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It’s Not About The Dog


I’ve always been a cat person. Maybe I liked to think of a cat as the animal equivalent of me. Sleek, lean, athletic, an independent thinker, a ruthless killing machine – no wait, that’s not right. OK, the real reason is that I like the fact that cats look after themselves, they’re low maintenance with maximum reward. So you can sit in your mountain-top fortress scheming and planning while stroking your cat on your lap, getting all that relaxation and concentration you need to outwit the good guys. And when you’re done you can throw the cat away, get one of your minions to feed it and then it’ll walk itself – low maintenance!

But over the past couple of years I’ve started to change my mind about cats and dogs. The more I’ve interacted with friends dogs the more I’ve started to see the benefits in having one. They’re lots of fun, give unconditional love, they encourage you to get out and exercise, they’re like a member of the family and best of all, unlike a wife you get to tell them what to do and they do it! 😉

Emma's Lhasa ApsoAnyway, the more dogs I saw the more I started to like them and when another friend brought their very cute and well behaved Lhasa Apso to the house (pictured right) I really started to think that maybe we should get a dog. Around this time we started watching The Dog Whisperer. For those of you who’ve never seen it, the premise is that people with problem dogs (aggressive, out of control, etc) call in dog expert Cesar Millan who comes along and very quickly sorts everything out. But the most interesting thing to me is that in all cases it’s not the dog that’s the problem, it’s always the owner.

Every few years in the UK there’s a horror story about a pit bull attacking a child, causing hideous damage and the press (and Government) bang home the point that certain breed of dogs are dangerous and should be exterminated. Indeed if you own a pit bull in the UK it’ll be destroyed under the Dangerous Dogs Act. But you know what? It’s all complete bullshit. The only reason dogs like pit bulls become aggressive is because the owners, unwittingly or otherwise, let them behave that way. The problem is that humans instinctively humanise dogs, treating them like they’re children and expect them to respond in the same way that children do.

What The Dog Whisperer demonstrates episode after episode is that dogs are instinctively followers, and when they are they’re calm and submissive and easy to live with. But if they feel that there’s not a pack leader (to a dog you and it are members of a pack) then they’ll step up to the role which means they’ll be more aggressive since defending and disciplining the pack is the job of the pack leader. If they see another dog they’ll impose their authority and try to dominate that dog too. However if you’re the pack leader the dog will hold back and look to you because it’s your job to decide if another dog is OK or not. But the real problem is that a dog only sees the world through a dog’s eyes and if you don’t assert yourself as pack leader in a dog-understandable way then you won’t be the pack leader in its eyes.

People will often shout at dogs to try and get them to do what they want. But really to communicate to a dog you don’t need to say a word, it’s all about your posture and body language. If you watch how dogs interact with each other you’ll notice they do it silently. A touch in the right place at the right time with the right intensity communicates in a far more meaningful way to a dog than a thousand words can. Dogs also mirror your emotions – so if you’re tense and nervous then the dog will be tense and nervous. If a nervous dog meets a couple of relaxed dogs you’ll notice that in most cases the relaxed dogs will pick up on the other dog’s nervousness and then you’ve got 3 fidgety dogs!

If you’re hesitant or not assertive when you instruct your dog to stop eating your shoes then your dog will take that hesitancy as a sign of weakness, look down on you as a lower pack member and carry on chewing. But if you prod it to switch its attention and “own” the shoes by standing over them in a confident way, the dog will get the message and back away. At least, that’s the overly simplified summary. Cesar has a complete understanding of dog psychology and can read situations before they occur and correct a dog before it gets into an excited state.

I guess that’s the thing us mere mortals can’t do so easily but it’s fun to see it done properly. And it shows me that with a bit of work and understanding of a dog’s point of view you can have a happy, calm, submissive dog and a happy life. And with the right owner a pit bull can be a far nicer, safer dog around children than an overly-pampered, humanised chihuahua. It’s not about the dog, it’s always about the owner.

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

10 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. As a long time dog owner I agree completely.

    You don’t ‘own’ a dog as much as accept it as a member of your family. The unconditional love and happiness they bring is, in my opinion at least, worth the inconvenience.

