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Help! My Dog Doesn’t Respect Me… (Part 1)

Well, there really isn’t any nice way to say it.  The chances are extremely good that—oh, no, it’s true!  Your dog has no respect for you at all.  If it’s any consolation, I’m fairly persuaded my dog Tinker hasn’t got a shred of respect for me--zero, zip, none.  My cats almost certainly don’t, at least not in any way that I can tell.  I can’t be entirely positive, of course, but I’d lay good money on it.  Depending, of course, on what we mean by respect.


When I Google the word, this is the sort of definition that pops up (heavily edited for brevity):


re·spect (rəˈspekt/noun): a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.

verb:  admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements.


This sounds innocuous enough, I reckon, suggesting that our pups and dogs ought to be looking up to us for our hopefully amazing abilities, qualities or achievements.  Except… Let’s assume that we as pet owners actually have those amazing abilities, qualities or achievements to look up to—we’ll just grant us that for the sake of argument.   That still leaves us with two sticky wickets. 


First, our dogs have to have a feeling of “deep admiration.”  Second, that feeling presumably leads to behaviors that are different or better than the behaviors they would have if they didn’t have “deep admiration” for us.  


Hmmm.  Here’s where being a “science-based” trainer becomes an entertaining exercise in critical thinking.  It’s okay to assert something, but then there’s got to be testing.  And evidence.  And proof.  If we are making an assertion that dogs have a feeling of “deep admiration” (or anything else), then by golly, let’s get into dem brains and find out where that feeling of “deep admiration” occurs (which part of the brain), the neurotransmitters and chemicals involved, the physiological changes and processes that take place.   Feelings of deep admiration (or anything else) are not based on air, or smoke and mirrors.  If some dogs have “respect” and some dogs don’t, we need to be able to tell the difference.  A real difference.  Because “feelings”—or more properly, emotions—are very much not smoke-and-mirrors.  


As the work of Jaak Panksepp and many other neurobiologists have shown in both human and non-animals, emotions aren’t ephemeral “thought processes,” but very real and specific (though complex) physiological responses that occur in very real and specific parts of the brain—parts shared in common by many animals.  Fear is a good example:  we can evoke a strong fear response in a critter by tweaking an electrode inserted in one part of the brain and get zero fear response in animals if those parts of the brain are damaged or blocked by drugs.  It’s anatomical.  It’s chemical.  It’s not conceptual.


What’s tricky here is remembering that we—human beings—do have a concept of respect.  We have in our brains giganto prefrontal cortexes that support exceptional capacities for conceptual thinking.  The concepts are conceptual, but the actual physical brain anatomy that allows us to form them is very, very real. Our dogs don’t share that anatomy.  If a concept of “respect” dwells in that highly developed portion of our brains, that’s not a portion of the brain found in our dogs.  In that case, we can’t get no respect because the dogs ain’t got no anatomy to produce it.   And this isn’t theoretical.  In the age of amazing advances in neuroscience, it’s testable.


So here’s my first nifty tip for training success (and good critical thinking.)  Behavior and anatomy are inextricably linked.   If someone wants to make a claim about a biological process (feeling, emotion, behavior, etc.)—show me the anatomy, baby.  No anatomy, no can do.  Tinker cannot fly without wings; my cats cannot breathe underwater without gills; I cannot see ultraviolet light with unassisted human eyes.  Anatomy rules and limits behavior possibilities, including what we can think and how we can feel. 


If respect is an emotion found in parts of the brain that we and dogs share, and not a concept formed in parts of the brain that only we have, we should be able to locate the physiological processes in the shared brain areas.  We should see these processes in “respectful” animals and not see them in “unrespectful” animals.   There should be neurotransmitters, hormones, proteins in action, parts of the brain lighting up during fMRI scans.  In short, we should be able to find “respect circuits” in a dog’s brain, just like we find “fear circuits,”  “joy circuits” and “rage circuits.”  Anatomy and anatomical processes don’t have to be a subject for debate, opinion or someone’s appealing marketing meme.  We really do have livers and leg bones and we can find and measure them.  If dogs have “deep feelings of admiration,” let’s find and measure the anatomy that generates them.  Until then…


This isn’t a trivial point—far from.  The recent advances in neuroscience and the rise of dogs as a sexy research subject has, in the last decade, resulted in an explosion of studies, dog cognition groups, working dog centers.  Lots of extremely talented researchers and scientists are at work exploring all kinds of thrilling questions.  We’re now reaching the point where we really can start having interesting and intelligent conversations about what’s going on inside the head of a dog—how they process information, how they view their world, what lights their brains up.  In casual terms, we can begin to have sensible, evidence-based discussions about how they “think” and “feel.”  This is a huge step forward in the field of animal behavior, not just for the fascinating things we are learning, but for the implications it will have in making us more effective as pet owners and trainers.  It also has profound implications for animal welfare, allowing us to become much better guardians and advocates because we have real facts—real data—to base our efforts on.  Very exciting stuff that deserves our close and careful attention.


But it’s hard to give it our close and careful attention if we cling to old ideas, or lump the old (utterly untested and probably wrong) ideas in with the new.  We’re human, though, so very human, which means when we make stunning discoveries that change our world-view—that the earth is round, tiny microbes can cause disease and antibiotics can cure them—we still have to go through several years of transition.  New ideas don’t always sit well with old sailors warning us about falling off the edge of the earth or encountering dragons, or with crusty village apothecaries wanting to treat us with leaches and bloodletting.


Which leads me to our second sticky wicket—if dogs do have some (yet unresearched) brain process that we could call “respect,” it presumably will lead to respectful behaviors.  Most especially, such respect should lead to good behaviors, the kinds of behaviors we like.  The logic seems to be, “If your dog respects you, he will DO or NOT DO behaviors x, y and z.”  Automatically.  All out of “respect.”  And here I must make a confession about something I find both peculiar and very telling.


In over ten years of behavior consulting with the public at the shelter, and in my private practice, the number of folks who have had complaints about their dogs’ “respect” or lack thereof have been very few indeed.  Pet owners with dog behavior problems do have real concerns, but they use a different, more direct language.  In all, the vast majority of their concerns lump into three broad categories. 

1. Their dog doesn’t listen to them.

2. Their dog is “hyper.”

3. Their dog is “Alpha” or “dominant.” (Which usually means not getting along with other dogs, and almost always, the dog is fearful.)


The word “respect” doesn’t come out of their mouths.


So where oh where does this entirely unsupported, unproven and untested notion of “respect” come from?  In Part Two, we’ll find out!

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