I find the current fad of reducing dogs to scheming, power hungry, authority usurping creatures that must be kept in check, troubling, and well, very sad. Humans and dogs have evolved their symbiotic relationship over thousands of years. By definition, there is no power struggle in a symbiotic relationship. The concept is that two very different species, can offer unique benefits to each other, i.e. they are better living together than separate.
With the rise in popularity of the dog as a companion animal, we keep integrating dogs further and further into the human social structure. While there are benefits for the dog, the expectations of the dog’s behavior are frequently unrealistic and unfair to the dog. We often forget that they are in fact a separate species, not furry humans. They are social creatures who suffer when left alone for extended periods of time, day after day, aren’t allowed frequent potty breaks or daily mental and physical exercise. They have no inherent understanding of leashes, human houses, possessions, doors, restaurants, fences or the multitude of human created social rules. In our desire to understand and “control” them, we project all kinds of human concepts on them, doing them a great disservice. The idea of an alpha/dominant/pack leader is a human creation that seriously distorts the interpretation of the dog’s behavior.
Dogs are smart, and very clear about who provides the food, water, toys, treats and access to outdoors/indoors. They have no grand vision of taking over this provider role, and in fact, do everything they can to “fit in” and fulfill their part of the symbiotic relationship. So, instead of applying a lens that looks at everything a dog does as being designed to manipulate and challenge your authority, what if you assumed instead, that they are behaving in a way that is consistent with their species – i.e. just acting like a dog. When they do something you don’t want or don’t do something you do want, even if you think you have been very clear, assume the mismatch of behavior to your expectations is because they really don’t understand, or in their excitement, their natural instincts have prevailed. It is probably that simple. When your dog charges ahead, pulls on the leash, bolts through the door ahead of you, guards his food, rips up your stuff, jumps up to lick your face, stops to sniff the pee mail, barks hysterically at other dogs or people, or takes offense to being handled by a groomer, vet, child or even you, she isn’t being disrespectful or executing some systematic plot to displace you. They just have a different view of the situation, what is appropriate, and yes, they have their own needs, likes and dislikes. They didn’t ask to be brought into a human environment; we have chosen to put them there. We have no right to assign malevolent intentions to their actions to justify punishing them when they don’t magically understand or forget “our” rules. Our job is to find a way to help our dogs understand what we want from them while acknowledging their fundamental right to be the unique creature they are, a dog.
If you are open to taking a new look at the dynamic of your relationship with your dog, there are several wonderful trainers and behaviorist who provide insight and techniques that strengthen the bond and communication between dog and human through positive reinforcement, clicker training and modern behavioral modification techniques if/when problems arise. You do not have to sleep with an eye open, wondering what your dog is plotting, or question every interaction to make sure you are telling your dog whose boss. I encourage you to stop trying to be your dog’s boss; or pack leader, and try being a partner in a wonderful, ancient, symbiotic relationship.
Written by our guest blogger Cynthia Hiatt. Longtime shelter volunteer, foster and animal rescuer who has worked on the rehabilitation of many dogs, including her own dogs.
Recommended Reading: “Culture Class” by Jean Donaldson, “The Other End of the Leash” by Patricia McConnell, “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor, and anything by Ian Dunbar.