There are a few facts I’d like to lay out about dogs. First, the brain of the average sized dog is about the size of a lemon. In a dog’s brain the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher order thinking and pattern recognition, makes up a significantly smaller portion than it does in the human brain. Science has determined that the smartest of trained dogs reaches an intellectual capacity roughly equivalent to a 2 or 3 year old human child. We also know that while dogs can learn to associate words with behaviours, they have no capacity for understanding syntax and complex sentence structures. And dogs learn by trial and error and not by reasoning out solutions which is why they are poor problem solvers. Add to all of this that dogs are working with different sensory organs and have different biological priorities and it isn’t difficult to see why we humans are sometimes perplexed by them.
If humans were just perplexed by dogs and tried to understand them, I suppose that would be fine. But that’s not the way it goes. We make up stuff about dogs. Stuff that can’t possibly be true. Stuff that pretends to be heroic. Stuff that pretends to be clever. Stuff that, when we break it down in light of science, just seems rather silly. And it doesn’t do the dogs or the human much credit.
Fools fooling dogs
Someone posted a clever quote to Facebook recently. It went something like “I just spent 10 minutes watching my dog chase its tail and I thought ‘How easily entertained!’ and then I realized that I just spent 10 minutes watching my dog chase its tail.” Yes, with our big giant brains we humans are oh-so-smart enough to out-clever our lemon-brained dogs. What an achievement! Think I’m kidding? Consider the following.
I’m sure all of us has either done this or seen someone who has. A dog who loves chasing a ball is happily retrieving a ball being thrown for it. At some point a clever human makes the throwing motion but does not let go of the ball and tucks it behind his/her back. The dog runs off after, well, nothing. And hilarity ensues. Everyone has a good chuckle at the “stupid dog” who didn’t realize the ball wasn’t thrown. Never mind that the dog has been patterned by possibly hundreds of actual throws and that the dog’s eyesight works very differently from our human eyesight. And this is to say nothing of the fact that dogs just aren’t wired to watch for deception on the part of humans. Exactly how clever do you need to be to fool a dog? Not very.
You can substitute the tug toy hidden behind the back or under the arm or even the sleight of hand tricks people do with dog treats or cookies. What exactly are we trying to prove? We have bred these animals to trust us for everything. Why would we go out of our way to “fool” them for our own amusement? And even if we do manage to fool them, why exactly is that amusing to us? It’s a head scratcher for sure.
Epic battles and faux heroism
A video circulated recently on Facebook of a famous TV dog trainer squaring off against an allegedly “aggressive” dog. As I watched this 3 minute video I was absolutely stunned by the “confrontation” that had been set up. Here was a full grown man, armed with no weapons and no protection, facing off against that most deadly of species – the labrador retriever. As I watched the video with my mother-in-law, she remarked “Why doesn’t he back off?” Even she could see the dog trying to diffuse the situation and the trainer ignoring every sign the dog was giving off. When the dog eventually could find no other recourse, it lashed out and bit the trainer’s hand. Incredibly the trainer is heard to say, “I didn’t see that coming!” Really?!? My mother-in-law did and she’s not a professional with a TV show.
It’s an extreme case but it’s not uncommon. Confrontations like this go on every day. The myth that dogs are in some kind of struggle with us for “dominance” of the household has set up all manner of unnecessary conflicts between dogs and their owners. Many of those conflicts result in dogs being turned over to shelters and many of them are destroyed. The irony here is that with our big brains, we supposedly have been selectively breeding dogs centuries to get the most tame, most compatible companion animals we can. How is it exactly that we end up putting these animals in situations where we have to prove our dominance over them?
Exactly what does it take for us to feel superior to a dog? I look at prong collars and shock collars and think, “Well, I guess it’s easier than taking the time to train the dog.” How is it that with our superior intellect, the best some of us can come up with to get our dogs to cooperate is pain, fear, and intimidation?
And there is more to this than just how some people treat dogs. The heroic swagger of some who champion force training and “dominance” is just astonishing to me. They talk about their mastery over dogs as if it is some sort of lofty accomplishment. They can get dogs to comply with unquestioned obedience through their methods. So what? People have been doing that with PEOPLE for centuries! Dogs were bred to do our bidding. How crafty do you need to be to intimidate a dog – an animal who’s survival is dependent on humans for food, water, and shelter.
Every time I hear someone utter the phrase “stupid dog!” I can’t help but shake my head. Dogs are plenty smart. Smarter than most people give them credit for. My dogs know when they get to go with me for an outing just by the shoes I put on or the jacket I grab. And yet people like to characterize dogs as stupid even while they are outsmarted by them every day.
How many times have I watched a TV dog trainer working with an owner who is at their wits end trying to cope with their dog. “She’s just taking over my house!” a housewife will exclaim about her 7 pound toy poodle. Really? Taking over the house? And rather than slap the owner with the cold reality that it is the owner, and not the dog, that is allowing the situation to get out of control, the trainer continues the delusion. The hapless owner is given a list of tasks to gain control over the dog, to bring them back in line. But isn’t it the owner who has to get her priorities together?
Stupid dog or stupid owner? Your dog isn’t deciding when meal times are. Sure she’s giving you the “big eyes” but you don’t have to cave in! The owner has the thumbs and access to the food and water. The owner decides when and how things get done. Blaming the stupid dog for successfully manipulating you is, well, stupid. Own up to the responsibility of being a dog owner and set the rules and stick with them. Your dog will cooperate. It’s what he was bred to do and all he needs is to be taught and encouraged to do things your way.
Big brains, small minds
The next time you see someone faking a throw for a dog or jerking up on a leash attached to a prong collar, perhaps spare a moment for the poor dog who is woefully disadvantaged in the intellectual showdown with their human. People will continue to think it’s funny to fool the dog. They will continue to be proud of the fact that they can bully their dog into doing whatever they demand. They may even tell you that you need to “show your dog who’s boss” in your house. And there will always be those who just can’t control their dog because they claim that it’s in control.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is information out there. There are smart people training smart dogs. There are books filled with real information about dogs. The first step is admitting that we don’t know everything. The second step is being willing to do things differently. Eventuallly I hope that we can acknowledge the unique intelligence of our dogs, as different as it is from ours.
While dogs do not have the cognitive ability to understand “respect”, we humans do. And I think it’s about time we showed the appropriate respect for an animal who puts up with so much from our species. I think they’ve earned it.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
The first Canine Nation ebook is now available –
“Dogs: As They Are”
Photo credits –
Petra Wingate – 2012