Being Too Polite

OK, so yesterday I was talking about being sure our doggies learn manners at home — and today I’m saying there’s such a thing as being TOO polite? So what gives?  Well, I’m not talking about our DOGS being too polite around us, but that sometimes WE’RE the ones who inadvertently go overboard with human-courtesy towards them.

I’ve done this myself — giving a dog the same treat-others-as-I-would-like-to-be-treated respect and found the dog misunderstands. The difficulty arises because human gestures of common courtesy don’t have the same cultural equivalent in dog society. In fact, much of our graciousness towards others, in a dog’s eyes, looks like the way a subordinate defers to a superior.

Here’s a specific example. Kita, my GSD mix, used to sleep on my bed almost every night. It was nice — nothing like a 90 lb. furry “hot water bottle” to snuggle up with, especially in the Wintertime! If I had to use the facilities in the middle of the night, Kita was usually snoring so peacefully that I hated to make her get up too!  So, I’d carefully extract myself from under the blankets without disturbing her, if possible.

This is the same consideration I show towards any human bed-mate (and the cats, too, come to think of it…) I never heard any of them complain if I accidentally bumped them. Imagine my surprise when I was a little less careful than usual one night one night, and Kita turned on me showing teeth and growling!

You see, in being soooo careful not to disturb Kita, I had treated her as if she was the “top dog.” – as if it was her bed and she was letting me share it. So, when I disturbed her, Kita gave me a warning that if I didn’t shape up, the privilege would be revoked; all perfectly natural from a dog’s point of view and in the context of dog society. Kita didn’t know that I was being “polite” and “considerate” because that is not how a dog would behave in that situation.

Obviously, I couldn’t let Kita continue in her mistaken beliefs, even if it was my fault that she held them. I made myself very tall, with a “big” stance, and ordered her off the bed (she already knew the command, “Off!”) and did not let her back on for several nights. Always after that, Kita could “request” bed-room (she would lay her head on the mattress and look at me.) If I wanted to allow her on the bed, I asked her to sit and then gave her the OK to come up. But sometimes I said, “No!” and made it stick.

There’s many ways we can be “too polite” to maintain a good leadership position in our dog’s eyes. When the dog cuts us off in a doorway, and we back off and let him go first. When the dog prances in front of us because he wants attention and we give ‘way and walk around him. When we’re eating some jerky and the dog nudges our hand, and we give him the last bite. When the dog jumps up in our favorite spot on the sofa and we move to another chair or sit on the floor. In Dog-land, it’s the BIG DOG (i.e. the leader) who gets to go through tight spaces first, who walks around other dogs, who gets the first choice of food, the best sleeping place, and the highest spot. If we always give our dogs these things, we can’t wonder that they feel like the King!

Dr. Bruce Fogle has a saying: “A dog doesn’t expect to be treated like a human. A dog expects a human to act like a dog.” Because of that night-time incident with Kita and many others, I’ve really taken his wisdom to heart and it’s become the foundation of my training methods. I find it much more efficient and effective to interpret everything I do from a dog’s perspective, because I know they see me as a kind of socially-inept canine. That way, I’m not working against doggie DNA and instinct, I’m working with it.

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