Sunday, 31 July 2011

....for you can't see the 'woof's' for the trees...

A painter sits in a forest in springtime surrounded by hundreds of green leafed oak trees, all sprung from acorns, all rich in mutual colour, and all part of the same family of tree. Yet to the trained eye of the painter, each oak tree is an individual entity.
As a young man he learnt which brush to use for differing levels of detail leaf to trunk, what colours compliment the oak season by season, and those combinations that would turn the sweetest painting sour. Despite having sketched thousands of these rich, strong trees, from the moment the painter puts brush tip to paper, he sees only the oak in front of him….

So how does art relate to dog training? Well admittedly not a great deal. 

Yet in the same way that a painter begins each new painting with a blank canvas and freshly washed brushes, a trainer must view each new dog with an open mind. It’s very tempting for trainers at times to attempt to diagnose a dog before even having met it, and it’s due to this impulsive eagerness to prove ones expertise that mistakes are made; at the peril of the dog.

Client : ‘Dog growls when people enter my home’
Trainer : ‘Oh your dog is obviously showing protective aggression.’

Client : ‘My dog jumps all over other dogs in play and is a real handful’
Trainer : ‘Your dog is dominant with other dogs, trying to be the boss’

Has this trainer in any way helped owner or dog? What if the growler is not attempting to protect his owner but is in fact nervous of visitors himself? Perhaps the over zealous dog doesn’t give two figs about status, and just has poor social skills!

Certain trainers have equations that seem to go:

Any behavioural problem whatsoever = the dog is dominant.

These are the trainers whose books I burn, and TV shows I take almost sadistic pleasure in pressing ‘standby’ at.
Canines are complex creatures, and whilst they have their similarities in terms of survival needs, will work for a high enough motivator etc, in essence each dog is unique.

You may be working with 10 dogs who are frequently mouthing those around them. You could attempt to tar all with the same brush of ‘lack of bite inhibition, poor puppy socialisation, biting in play etc.’ What if one of the dogs is mouthing as a stress reliever due to feelings of anxiety? Perhaps one mouths solely because he is bored all day and gets a lot of attention when he puts teeth to skin?

A well-known trainer I recently spoke to, explained his frustration at some trainers almost habitual categorization of dog behaviours into set boxes e.g. predatory aggression, dominance aggression, nervous aggression. His point was ‘can someone not feel fear and anger at the same time?’ This statement from him made me think, and my answer is a resounding yes. If someone were to attack me in my local cafe, whilst terrified, I’d also feel fury that they dare single me out, I may also experience sadness and worry, and relief that it’s me they’ve targeted and not my mother, or the child in the high chair on the next table.

So if I as an animal can experience conflicting emotions at once, surely our canine counterparts can also.

The dog that wants to say hi, but seems nervous, becomes frustrated at dogs around it, seems jealous of attention other dogs are receiving, suddenly becomes very confident, then suddenly shy, overexcited, then heartbreakingly fearful….sound familiar?

Well, it’s certainly plausible.

So fellow trainers/owners/painters who were fooled by the intro into reading this blog…. whilst a dog is a dog, with shades of grey in their complex minds and patchy pigments in their behaviour that couldn’t be further from black and white; through my eyes each couldn’t be closer to perfection. 


  1. Rosie this was so insightful, you really grab the readers interest. :)

  2. Great post - and I think you are spot on about conflicting emotions. It isn't all black and white for sure.