When I began my more focused and formal path to becoming a dog behavior analyst and educator I found a teacher whose work was focused on dogs that had no hope. He was, in recovery parlance, the last house on the block for these dogs. They were, more often than not, power breeds or power breed mixes, that had been placed in the wrong homes. In some cases it was a case of deep human ignorance — people who “just wanted” a specific breed but had been truly ill or misinformed about how to handle that breed. Can’t rule out those cases of pure human hubris — the arrogant sorts who get a dog as a status symbol, basing their choice on what others have or — even worse — what they saw in a film or on TV. Some were just examples of misfired breeding. In many cases it was a case of flawed or failed leadership — humans whose anthropomorphized views of their dogs had set the dogs’ perception of their world upside down, confusing the dog with conflicting communication and as a result the dog was desperately trying to find its place.
Whatever the root cause the dogs were violent, had serious bite histories, and if not for the rehabilitation efforts of my teacher these dogs were all heading for euthanasia. (For the record, he sadly was not able to save all the dogs, but near 100% were saved from death…different story for different post.)
When he and I sat down for our very first intensive, he looked me dead in the eye and said, “Red pill, or blue pill?”
I paused because I wasn’t entirely sure what a reference to #TheMatrix had to do with dog training and, seeing my pause, he continued, “Let me put it this way. Once I’ve pulled the curtain back on the genesis for dog behavior; once you’ve come to understand dog psychology and how dogs actually see the world; once you’ve come to understand the nuance of dog body language and vocalizations — all those videos online that have millions of views that everyone things are hilarious? They’re not going to be funny anymore. Instead you’ll see the deeply disturbing behavioral pattern that is more than likely to — one day — lead to that dog biting someone, or worse.”
Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting.
I responded that those videos were so short and likely out of context, so how could we truly know that they were bad.
He smiled. The kind of sad, knowing smile one sees on the face of a teacher with wisdom and experience who’s being patient in the face of a student’s lack of those things.
“You’ll just know,” he said. And left it at that.
I paused. I thought about it. Then I took that red pill. I have to say not only was he right about the videos, but witnessing daily things that have potential for real danger down the road is a real thing. What makes it most challenging is that unless someone expresses explicit interest in addressing the bad behaviors (pulling on the leash, jumping on people, counter surfing, marking in the house, excessive barking/vocalization or — at worst — biting/attacking) there is zero I can do. Even in cases where people seek support and end up on my doorstep (or that of any other dog education professional) there are many cases where nothing can be done because folks are looking for a quick “fix” without the willingness to lean in and recognize that is their behavior that must change first before the dog’s behavior can be addressed.
Why am I on this particular soapbox today? It’s about a remix of a reel that I posted yesterday on Instagram. With the disclaimer — I have no idea what happens before the video is shot. Or after it. There is zero context. So my comments on the post are based solely on what I’m witnessing. Is the person with the dog a highly trained professional? Or even just a well-educated/trained “civilian” dog owner? Perhaps. Does that change things? Yes. Because those who have the skills and the proper relationship with a dog have a lot more latitude in terms of what they can do in sparking a dog’s arousal/behavior.
Based solely on what I’m seeing in that video — the dog is exhibiting increasing levels of discomfort. If you’ve watched the above link and are wondering what I’m talking about, here’s a great article that goes through the things that I see — ear position, slight “whale eye”, lip licking, yawning, deferring gaze/head position — all physical manifestations of anxiety & stress.
In any case, the catalyst for this post comes not from the video or my initial post, but rather from a handful of the comments that came after.
It’s not like the comments are deeply offensive or profane. There is the one that calls me a “Karen” which elicited a spit take and snort laugh with my morning coffee. Of all the comments and likes, at least thus far, the negative ones are relegated just to these few (a couple of which are actually from the same person). So just ignore them, right? Well, I am human after all, and certainly am not immune to that experience of feeling not so great when people discount, disregard, or otherwise disrespect my experience and knowledge. So after I wiped the coffee from the counter, I harumphed, took a glance at the grammar of the commentary, and immediately cast judgement on the level of intelligence of the commenters.
Then I realized that doing so made me no better than they.
