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Help! My Dog Doesn’t Respect Me… (Part 2)

In the first part of this blog, we ended with wondering where oh where do pet owners come up with a notion of “respect,” a word they normally don’t use when discussing dog behavior concerns.   And in my experience, the choice of words isn’t theirs at all.


Almost always, it turns out that they were just talking to an old school dog trainer they met.  Or neighbor who is a dog “expert.”  Or they read a book or saw something on TV.  It comes from somewhere other than their own direct experience with their dog, and now they’re worried about it.  Their dog doesn’t respect them, oh dear.  Clearly—as they’ve now been told—that’s the cause of all their problems with the dog not listening, being hyper or dominant.  And clearly the solution is—at least, they’ve been told—they must make their dog respect them.  Or earn their dogs’ respect.  If they could just do that, all problems would be solved.


There are two things about this that haunt me.


The first is a memory, long long ago in a galaxy far far away, of sitting in a theater at UCLA in film school learning how to “read” commercials.  There is a formula, and once you’ve been taught to see it, it’s pretty transparently funny.  It goes like this:


Step 1 (you have a problem whether you know it or not and/or there’s something wrong with you): Mopey family sitting around dining table, giving Mom deep looks of misery.  Dinner is boring and it’s her fault/she’s a bad mom. 

Step 2 (we have the answer you need):  Introduce product. 

Step 3 (here’s how it works):  Shot from inside the oven reveals completed casserole and Mom’s happy face in the oven door. 

Step 4 (emotional payoff):  Happy family at the dinner table forking down gobs of the stuff with huge smiles.  Mom is loved again, huzzah!


Please note that in Step 3, a few things were left out.  Like, getting dressed, finding the car keys, driving through traffic to the market, circling for 20 minutes to find a parking space, getting in the store, finding the box and forking over hard earned cash to buy the product.  Then going home and mixing it up, not to mention the 40 minutes at 350.  No, in commercials the product takes no visible effort to obtain, costs nothing and involves no work.   It magically appears fully cooked, with zero effort, in the oven, to the giddy delight of all.


If we map this on to our doggy respect issues, it goes like this:


Step 1 (you have a problem whether you know it or not and/or there’s something wrong with you): Wise dog expert of some variety tells you gravely that your dog’s bad behavior is caused by lack of “respect.”  Like Mom with the boring dinner, it’s implied that it’s your fault and/or you’re a bad pet owner. 

Step 2 (we have the answer you need):  Introduce product—Make Your Dog Respect You.

Step 3 (here’s how it works):  Wise dog expert may parade his/her “respectful” dog around to show you what the cooked casserole is supposed to look like, or, not having the dog handy, swear on some holy relic and mention their years and years of vast experience and deep love of dogs.   I must remind everyone here that our old sailor who still insists the world is flat had a lifetime of experience and deeply loved the sea. 

Step 4 (emotional payoff):  You dash off with a mad boost of confidence to go Make Your Dog Respect You.


What’s missing in Step 3 is—as with Mom and her casserole—the actual operations involved in creating the finished product.  Because if the actual operations were discussed in detail, it would become abundantly clear that what’s being sold isn’t Respect.  It’s Punishment. 


The operations required in the typical Make Your Dog Respect You product will generally include some kind of collar unpleasant to the dog (choke, prong or shock), often some hands-on (rolling, pinning, scruff shaking) and possibly some weird noises (hissing, yelling, shaking a can of pennies) meant to startle or frighten.  Since dogs, from all anatomical evidence, lack the giganto prefrontal cortex necessary to house a concept like respect, we can pretty much bet that what’s really being worked on in the dog’s brain are the Fear Circuits.


I have objections to that, but for this blog, my stronger objection is that pet owners are also being worked on—and the ploy is aimed at their Fear Circuits.

It’s old hat in marketing—if I want to sell something to men, I’m going to park my buzz words around notions of power, respect, control and sex appeal.  If I’m pitching to women, it’s going to be about safety, being loved and bonding.  So if I’m pitching punishment to the Mister, I’m going to talk a lot about your dog needs to respect you, you need to be the one in control, you need to show the dog your power.   The implication will be that unless you buy into the Make Your Dog Respect You product, you’ll lose manhood points—it’s not just the dog that won’t respect you.  For the Missus, I’m going to pitch punishment as all about safety—golly, you wouldn’t want Fido to get hit by a car because he doesn’t respect you, what if you can’t control him around the kids, and anyhow, Fido will love you more if he respects you, too, because he really wants rules and boundaries and leadership to feel safe himself.  Here the implication will be that if you don’t buy into the Make Your Dog Respect You product, you’re putting everyone in jeopardy by “spoiling” the dog too much, and you’ll lose “good mom” points.


What makes this sell viable is that I’m probably not a scum bucket salesperson—I’m deeply sincere.  I’m a passionate old salt genuinely worried that you’re going to fall off the edge of the earth or get eaten by dragons.  Because if I’m pitching this stuff, I probably didn’t examine the most recent science, the data or the evidence carefully and thoughtfully—I simply borrowed the pitch from what someone told me, received wisdom, tradition, unexamined.   It’s not like the old sailor who loves the sea and deeply believes that the earth is flat actually sailed forth to test his beliefs.  If he had, he would have circumnavigated the globe.