    Cesar Millan is an amazing guy, he’s so in tune with dogs it’s almost as if he’s part canine himself. Anyone who has (or is thinking of getting) a dog would do well to watch a few of his programmes to see exactly how humanising a dog and attempting to treat it equally or, even worse, being subservient to it is exactly the opposite of what should be done to foster a great relationship.

    A great post, John; let’s have another when you get your first dog 😉


  2. The are different dogs, all with a different personality. While I agree that the owner is the one who must be the master, he or she is not always capable of being one.

    The statistical “Labrador vs. useless master” case: the dog does whatever he wants, plays with whoever he wants, eats whatever he wants and passer-bys are disgusted. Children are happy.

    The statistical “Pitbull vs. useless master” case: the dog eats the master, then eats the children and then wanders free in the dark streets. Passer-bys flee terrified. Children are eaten.

    The problem in these two scientific comparisons is that there are dogs who are, STATISTICALLY, nice dogs. And dogs who are, STATISTICALLY, dangerous Alien-bred creatures. If the master is a superhero then both will behave well (though I will always fear the latter version).

    I am not sure, actually, what point I wanted to make but I like dogs. Mine (the “70% labrador, 27% unknown, 3% squirrel” kind) barked on me once, at the age where dogs usually try to get promoted from carpet to alpha male. After a specific discussion we had, he did not do it a second time and we all lived happily forever (except that my superhero abilities do not reach to the point where I could explain him not to roll in disgusting stuff)


    • Oh yeah, Cesar often mentions that different breed have different personality traits as you say – so it’s definitely down the owner to determine how many of the bad traits the dog exhibits!


  3. Hi John…interesting piece that. I’m also pretty much a cat person (though I think my nature relates to the sleep and lay about for 23 hours of a day rather than the athletic stuff!) and currently have a couple of manic tomcats (anyone want one??).
    Anyway, I guess your argument is the old ‘nature vs nurture’ thing which leads to your point of view that even a pit bull can be a well-adjusted, friendly member of the family that can run around and play with your kids. I can relate to this argument, but breeding does also play a part. I have seen a totally untrained collie dog exhibit behaviour similar to a sheepdog, in the case I saw it was basically ’rounding up’ the kids it was playing with. Most dogs will usually fall back on instinct when faced with a confusing/stressful/overly exciting situation, i.e. a whippet would run, a pit-bull would fight, and for that reason some breeds of dogs are always going to be dangerous in our society.


    • Yeah, I didn’t want to go into everything Mr Milan says else I’d have ended up writing 100,000 words but he does stress that you should identify a dog in terms of the following hierarchy (copied straight from the wikipedia article):

      – Firstly and most importantly, as a dog with canine rather than human needs.
      – Secondly, as a particular breed of dog — for example, a Boxer-Rottweiler mix — with a breed-specific energy level and behavioral instinct.
      – Thirdly, as their individual dog, e.g. “Bella.”

      Cats are still cool though!


  4. John, completely agree with your article, you make some fundamental points relating to posture and body language when relating to a dog. You’re right on the button with how they interact with each other, we can learn plenty from them and apply it to our interaction with them – take bum sniffing, nothing wrong with sniffing your dogs bum and letting them sniff yours – its an acceptance thing I think, just make sure they sniff yours more than you sniff theirs so that they know who is boss. Thanks for the interesting read.


    • Haha, I’m not sure what the neighbours would think if they caught me sniffing a dog’s bum. Would certainly give them something interesting to talk about! 😉


  5. I live in both worlds-a dogs and a cats. My husband is the Dog Person. I am the Cat Person. He has 6 dogs. I have 1 dog (I did not choose BUT was chosen!) and 1 cat. My Cat, JingleJoy, bosses the whole herd. I am actually just her staff person. My husband is a cross between Noah and Dr. Doolittle which means at times I have to be the “meanie” when someone shows up at the door with a critter! If I was not good with the word “NO” we would be seeking to be licensed as a ZOO in a blink! And at times can open the front door and there lays a critter waiting on us! I think somehow our house is marked like the Hobo’s of yesteryears use to mark the friendly houses for handouts! Love your blog thus will be a regular reader.


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