Thursday, September 18, 2014

Guilt-Free Dogs

The internet is in love with guilty dogs, and it makes me sad. Countless videos and pictures flood blogs and social media, featuring a mess or an angry human along with a dog that clearly know he's been bad. The thing is, dogs don't feel guilt, they just anticipate bad things happening. They don't even have a concept of "wrong". That sad-but-hopeful look isn't a dog that knows he's done wrong, it's a dog that is expecting something bad to happen.

Dogs are pretty amazing, they are sensitive, emotional creatures who rely on us for absolutely everything in their lives. Food, water, sunlight, even life are in our power to give or take away. While they often amaze us with how much they understand, some things are simply beyond their grasp. Take, for example, a dog that pees on the carpet. The dog may understand that, when humans come home and find a yellow spot on the rug, they yell, point, scruff the dog and drag him to that spot, and perhaps even hit him, They may shove him outside and leave him alone in the yard after all those hours of being alone in the house. Two hours ago, the dog knew he had to pee and that this spot smelled like the bathroom. Now the humans are walking through the door and that yellow spot means bad things are about to happen.

The thing is that dogs don't make the connection The presence of pee on the floor makes bad things happen, therefore I should not pee on the floor. They only know that pee=bad, they don't even have to be the guilty party. The dog doesn't regret his actions, he is just scared.

A "guilty" dog is actually a frightened dog that is desperately trying to appease his superiors. He doesn't know he did wrong, he is just begging for mercy and asking his people not to hurt him. Knowing this, I decided that I do not want to have "guilty" dogs. What I want is completely shameless, confident dogs who know they are safe with me. While I can't prevent all bad things from happening to them (a baby gate fell over on Brisbane today, it was very traumatic) I can make sure that they do not see me as the source of those bad things.

Does this mean that my dogs live completely out of control lives with no rules or limits? Nope, they have definite rules and acceptable behaviors, I just don't enforce those by doing scary things. Does this mean I never shout or scold my dogs? Nope, I am expressive to the point of being melodramatic, I just don't direct that toward the dogs without mitigating it in some way.

Dogs don't learn a whole lot from being shouted at, so I reserve shouting for two occasions. I might give a quick "no!" or "hey!" when someone is about to pee on the floor or steal something off the counter, followed immediately by switching to a happy voice and directing them to go outside or come or sit, or otherwise do something good. I also shout when I am angry or upset, but in a very nonthreatening manner. I don't loom over Brisbane when I appeal to the sky for an explanation as to why I have been cursed with the worst dog ever. I look up, I walk away, sometimes I even give him treats while bemoaning his horribleness. I often use a sweet voice to tell Ru was a dreadful little rodent he is.

Four years ago I walked into my kitchen to find Brisbane standing on the counter. He is incapable of jumping up there due to his abysmal build, so this was an unprecedented sight. It turns out he had rearranged some of the furniture to build himself a little staircase. If he was a "guilty dog", afraid of my response when he was clearly in a place he had no business being, he might have attempted to escape by jumping off the counter. He could have broken something or hurt himself in the process. Instead, I told him to stay while I grabbed my camera from another room. I snapped a picture of him on the counter and then gently lifted him down and then rearranged the furniture to keep him from getting up there again.

I love this picture because it is a perfect, unstaged, "caught in the act" pose of absurdity. I often get asked how I got him to stay for the picture, and the simple answer is that I told him to stay, and he didn't have any reason not to comply. He knows I don't want him stealing stuff off the counters, but he also knows that the penalty for doing so is a quick "hey!" or "what the hell are you doing?" followed by immediate praise and release of pressure when his feet hit the ground. With nothing to worry about, he had no reason to bolt off the counter.

I might be missing a bit of what some handlers call "respect" in my quest for guilt-free dogs, but as Eric Brad so effectively points out in this 2011 article, I don't need respect. I have thumbs. While I've done plenty of things wrong in the process of raising the Worst Puppy Ever, I feel wildly successful at raising a dog that is not afraid of me.

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