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They Are Not Humans in Dog Suits

This blog idea (and title) came to me after re-visiting one of my favorite dog books of all time, The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. Although it may seem like an obvious statement and you may be thinking to yourself, "well, of course I know my dogs not a human, duh!" I think despite the fact that we know our dogs are dogs, we can still inadvertently place a lot of human expectations on them that can leave both our dogs and us at a disadvantage, and sometimes frustrated.

It's interesting to think that so many completely natural dog behaviors are viewed at as behavior problems. Barking, chewing, digging, chasing, scavenging, jumping, etc. can definitely all be something we'd like to work on with our dogs, but instead of viewing it as a "problem", I find it more useful to view it as a normal dog behavior that we'd like to teach them replacements for or teach them that there are appropriate times to do certain behaviors. How we frame things in our mind can really affect us, and in turn, our training and communication with our dogs.

If your dog chews on the coffee table while you were out getting groceries, instead of framing it as your dog being "spiteful", frame it as "what could I have done to prevent this?" Labeling your dog as spiteful is not only inaccurate, but it's not helpful for you or your dog's improvement. Maybe your dog needs to be in a certain area of the house when you leave, maybe your dog needs more exercise and mental stimulation and is a bit bored, maybe your dog was anxious that you left, maybe your dog isn't feeling well, etc. Analyzing it this way will not only significantly improve the chances of addressing things successfully, but it will help you keep a bit more of your sanity along the way!

Here are some labels that we tend to put on dogs and how to more appropriately look at it instead:

  • "stubborn"/"hard-headed" - perhaps the dog doesn't truly understand what we are asking, maybe they are concerned about something in that moment, maybe the dog isn't motivated, perhaps the dog is stressed/anxious right now

  • "dumb" - this is usually said when dogs don't pick up on a skill within -3 seconds 😂. Let's look at it as a child in school who needs some extra help or tutoring on the subject

  • "dominant" - this could be an entire post on it's own, but let's just say there is a much more scientifically accurate way of looking at why your dog may be displaying certain kinds of behavior. This is a great PDF explaining it perfectly from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists (AVSAB)

  • "dramatic"/"scaredy-cat" - I hear this a lot when dogs are panicking at the vet appointment. Everyone's battling and pinning this dog down onto a cold surface so they can give them a shot or take blood. Let's try to look at this with a bit more compassion and empathy. Our dogs aren't choosing to be dramatic, they are quite literally trying to communicate their discomfort and fear

  • "lazy" - let's look at this instead as the dog being unmotivated or maybe he's tired or not feeling well. Ever go to work on only a couple hours of sleep? Are you lazy, or did you just have a rough night?

Re-framing things in this fashion can really help you feel less frustrated, disappointed, etc. and it also truly helps your training. This assists in viewing the facts in front of you and observing behavior rather than putting a label on it. Focus on what you see and hear versus quickly forming an impression rooted in human (not dog) behavior.

Focus on observations, not interpretations - and you'll be better off for it!

P.S. I love calling Freddie "sassy" or saying "the drama!!" when Jade sighs because she's bored, or calling Bruce "spicy" when he tells Freddie in his little grunty way that he doesn't feel like playing right now. So none of this is to say that you are wrong to use labels. As humans, using labels comes naturally. It can be helpful, insightful, and even a little funny (as in my case). It's when we use it in lieu of truly observing our dogs' behaviors and needs that it can get a bit dicey.

Hope this helps you and your dogs!

Jade says hi :)

Take care and talk soon.

- E

1 Comment

Excellent post! I know I am guilty of inaccurately framing behavior when I get busy and a bit overwhelmed with all that needs to be done. This post is a great reminder that I need to take a step back when this happens and appropriately frame the situation.

BTW, Jade is such a beautiful dog. And those eyes! She always looks like she can see clear to your soul. What a darling! Freddie and Bruce are absolutely darling too, but Jade almost seems regal in some pictures.

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