Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
- Leonardo da Vinci
Dogs are simple. Not stupid…definitely not stupid. But they keep things very simple and streamlined in their world. Their communication is based upon a binary system of “yes” and “no”. They don’t complicate their emotions. Have you ever heard of a dog questioning why they love you? They accept their emotions, be it love or fear, completely, without judgment or reason. They feel a certain way because they do. No need to siphon out a reason.
That’s why it makes my eyes itch when I see people overcomplicating their dogs. No, your skittish dog probably wasn’t abused before coming to a the shelter. No, your food-aggressive dog wasn’t starved before you got him. Behavior doesn’t necessarily need a reason. It just is. And that is completely wonderful. As I’ve stated countless times, dogs are incapable of doing anything wrong. They are absolutely perfect…for dogs.
Now, unfortunately, not all behaviors are appropriate in our human world. Take food-aggression for instance. In the not-so-long-ago days when dogs lived in the wild, food-aggression was merely a way for a dog to keep whatever nutrients might stumble its way. Dogs didn’t necessarily live in the land of milk and honey. Sometimes each calorie was hard won, and therefore vigorously guarded. In the wild, we call that survival. (Regrettably, in the human world, I call this one of the very few good reasons to rehome a dog in certain situations. Yes, this behavior can indeed be managed, but it is like keeping a loaded gun in the house. With a family of children.)
Back to simplicity. The simple, wonderfully brilliant thing about dog is that you don’t have to know why they are evidencing a certain behavior to help them modify that behavior to be suitable in a human world.
Example: I had a client named Claire, and her beautiful Rottie named Bubbles (I kid you not). Bubbles was a lovely, happy,
drooling bubbly ball of fun with one pretty big issue. On the walk, Bubbles would be going along just fine, with his head right by his owner’s leg, and the leash slack. Suddenly, Bubbles would rear up like a dinosaur, desperate to get away from his owner, the leash, everything. He turned into a snarling, writhing mess. It was all the Claire could do to keep Bubbles under control during one of these “episodes”. Medical issues were ruled out. She couldn’t figure out what set Bubbles off. Some days would be fine, others, she could barely make it around the block. When Claire called me, she was at the end of her rope. “I’ve tried everything. I can’t figure out what’s making him react like this!”
“Who cares why he’s reacting like that. All we need to do is answer his questions. Obviously, something is scaring him, but we don’t need to know what that “something” is to answer a question, do we? And the answer is definitely ‘no, Bubbles, nothing is going to hurt you.” I calmly stated back.
So we went to work. Bubbles tried to react with me on the leash, but here’s the thing… I could read his intentions early. Dogs are wonderful at projecting their thoughts. Bubbles was no exception. His ear pricked forward, a series of wrinkles developed along his forehead between his ears. He stood on his toes and leaned forward as his tail (undocked!) when straight up. All of these signals of his intentions happened in less than 5 seconds, but I was ready for him. I didn’t blink. Just was quickly as he started to ask the question, I answered it. I didn’t wait until Bubbles was in a full on tantrum of terror, lunging and growling. I answered his questions the second I saw he was asking it. I honestly didn’t know what the question was, aside from a general, “Will that hurt us?”. I didn’t need to know what that was.
I do that to my kids a lot. “Mom, can we-” “NO.” End of discussion.
Bubbles and I went around the neighborhood with no instances of lunging, but quite a few questions answered. Then I handed the leash to Claire, who also started to answer Bubbles’ questions. Everything went beautifully. Bubbles’ now had his questions answered. Claire realized that she didn’t have to know what Bubbles was reacting to in order to give him a “no”, making him feels safe. I didn’t get Rottie drool on me (by some sort of divine intervention). The whole situation ended with a “happily ever after”.
Claire called me about 6 months later. She was excited on the phone. “I think I finally figured out what originally set Bubbles off! I think I finally figured out the exact question he was asking me!!!!” Of course I was dying to hear this. “Well, as you know, I live in a rural area. Mailboxes are at the end of the driveways. I knew it wasn’t the mailboxes that were setting him off. However, I finally discovered that if the red flag on the mailbox was up, he’d flip out. He was terrified of the little red flags!”
And that’s a Rottie for you.