Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Let Me Be Myself

The other day as I was driving to work, I had a weird thought cross my mind: If I were a dog what would my personality be like? What type of training might I need to be "the best that I could be?" How would my quirks be interpreted by the humans around me?

I started thinking about the traits that usually get me in the most trouble. I am stubborn and often disagreeable to a fault. I over-analyze everything. When something is happening that I don't agree with (especially when I perceive it as something harmful to myself and/or others) I can't just let it go. (Looking at it from this perspective, I shouldn't be surprised to have ended up with border collies and a bull-headed terrier!)

On top of this, I tend to be fairly high-strung and anxious (my love for even the least sociable of chihuahuas is making more sense...). While I absolutely enjoy a good conversation and spending time with other people, I'm also very much an introvert. I don't like enormous crowds (with a few rare exceptions) and vastly prefer socializing in smaller groups of people I know and am familiar with. This is not to say that I hate people (though you may want to ask me again on a different day or even later today when my neighbors start blasting up the neighborhood with their 4th of July festivities) but I'm just not the type to keep 1,000 friends around. I prefer a handful that I can really get to know. Friendship means something to me and whether you want to admit it or not, it does require energy and risk. We all eventually get our feelings hurt and to me, it had better be worth it in the end.

Would I be considered broken if I were a dog? Probably. How many people want a dog that isn't particularly fond of its own kind, has a stubborn streak, and tilts its head in deep thought (also known as confusion in my world) when you ask for something that should be simple?

You: "Sit, Terri!"
Terri-dog: (thinking) What? Here? This floor is freezing... how about a paw? You usually like it when I give paw.

To make matters worse, being high-strung and somewhat anti-social would definitely make me more likely to become aggressive if my feelings and body language were never taken into consideration. Honestly, if not for my awareness of hygiene as well as my strong desire to stay out of jail, I'd probably go out and bite a few choice people right now. And now that I think about it, most of those people are also ones that don't take my feelings or not-so-subtle hints into consideration.

Let's face it; I would suck as a canine companion. I might even end up dangerous, depending on who my caretaker was and how they handled (or didn't handle) all of my issues. Many trainers might be brought in to try to fix me and to be honest, I can't think of anything that would "cure" me of all my ailments. Improvements could be made (and already have been; you're currently reading from Terri version 3.0 as previous versions were only barely functional), but what would it take to totally turn me around?

I'd have to be someone completely different.

Thankfully, it's not the same with dogs, right? We should be able to get them to do absolutely anything that we want them to do. We should be able to use them for absolutely any purpose that we want to use them for. There are no anxious dogs that need a quieter home and some desensitization to the potential triggers around them. There are no high-strung dogs that need a real outlet for their energy and some special training to learn where to focus it. Dogs should always love playing with other dogs, otherwise there is something vastly wrong with them. There are no broken dogs that are just so terrified of people that they lose control and bite in an effort to save themselves from what they believe is impending danger. The only things those dogs need are discipline and a dominant leader, right? With those two things, any dog can pull a 360 and become the exact opposite of itself. Right?

As a trainer, my mind is usually set to "modify behavior" mode because that's what is asked of me and what I love to do. However, it is so important to remember that dogs are personalities, souls, spirits, however you want to describe them... they are unique individuals. Dogs are made up of not only their genetics, not only their past experiences, but a huge combination of factors that make them who they are. Just like us... only different. Maybe far less different than I originally thought?

They have learned to read humans as humans, not as fellow canines. They regard us in a completely different fashion than they regard each other. At the same time, they come from a background of living in social groups and demonstrate very similar social dynamics. Some of them love everyone of their own species, others are more picky.

By no means am I saying that we should stop training our dogs or working on the issues that they have. It is very important to continuously work with them and help them become better able to cope with the world around them. However, it will be easier and less frustrating for everyone involved if we remain mindful that our dogs aren't robots. Training methods that completely ignore their feelings, body language, and actual thought processes have no place in a world where we recognize our dogs as more than thoughtless machines driven by dominance. We must be fair and realistic in how we approach any behavioral issue.

Behavior can be modified, but to what extent do we need to push this? If your dog bites strangers in your home can you be content just to teach him not to bite or do you absolutely need him to be ok with being cuddled and pet by newcomers as well? Every situation and training need is going to be a bit different, of course, but sometimes compromise is necessary. (It is also important to realize that management is just as important as proper training, especially in situations where someone could get hurt.) How do you manage to cope with your own fears or quirks while successfully functioning in the world? Chances are, you aren't able to change everything 100% and have found little ways to make things work.

I'm very interested to know what kind of "dog personality" you believe you would have? What would your quirks be and what things do you think someone might want or even need to fix? What kind of training would you respond to, if any? Obviously, we have the advantage of being far more mindful of what is around us so keep that in mind. As a dog, you have all the feelings (fear, anxiety, excitability, etc.) but none of the awareness or understanding about what those things are or why they happen. How would this affect you? What type of home would best suit you?

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