We humans have shared our lives with dogs for thousands of years. Not all of us, of course. But all over the world, dogs are a part of daily life for people. Some are beloved companions while others are just free roaming scavengers; beneficial drifters or destructive pests depending on where you are in the world. For thousands of years, we have managed to find ways to live with dogs. We have learned to breed them, to manage them, and to train them for hundreds of tasks. We have done our best to understand them. Or have we?
While out for a walk I stopped to watch a woman with a boisterous retriever puppy. The little guy is understandably excited by all of the sights and sounds and smells on his big adventure. The woman seems to be training her dog. She tugs up gently on the leash and pushes on the dog’s bottom all the while chanting “Sit! Sit! Sit!” As soon as the dog puts his bottom on the ground the woman shouts with glee, “Yay! What a good dog!” and showers the puppy with affection who wags and wiggles with apparent delight. I smile because this is a familiar sight. This is the way I learned to train a dog to “Sit” nearly 40 years ago. Simple and effective.
Knowing what I don’t know
As I watched this woman and her happy pup, a hundred thoughts raced through my head. I worry that she doesn’t tug too hard or push too hard or she could frighten the dog. Her vocalizing “Sit! Sit! Sit!” was probably distracting to the young dog and was making it harder for the dog to learn. The puppy’s eagerness and excitement meant that the relationship with his owner had been well managed. I watched to see that if timing of her praise matched the behaviour she was trying to teach. Several other dog training thoughts came and went as I watched. They all flashed across my mind in a few seconds almost automatically. There was no intention to be critical of this woman and her pup.
Twenty years ago, this woman working with her puppy would likely have triggered only one thought, “What a cute dog!” But I have changed. My own training mistakes many years ago set me on a journey to learn more about dogs, behaviour, and animal training. Now I am better informed about dogs. Dozens of books, hundreds of hours of instruction, and years of experience have given me a different perspective. Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is just how much there is to know about living and working with dogs and just how much I have yet to learn. Psychologist David Dunning had me pegged perfectly when he said “the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”
I don’t think I was an “incompetent” dog owner all those years ago but I was certainly much less skilled and I understood only a fraction of what I understand today. Just as research by Dunning and his academic partner Justin Kruger proposed in their exploration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, my confidence that I had solid expertise training dogs was unreasonably high. I knew all the simple methods one needed to raise a happy and healthy dog. Now decades into my quest to learn more about dogs and training, I see the same dog training challenges with a very different kind of simplicity.
Simple and simple
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.” Before you understand the full scope and complexity of something, it may appear simple. But that is very different from how simple that same thing can seem once you have studied and learned and practiced. There was an uneducated simplicity in how I approached dogs decades ago. I knew what I knew and it worked. I was confident in what I knew. My dogs were happy. I was that arrogantly underinformed kind of dog owner who thought dogs were simple.
Watching that woman working with her puppy, I experienced a different kind of simplicity. The simplicity that comes from understanding a topic more deeply and seeing the connections between many related and important ideas and concepts. I find that it is just as Justice Holmes said, the simple conceptual understanding I have after learning about behavioural science, canine ethology, and modern animal training science is infinitely more valuable than the uninformed “easy answers” I had come up with all those years ago.
The ill-informed expert that I was years ago couldn’t see many of the things I see today when I watch dogs and their owners. Back then I would watch a dog sit or stay when told and I would be impressed that the owner had gotten the dog to do as it was told. I thought it was just that simple. Today I watch to see if the dog is happily performing something it knows how to do well or if it is trying to avoid some perceived punishment if it does not do what it is asked. I watch the owner to see if they are being clear with their signals and fair in what they are asking of their dog. I watch for other things that tell me more about the relationship between the dog and the owner. Things that the dog owner I used to be would never have thought to look for or even knew existed. Seeing these extra things seems simple to me now but it is a different kind of simplicity.
Easier than you think
I don’t want to give you with the impression that it took nearly 20 years for me to understand and appreciate the simplicity that comes from understanding the complex nature of dogs and training. In fact, most of my important learning came from a couple of good books and a few seminars from professional animal trainers. In less than a year, I learned to discard a lot of myths and lore I believed about dogs and training. I replaced it with a better understanding of behavioural science and canine learning. From there it has been a process of improving my skills and refining what I have learned.
To be honest, I began as just a dog owner who wanted to know more. After almost being bitten by my own dog, I realized it that I didn’t know everything I thought I needed to know about dogs and training. Philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “There is nothing more dangerous than the deep slumber of a decided opinion.” For many years I was firmly decided that I knew enough about dogs and that’s all I needed to know. The hardest thing for me to do was to let go of the opinions that had been passed down to me. Especially when those ideas and techniques produced acceptable results with my dogs. If it wasn’t broken, I wasn’t going to fix it.
I could have stayed comfortable in my ignorance. I didn’t need to read up on the latest research on dogs and cognition. I didn’t need to spend money to attend seminars and workshops. I didn’t need to spend the money to pass the tests necessary to be certified as professional dog trainer. But I did all of it anyway. I did it because I want to be a better dog owner. I want to understand dogs and training. I want to be a better caretaker and partner for my dogs.
Where to go from here?
My beautiful dog Tiramisu is nearly 15 years old now. She is the first dog we raised from a puppy with this new understanding of dogs and behaviour. A part of me is sad that our learning adventures are coming to an end. I have so much to be grateful for from this wonderful dog. Over the course of our life together she has taught me so much about how dogs learn, what motivates them, how to be an effective communicator with dogs, and more. Perhaps most importantly she taught me how all of the various aspects of living with a dog matter and the importance of forgiving the small mistakes and accidents both my dog and I have made.
I always try to write these essays from my own personal point of view. I think it’s best to talk about what I have learned and how I have tried to fit the science and learning together with living with my dogs. I haven’t invented anything or come up with some novel training system. Everything I know I have learned from dedicated and talented people who have been kind enough to share their knowledge with me in print or in person. I cannot thank them enough for changing how I live with my dogs.
I think the best thing I can do is share my experience with others. There aren’t any magic tricks or special techniques for working with dogs as far as I’m concerned. There is the “simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity.” The simple understanding that comes from learning and knowing more. The easy, simple facility to know what to do and when to do it with my dogs. That has come with a quiet satisfaction and a passion to continue learning.
Dunning and Kruger were right. May I never call myself an “expert” and always remain open to learning more about dogs, behaviour, and training.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
These Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
Photo credits –