Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day, she whimpers to go out; five times a day, we tell her Not now, Maisie. All three of us are learning what to expect from one another concerning patience.
Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved dogs, the art of dog training and the understanding of canine behavior have exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. But still, similar to child rearing, hundreds of “experts” offer completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed. Let the dog sit on your lap; never let the dog sit on your lap.
During the first weeks of Maisie’s transition from being one of 10 littermates to the solo dog in our universe, she was the most adorable, cuddly, sweet-tempered puppy. Then, my husband and I began noticing unpleasant behaviors. Take away a toy or a stick and Maisie’s cute puppy face morphed into what looked like a snarl. I’m talking a display of fangs, which seemed more than mouthy puppy frolics.
Cartoon dogs bury their bones all the time, but when a real dog runs out the door, bone in mouth, and appears to be digging to China and growling if someone gets near, one worries. Our hands and arms were marked with scratches and scabs, and these made us even more cautious in approaching our new pup.
So we phoned an expert. For privacy purposes, I’ll call this person Susan. Susan responded to our SOS immediately, and arrived with an upbeat attitude—You can handle this. We can retrain Maisie—and oodles of information. Our sighs of relief must have been audible when, on her first visit, Susan modeled a cheery dominatrix and coerced Maisie into polite manners. She did this by using force. I don’t mean she used brutality; let’s just say that she out-bullied the bully, showing Maisie who was boss. Susan was not a big woman, but she knew how to square her shoulders and maximize her voice. At one point in the training session, she put a headlock on Maisie and called her “a stubborn little devil.”
We’d never used force with our other dogs and were a bit taken aback, but maybe this dog needed more discipline. Maybe we were the problem. Maybe we needed to buck up, tolerate less, use tough love. We felt badly about ourselves. How did we know what was right? We weren’t the experts, after all.
That evening, we reviewed Susan’s assessment of Maisie’s problems. It read like a profile of a kid destined for prison: hoarding/stealing, aggressiveness, dominance issues. Hoarding! My gawd, we weren’t just dealing with the ups and downs of normal puppydom, we had a delinquent dog on our hands. This was not what we had opted for. Yikes! Would Maisie be a problem dog for the rest of her life? Were we capable of training her? Did we want that responsibility? Our attitude toward Maisie quickly changed from devotion to disappointment and distress, and we considered returning her to her breeder.
Out of desperation, I suggested we try another professional. This time we chose a dog behaviorist, not a dog trainer (the difference is significant and too involved to go into here). Our second expert arrived with a bag full of dog treats and toys; a curious, attentive, non-judgmental manner; and ready praise on her lips. This may sound Disneyish, but Maisie responded immediately to her calm, patient, non-militaristic approach.
From this woman, we learned that very smart dogs like Maisie love to learn. Their puppy energy can be directed toward the playful learning of games and commands for which they earn praise and hot-dog rewards. We learned that the idea of dominant and non-dominant dogs is outdated and that dog behaviorists understand “possession aggression” as “resource guarding.” Dogs with leadership qualities, dogs who might be leaders of their packs in the wild, have an instinct to guard and bury their food because they will be responsible for helping to feed the pack. Bravo for them!
This gets me to my takeaway point: labeling others—children, dogs, ethnicities, races, genders—affects our feelings and emotions about them. What we call them and the spin we give to those names affects how we see and respond. Which sounds better to you: possession aggression or resource guarding? How about this: Your child is bossy. Your child shows leadership ability. Your child is hyperactive. Your child is energetic.
Name-calling can reflect our basest instincts and our uncanny proclivity to project onto others exactly the aspects we dislike in ourselves. Or it can represent our better angels. We can choose. If we apply this insight to the current world stage, doesn’t it seem we have entered a time of malicious name-calling? Maybe we should consider that what we vilify in others might be something we fear in ourselves.
P.S. Maisie has won our hearts. She shows absolutely no signs of unwarranted aggression. She is the dog of our dreams.