I was at a dog park the other day and heard one woman tell another “He’s got to learn not to do that.” She was referring to the dog she brought with her, the one she said “misbehaves” and “tries to get away with things.” Like so many of the words and phrases we use to talk about dogs and our relationships with them, these statements left me with an overwhelming feeling of incongruity.
Why didn’t the woman say “I’ve got to teach him not to do that” or “I’d like to teach him (the opposite of that)? Obviously, there is an underlying belief that the dog is somehow responsible for what he does and does not learn. Yet, he bides his life almost completely in our homes, care and company. He has little freedom of will or action. The dog is unable to discern what he must know about our world. He can not devise an education plan or teach himself something we’d like him to know but have not taught him. When we make a dog responsible for something over which he has no power or authority, he will fail. We will fail to recognize that the responsibility is ours. And the dog will never learn what “he’s got to learn.”
Does a dog really misbehave? To "misbehave" is to conduct oneself without regard for good manners or accepted moral standards. To behave is to conduct or comport oneself in a proper manner. Dogs behave in the ways that are natural and proper to dogs. The problem with this is that most of us don’t really know what proper doggish behavior is; many of us have never have even contemplated it. Instead, we have opinions, beliefs and concepts that we gather from lifetimes of influences and we set out to impose them upon the dog. Sometimes, when we’re done, there’s very little doggish left.
The accepted standards of conduct, the “good manners” by which we expect a dog to behave are guidelines that we create and think a dog can uphold. The dog does not know them and can not know them unless taught. Even then, if they run counter to what it is to even be a dog, he may not be able to demonstrate them. The responsibility for setting realistic standards is ours. This can be done in a couple of ways. We can turn off the mind’s chatter program – the one that feeds us only history and makes us believe that we know it all – and observe the dog from a fresh and vigilant perspective. Dogs aren’t too much different from people in the ways they feel and express their feelings so we can learn a lot about them just by being aware, open and receptive. Or, we can soak up information on ethology, behaviorism and canine education practices. Either way, it is our responsibility to teach a dog how to meet the standards we conceive. Therefore, any dog who "misbehaves" is a dog who has not been properly educated and this is certainly not a failure that can be attributed to the dog.
And what about trying to get away with something? Do dogs really do this? This sounds like dogs are attempting to foil, overthrow or usurp us by conniving or conspiring against our standards or wishes. It implies falseness – tricking, misleading or deceiving. Fortunately, dogs aren’t that complicated. If a dog knows the rules, he plays them to his advantage. This isn’t something he deliberates about; it’s part of his canine constitution. We either teach him the rules, as we’ve already learned, or we don’t and he just does what serves him in the void. There’s nothing conniving or false about this. In fact, we do the same.
When we truly don’t know much about dogs we will fix them with human models of conduct and comportment. This will lead us to create unreasonable standards and expectations – like making a dog responsible for learning something we have failed to teach. When we truly do know dogs, we actually don’t believe very much about them. We just continuously discover the wonderful ways in which they doggishly happen.