Imagine that you and your family have decided to adopt a pet alligator. First you would find out a little about alligators, then you’d visit ReptileFinder online to look at photos and pick the cutest one, and finally you’d bring the little dickens home.
Soon the alligator would start exhibiting her normal behaviors. She would slip into the goldfish pond in your garden and wreak havoc (pretend you have a goldfish pond). She would hide under the couch to take a nap, ripping the underside of the upholstery with her pointy back. She would open her huge mouth, holding it wide in a toothy threat display because you approached her too fast. The sight of her gaping, massive jaws would probably scare the you-know-what out of you.
Obviously you would not say to yourself, “This is a naughty alligator! I need to learn how to discipline her!” You would think, “Well, duh. Alligators need to do alligator things. I had better get a kiddie pool, a raised platform underneath which she can nap, and, to put her at ease, I need to learn to move differently around her.”
But it is not so obvious with a dog who appears to be naughty. Why not? It is because, unlike with an alligator, or for that matter literally any other animal on earth, the natural histories of dogs and humans are specially intertwined. Some scientists would even say humans and dogs have co-evolved. We “get” each other in ways that no other human/non-human pair understands each other. We have emotions in common and enjoy many of the same things. Dogs can read our body language and facial expressions, and even anticipate and fulfill our needs. It’s not your imagination.
However, we tend not to return the favor by trying to understand what our dogs are feeling and what they’re trying to tell us. Why? Because we are in charge, so we don’t trouble ourselves with it. We generally consider dogs’ needs and opinions less valuable than ours. When you think about it, that is a pretty arrogant attitude (some would call it “speciesist”). That’s not the kind of person most of us want to be. Golden Rule and all, if you see what I mean.
Honestly, there is no harm in giving your puppy the same consideration you would an alligator. It might even teach you and your kids something about yourselves, and about how we treat those who are similar yet different from us.
Granted, it is not always easy to live with another species. I don’t blame you one bit if at times you get emotional with your puppy, or try to explain to her the rules in the way that makes sense only to a human, or feel like she should know better. We all get sucked into that, partly because of how much we have in common with dogs. The connection we have with dogs is downright amazing, but it is no wonder the lines get blurry about what we expect they should automatically know. We have given them the role of family member, fashion accessory, disposable project, worker, best friend, menu item, hero, and hat trim, just to name a few. It’s confusing, to be sure. They are so like us, and at the same time we could do a lot better job of understanding and respecting our differences.
Perhaps we could meet our dogs halfway. If we make even a tiny effort to see things from their point of view, to learn to read their body language and meet their needs, I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much more harmonious life can be. We may even learn a thing or two from them.
Oh and the alligator thing was just a made-up analogy. I really doubt it is a good idea (or, you know, legal) to live with one.