Thursday, August 27, 2009
Monday, August 24, 2009
I met with clients recently who own a wonderful adolescent boy dog. Wonderful, but misunderstood. I won't say what breed, but it's one who often gets a bad rep and it's not a bully type. Anyway, the owners are great. The type of people who are interested in their dog and treat him like a family member. Like most of my clients and dog owning friends who have, or aim to have, that kind of a relationship with their pooch, the female owner anthropomorphized while we were chatting, but then instantly hesitated and explained herself to me - almost apologetically.
Anthropomorphism is a no-no for many in the dog-pro circuit. Followers of the hierarchical pack philosophy already see the root of all behavior problems in the humanization of dogs, and people belonging to the science oriented group don’t believe that there is a place for anthropomorphism in science. World-renowned ethologist Roger Abrantes referred to it as “the crime of anthropomorphism”. I am guilty as charged. And receive periodically smiles usually reserved for small children, or a belittling sneer, typically from people without experience, but who took some science courses, maybe have a diploma or degree, and point that out during the first two minutes of a conversation.
Anthropomorphism, according to the dictionary, is: the attribution of a human form, human characteristics, or human behavior to nonhuman things such as deities in mythology and animals in children’s stories.
Dogs don’t have human form. But even that is debatable, or why else would dog mags hold dog/owner look-alike contests?
Human characteristics? You betcha. Dogs and people have much in common. Both species need mental and physical stimulation, thrive on social belonging, want to feel safe, like to play, are motivated to get stuff they like and avoid stuff they don't like, and synchronize their actions to the group’s. Both are, by nature, manipulative opportunists, except dogs are the way cuter ones.
Dogs also have a brain. And one that performs beyond simple mammalian survival tasks. Prestigious Harvard University Extension School offers a course named: The Cognitive Dog. Psychologist Paul Bloom states, “that for psychologists, dogs may be the next chimpanzees”. What’s good enough for Harvard, is good enough for me.
Dogs are more similar to us than different. Many humans are emotionally closer to dogs than to our genetic next of kin: apes. There is no harm in humanizing dogs as long, and that’s key, one also understands how dogs and humans differ. It is great that good science made it to dogs. I understand the Laws of Behavior and apply operant conditioning, but also translate what a dog might say could he communicate in a human language and have a great time putting English explanations to their actions. I gaga over dogs but am not a touchy-feely pushover, unaware of their species-specific needs and limitations.
In my world, science, leadership stuff and anthropomorphism are all inclusive. It, and analogies to human behaviors, adds clarity for my clients and often makes them more compassionate. They fall in love with their dog again. A little humor eases their tension, which in turn takes the edge of their dog’s.
Anthropomorphism can contribute to a harmonious, functioning dog/human relationship; the unique adventure of two species sharing a life together as companions. Let’s not reserve it just for cartoon characters and Disney movies.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Since the resurrection of the dominance ideology a few years ago, I hear dog owners use the terms alpha and pack leader all the time. The question is if, or if not, dogs need a leader. It is disputed by some behavior-purists, but in my opinion, they do.
But not because they are status seeking little demons the moment they invade our homes and hearts, but because they inherently know, as a species, that we have the power to provide, keep them safe, or harm and hurt them if we so choose. Humans, since domestication some 12.000 years or so ago, were dogs’ lifeline. Even non-owned "Village Dogs", a term coined by Dr. Raymond Coppinger that describes dogs that live in the periphery of human settlements in every region on this planet, live on human waste around garbage dumps. Dogs, as a species, flourish because they hang out with people.
When a pup or rescue dog moves into the midst of humans; his new family he knows nothing about, he seeks a couple of things - social acceptance and the feeling of safety. He needs to find out how he will get that, and all the other stuff he wants like roasted chicken, bones and toys, and a cushy place to rest. And that's where the humans come in. Only the people who are members of his intimate social group can explain how his world works from now on. The world he's thrown into. Not every dog needs to belong to people, but once they do because we chose to buy or adopt one, they rely on those very people for provision and protection. And that's leadership.
Studies proved that humans and dogs and other mammals learn best when taught without coercion. Completely without force and punishments. And that's Mindful Leadership. Teaching the dog what he needs to know to fit in, while at the same time decreasing fear and stress - the cause of most problem behaviors.
For people to be Mindful Leaders they need to understand how dogs communicate, what they are motivated by, what stresses them out, and how to teach in a way the dog can comprehend. In future posts I want to chat about all that, and sometimes also other dog related topics that occupy my mind. I am studying and working with dogs professionally since 1995. I want to share with you the finer nuances of body language and behavior - for dogs' sake, so that as many as possible live a life free of fears. As a nice side-effect, a content and emotionally balanced dog is typically a well-behaved one, which makes the owners happy as well - and society at large.