I only know that I know nothing. - Socratic paradox
I had a client a few years ago with a dog named Chex who had a pretty impressive case of…oh let’s call it distaste for all forms of life aside from his owners (you can read about it here). Prior to engaging my services, Chex’s owners had attempted to work with another trainer. Chex’s owners wanted to know why their dog was acting the way he was, so the other trainer gave them an answer:
“He’s bi-polar. And he probably had a bad past life.”
When I worked with Chex, I was asked the same question, “Why is he acting like this?”. Well, it was obvious it was situational, and that Chex was merely defending his owners, but what made him so much more aggressive about it than other dogs? My answer:
“I Don’t Know.”
In a desperate search for reasoning, sometimes we come up with the most highly illogical, useless answers, just to fill in the blank. I once had a woman call me to work with her Shepherd, who she claimed was aggressive, but only with men. But when I arrived at her house, and the dog initially displayed the same aggressive tendencies towards me, a woman. Her first question, “Are you a trans?”.
We are so scared of “I don’t know’s” that we will fill in any answer rather than accepting that we may never know. We feed and build upon a poorly researched hypothesis and nurture it into a sickly theory. We’re building an immutable foundation upon sand, rather than accepting something as a (for now) concrete unknown.
Was it important for me to know what had made Chex the way he was? Not at all. I Piloted him, answered his questions, and worked around the great unknown rather than struggling to put an answer to it. And guess what? Chex is now doing just fine. Complete turn-around. No, he doesn’t happily greet people, in a tail wagging, happy smiling pit-bull style, but he accepts people in his home now and doesn’t try to take a chunk out of them anymore. He basically went from The Terminator to an average crotchety old man.
When you’re working with your dog on any behavior issues, ask yourself how important is it? Barking? Yes, important and obnoxious enough to address. Decipher what Fido is barking at? Notsomuch. Answer your dog’s question instead: “Can I bark?” Nope. (Read how to do it here.)
You can always tell when a dog is about to ask a question. Their body goes stiff. They may get that wrinkle on their forehead between their ears. They stand on their toes. I call it Prairie-Dogging or Meerkatting.
Prairie Dogging or Meerkattiing phase is when you answer your dog’s question. No, you don’t need to know what they’re asking about to give an answer. For example, a few days ago, on one of Sparta’s walks, she suddenly started Prairie Dogging while we were stopped at an intersection.
I noticed her body tense and her ears go straight up. Instead of looking around to see what she was engaged with (and essentially starting to Prairie Dog right along with her), I merely answered her question, which she accepted almost instantly. We then carried on with our walk. What had she been interested in? I Don’t Know.
I’m always interested in answers to life’s little mysteries. But I’m also okay with not knowing. More importantly, I’m okay with admitting that I don’t know everything.
One of the reasons we love dogs so much is because they live in the here and now. They truly enjoy the moment, and aren’t caught up in the past. They understand that it’s okay to change, to adapt, to a new set of circumstances or new information. They don’t let their egos get involved. What worked today may not work tomorrow, and they can accept that without getting upset. Even The PAW Method is mutable; it’s constantly evolving to keep up with new information and new discoveries about dog/human interactions.
So when a client asks me a question that I don’t readily have an answer to, I like to take a cue from my dog and give them the unemotional truth: I Don’t Know.
But then I have the option to celebrate being human by adding: But Let’s Find Out.
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio