What is my Dog Thinking?

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

What is my dog thinking? The truth is none of us knows. Period. I don’t even know what my fellow humans are thinking most of the time. And seriously, how many times have we all said to ourselves, what was I thinking? Even on good days it’s really hard to crack the code of homo sapiens and we share written and spoken languages. The chances of ever knowing what a dog is thinking are zero.

Here’s where it gets tricky. We think we know. Clients tell me all the time they know what their dogs are thinking. Why? Because we humans hate an incomplete story. We hook on to one or two bits of information, usually a causal observation of what our dog is doing, and we fill in all the gaps. We create the story of what our dog is thinking. And, because the story was born of our own incomplete experience and the experience of our own complete thoughts, we perceive it as fact. Our brain believes, sometimes rigidly, what it knowns – even, in fact, when it does not.

Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky called this natural human process “fast thinking.” It’s how we all quickly piece together information for decision making. The process is evolutionarily adaptive when it comes to safety and survival. Movement – dinner – aim -shoot. See a person – enemy – hide – fight. It even works well for us in modern times, in traffic for instance. Speeder – unsafe – avoid. We need to be able to create quick narratives for decision making with limited fast-moving information. Compare this to “slow thinking” which literally involves our slowing down, assessing all the information we have and that we don’t have, and making a logical conclusion. We do have that ability. Trouble is we don’t always take the time to use it.

Kahneman and Tversky coined the term behavioral economics (you might have heard of that). After Tversky’s death, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics. What they discovered, in short, was that “fast thinking,” though useful sometimes, often leads us to make mistakes. The answer to the question what was I thinking becomes I don’t know but it was fast and it was wrong. Here’s a harmless example from my own life. Buzzing insect – wasp! – flail hands and run. It was a June Bug.  “Fast thinking” because of it’s early roots in survival is almost always hooked to emotion (Think: fear, desire, exhilaration). Fast thinking over time develops biases – the quick decisions we habitually make (unconsciously) about our fellow humans based on how they look. It’s also why we are notorious for making decisions with apparent pay-offs in the moment even though the long-term effects are disastrous (e.g. buying the hot sports cars instead of saving for retirement). Politicians and marketers know how hack our “fast thinking” and exploit our biases and desires. Believe it or not, some dog trainers do too.

What is your dog thinking? Disreputable trainers will tell you. It will come with just a few facts (he’s growling and showing his teeth). Then they will fill in all the gaps to form a concise memorable story that our “fast thinking” brain will love. He thinks he’s dominant, or He doesn’t respect you or He’s trying to be pack leader.  Add to this that we might have already heard that story from our neighbor or our Uncle Charlie.  Our fast thinking brain shores up the narrative with more non-facts. That’s called confirmation bias. It becomes fact to us because it came from our own brain and was then echoed by others. Trouble is, we still have no idea what our dog is thinking. And what does dominant dog really mean (the definitions are as varied as they are vague). And, do dogs actually form pack hierarchies (the evidence suggests they do not). And yet, it’s hard to let go of short, simple, fast thinking explanations to the point that we might actually push back when presented with real verifiable facts. Psychologists call that cognitive dissonance. Welcome to the most advanced brain on the planet.

We aren’t doomed, however. At least I don’t think so. We all have the ability to slow down, check and recheck our observations, assess facts, look at alternative explanations. When it comes to our dogs I suggest this. Focus on what your dog is doing more than what you think he is thinking. Disconnect from the story; connect to the present moment with your dog. You are communicating. Your actions (behavior) influence his actions (behavior) and back the other way. People often ask who’s training whom. My answer is you and he are both teaching and learning. Enjoy this moment, this time to set aside troubling thoughts, this time to simply explore and learn with your dog. It may not be the story you thought it was. But, it is more profound than most prose and as inspiring as any poem.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training.

The Gift of a “Perfect” Dog

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I sit on the floor because I’m having a moment. Okay, here’s the truth. When I say I’m having a moment I mean I’m having a cry. Stella, my old retriever mix, gets up slowly and walks over to me. I don’t know why I’m crying. Maybe it was a sad story on the radio or an email about a client’s dog. Maybe neither of us knows why I’m crying but here she is, leaning in, sniffing my face, the tears. And, maybe neither of us knows why she walked over to me, why she is so gentle, why she seems to care. It’s just her way. And, here’s the other truth. It’s why I’m sitting on the floor. This is her gift and she offers it just the same every time and I know that.

This will be the summer that Stella turns 13. She was 5-months when I pointed to her cage at the Houston SPCA and said “That one. I want her.” We didn’t know she was sick at first , distemper, respiratory then neurological, usually fatal. But, I knew what we were up against when we finally got the diagnosis. The week after we adopted Stella distemper swept through the SPCA and killed half the dogs there. The first time I sat on the floor and cried with Stella was a couple weeks after we brought her home. I was holding her. She was all legs even then, twitching uncontrollably, crying because she was so uncomfortable, crying because she didn’t know why. I was crying because I did.

