You Can’t Negotiate With Your Dog

As you may have noticed, my dog has been featured rather prominently in this blog lately. Part of the reason is that that ‘dog’ used to be ‘dogs’ until not too long ago, and I’m still mourning his companion. The other reason has to do with the fact that the inspiration for roughly half these posts comes from random thoughts that pop into my mind as I am walking the little rascal. Today’s post is one of those.

Oh, it’s not that I think the experience is unique, or particularly insightful. It’s just something that struck me today when I found myself getting annoyed with my boy because he wouldn’t listen to reason. ‘Of course he wouldn’t, he’s a dog!’ I hear you say, and you are absolutely right, but that does nothing to change the fact that, unlike him, I am human… and have a rather annoying tendency to think as one.

In a nutshell, my dog wanted to stop and sniff every single tree, which is a perfectly reasonable thing for a dog to do, but we were in the middle of a thicket –meaning that, if my dog had had his way, we would have been there until the middle of next week– and I wasn’t all that keen on that particular activity. As a human, it just doesn’t appeal to me. I just don’t have the right kind of nose to appreciate it. Anyway, being the reasonable person that I am, I was willing to compromise, and allow him to stop and sniff every other tree instead. That went over about as well as you might have expected it to.

My dog could have understood that he was not allowed to stop at all –he wouldn’t have been too happy about it, but that’s a concept he would have been able to grasp– and he would have been delighted if I had just given in, and allowed him to sniff to his heart’s content, but of course I didn’t do either of those things. I wanted to split the difference, I wanted to play it fair… and in my attempt to be reasonable the only thing I managed to achieve was to leave him feeling utterly bewildered. That was not my intention, not to mention that I could most definitely have done without the aggravation of the constant struggle for control, as he tried to get his way, and I tried to enforce my sensible, yet utterly ridiculous, guidelines.

The thing is that, if it had been just today’s walk, I would have been able to laugh it off, but then I realized that it was about so much more than that. It has to do with the way in which we interact with our animal companions in a world in which both their role, and our attitudes towards violence as a whole, are shifting in ways that may be incompatible with their very nature.

Back in the bad old days no one baited an eyelash at the thought of hitting a dog with a rolled up newspaper, and I am most definitely not advocating for a return to that kind of violence –not to mention that newspapers… well, those are not as easy to come by as they once were– but that was something dogs could easily understand. It spoke to them in a kind of primal language they could actually grasp. It is also something that has become anathema to our own souls. That is a situation that can at times become untenable, so we do our best to remain reasonable until we reach our breaking point, and yell at them for being who they are.

Yes, I admit that in more than one instance I have lost my temper and yelled at my boy, badly. I have also yanked his leash a little harder than I should have, but while I feel terribly guilty in the aftermath of those incidents, and I keep promising myself that it won’t happen again, it does. I cannot help it any more than he can because while our current attitude seems to be to speak to them kindly, hoping that love and understanding –to say nothing of well-reasoned arguments– will do the rest, that is not how the world works. It may be a wonderful ideal, but it is also one that runs head first into a wall the moment you realize that the one thing that ideal fails to take into account is the very nature of your dog.

Your dog is not a verbal being. She may be great at picking cues from your tone of voice, and your body language, so much so that at times it may seem like she knows exactly what it is that you are saying, but while they may be taught to understand a handful of words, the bulk of your sentences will always remain utterly meaningless to her, and that means that a long string of kind words combined with a gentle tone will get you… absolutely nowhere. Yelling, kicking and screaming, once the frustration overwhelms you, may actually get through to her, but violence is not the answer, not to mention that giving in to your anger is likely to leave you riddled with guilt… and that guilt –which your dog is more than capable of recognizing, and using to her own advantage– will make any future attempts at disciplining her even more difficult.

Sure, when you are home there may be some alternatives, some forms of non-physical punishment that can help you get through to them, such as the use of a crate, but during a walk that is not exactly feasible. With some dogs you can lay down the basics, and expand from there, but that is not always the case. My dog is not just a rescue, but also a born stray (a term I prefer to feral, as it does not have the same connotations of aggression). That means that he survived on the streets, and fended for himself, until he was more than a year old… and that year matters, it matters a lot.

A dog that has been raised within the context of a family, even if not fully trained, neglected, or even abused, will probably understand that some level of obedience is not only desired, but also required, that they are utterly dependent. They may try to push those boundaries every now and then, to try to figure out what it is that they can get away with, but at the end of the day they do realize that those boundaries are there. For a former stray the very notion of obedience, of surrendering control, is completely alien.

Before you came into their lives their wits were the only thing they could rely upon to help them keep body and soul together, and that does give rise to a completely different mindset. It took me months to get my boy to understand that he had a name, that there was a sequence of sounds that actually meant him, and most of the commands I was able to teach him, he learned by mimicking my other dog’s behavior, only that other dog is now gone, and his brother… well, his brother is now testing those boundaries, reasserting his independence, and trying to figure out what he can get away with now that we don’t have anyone who can translate for us.

Hold on to your hats because this ride is about to get bumpy!

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