The Dog Box

2018-02-22 06:01

MY work often involves evaluating the reason for breakdowns in the relations between humans and canines. This occurs within our own species, for example between husbands and wives and people of different cultures, and results in the breakdown of families and divisions and conflict in countries.

The major difficulty in overcoming or at least reducing differences is for each side to be prepared to understand and truly attempt to empathise with the other. If there is no unbridgeable chasm, trying to get into the psyche of another and seeing the perspective from the other’s eyes can help to alleviate these differences.

This ability to empathise is what makes a good doctor, psychologist, musician, artist, behaviourist and teacher. This is meant to be taught in the family and I believe it should be taught in primary school while the mind is pliable, because the decline we see in society is often linked to a breakdown in empathy and an increase in narcissistic traits, which have been shown to be occurring. Love thy brother as thyself is a phrase that might be well known but is seldom followed.

If people were empathetic they wouldn’t dump rubbish on another’s property, steal, be rude and offensive, drive recklessly, abuse and neglect other creatures and the environment. They wouldn’t be able to turn a blind eye to the misfortunes or abuse of all sentient creatures, not only humans. There is a lot to be said for repeating and thinking about the saying that evil succeeds only because good people allow it to.

If we apply this fair concept to animal-human relationships the onus wouldn’t be only on the dog or other animal to learn human language but also on the human to wish to educate himself about animal language and behaviour. We expect animals to bear much abuse that we would think negligent or cruel if inflicted on a fellow human.

We expect a dog restrained to oblige without displays of what we perceive as aggression, when in reality the signals conveyed might speak rather of uncertainty and fear. Not having the ability to speak any of our languages, these signals are the only means the animal has to communicate.

These signals are the animal’s language, yet we as humans generally make little or no effort to learn what they mean. For example, a normal dog displays a variety of distance increasing signals, which we unobservant humans miss, before resorting to a growl or air snap. It is clearly wrong in such a case to state categorically that the dog is aggressive and cannot be trusted. Dogs see the equivalent of 10 frames where we will only see one.

They see in “slow motion” (by which I mean they see more detail in movement, which is what they are reading) and they have a far better motion perception in this respect than we do, yet we will judge them by our standard which in this particular example is inferior. The dog might be reacting to something outside our field of perception, so in the absence of an understanding of our differences, a wrong conclusion is likely to be reached.

When you have an animal exhibiting what you may consider to be bad behaviour, try to consider the issue before reaching a conclusion. Is this normal behaviour for the species? Am I allowing enough suitable alternative avenues for expressing any genetic or species-specific behaviour to be expressed? Am I offering a sufficiently fulfilling life and supplying environmental enrichment as well as adequate food, water, shelter and companionship?

Having taken the animal on and thus being the sole supplier of its needs, am I fulfilling these needs? In an informed, sympathetic, force-free way, have I taught boundaries and ways for the dog to understand what is permissible and what is not?

Answering “no” to these questions doesn’t label you cruel or neglectful, but it does point ironically to failings in an intelligent human of the kind usually considered unacceptable when seen in another animal, underlining my earlier point about empathy and trying to see a situation from another’s perspective.

Times have changed drastically in households. In the past, a wife was usually at home. Children used to consider the family pets as siblings and spend more time playing together, not fixed to a screen on some electronic device. Dogs used to run around freely in the neighbourhood visiting other canines and greeting neighbours. Traffic is busier, streets are more dangerous and some people have trained their dogs to be vicious, so for safety we have to contain our charges in our own grounds. The ramifications are obvious. We need to consider if the dogs are experiencing suitable stimulating activities in compensation for confinement. As the “superior” species privileged to “own” another species, we are ethically obliged to take care in a full and holistic way — what I hesitate to call a humane way — of those whose lives we have put in our hands. The rewards of sharing our lives with content pets are relatively undemanding on our pockets and time.

— Susan Henderson© info@dogbox 039 695 0139.

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