Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dog Behavior and the Personal Filter

The actions of others, dogs, people or whatever species, is always evaluated through one’s own filter; one’s personal emotions and experiences.
We assess our dogs’ actions based on fear and insecurity or confidence, social pressures and popular trends, knowledge or the lack of it, and expectations – regardless if they are realistic or not.
Take begging, for example. A person concerned about losing his cherished status bans the pooch from the kitchen, because he believes that whenever she eyeballs the aroma-rich people food she is contemplating to challenge for it aggressively. Others, like me, see it as an offered attention behavior, and that of an animal that feels subordinate, not equal or even superior. I’ll discuss that topic some more in my next post and you’ll see what I mean.
Not coming when called can be interpreted as:
She didn’t hear me;
She is too distracted and has tuned me out;
She is defiant;
She is overwhelmed by a stimulus and out-of-her mind startled or afraid;
She is dominant, aggressive and red-zone;
We haven’t trained the come command yet, or need more practice;
I am calling with a harsh voice that makes her nervous;
I corrected her in the past for coming and she is nervous;
I spoiled the command by not enforcing it in the past, with the result that she learned that there is an option, or is operant conditioned to NOT coming.
What I say and my body language are not cohesive and she is confused.
The filtering depends on the personality of the human, not the dog. The dog simply acts based on any of the above reasons. The problem is that as soon as we label the dog instead of the action, we see only the label: stubborn, aggressive or dumb. The risk is that once a dog is labeled as such, it becomes her identity and people generalize it to all her behaviors. And with it they give themselves justification to apply punitive consequences. After all, the dog deserves it, right?
That impacts the relationship, and not in good way, and problem behaviors often escalate.

The personal filter has an especially profound influence when it comes to aggression.
If we fear teeth, then growling has a much deeper impact than if we are confident that we have things under control, or if we are knowledgeable enough to understand that a growl is a natural part of dogs’ communication and a warning – intended to avoid injury, not cause it.
Someone who was bitten by a German shepherd will be more frightened by a German shepherd’s growl than that of a golden retriever, even if the retriever is very tense and still. Society fears pit bulls and loves Labradors, and so we act differently around a pit bull, which can instill suspicion or nervousness in her, which increases the likelihood for her to react. In addition, the breed society hates becomes an attractive one for people that hate society. Thugs see the world through their filter also; raise and keep their dogs according to it.
Again, that has nothing to do with the dog, and everything to do with human character.
It is not the dog’s problem, nor is he capable to change how we feel. The onus is on the person. Even Millan got that figured out when he says that he trains people – yet he continues to correct the dog.
I get it. Some people are more emotional and less informed than others. That is normal, and it is difficult to ignore how one feels about something or someone.
Difficult perhaps, but not impossible. It really doesn’t take hyper-rational brainpower to evaluate a dog’s behavior factually, just some willingness to learn and a little self-awareness. And it is well worth it cause clearing the view allows falling in love with the dog again, and settling ones subjective fears and insecurities. That makes for much more successful problem behavior solving, and that opens the door to an authentic companion relationship; a partnership between two species sharing a life together for a while. And that is what dogs deserve – and their humans.

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