Dogs: Assumptions can hurt
We humans often make assumptions about our dogs.
“He ate my shoes because he was mad that I left him at home.”
“She got into the trash because she was trying to get back at me.”
“He was bad dog because he wouldn’t listen to me.”
“She looks guilty, therefore she must have done it.”
But I wonder how often we actually take the time to examine the reasons behind the behavior?
This past week, I had the misfortune of having someone make some unflattering assumptions about me. It was not a good feeling. I felt hurt and embarrassed and yes, guilty, even though I had no reason to feel so. I think what bothered me most is that no one bothered to ask me what had happened or why. They just assumed I was guilty.
As I tried to come to a better understanding of how and why something like this could happen, I started thinking about how applicable my situation was to what happens to dogs – an assumption of guilt without seeking to understand.
Because they can’t tell us what happened or because we don’t have all the knowledge and skills to understand them, we tend to make a lot of assumptions about our dogs. We assume the one looking most guilty must be the one who got into the trash or destroyed our favorite pair of shoes. We assume that a dog acting out must be a just a bad dog or be mentally unbalanced. Rarely, do we stop to observe the root cause of a dog’s behavior to better understand why they are behaving a certain way.
Most people assume a dog looks guilty because they ARE guilty, but what is often missed is how much our behavior impacts our dog’s behavior. It is often a reflection of what WE are doing. Studies now show that tone of voice and an owner’s behavior has a lot more to do with a dog’s guilty look than actual guilt.
A dog who bites may be a bad dog in our eyes, but he could just as easily be reacting to a sound or another trigger in his environment that makes them fearful and stressed. (A friend recently shared a story of a dog that turned into “Cujo” whenever she heard a common sound in the house. Turns out the dog had started to associate the noise with people coming up behind her and scaring her. She could no longer hear them.)
Sometimes a physical impairment can also cause a dog to behave oddly. I’ll never forget the story one animal rescuer told me about a dog she fostered and later adopted. The dog had been poorly treated by his previous family because they thought he was stupid and stubborn and because he wouldn’t listen to their commands. Imagine her surprise when she took the dog in to foster and discovered he was deaf! The owners had never taken the time to observe his behavior long enough to realize he could not hear them. They had just assumed he was a bad dog – for four years!
As I look back on my experience last week, I can’t help but feel fortunate. As a human being, I have the ability to address my issue directly. I can use my voice to share how a person’s assumptions were wrong. I can use emails and paper documentation as evidence.
Dogs, however, only have us to rely on. I may not have always done so in the past, but I intend to be a much better steward of my dog’s trust. When I find myself assuming, I am going to stop and observe instead. There’s so much more that gets accomplished when one asks questions first, don’t you think?