August 18, 2010

When your dog is "bad," roll up a newspaper and give yourself a whack

Ordinarily, Kate is the best of dogs.  I can take her anywhere and count on good behavior.  But like the rest of us, she has her bad moments too, and one of those happened last week at the local (and very dog friendly) farmers' market.  I'd stopped at a favorite stand to buy some honey and, as I usually do, asked Katie to sit next to me.  As I was talking to the stand's owner, suddenly behind me I heard very loud and unfriendly barking.  I turned around to see my dog nose-to-nose with a service dog.  I quickly removed her from the situation and apologized to the dog's owners.  It didn't help matters that at the same moment a motorcycle roared by.  Kate hates motorcycles, so she kept barking for a bit until I managed to get her attention and return her to a sit.

I was mortified not only because she was so rude to a dog who, so far as I could tell, wasn't bothering with her at all, but also because this is the same farmers' market where yours truly recently offered free "market manners" dog training classes.


Putting aside my feelings, though, it's worth thinking about what can be learned here.  First, what happened was hands-down my fault.  I wasn't paying attention to my dog (who clearly needs some proofing work on sits in public places).  Second, to say that my dog was "bad," is anthropomorphizing.  After things had calmed down, the stand owner observed, "something must have set her off."  And he's exactly right.  That kind of behavior isn't normal for Katie, who is generally dog-friendly, so something happened that made her anxious.  Maybe it was too crowded, maybe a person stepped on her foot or startled her somehow, maybe the other dog gave some kind of signal.  Who knows.  None of these are excuses for what happened; they're just possible reasons why she may have reacted as she did.  As the stand owner also pointed out, "Sometimes you don't know what gets to them.  We're all animals, you know, but we humans forget that."  As Jean Donaldson might say, we idealize dogs to the point of making them "honorary humans," but of course they don't think in the kinds of moral categories that we do.  Thus, in trying to understand what happened, it doesn't make sense to label her behavior "bad." 

As I understand it, there is some debate over whether anthropomorphism is helping or hurting non-human animals.  That debate might be a good topic for another post, because I'm not sure where I stand (I see good on both sides).  In this particular situation, I can, for example, emphathize with what may have been Katie's feelings of anxiety in the middle of a crowd.  Maybe she did check in with me before she reacted (she usually does), but I didn't see it and she was on her own.  At the same time, that empathy is really a starting place for thinking about a training solution (one based on a scientific understanding of dog behavior) so that this situation might be avoided in the future.

So this week, we're proofing our sits around town, and we'll take another (more closely-supervised) shot at some market shopping again on Saturday.

In closing, I'll add that the stand owner's reaction reflects just how wonderful the market sellers are about their customers bringing dogs along.  He might have given me a disapproving look, or made a comment about Katie's behavior.  Instead, his response mitigated some of my embarrassment.

Works Cited:
Jean Donaldson, The Culture Clash.  Berkely CA:  James and Kenneth, 1996.


Anonymous said...

To say that Kate is "good" is NOT anthropomorphizing; it's simply stating a fact, right?! :) cmr

Knitting B said...

Of course! ;)