This chapter covers
How to interpret what a client is saying about the pet’s behaviour
The choice and use of words
‘Treat’ versus reward
What does ‘good’ mean in behavioural terms
When any verbal history is taken regarding the problem behaviour of a dog, words will be used by owners to give their view on what a dog does, why they do it and, by implication, what their ideal expectations of their dog are. These words are usually laden with anthropomorphic overtones. They may be used very much as a parent will speak to, or about, a child and are therefore a reflection of how dogs have been viewed and incorporated into the human family. The phrases may even be spoken to lighten the mood by way of a rather embarrassed apology for a dog’s misbehaviour.
Although anthropomorphism has enhanced the dog-human relationship in many respects, the language used often reflects fundamental misunderstandings in the relationship which can be very damaging in practical terms. Unravelling the language used, and why, is enormously helpful in understanding an owner’s perception and attitude as well as giving informed guidance as how to address his or her concerns during any consultation. Descriptions such as being ‘stubborn’, ‘having a mind of his own’, being ‘strong-willed’ and ‘disobedient’ as well as ‘deciding he knows better that me’ are all too common. Ubiquitous beliefs that the dog is ‘bossy’ or ‘too dominant’ are fed by apparently authoritative, but mistaken, media figures. Equally, in a legal context, such phrases may be used to describe and condemn a dog in court. Magistrates may be equally susceptible to anthropomorphism when the prosecution is alleging ‘dangerousness’.
The following are all commonly heard phrases. They are not intended to spark a detailed lecture given to the client regarding the tacit fallacies entailed. But briefly untangling in one’s own mind what they are trying to say, if not in theirs, may be very beneficial. If a dog is asked to sit with food and an upward moving hand by demonstration rather than by detailed explanation in response to a dog being told to ‘Behave yourself!’, the message may gradually filter through.
I love this! ‘Behave’ is used as a command word as if a dog is supposed to know what the word means and, more importantly, what to do. As ever, it is uttered when a dog is misbehaving and therefore is very rarely in a jolly tone of voice. It does not inform anyone, least of all the dog, as to what they should do but only what they should not be doing. The means whereby information (such as it is) has been imparted will be by an owner’s demeanour, incorporating both vocal expression and body gestures. If the dog is on lead, a leash jerk or collar grab may accompany the vocal admonishment. If the dog is supposed to be sitting or standing, the hindquarters may be pushed downwards or pulled upwards as required. The only clue a dog may have as to an acceptable behaviour is when the nagging and disapproval and physical prompts stop. There is also a distinct danger that the word, being randomly linked to whatever a dog is doing and feeling at the time, will have the opposite effect to what is intended. If used as a warning of worse to come if a dog does not ‘behave’, the very sound of the word may trigger negative emotions.
‘He’s so stubborn’
Stubbornness is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as ‘having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good reasons to do so’. It may be considered the antithesis of biddable which describes someone ‘meekly ready to accept and follow instructions’ or ‘willing to obey and to do what they are told to’. ‘Biddable’ is commonly used to describe the dog who is easy to train, often not needing food to be shown what to do and rarely putting a foot wrong. They are the envy of owners of ‘stubborn’ dogs, who may be led to believe by such shining examples that they and their dog are abject failures on the training front.
But what does being ‘biddable’, and by contrast, ‘stubborn’, actually mean? Are they reflections of how much effort has been put into training, or of the fundamental nature of the dog in question itself? I would suggest that biddable describes a dog who is very aware of human displeasure and consequently easily guided by the mildest of rebukes. A mere frown accompanied by ‘Oi!’ is sufficient to make a dog stop and think again. They may be particularly aware of human upset, which, if it is directly linked to a dog’s behaviour, is sufficiently unpleasant (therefore punishing) to them that they will avoid doing the same in the future. Guide dogs are specifically selected for a biddable nature and even causing a person to stumble during training may be enough to punish a wrong move.
On the opposite side of the coin, there is the stubborn dog who appears to resist all efforts to change the decision he has made. He seems immune to persuasion, whether by promise of reward or threat of punishment.
Could these differences be caused not only by degree of sensitivity to human emotion but also by how prepared a dog is to take risks? As with people, the degree of risk involved in any activity is overcome by the desire to engage in it. The feeling of exhilaration, elation and frank relief that is experienced once the fear of engaging in an extreme sport is conquered successfully is highly rewarding and can become addictive. In a similar fashion, some dogs appear almost deliberately to put themselves into positions certain to incur human wrath and punishment. Why? Because the punishment itself and its administration provides an extremely potent negative reward when it ceases. They therefore become addicted to the emotion of relief once the unpleasantness ends.
‘He has a mind of his own!’
Suppressing one’s instinctive but possibly belittling response, ‘Whose mind is he supposed to have then?’, may be extremely difficult. What is often spoken in jest is, of course, quite obviously true. It is necessary to understand why this phrase is so commonly heard and what it is about a dog that warrants such a description. A dog which has a mind of his own seems otherwise at risk of being condemned as having a faulty brain and outlook on life. Yet all that is actually happening is simply that the dog’s choice of behaviour is often at odds with that of his owner’s.
Frustrated as owners may be with their dogs’ ‘wilfulness’, it is necessary to clarify the phrase and to explain that, like an apparently ‘stubborn’ dog, some personalities and temperaments, or ‘minds’, may prove more challenging to change than others. Owners may feel they have to work hard to get the dog’s own choice of behaviour to coincide with their own. But it is far easier to avoid conflict altogether. Simply spending more time deliberately noticing and approving of their ‘stubborn’ dog when he is already doing what they would like, will do the trick. Dogs are often ignored when resting, lying down calmly, when the lead happens to be slack on a walk or when the dog is looking at them rather than at other distractions. Noticing and approving of such voluntarily performed ‘good’ behaviours will do much to improve the relationship between dog and owner. Owners will also come to realise that dogs do indeed have minds of their own!