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! 😉
Anyway, 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.