These blatant appeals to those deepest of fears—for a man, that his dog’s “lack of respect” is a reflection of his lack of manhood; for a woman, that the dog’s “lack of respect” is a reflection of lack of love--set off my film school-taught warning bells.  Like the casserole commercial, it seems ridiculous when you dice it fine—but anyone in marketing can tell you, it still works. 


And that’s the second thing that haunts me, the familiarity of historical and cultural baggage, like Ghosts of ideas past.  By now it should be clear that if the operations being proposed are all about force and punishment, the “Respect” being talked about isn’t a feeling of deep admiration arising in real brain circuitry in real dogs.  It’s not the warm and fuzzy side of respect.  To me, it sounds and plays out more like the Respect in a Culture of Honor sense, the respect aka fear.  It’s the lawless frontier, no one is looking after your best interests but you.  If you let your neighbor steal some apples from your orchard—if you show any sign of weakness or laziness in defending what’s rightfully yours--the next thing you know he’ll take your goats.  Then your cows, your money, your land and your wife.  What protects you and your property is your reputation as a Real Man who will deliver swift and immediate reprisals on any sign of trespass.  You need Respect.  You demand Respect.  Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile. 


Cultures of Honor were and in some places still are very strong; without full cultural context, they can look (to our modern eyes in modern times) darned silly, criminal, wasteful.   Two teenagers shoot each other over a pair of sneakers, or because, “He looked at me funny.”  It seems too trivial for words, let alone gunfire, but the germ in the middle of it is Respect in the Culture of Honor sense.  If you let a guy “disrespect” you with a look, next thing, he’s stealing your sneakers (a symbol of your wealth and status); if he gets away with that, next it’ll be your car, your TV, your place in the neighborhood.  In this age-old context, loss of Respect (Dignity, Honor, Face, Status—pick your culture) boils down to the loss of personal safety, resources and reproductive success.  That’s the fear, anyway.  It used to be (and in some places still is) a rough reality of life.


In that framework, where your very survival depends on getting and maintaining Respect, you’re entitled to use Punishment if that’s what it takes.  You’re protecting your reputation and hence your land, cattle, etc., especially from those of perceived lesser rank (historically, that’d be various peasants, wives, children and most certainly all lowly critters.)  Heck, you’re practically obligated to use it:  if your “inferiors” don’t Respect you—if you let them walk all over you—the entire social order will come to some hideous end because of your weakness.   If we let our (peasants, crew, slaves, wives, children) “get away” with things, we’re not just going to lose everything we have, we’re undermining the natural order of the universe. 


Good marketing is always aimed at engaging our emotions—Fear and Desire especially—not our critical thinking skills.  Watched critically, commercials are a riot of blatant appeals to fear, lust, status.  Buying the product is rarely about the virtues of the product—it’s about how much cooler, sexier, happier we will be if we get it.  Our families will love us, we’ll be perceived as smarter and more beautiful, we’ll win the envy and regard of all our neighbors.  We’ll have, by golly, more Respect.   Yours for $19.95, and the shipping is absolutely free.


Now, I am not a fan of training dogs with pain and fear, so there’s no doubt about my bias.  What makes me squirm, though, is that haunting familiarity of ghosts of cultures past, where Respect was an entitlement of the Powerful and the rest of us got punished “for our own good.”  That’s not about dog behavior.  That’s not about good dog training, or good solid science.  It’s about sales, in this case, the selling of an idea to justify the use of force.  And I suspect this makes me particularly uncomfortable because within my lifetime, it wasn’t dogs we were talking about.  It was women, children, poor people, people of color.  It was us.


And cultural baggage aside, it’s a danged weird way to approach training a dog effectively.


Here’s a simple test:  on one side, place the latest popular Concept (Respect, Energy, Dominance, Leadership, etc.)  On the other side, place the Operations actually being used (yanks choke chain, gives a cookie, plays fetch, pets, yells at, zaps with a shock collar, praises).  Now, subtract one side.


If we only present the Concepts, with no Operations, what happens to the dog’s behavior?  (Picture our Wise Dog Expert standing on the other side of the yard radiating Respect, Energy, Dominance, Leadership, etc. as hard as he/she can.)


If we only present the Operations, with no Concepts, what happens to the dog’s behavior?  (Picture our Wise Dog Expert actively engaging the dog with well-timed signals and clear use of rewards and/or punishments and nary a conceptual thought in their head.)


One of these sides will get the dog trained.  The other may (or may not) sound cool and sell tickets.   But by itself, it achieves nothing.   Neither I nor any trainer—pet owner or pro-- needs a concept like Respect or Leadership or whatever to train a dog, or a cat, or a whale.  We need a clear picture of the behavior we want, a plan and some goodies (that give the animal pleasure) or baddies (that evoke fear, distress or discomfort) to motivate the animal with.  (Goodies preferred, of course.)  That’s all we need.  Really.


And on that, I give my final tip in this part:  in the simplest sense, behavior is movement.  I haven’t got a clue how to teach a dog to “respect” me like a feeling or concept, but I can certainly teach a dog to move in ways I like and consider respectful.   In Part 3, we’ll look at how.

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