Open Up…to being “dog”.

Posted: October 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

I am an admirer of the contemporary essayist and writer, Edward Hoaglund. Chances are, you’ve never heard of him, but that’s why I’m writing this post. Mr. Hoaglund was born in New York, New York in 1932. During his early twenties, he took a job at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus tending to the large cats that took part in the circus acts. Pretty exciting stuff for a young man looking to find a voice in the world. That’s a side note regarding my admiration for him, as young Edward had a speech impediment, a severe stammer. He is quoted as saying, regarding this problem, “Words are spoken at considerable cost to me, so a great value is placed on each one. That has had some effect on me as a writer. As a child, since I couldn’t talk to people, I became close to animals. I became an observer, and in all my books, even the novels, witnessing things is what counts.”

You see, he and I share a speech impediment. His, a stammer making speech unintelligible at times. My own is a strangulated vocal chord sometimes making my voice too weak to be heard, or hard consonants impossible to form. So we’ve both bonded with the written word, in order to bring to life what we observe, feel, and need to express. We also share a great love of canis familiaris, and we sate our love for them by writing about them. I was ruminating over the first heading of this chapter, “The Bond” we all seek to form with our dogs, and it occurred to me that Edward had written something quite profound. I frantically tried to remember where I had read it, but couldn’t find it for all my searching. Well, I finally found it in my journal, where I recorded it, and it will be central to the rest of this heading. Here’s the quote:

“In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semi-human. The Point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.” – E. Hoaglund.

Pretty profound if you’re asking my opinion. And yet, it’s often ignored, or even denied, in the world of dog training today. An examination of specific modals of contemporary “training” show a heavy and misguided reliance on pure “Science”, which ignores that dogs are bound, or even freed, by the emotional capacity that they have. Science and Behavioral Theory ignore the true source of the bond that human and dog can achieve together, namely a relationship that produces positive action between the two living souls. Heavy reliance on clickers and food treats(and the crazy idea of ever increasingly, “high value” treats) to achieve obedience, or tricks, or whatever actually blocks the ideal flow of emotion thru the dog, by interruption. Therefore such methods are more like bandages on sucking chest wounds, unable to stop bleeding because of inadequacy. Training our dogs should more properly focus on the personal trust and bond that we build with our dog from day one together.
The $100,000,000,000.00 question is this: How do I develop my own “dogness”, a state of empathy (as opposed to sympathy) with my dog? And can we achieve that state? Truth be told, I don’t know. But I’m trying anyway.
I’ve noticed a recent proliferation on the internet of sites that focus on “observation” of canine behavior. And I applaud the thinking behind this supposition. The Body language and physical reactions that reveal what’s going on between those fuzzy ears. Facebook has a page that shows photo’s of dogs and page members post their interpretation of different “signals”. I believe that careful observation is an important part of developing “dogness”, but from reading the various posts, it seems to me that “Human Psychological” science is encroaching on the discussion to a crippling degree. Some of the observations turn the dogs into furry humans with human reactions to various situations. It becomes so complicated, burdened with way too much minutiae, that the salient points are shrouded in “What does that mean?” But I do believe that some of it is on track. Most especially those observations that are simple. Those that allow dogs to be dogs. Those that understand that dogs are really very simple, uncomplicated, creatures. It is only human science that turns the mind of a dog into a convoluted labyrinth of difficult to understand behaviors. Becoming aware of your own “dogness” may well be a result of your own willingness to be simple and straightforward in your own thinking. Again, this is a major obstacle to most people who call themselves “Trainers”, or “Behaviorists”. Many of them want canine behavior to be complicated, understood only by people with degrees and formal education. Many want to put dog training into the stratosphere of professions so that those who have only experience are cast aside as “wannabees”. But I’m telling you, dogs are much happier as simple, thinking souls. That’s not to say that dogs are stupid, or mindless. They do have intelligence, that much is rock-solid. But when we understand their inherent simplicity, we can approach what Hoaglund was speaking about… becoming partially “dog”.
The first thing that I’ve attempted in gaining this bond, is to simplify my own approach to training. I took every book on training and understanding dogs that I own, the notes from every seminar I’ve attended, and tried to distill them into one, simple truth. I began with the concept of “Drives”. There are behaviorists and trainers that will assign a different “drive” to every behavior. At first, my own thinking followed current understanding. That they all can be refined into a single motivator, a single “drive”. It’s called “Prey Drive”. The drive to hunt, search, eat, and play for one essential reason. Your dog is a “hunter”. Operating off this conclusion has allowed me to ask simpler questions of why my dog does what he does. “Why would a born-hunter react in this way?” “What would a simple hunter do in this situation?” That was my approach…Not everybody subscribes to what I do, and that’s fine. Now, as you’ve already read, my thinking on the matter of “drives” is evolving. Your own experience may lead you in an entirely different direction, and that’s fine. You find your way. But here are a couple of suggested questions to dwell on. They may help you to consider the subject.
Ask yourself this: How can I see the world in the same way as my dog? How do I suspend the human tendency to judge and analyze everything that comes before me, and react like a dog would? How does my dog communicate with me? Am I trying to see things from his viewpoint, or am I forcing him/her into some wayward, human paradigm like operant conditioning or pure pack behavior? Have I ever tried to duplicate my dog’s way of communicating? For instance, have I ever tried to duplicate a “play-bow” to my dog? What was the reaction? Try not speaking to your dog, and communicate thru body language. Or facial expression. Closely observe how your dog reacts to your mood. If I get frustrated or even angry about something, what does my dog do? Hide? Growl at me? Suspend your adulthood for a few minutes, and pretend to be a dog! Sniff at things, roll over on your back, whatever a dog does during it’s time. (I’d not recommend that you go around humping things like some dogs are wont to do, as this could lead to legal and ethical, not to mention social complications) Find a way to Be Dog. It will open up a whole new understanding of your canine friend!
(P.S.- I’d also not recommend allowing someone to lead you around on a leather collar and leash in public. More complications that you don’t want. I’m just sayin’…)

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