Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Trading Possibility for Control

Self-direction is the freedom to choose when, where and how to act. The ability to voluntarily pursue authentic interests and preferences leads to creative and expressive autonomy, independence, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Dogs who are free to engage the world and its happenings are spontaneous, innovative, versatile and confident. These dogs do things for the sake of doing them and because they enjoy doing them. They are active and interested when they are in environments that are rich and interesting – natural environments, most particularly. Sadly, few dogs have these freedoms and opportunities. They live inside homes—often where little moves, changes or happens—and when outside the home are usually contained and tethered. And even when they could, they don’t have these freedoms because their people demonstrate compulsive inclinations to control and micro-manage them. We command, direct and instruct dogs, acting as if they can’t or don’t think on their own and as if they can’t be trusted to come up with a worthwhile response. Without realizing it, we try to squeeze the fullness of a dog’s thinking, feeling, imaginative and active possibilities into the narrow dictates of our own concepts, rationalities and desires. When I saw this in myself I was struck with the absurdity of it and the arrogance and stupidity of denying a dog any possibility of self-direction. I resolved to find ways to be more present around dogs so I could avoid engaging in unconscious compulsions.

There is a dog in my class who is demonstrating incredible creativity, decisiveness and immediate, purposeful action. In this particular case, what the dog is doing isn’t working for his person and it really isn’t in his best interest either. His person runs a busy produce market on a busy highway and Gunther goes with her every day. When she is in the market or can’t be supervising him, he is in the office. Rather than closing him up in there, his person installed a gate across the doorway. Within a week, Gunther was leaping over it to gain his freedom. A taller gate was installed but Gunther realized that it was no match for his body weight so he just pushed it down and walked right out. His person got the idea to have a stall-type door made so the top could remain open and Gunther could hear and smell the goings on beyond it. The day that it was installed, she left Gunther in the office feeling good about her choice but when she returned, he was gone. She thought she hadn’t closed the door well enough until the same thing happened the next day. She set up her camera to record the caper and this is what she saw (click here to view a short video clip then click the "back" arrow to return).

This is the very kind of creative ingenuity that enabled dogs to survive and thrive around hazardous human activities for the hundreds of years before we began to contain and control them. This is the dog’s default program. Why would we want to snuff it out and exchange it for the dutiful compliance of a measly few orders—what we call “commands”—we actually take the time to teach a dog? Who would want to trade an animal with such incredible potential for one who won’t or can’t do anything unless and until he is told or allowed? Without opposable digits Gunther may not win this one because the handle is going to be replaced with a knob. But that won’t extinguish door-opening genius wherever handles are present. Gunther has already taught himself how to operate them and reinforced himself for operating them by gaining his freedom. His person is going to have to find ways to encourage and develop his free-thinking creativity. In fact, now that she has shown this to me, their remaining weeks in clicker class are going to get pretty interesting!


dog-ma said...

The tag I put on my Facebook forward of your post:

I love the whole idea of this. I strive to set up a life for my dogs where they are happy to comply with my requests, and I am likewise happy for them to come up with new, win/win ways of doing what needs doing. This is magical to me, that two species can actually collaborate. I wish more people could feel the wonder of this kind of relationship with their dogs. I'm the coach, but we have a better team when the star players are contributing enthusiastically as individuals.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! I too aim to give my dogs as much freedom and rich interactions as I safely can, while providing loving guidance when necessary. Their creative solutions always amaze and entertain me.