That was the worst night. The ones after were better. Stella did what we all hoped for but didn’t dare say aloud. She lived. She lived for months and then years and then a decade and more. She learned to swim and to dive and to climb steep paths to the top of red rocks. Stella grew to be strong and clever and awkward and weird. She is long-legged and small-headed and remarkably beautiful but only at just the right angle. And even now I sometimes look at her and think, that one. .

We brought Stewie home when Stella was barely 18-months. He was small and scrappy, fresh from a run through a tropical storm and a close call with a speeding car. The vet said he was 2 or 3. He had a collar but no tags. Testicles but no microchip. I put up signs and called the shelters but no one claimed him. And, here’s the truth. I could understand why. He was a hot mess, shitting and pissing indiscriminately, claws like an iguana and a piercing scream at the sight of nail clippers. He wasn’t crate trained or leash trained or anything trained. No wonder no one claimed him except us. My partner, Tim, was at the sink when he rather stoically pointed to Stewie and said (as if issuing an edict) “We can keep him.”

Stewie learned potty training and pedicures, but also paths to the top of red rocks. That brush with a fast-moving car faded with quickly passing years (though, he’s still afraid of storms). Stewie is about 14 or 15 now, the last 12 with us. It’s been 12 years of Stella and Stewie, of I want her and we can keep him. It’s been hard for a long time to imagine one without the other, each of them so a part of the other, so a part of us. They were each a gift, dubious and imperfect. Now they are treasured gifts, imperfect still, but perfectly fitted to our lives and to our hearts.

We all want the perfect dog. But, here’s the truth. Perfect isn’t packaged up for us to get. It’s not the right breed, or the right breeder, or the right boot camp we send our dog away to. Perfect is years of giving. Perfect is vet visits and cleaning up messes and nail trims. Perfect is swims and leash walks and hikes up steep red-rock paths. Perfect is awkward and scrappy, her and him, month after month, year after year. Perfect isn’t something you buy. Perfect is something you create, the giving and the receiving, the forging of a friendship (maybe a best friendship), with a being who will never speak a word but communicates so beautifully nonetheless. Perfect is earned. Perfect is dried tears at the end of the day, near the end of a life well lived, with a good girl and a good boy, on the floor.

Stella walks up stiff-legged, her face next to mine, and I lean into the thick fur around her neck that doesn’t quite match the rest of her body. Such an odd-looking dog. Awkward. Perfect.

 

Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training in Houston, TX

Five Things to Know about Dog Resource Guarding

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Many dogs hide, cower, freeze, stare, snarl, growl, snap or bite when they are guarding something. For the purposes of this blog post we will call that resource guarding, dogs who claim possession and guard a prized object, place, food related item, or food itself.

Resource guarding is normal dog behaviorThis fact surprises a lot of people. We have a romanticized view of dogs including the idea that some are good and some are evil. Ascribing this kind of moral code is a disservice to them and to ourselves. They are animals, as are we. Animals protect valuable resources, as do we. Wanting to keep our stuff is hardwired into us. Yes, we can share. But, you might also have a few things to say to a random dude at a restaurant who pops one of your french fries in his mouth and walks off.

Normal does not mean acceptable. Some dogs do take it too far. I agree. Who among us really wants our dog’s scrap of stinky frayed fabric that used to be a stuffed toy? It doesn’t make sense that he bit Aunt Sally when she reached to pet him while he rested his head on that disgusting thing. Some dogs (and humans) can get weird about their prized places and things. It seems a bit out-of-context, a bit too much.

It can be dangerous. Dogs who guard a lot of things, including random stuff they find, can be hard to predict. Is he guarding that leaf, that remote control, his poop? It can get especially dangerous if the dog bites to protect his vast and changing collection of valued things. One mistake can turn bloody.

Dominance and conflict-based training can make it worse. From the dog’s point of view resource guarding is about a perceived conflict. He’s already gearing up for a fight. Training methods focused on dominance are conflict-based. This outdated training approach frames every interaction with our dog as a competition with a winner and a loser. We end up proving to our dog that his already-inflated sense of danger is in fact justified. That sock is very valuable. This is a challenge. Violence is possible if not inevitable. Every time we approach resource guarding from this skewed  perspective we risk the dog escalating his response. We actually make the resource guarding and the intensity of our dog’s behavior worse.

There is hope. We humans have already won the evolutionary race. We have nothing to prove to our dogs other than this: I can help you. This is good news for dogs and for humans. We now have smart, simple, and effective aggressive dog training techniques for quelling resource guarding in dogs. These reinforcement-based methods work and (I promise) do not jeopardize our position as the dominant species on the planet. You can reach out to me or a similarly credentialed dog behavior consultant for help. Or, contact a veterinary behaviorist.

Bottom line: Resource guarding is normal but it is not okay. There is hope.  You can have a long and enjoyable relationship with your dog.

Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training in Houston TX.