“Science doesn’t give a shit what you believe!”
That’s one of my favourite t-shirt sayings. Mostly because it’s a great reminder of how easy it is to fool myself into believing what I want to believe rather than what the evidence shows. It’s an especially hard thing with my dogs.
I love my dogs. I’m emotionally invested in them. That means that sometimes I want so deeply to empathize with them that I can project my own human thoughts, emotions, and perceptions on to them. And frankly, that’s not fair.
I recently presented a workshop on agility handling. Most of that workshop talks about the biology of dogs. We discuss how they use their senses of sight and hearing to respond to us, how various communication breakdowns happen, the cognitive abilities of dogs, and learning to recognize their emotional responses to better understand them. Each time I teach this workshop, students always comment on what they didn’t realize about how their dogs perceive their world.
Perhaps when it comes to competitive activities like agility, we get so caught up in “performance” that we look for any explanation that will get us even slightly better results. But I also often see this when people try to explain their dog’s “misbehaviour.” We draw from what we have been told by “dog folk” and mix that with a little projection from our own human experience and VOILA! – we have an “explanation” for why something isn’t working.
But remember, science doesn’t give a shit what you believe happened. The truth is the truth however hidden or unwanted it may be. Personally, I think we owe it to our dogs to check things out and make sure we’re right before just explaining away their behaviour in ways that are convenient for us.
It’s very much like a quote from one of my favourite movies in response to the phrase “Oh well, shit happens.” The character in the movie shoots back, “No. No. Shit takes time. Shit takes effort. Shit doesn’t just happen.” We do ourselves and our dogs a disservice when we take the lazy way out.
The best way to find out what’s really going on with our dogs is to ask them. But they can’t just talk to us. We have to be observant and may even have to set up situations where we can test their reactions to see what’s really going on. Why doesn’t my dog reply when I give them a cue for a behaviour? Well, maybe they aren’t just being “stubborn” or “ignoring me.” Maybe they don’t really know that cue very well yet. Maybe they have no reason to believe that responding to that cue is in their best interest (e.g., they might get a reward). Or maybe it’s just that they didn’t hear us because we spoke too softly or something else had their attention when we gave the cue.
The only way to know for sure is to test it. All of the explanations and speculations in the world don’t mean a thing if we misinterpret the facts in front of us. All of the research and dog knowledge in the world is worthless if we aren’t seeing what’s really there instead of looking for the things we want to see.
Science may not care what we believe about our dogs but I’m sure that it is confusing and uncomfortable for them when we get it wrong. It takes time and it takes effort to be sure that we understand what’s going on with our dogs. And that means more than reading social media or the latest books and articles about dogs. We need to spend time with THEM. We need to work with THEM. And we need to be willing to see what’s really there and not just what we want to believe.