There was a time, not so long ago, when I knew everything I needed to know about dogs. I had taken all of the common sense conventional wisdom passed down to me from generations of dog “experts” and folded into a neat little package in my brain labelled “Dog-Smarts.” I knew that it wasn’t everything that there was to know about dogs but it was all of the stuff that a dog owner like me needed to live a happy and successful life with my dogs. In hindsight, I can still say that it was all I needed to live as happy and successful a life with my dogs as I knew how to do.
I have learned a lot of things in the last 13 years or so. I’ve learned a lot about dogs and their behaviour. But more importantly, I’ve learned a lot about myself. About what it means to be a human being trying to live with and relate to an entirely different species. A great deal of what I have learned about myself was difficult and unpleasant to admit. In retrospect, I was arrogant, selfish, inconsiderate, prone to blame my dogs, controlling, and I neglected all but the most basic needs of my dogs unless it benefited me in some way to do more. I was, in many ways, like most dog owners. The greatest difficulty for me was knowing that I never intended to be ANY of those things and thought I was doing the best job I could.
Things changed for me when I came face to face with a dog that, despite doing everything “right” according to my knowledge of Dog-Smarts, clearly was not feeling happy or successful in his life with me. The bared teeth were a dead give away. I had run out of stuff to try. Not only did my Dog-Smarts have limits, they had created created a dangerous dog who was willing to threaten me. Trust me when I tell you that this should cause you to re-evaluate what you think you know about dogs.
I decided that I had to put everything I knew about dogs on the table and evaluate it all. No more assuming that the things I had been told were facts just because they seemed to achieve the outcome I wanted. As someone with a background as a computer professional for many years, I was forced to do the unthinkable – read the “manual.” I needed to go back and re-educate myself on dogs, behaviour, and training. Science has always been a reliable guide for me and so I sought out books by scientists and professionals in dogs, behaviour, and animal training. It changed my perspective radically and quickly.
Looking back at my life with dogs, I can trace each and every problem I ever had with my dogs to a single source – me. Although I devoted a lot of effort to raising my dogs and committed myself to doing the best job I knew how to do with them, I was just applying the same faulty information in different ways or with different degrees of emphasis. I was all about getting the results I was supposed to get without regard to how I was getting there. In short, I wanted what I wanted from my dogs and they had to “behave or else.” And it worked right up until it didn’t.
This is where the scientist in me poked his head up and said, “If all that Dog-Smarts is right, how could this go so wrong?” It was a great moment for me to just say that the problem was with THIS dog and not with the Dog-Smarts I had learned. The truth is, I had been saying something like that for years as each dog had different problems from the last one. They had just never been this severe before. No, the failure was not in the dog but in me. I had gotten it wrong.
A question for every answer
One of the basic tools of my change of perspective was questioning everything I had always taken as fact. Were dogs pack animals? Do they behave according to some sort of social hierarchy? Do they have long memories and act out over something they didn’t like last week? A few of the answers confirmed what I thought but much more often the answer raised more questions.
The image I always had of what dogs were and how they thought came from all the usual sources; mostly media and entertainment. Books, television, and movies did a great job of selling me an idealized version of what my dogs should be – patient, gentle, kind, obedient, eager to please, selfless, etc.
When the time came to question all of these assumptions about dogs, the answers were often surprising and rarely disappointing. It turns out that dogs were nothing like what I had imagined them to be and yet, they were but in ways I had not considered. For example, dogs are eager to please but not because they are just “good hearted souls”; it’s because they are hoping to form a mutually beneficial relationship with us.
As I sifted through what I used to believe about dogs, questioning what I knew and replacing “conventional wisdom” with facts and information, I felt a sense of shame. I was supposed to be smarter than this. For decades I took all the credit for my well behaved dogs but always blamed the dog when they did something I didn’t like. It was arrogant, self-centered, and simple-minded. So I committed myself to doing better and trying to be smarter about my dogs.
Shaving with Occam’s Razor
Along the way I have learned something interesting about myself. It turns out that humans have an almost infinite capacity to fool themselves. The number of ways we have developed to come to the wrong conclusion from the right data is truly astonishing. Even more impressive is our ability to ignore the correct data in favour of faulty or incomplete data if the correct information disagrees with our previously held beliefs. It seems that humans are expert con-men and we end up fooling ourselves most of all.
One thing I learned to use to keep myself in check is the principle of Occam’s Razor. Simply put, this principle says that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation of something tends to be the correct one. Here’s an example. Back in the day, my dogs used to bark at the window when my wife and I would leave to go out somewhere. We would often say something like, “They’re just mad that we didn’t take them to the park today.” That’s a lot of assumption to make.
First, our dogs would have to have enough memory to remember the last few times we took them to the park. They would have to have some concept of what they thought was a reasonable time frame in between park visits in order to feel that they had been “wronged” in this case. They would have to believe that barking at the window was an effective way to communicate their offence at our actions. And they would have to believe that their display of barking would, in some way, make things better for them in the future.
Or Occam’s Razor – our dogs felt mildly stressed and would have preferred to come with us and they are barking to relieve that stress. Yeah. Maybe that one. Simpler is better.
Fixing the real problem
Most of the last dozen years or so has been a process of fixing what was wrong in my relationship with my dogs. What was wrong was me. I had the wrong ideas. I had the wrong goals. I had the wrong perspectives about dogs and dog behaviour and dog training. I had to undo all kinds of attitudes and ideas I had about dogs. And I had to re-evaluate what was important to me about having dogs in my life.
In the interest of fairness, I have to say that not everyone will want to look into the science of dogs and behaviour to the extent that I have. Lots of people have much simpler goals for their life with their dogs. Perhaps this kind of self-examination isn’t for every dog owner. But I will say this – in my experience, the greatest single impediment to a happier and more fulfilling life with our dogs is ourselves. Dogs are going to be dogs. We humans are the ones who can choose to change much more easily to make things better.
The past few years of writing this Canine Nation column has been my attempt to present the very human side of our relationship with our dogs. With all of its frustrations and joys, aggravating and humorous moments, life with dogs is a wonderful thing. It’s my hope that the sometimes unusual perspectives I bring to my articles about dogs can make you think about things a little differently, to consider a different perspective.
I think it’s important to remember that there is no DOG in HUMAN. We are different species. Even though we have found a way to live together happily, we are not the same. But the humans are in control. The familiarity we have with dogs can lead us to think we know them better than we actually do. Fortunately, we have the capacity for self awareness and the ability to change our thinking. I think we owe it to the dogs to make every effort to understand them, to teach them, and to make their lives with us as rewarding as we can.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The NEW Canine Nation ebook is now available –
“Relationships: Life with Dogs”
Photo credits –