Have you ever heard a dog trainer say, “Would you work without a paycheck?
Have you ever heard a dog trainer say, “Would you work without a paycheck? Why do you expect your dog to work without a paycheck?”
There’s a problem with that analogy because dogs and humans are not the same. Humans are motivated by a wide range of things such as altruism (volunteer work), a desire for social interaction ( going to work) and, obviously….money (gotta pay the rent!). And frankly, are we motivated by getting the paycheck, or furious if it doesn’t show up?
How about dogs? How does our dog feel (or “respond”, if you prefer) when there is no paycheck, or when it is withdrawn when it was anticipated?
The fact is, we do not know how our individual dogs feel in different circumstances. We guess based on what we would feel. That is because humans connect emotionally, and trying to identify with our dog’s emotions by putting ourselves in their shoes works for us. Straight up anthropomorphism.
But wait – there is more complexity still. Just because one dog loves it when you scratch them between the ears doesn’t mean another dog loves that. And since we are training individuals rather than groups, I’m not sure it matters all that much if eight dogs want to be scratched under the chin, the ninth wants to be scratched on top of the head, and the 10th doesn’t want to be touched at all. Hence, good trainers assume “average” but then train for the individual when the dog’s responses suggests a new approach is required.
So why do we do these things – use analogies, anthropomorphize, and assume the “common” response when these may lead to inaccuracies across species and wipe out the individual, whether by virtue of individual differences or a total mischaracterization of the species as a whole? Why do we use analogies and emotional language when sometimes the behavioral result suggests that we went down the wrong path? That this dog works for a cookie, that one doesn’t care about cookies but loves to be scratched under the chin, and the 10th will do anything for a tennis ball?
Because analogies resonate for people on an emotional level – we identify. We know how we feel when we get a paycheck (or probably more accurately, how we would feel if it were withheld), so when we are asked to assume that our dogs feel the same way, it resonates for us! And when we point out that one dog may be more motivated by chicken while the other prefers beef, that goes over better if we point out that humans also have individual food preferences – more anthropomorphism. Trainers use emotional language because it makes the client identify with the dog, feel sympathy towards the dog and makes the client more likely to willingly change their behavior in relation to the dog. We fall in love with our dog as an emotional response, not a behavioral one, and the language we choose to use can facilitate that process. And all of that leads to increased happiness and acceptance between the dog and the owner – presumably the end goal. So if people understand motivation better (and are kinder with their dog) when it is couched in terms of a paycheck rather than rate of reinforcement or motivating operations? Run with it.
Humans use the language of emotion to communicate because it works. It is more easily understood and applied than the language of behavior. We can look at our dog’s behavior and makes some educated guesses about how they feel. And now we are on a slippery slope because while it often works, it may also take us down a more problematic path, in particular when we attribute undesirable traits to our dogs that are present in our own species. What do we do when people use analogies or labels that lead to words, conclusions and analogies of generally malicious intent in our dogs?
Dogs and people – are we the same? Are we different? When do we insist on accurate terminology and when we do we let it slide to serve our own purposes? If the paycheck analogy is okay, in spite of its lack of recognition of the effects of non-tangible reinforcers on individuals and the fact that the potential loss of a paycheck is probably more keenly salient to a person’s choice to go to work than noting it’s arrival in the bank every two weeks, how do we make the decision to hold the line to behavioral language in other conversations with our pet dog clients? Or should we eliminate all analogies and strictly speak the language of behavior?
I would argue that we should use analogies and the language of emotion in spite of inaccuracies and assumptions. That by focusing on emotional discussions and reframing negative phrases to positive ones we are more likely to be effective with our clients than by discussing exclusively observable behavior or insisting on more formal scientific language.
Humans relate by putting ourselves in the shoes of others – we apply things that would work for us (or others that we know) and then we watch. What happens?
I feel good when you smile at me, so what happens if I smile at you? And if the next result is that you interact with me in a pleasant fashion, then I draw conclusions about your experience. Not because you told me how you feel when I smile at you, but because I projected my feelings onto you. This is how we raise empathetic children – we encourage projection, even though it may well be inaccurate here and there.
What about our dogs. Should we be projecting? Encouraging others to do so?
On a moment by moment basis, humans are emotional creatures. When something happens we “feel” immediately – logic takes time and effort! We feel what happens around us; flashes of anger or joy! Sure, we can think about it after the fact but in the moment? We are emotional. So why not start there and then work our way to behavior the same way an introspective human does with themselves or each other, via projection?
When trainers interact with average pet people using emotional language, they create connections which are a natural and easily understood part of the human condition. People don’t think in terms of behavior, they exist in terms of feelings!
If I am asked, “How do I know if my dog is happy?” My response will be “Well, if a child were doing the same thing in similar circumstances, what conclusion might you draw?” And then I point out details to get them started.
Do you have any idea how effective that is? I can teach people 90% of dog behavior with that phrase alone, and I’m not about to stop. Is it perfect? Of course not, because the individual matters and so does our ability to interpret another species correctly. But the phrase? The use of the analogy? It’s my first line of defense and education. It gets people watching their dogs behavior. Now I’ll work to refine their interpretations.