Had one of them engaged — even a little — with curiosity and insight, things could have gotten very interesting. Perhaps they’d bring up the point that we don’t know the context. Perhaps they’d bring up the point that we don’t know the person who did the video. Perhaps they’d have an entirely different view or perspective. Instead — judgement, name calling, insults. Laughable insults, perhaps, but insults nonetheless. Rather than lean into the opportunity to disagree with something and engage in a dialogue that could inform, educate and lift up, they chose to hurl insults.
Insults hurled from behind relatively anonymous masks (three of the four individuals commenting have private accounts that block communication from those they don’t know, the remaining one is a three year old account with grand sum total of 6 posts — not a single one of which reflects any sort of insight or knowledge about, well, anything).
I’m reminded of the great quote by Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
We’ve become a society saturated with so much fear that the instinct to lash out, judge, and immediately shut down someone whose ideas are different has grown to epic proportion. This fear, sadly, isn’t new and has been gaining momentum for some time. Long-time management consultant John Hagel III has spent the last 40 years counseling and guiding C-Suite executives at some of the most influential businesses of our time. His recent book The Journey Beyond Fear digs into the fear-based culture that infiltrates the heart of our economic engine and the impact it’s having, not just on the people but on the businesses’ bottom line.
Fear. It does lots of different things to people and one of those things is catalyzing the need to be right. Confusing the state of holding fast to an idea with being overly attached to it. It’s one thing to plant my feet and be steady in my belief in the face of adversity and conflict. It’s another thing altogether to have such a deeply ingrained “automatic no” combined with an almost pathological need to be right (self-righteous indignation anyone?) that is the problem.
The sad part? My own drive for leadership hit a snag with this. You’d think, given my view, that I’d wade right into the middle of those posts and comment on them, inviting them to conversation. Had it been on a different forum, I’d have done that (for example: comments on a post here, on my personal Facebook page, my blog, or even in person discussion at a dinner party or somewhere public). The irony of “social” media is that it is anything but. There is nothing social about it.
The 30,000 foot definition of “social” that I found on the Internet didn’t say much. Just “relating to society or its organization.” So I dug a bit deeper with my old friend Merriam-Webster.
Definition of social
1: involving allies or confederates
2a: marked by or passed in pleasant companionship with friends or associates
2c: of, relating to, or designed for sociability
3: of or relating to human society, the interaction of the individual and the group, or the welfare of human beings as members of society
4a: tending to form cooperative and interdependent relationships with others
4b: living and breeding in more or less organized communities especially for the purposes of cooperation and mutual benefit : not solitary
The gist of all of it — community, cohesion, companionship. In other words, something pleasant. Something where, even in a moment of conflict the inclination would be to address it through behavior at least resembling respect. Sadly when it comes to social media, there’s blessed little of that. Instead it’s filled with those who are sitting up in those cheap seats in the arena, Coors in one hand and bag of popcorn in the other.
And yes, even that description I offered is filled with judgement, a commentary that someone who’d make a particular beverage and food choice is somehow more inclined to behave or think a certain way. A whole great conversation about stereotypes gets to happen too … (and thus the topic for another post is born).
But I digress.
Other than the topic of the catalyzing incident, what does any of this have to do with the topic I’ve set forward as being my wheelhouse here? That the dog-human bond is our greatest teacher and the key to more human and human connections? Simple. One of the things I respect most about dogs is their inherent understanding of structure, order, group dynamics and respect. When leadership is clear and well-defined, they get it. Doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. There are. And they’re handled with an understanding of how that will go. The well-being of the family (aka pack, a word that I don’t use to describe dogs), is of paramount importance.
We get to remember that none of us are “lone wolves” — especially since the lone wolf is literally not a thing. Doesn’t exist. A wolf on its own is one thing and one thing only — sick or dying. If, on rare occasion it’s lost (odd but has happened) that wolf will die because of its inability to sufficiently feed itself or defend itself against threats. If you see a wolf on its own, it’s either sick and dying … or its family is very near. Is there occasionally friction in the family or group? Yes. Leadership is responsible for keeping the peace and in absence of the actual leaders (aka alpha bonded pair) there is a structure, a chain of command, for ensuring the family order is retained.
There’s an entire discussion to have about family, what that means today, and how our interconnected society demands that we view the way we engage with the world and those around us differently. For today though I’ll leave it here — in those moments when someone comes up against you with either a contrary view, disagreement with your point or flat out tosses an insult your way, take a moment and pause. Remember that their actions likely have nothing, really, to do with you but rather are some sort of response to an historic moment, one that set the trigger for their behavior today.