Can’t Fix What’s Not Broken
It’s such an interesting word … fix.
More often than not I hear it used in the context of repairing or mending something that’s broken (I have to fix that flat tire). If you look at how Merriam Webster defines it, that meaning comes pretty far down on the list after a series of choices relating to holding something steady or keeping it in place (I fix the date for the meeting).
So when someone comes to me with a problem with their dog that they want to “fix”, obviously they are relating to the former definition. They want the behavior extinguished. Oh and then there’s that other lovely use when speaking of a pet. That time in the pet’s life when you take them to the vet to get them “fixed” — as if them being able to have offspring somehow makes them broken.
Imagine if we thought about people like that.
Point is, there’s nothing “broken” in the dog. Not when it’s “misbehaving” and certainly not before it’s been altered. It’s a dog, being a dog. Full stop.
Such a fascination we have, us humans, with “fixing” things. As if the brokenness, the messiness is too utterly unacceptable. Things are expected to be picture perfect — Instagram-friendly, Facebook-friendly and cued up with the perfect lighting and angles for just the right Tik Tok moves. It’s life curated for a stream of information that moves so quickly it’s gone even before it lands.
So what exactly is it that we are fixing?
In the case of dogs and their behavior we certainly do have some parameters that have been put in place. For those of us who live anywhere other than massively rural spaces, the truth is that our dogs get to have some common social skills in place so that they — not altogether different from us — can be in harmony with the environment. Things like not barking excessively, not dragging their humans down the sidewalk on leashes or lunging out at other dogs (or people). Things like not digging holes in the park (or yard, or neighbors yard).
When a dog is “misbehaving”, once I’ve ruled out any possible physical reason for it (like ear infections, allergies etc…), there is one possibility and one possibility only.
Put simply, what we have here, is a failure to communicate.
When I’m working as a behavioral counselor for dogs and their humans, my job is to come in and make sure the dog understands its place in the family and that the humans understand how to communicate with their dog. That their dog is not, in fact, a tiny person. That their dog does not have the capacity to process information in the same way as a human. It’s about meeting the dog where it is, being clear on what we want and then supporting the dog in getting to where it needs to go.
Truth is, that’s not altogether different than when addressing friction between people. Think about it. Take two people who are uncomfortable, for whatever reason. Maybe they’re not feeling well. Maybe one of them just had a fight with their spouse. Maybe they just got bad news about a family member. Take those two people and throw them together in a confined space — the line at a coffee place, for example — and then add something like a long wait.
It’s probably not long before one person’s discomfort bumps up against the other person’s discomfort and — voila — friction.
We like to think that because we have the gift of complex language, executive function in that brain of ours, that somehow the friction we have is any different than two dogs snarking at each other as they pass on a sidewalk.
It’s about each individual not being comfortable in their own space, first. And then likely having some sort of trigger reaction to a circumstance in the space around them (often a trigger not even directly related to what’s actually happening but rather something from the past).
This is where that executive function part of our brain comes in super handy. Use it. It requires taking a minute, acknowledging feelings and then not acting on them but making the choice to behave in a different way.
Sound challenging? Sure. Especially when somone is stepping on your very … last … nerve. Kind of like what happens around this time of year when we’re tossed into contained spaces with the very people who installed the buttons that are being pressed.
It’s challenging, but not impossible.