Isn’t that the goal? Getting people to observe and interpret their dog’s behavior? And now that I have connected with the client – I have been understood – I can help them with their dog.
The vast majority of human connections rely on understanding their fellow human’s possible emotional reactions to various situations. When I take advantage of those realities for their dogs, I make it easy to explain complex topics to people.
Use analogies and avoid technical language unless there’s a specific reason for it.
But what about the language of emotion that focuses on negative interpretations? What should we do with that in our clients?
First, it helps to recognize that negative word choices reflect how the owners are feeling and from there, encourage people to reframe their emotional language to recognize both the dog’s point of view and the realities of dogs as dogs. The choice of pejorative language and negative labels are a reflection of the underlying emotional reality – the dog and handler are not in alignment. Here are some examples.
My dog is stubborn! How about, “Your dog is persistent! People have bred for that trait in your breed for generations and that is why your dog behaves that way. But we can work with your dog’s personality rather than against it so let’s make a plan to do that.”
My dog is manipulative! How about, “Your dog is clever! He figured out in only a couple of repetitions how to get you to drop the food that you’re holding! So we have to be a bit more clever as well. Let’s start with this exercise….”
My dog is hyper! How about, “Your dog is a typical puppy. He’s moving because he’s young and that is what young dogs do. Kind of like two year old children who are into everything. So what kinds of things do we do with young humans? Remember, puppies grow up – just like kids. Let’s get a plan in place to make this work better for both you and your dog and let age take care of the rest.”
As you look at word pairs like “hyper/enthusiastic” or “calm/lazy” you can see that the negative choice of words is not a description of the behavior as much as a reflection of how that speaker is framing that behavior because of their own feelings about it. If they like the behavior they select positive words. Don’t focus on the word choice, focus on what it tells you about how the handler is feeling so that you can begin to make the situation better in a way that recognizes the emotional realities of the situation.
The salient point here is not the choice of negative language, it’s what it says about how the handler feels about their “hyper” dog. The needs of the dog and handler are not matched and that creates emotional distress, quite likely in both parties.
So why not just focus on the undesirable behavior and create a plan for change? Remove the language of emotions and human analogies altogether?
Because then the trainer loses the opportunity to reframe the situation in the way that is most easily assimilated by humans – through emotional connection, projection and common, intuitive language. And anyway, if you won’t let your client speak about their dog being irritable then is it fair to speak about the dog working for a paycheck?
Find the underlying emotion, help the handler understand it from both their own and the dog’s points of view, and then work to put changes in place via management or behavior modification techniques – whatever makes the most sense!
At that point, the conversation can shift to one of behavior and creating a plan for behavior change but always keep in mind the reason the dog’s misbehavior is problematic for that handler – that is the emotional side of the equation.
There is nothing simple about communication, and that is really what we are talking about here. It’s not just a human getting their way via training. It’s not just changing the dog’s behavior. It’s about getting everyone’s needs met. That can be accomplished via communication, and since people communicate by far and away most easily in the language of emotions, don’t ignore it or focus solely on the negative language and emotions that tend to get humans into trouble.
Use analogies, even if they are not 100% accurate. If it is helpful to talk about working for a paycheck or a dog as if they shared the emotions of a human child, then use it. And if the person attributes thought processes to dogs that are not likely in their repertoire? Tell them that; that’s an opportunity for a little education and empathy building! No, your dog is not plotting to get back at you – dogs don’t think that way. But your dog might be feeling (fill in the blank) which is leading to (fill in the blank).
Spend plenty of energy talking about the expression and behaviors of the dog and relate them to children. If a dog turns away from you when you’re interacting, what would that mean if it were a child? Probably the same as if a child turns away from you when you are interacting.
How do you feel when your boss says kind words to you? How do you feel when your boss yells at you? How does that make you feel about the environment you are in when your boss is present? How does that make you feel about your boss?
And dogs? How do they feel when you are yelling at them? How do you think they feel when you speak kind words to them? How do you think that makes them feel about the environment when you are in it with them?
How do you think a shy or more introverted child feels when they are forced into more social situations when their behavior suggests they want to leave? And a dog showing very similar behaviors? You can label that as shy or introverted or fearful – use what works best for that handler to develop empathy for that dog.
Those types of questions encourage your client to view their dog as an emotional being – and that is where they will fall in love.
Use all of it!
I am very comfortable using words like leadership, communication, feelings, happy, scared, enthusiastic, shy, etc. I’m okay with some inaccuracies because I change the lives of people and dogs for the better more easily with our shared language rather than the one I might use with colleagues. As a trainer, I need to communicate at the level that clients most easily relate to so that they are willing to make things better – for both themselves and their dogs.
And ultimately, that is my goal.
Image credit comes from In High Drive - Photography in Motion. You can check out Jennifer's work at her website: https://inhighdrive.com/