This article marks the 100th topic covered by author and dog trainer Eric Brad in his Canine Nation series. In it, Eric talks about why he writes about dogs and what it means to him to continue the process. It isn’t just about writing, it is about learning.
For more than two and a half years I have made a regular practice of sitting down and thinking about dogs. Not just my dogs, all dogs. And I share my thoughts in these Canine Nation articles. My ruminations often lead me to books and websites and conversations and correspondence. I look at different perspectives and information. I try to see the larger contexts of our dogs and lifestyles with them. There is a lot to see.
Learning all I can about dogs and their behaviour is a passion for me. It is a passion because for decades I thought I knew what I needed to know about dogs and ultimately it led to one of the most difficult times my wife and I have ever had together. My own dog that showed me how much I didn’t know with snarls, a lowered head and bared teeth. Fear is a powerful motivator.
I spent much of my professional life in Information Technology. I was a trouble shooter and a problem solver. My job was to understand computer systems, computer networks and their associated software. When clients called me in, it was either to help them design new systems or to find out what was wrong with their current system. I was very good at what I did. When things fell apart with our dogs, I turned to my Information Technology background to try and fix the problem.
When I worked for Microsoft in the late 1990’s, one of the slogans that made it’s way into our marketing was “Know more answers, no more questions.” It was an encouragement to programmers to learn all they could about how to properly use and implement Microsoft products. It was time for me to apply that philosophy to my own life and my dogs. I continue to read and learn about dogs, behaviour, psychology, biology, ethology – anything that will help me understand and know more about my dogs – because it just seems like the right thing to do. For them and for me.
One Thousand Truths
The truth about dogs and their behaviour is out there. In fact, there seem to be thousands of truths. Dogs are pack animals, dogs are not pack animals. Dogs are dominance seekers, dogs are not dominance seekers. Using food to train is incredibly effective, using food to train can create aggressive dogs. Your dog needs to respect you, dogs are incapable of “respect” as an emotion. How do you sort out the facts from the fluff?
For me, the answer was simple; follow the evidence and find the facts. Just as with trouble shooting computer systems, if something was “true” then it should be something you can easily demonstrate, something repeatable. But so much of what I had learned in the past about dogs was inconsistent. Sometimes it would work as the trainer claimed, other times it didn’t. There were always ready explanations for why it didn’t quite work this time but those answers never quite rang true.
The simple fact is that millions of us live with dogs every day. But most dog owners don’t make a practice of studying and detailing what they learn about their dogs in order to check their facts with others. Dogs are our companions, not our research subjects. So what people learn about dogs is often shared casually as hearsay. Much of what I learned about dogs decades ago was folklore. It was informal information passed from one generation to another about how to live with dogs and try to explain what we saw. But it was imprecise, inaccurate, and incomplete.
Problems with authority
I have paid good money to dog training instructors who have misinformed me. They didn’t mean to lie. They thought they were telling me the truth. But it was the “truth” that someone told to them at some point and they just accepted it and passed it on to me. Maybe they even put a little extra polish on it from their own experiences. The reasons why my dog was being “dominant” were very persuasive but also incorrect. No, my dog was not trying to dominate me. His behaviour was coming from a fearful and defensive place. And if I had continued to treat my dog as if he were trying to “win” some struggle for dominance, I would like have been bitten and the dog would have been put down. Some “experts” just aren’t all that expert.
That’s the problem with authority. We have to choose carefully before we decide who to believe. There are a lot of professionals in the dog world who are very good at articulating their views and beliefs on dogs and their behaviour. The real question for me is: where do these professionals get their information? There are those who will claim that their years of experience qualifies them as an authority. Others will point to their accomplishments with their own dogs or their students. But there is no substitute for independently verified data when it comes to finding out what is true.
I’m sure I’ll never know all there is to know about dogs. It’s not important to me that I ever know it all. What is important to me is that I keep learning and keep using my critical thinking skills to try to sort fact from speculation. You see, I think it’s very important to challenge our “beliefs” from time to time. For years I thought I knew why dogs behaved as they did and I was wrong. But I wasn’t just wrong, I was actually reacting to my dogs as if they were behaving for those incorrect reasons. How confusing that must have been for them.
For me, science and critical analysis provided the perfect framework to take the guess work and inaccuracy out of learning about dogs. Scientific method requires a structured way of gathering information, checking the validity of that information against other sources, and coming to conclusions after trying to consider all aspects of the subject. I can’t jump to conclusions from a few trials and think I know the “Truth.” If I did, I might tell you that all dogs get itchy after eating because my dogs always scratch after dinner. Food makes dogs itchy, right? Not really.
Another important part of critical thinking is being open to new data and alternate theories. That’s an active process. New information can’t get into my thinking if I close my mind to it. So it’s important for me to read and discuss and listen to alternate viewpoints even if I disagree with them strongly. You never know when something will force you out of your comfort zone and make you do more research. Remember that Microsoft slogan, “Know more answers, no more questions.”
Good enough is not good enough
I think the hardest thing for me to give up was the notion that because something worked that it was the right way to go about it. For years we had owned and managed dogs and, for the most part, we had a pretty easy time of it. No major problems. We loved our dogs and they loved us. But looking back on those years and those dogs, we are fortunate that dogs are as accommodating of our lifestyles as they are. I’m sure our first Belgian Shepherd, Badger, was bored to death and yet he loved us all the same.
As I’ve written here in other articles, not everyone has dogs for the same reason. Not everyone has the same idea of what life with a dog could or should be. For some it may be the challenge of bending an animal to their will, for others it may be just having a snuggle at the end of the day. But whatever your approach to dogs may be, I think it is important to be honest about it. Know the truth of what your dog is and is not. And speak plainly about how you interact with your dog.
We should never have to “sugar-coat” what we do with our dogs. Force trainers use intimidation to get dogs to behave. The dogs do what they are asked to avoid the unpleasant consequences of not complying. It’s a technique that works and works well for some dog owners. Just call it what it is. The same can be said of positive trainers. Reinforcement training is “paying for behaviour” in a very real sense. It’s not about which approach is right or wrong. It’s about being honest and up front about how and why we go about interacting with our dogs the way we do.
Pardon my bluntness
So, if my articles here come across as confrontational or offensive, it is not by intention. I’m just trying to get at the truth. And sometimes that isn’t a pretty process. No one wants to feel stupid and no one has felt more stupid than me when I realized just how much I didn’t know about my own dogs. But if we don’t take the time to use our critical thinking capabilities, look at the science, and check what we believe against all of the available facts, there is no telling what we might end up believing about our dogs. And that doesn’t do either of us any good in the long run.
Our dogs live with us by our choice, not theirs. I feel that I owe it to my dogs to know as much as I can about them and not impose my hopes and dreams and fears and doubts on them unfairly. Science let’s me be objective. At least as objective as any one human can. And that what Canine Nation has been about for me. An honest and open search for the truth about my dogs. About all dogs, really. It can sometimes be a messy business and feathers get ruffled. But it continues to be a genuine search for what is true.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
Check out my new ebook –
“Dogs: As They Are”
Photo credits –
All photos – copyright Petra Wingate