Monday, June 8, 2009

The Automaton

Our unconscious controlling attitudes toward dogs cause us to regard them almost as René Descartes* described them – as automatons. Descartes argued that because animals do not use language they would be completely indistinguishable from machines built to resemble them. His point was that the use of language is a sign of rationality and only things endowed with minds or souls are rational. All else are mindless slaves. This fallacy persists in the thoughts and actions of many. Instead of allowing a dog to think, to imagine and create, to formulate a plan and to bring forth the resolve to enact it, we command him. And he becomes an automaton – a mindless follower.

The word “command” is the very source of our unconscious controlling attitudes. We use it so casually and so often that we are numb to its meaning and to the ideas it conveys. When we command, we make another comply, we force, threaten and intimidate. One who commands must demand compliance to maintain authority and control. To give away any power to subjects would eventually bring them into conflict with our edicts. The disagreeable, slow and the reluctant-to-obey must be punished.

Yes, there are situations in which a dog’s response is urgently important but research shows that performance latency and predictability degrades in dogs who have been made to comply, particularly when their guardian is not near enough to make good on their threats. There are some very essential conditions under which dogs don’t or can’t give us the response we expect when and where we ask for it but the unconscious processes that follow the intent to command will disallow us any awareness or consideration of them. They will cause us to leap off into immediate corrective action. We will repeat our command again and again, to the point of shouting. We’ll handle the dog’s body. We'll become arbitrary and oppressive, frustrated and angry. We will give threatening facial and body-language signals. We may use our might and force to gain compliance and we might deliver a painful and frightening punishment.

The failure will be regarded as an intentional slight or refusal and as disrespect for our ultimate “pack-leader” authority. The act of commanding gives us an unconscious “do this or else” perspective. We turn the energy of absolute power upon the dog and deliver him unto powerlessness. I don’t believe that we really mean or intend what this word implies.

If we were to issue requests or suggestions instead, we would create opportunities to see how the dog we are communicating with actually feels about the interaction. That surely stands an old paradigm on its head and its something that commanding doesn’t allow. We can learn what makes him happy, what he’ll absolutely flip for and what he considers to be uninteresting. We can give him a chance to think and to create unique responses. In turn, we can alter our thinking and behavior to meet the dog at the place where he is most joyous and most involved. Instead of commanding an automaton, we'd be participating in a creative, happy and inspired partnership. And this experience will kill off another old fallacy – that the dog actually lives to please us.

*A 17th century philosopher, mathematician, scientist and writer considered to be "The Father of Modern Philisophy"

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