as she nods off, you carry her back to her bed, tuck her in, and hope that the weather cooperates. This is what parents do; this is good. On the same night, in the home next door, a six-month-old German Shepherd awakens to the same thunder and runs about, whining, whimpering. Doris, a grandmother of four, says: “It’s okay, Missy. Don’t worry, I’m here,” stroking the dog as thunder rattles the windows and Missy shivers and whines.
The Pitfalls of Humanizing
Your reaction to your daughter’s fear was natural and appropriate. You helped get her through the fear and even put a funny face on the event. But what of Doris and Missy? Ah, Doris. A kinder soul there has never been. But as far as Missy’s well being was concerned, she couldn’t have done a worse job. Doris thought like a human instead of like a dog and, in the process, convinced Missy that thunder was a thing of the underworld, and that shaking, peeing, whimpering, and hiding were the appropriate responses to it.
Doris, by stroking and consoling Missy through the event, inadvertently praised the frightened dog for her fear, and her reactions to it. In Missy’s canine mind, if showing fear gets rewarded, then doing so every time will elicit the same response. Missy got attention for being scared.
We can’t help humanizing our dogs. I’ve been guilty of it myself, especially with my old superdog, Lou, who was as close to human as a dog could get. They comfort us and, over time, we almost forget that they are dogs. But things are more concrete with canines; if showing fear gets rewarded, that dog will keep shivering and shaking every time the windows rattle.
What Dogs Want
Dogs were once our utilitarian partners, bred to work and to share the duties of life. Herders, hunters, protectors—dogs earned their keep and, with it, our thanks. As a reward for their the end of a day, we both came home and appreciated each other. But today, most dogs don’t do much save keep us company. Their jobs are to be companions, period. What they used to get for a job well done has become their sole raison d’être; they exist now only to please us, to serve as petting posts. You know what? They liked the old model better.
In their bones, dogs are workers, and engines of purpose. They strive to do; that’s how they think. They live in the moment, and communicate with looks, postures, vocalizations, and behaviours, and learn through smells, sounds, and interactions. Dogs are reliable, predictable, trustworthy, and thoroughly pragmatic. Abstractions don’t register with dogs.
Humans, on the other hand, are complex, and introspective. We understand metaphor and satire and can read between the lines. We are also vengeful, spiteful, and irrational, especially in the eyes of dogs, who never hold grudges, and can forgive the worst ruffian his sins. We need validation, and strive for equality and justice. Admirable things, all. But when we fail to recognize the species-specific differences between dogs and us, problems start.
Dogs Are Unique
There is no democracy in the canine world. Breeds are inherently unique and, as such, meant to be profiled, and treated differently. Train a Rottweiler like a Toy Spaniel and, well, you’d end up with a really big, troublesome Toy Spaniel. But many owners today try to do just that; they ignore the needs of the species and breed, and instead humanize, homogenize, and democratize their dogs, to the pet’s disadvantage.
Over and again, well-meaning owners try to turn their dogs into proxy people. By doing so, they teach their dogs that they have parity with everyone in their homes, giving them license to contend, disobey, or even discipline—all normal behaviours for a dog who thinks it is equal in stature to a human. It’s unfair to the dog and disrespectful to the species; would you want to be treated as anything other than a human?
Effective Canine Empathy
Instead of trying to turn your dog into a proxy person, why not turn yourself into a proxy dog, and try to see things from a dog’s-eye view? It’s easier for us to embrace their mindset, than for them to embrace ours. I call it effective canine empathy, a system whereby you emulate the way your dog processes information and interacts with her world. Here’s how to become more attuned to your dog’s perspective:
Live in the canine moment. Your dog lives from moment to moment, processing information and acting upon it. She does not daydream about coming summer vacations; she thinks about the smell of a barbeque a mile off, or the sound of a Poodle barking down the block. To better understand your dog, try to emulate this. Become intimately aware of your surroundings; really listen, smell, touch, and see everything as it happens. Be the dog. What is the neighbour cooking? Why is that crow circling? What dug the burrows in your yard?
Understand posture. Dogs communicate with their bodies. You should understand and emulate this. When a dog jumps on someone, it’s not because she’s happy; it’s because she wants to control the greeting and set the tone of the relationship. When a dog won’t make eye contact with you, it means she feels intimidated. When a dog bumps another dog at the park, it’s not play; it’s control. A good owner knows what his or her dog is thinking from what the dog does with her body. Master this and you’ll be better able to predict her behaviour.Use your body as a dog would; if you want to turn left while walking your dog, do so, even if it entails using your body to cut off your dog’s forward motion. Don’t let your dog jump on you, and, with an assertive dog, avoid roughhousing games which might teach her that she can vie with you physically.
Be an elder. Dogs are tribal, with loyalty to their family packs and an inherent sense of social position. If you let them take over, you risk disobedience, and sometimes even aggression. This kind of dog will often disobey commands if she thinks something else is more worthy of her attention. In my mind, a well-trained dog is one who wants to do “A” but does “B” because she knows you want her to. That’s leadership and trust. A truly good owner becomes a sage elder to his or her dog; like a third-grade school teacher, you love, but also direct and teach. You do not make excuses for an unruly student. Dominant dogs understand this; you should too.
Practice calm indifference. Watch a dominant dog interact with subordinates; what do you see? The head dog rarely fawns all over the others; rather, the subordinates pay more attention to the head honcho, who stays calm and casual. That’s how you should act with your dog. Stay thoughtful yet calm to prevent your dog from overreacting.
Be predictable. Dogs are creatures of ritual. Yet some owners can be unreliable in how they interact; one moment you let your dog up onto the bed, the next you yell at her for the same action. Try to be more like a dog in your predictability. Set rules and routines, and stick to them!
No grudges. Dogs don’t understand grudges. You should be that way too; if your dog gets out of line, deal with it, then move on. It’s the doggish thing to do.
Dogs have rights and responsibilities. Your dog is not a trust-fund baby, but a trusted member of your pack. She has the right to your attention and a responsibility to behave. Bad behaviour from your dog isn’t always your fault; as beings with free will, dogs sometimes make the wrong choices, so it’s your job to deal with that. But always remember that you and she belong to the same clan; she rates your deference.
Be confident, and curious. All great dogs have an air of confidence about them that is infectious. To be a great owner, emulate this. Also, be curious in front of your dog; when she sees you investigating new things, she’ll be more likely to emulate you.
Pretending that your dog is a child sounds fun, but it will only serve to confuse and disrespect her. Instead, be more like your dog. She sees you as a big, lovable, elder pooch; is there any reason to act otherwise?