Ten Top Tips on Being Human

6 06 2020

Since adopting my young hound, I’ve dived into various schools of dog training. I thought I might find a few helpful hints on how to help your dog feel less anxious when you leave him on his own and how to get your dog to stop playfully chasing children – (Teio’s current work-in-progress) and while there has been much that has been useful, some of what I’ve found has been eye-opening.

Dog training is vicious! The various schools really like to bark and snarl at each other across the great divide of who knows best.

Now as a conscientious canine custodian, I find this alarming, but not really that surprising. In any area of training, whether it’s schooling horses, educating children or fitness routines for adults, there will be impassioned debates on the ‘best way.’ Internet marketing so often presents this holy grail of successful training as ‘five easy tips’ or ‘ten fool-proof ways’ to achieve perfect abs or a good night’s sleep or a trim waist. I wish I weren’t such a sucker for top tips, but something in my reptilian brain is secretly searching for the shortcut.  And it is the word ‘secret’ that usually does it for me. If I spot something like “Seven Secrets to Training Your Super Dog that only Special People in the Universe Know” then straight-away I’m signing up for the free masterclass and ignoring the common sense voice that warns: your inbox will be swamped with offers costing hundreds of dollars the minute you give your email address. DON’T DO IT!!!

But I want to believe in the hype. Sucker that I am, I want to find the holy grail of dog training even when I know perfectly well that there is no such thing. So in order to distract myself from the menace of marketing, I’m reading different kinds of books about dogs – books that help me to think clearly about what I need to consider for my young dog’s future and I’ve found John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs to be scholarly, insightful and delightfully readable.

Bradshaw, a biologist who directs the Anthrozoology Institute, based at the University of Bristol, has studied the behaviour of domestic dogs and their owners for more than twenty-five years, and his work is helping to change the ways dogs are viewed and understood. He presents his arguments based on sound science in cool and friendly tones, a welcome contrast to some of the competitive high-pitch promotion from various dog trainers. Bradshaw’s approach is to demolish myths about dogs and their training by first inviting you to rigorously question your own ideas and assumptions. 

“Despite all the evidence indicating that dogs and wolves organize their social lives quite differently, many people still cling to their misguided and outdated comparisons between dogs and wolves. The question therefore has to be asked once again: does the behaviour of the wolf have anything useful to tell us about the behaviour of pet dogs?” 

Studies show that dogs may be genetically linked to wolves, but that does not mean they must be like wolves in their behaviour. Because dogs have evolved closely alongside mankind, they are far more inclined to form friendships with humans than they are with their own kind. Dogs have no inclination to form anything like a wolf pack and, most importantly, dogs are able to become friends with dogs they are not related to. Every morning during our runs in the park, I observe this strong affiliative behaviour with young Teio as he offers the play bow to dog after dog, extending greetings also to each new person he encounters. If he truly were a wolf inside a whippet skin, he would not show this confidence to strangers. But does it really matter that he is not a wolf in disguise? When it comes down to training him, the distinction is crucial, Bradshaw argues.

“The misconception that dogs behave like wolves might not matter if it did not seriously misconstrue the dog’s motivations for establishing social relationships. The most pervasive – and pernicious – idea informing modern dog-training techniques is that the dog is driven to set up a dominance hierarchy wherever it finds itself. This idea has led to massive misconceptions about their social relationships, both those between dogs within a household, and those between dogs and their owners.

“Every dog, conventional wisdom holds, feels an overwhelming need to dominate and control all its social partners. Indeed, the word ‘dominance’ is used widely in descriptions of dog behaviour. Dogs that attack people they know well are still universally referred to as suffering from ‘dominance aggression.’ The term is sometimes even used – incorrectly – to describe a dog’s personality.” John Bradshaw. In Defence of Dogs. (Penguin 2012)

From my outings to the park and casual conversations with dog owners, I see how prevalent is this idea of ‘dominance’ and along the way I have received some well-meaning warnings about not allowing young T to become ‘top dog’ in my own household. I am so grateful to Bradshaw’s illuminating work which has helped me to see that what is most important is a well-socialised dog and a dog who wants to build a real relationship with me because it is rewarding for him as a social animal. So I don’t yell at Teio when he makes a mistake, which because he is young and learning, is pretty much every day. I don’t expect him to be obedient and know what I want because – well, he is a dog who thinks very differently to me – and when he’s relaxing at home, I let him sleep where he is most comfortable. He has to move sometimes, but I always ask him politely and he always complies. I’m clear with him and kind. I treat him how I would like to be treated if I were a dog.

This is not how many dog trainers say it should be. But I’m not training him. I’m not interested in a dog who obeys me as his pack leader. I’m interested in developing a supportive and rewarding relationship with him in which we both feel happy and secure. 

As social animals, we instinctively understand deep down how important secure relationships are to our own well-being, perhaps never more true than now as we emerge into a new social landscape. Nevertheless, the idea of ‘dominance’ of seeing others as a ‘threat’ to our well-being is just as pernicious in the human world. Listen to any conversation and there will be some version of ‘us’ and ‘them’ being thrown around in the air like an old bone; some political division or sense of separateness being gnawed at. Just tune into any live news online and this is what we will hear and what many of us will believe: there are people out there who are trying to take over and they need to be muzzled.

The language of dominance is everywhere; it’s another type of reptilian shortcut. It’s far easier to condemn, to snap at someone who gets in your way, to snarl and show your teeth than to try to understand them. This language of dominance belongs to a very, very tired human story. Times of change call for new narratives, new ideas of defining ourselves. If dogs may be defended against an out-moded hierarchy of aggression and be seen as the social beings they really are, then why not humans? Is it not time to stop portraying humans as competitive chimps, fighting over whatever entitlements we think are important? Is now not the time to truly question our old and worn-out confrontational ways of being and find other answers?

It can start with the very next conversation, the very next person who crosses your path. Ask yourself: am I wagging my tail or curling my lip?





One response

7 06 2020

Wise words. X


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