joyful, happy dog

To reliably answer specific questions we need details about what’s going on.

Dogs can be victims of partial knowledge, misinformation, and “quick” answers

In a recent email, I was told, “For a dog expert you sure don’t know very much. You keep saying, ‘I don’t know’.” The tone of the first email from Warren was pretty much “in my face,” so I simply answered, “If you want to have a conversation, you’ll have to respect me and my position, and then we can move on from here.” Warren said he wasn’t “meaning to be mean,” however, he was frustrated that I couldn’t answer some of his questions nor those of some others in an online discussion.

I came to realize that he was right and I wrote back, “To reliably answer specific questions about dog behavior and dog-human interactions, I need to know the nitty-gritty details of what’s going on. Anyone who claims to be able to answer your questions about why your dog does this or that without knowing the details of who your dog is, the nature of your relationship with her, the specifics of the situation about which you’re inquiring, and perhaps some other details is being irresponsible.”

Warren politely wrote back that he understood what I was saying, but that some others did, in fact, offer advice on the problem at hand and that some of their suggestions were polar opposites. Furthermore, he told me that none worked. I wrote back, “Case in point. Are you willing to know why the more I know, the more I say, ‘I don’t know?'” Warren said he was and we had a very fruitful exchange, the result of which he and his dog found someone who could observe his dog, the nature of his relationship with his dog, and other details, and they were able to help him and his dog along.

After this brief exchange, I pulled out some other emails I’ve received and thought more about many conversations I’ve had in coffee houses, along hiking trails, and at dog parks. I realized that certain questions are impossible to reliably answer without knowing details: “Why does my dog do __?” “Is it OK for my dog to do___?” “Is it OK for me to do ___?” One would need to see the dog in the situation in which there’s a problem, observing the dog and their human(s), and then carefully offering advice. 

Of course, for some questions there are clear common sense answers. For example, it’s not OK for you to beat your dog to get them to do something or not to do something. It’s also best not to let your dog run up to someone and growl, jump on them, hump their leg, sniff their crotch or butt, kiss them and try to put their tongue down their throat, or slobber all over them.

Proper etiquette means erring on the side of caution is the right thing to do and can be a win-win for all. Questions about different “unacceptable” but often dog-appropriate behavior patterns don’t usually require much discussion. (See post on behavior and etiquette.)

Dogs are individuals and that’s why it’s impossible to offer reliable answers when we don’t have details about what’s happening

To follow up on the generic questions above, here are a few specific queries for which there aren’t any sweeping generic answers. The questions include: “Are dog really our best friends, unconditional lovers, and family members?” “Why does my dog hump other dogs?” “Should I hug my dog?”, “Should I stop rough-and-tumble play?”

My answers are simple and straightforward: “No, dogs are not necessarily our best friends, unconditional lovers, or family.” “There are various reasons why dogs hump one another or try to hump a human.” “If your dog likes to be hugged, hug them, and if they don’t, don’t hug them.”

Most of this isn’t rocket science. Beliefs aren’t facts and don’t substitute for data, no matter how easy it is to suggest that we know more than we do, often in self-serving ways. Metaphors for how dogs supposedly behave or live all too easily can become myths and memes. (See post on harmful myths” for oversimplified myths that have become misleading memes and references.)article continues after advertisement

Becoming fluent in “dog” is essential for coming to terms with who they are 

The important point is that there aren’t any definite answers to many “simple” questions about dog behavior, dog etiquette, and dog-human interactions. Becoming fluent in dog-dog and dog-human communication is critically important, and I’m sure most, if not all dogs, would have this request on their wishlist of what they want their human to do. When we learn the basics of dog behavior and when we learn more about dogs as individuals and why they do certain things, the dogs and their and other humans benefit.

The take-home message is simply that we must pay very careful attention to what we know and don’t know about our canine companions. Many people find it interesting and often troubling that there are common questions for which there should be obvious and clear answers, but there aren’t. And, concerning dog etiquette and dog-human interactions, we need to recognize that there are some behaviors on which most humans frown, even if they’re entirely and understandably dog-appropriate. So, when dogs try to do certain things that could cause trouble, it’s best to stop them from doing them even if you don’t care and they enjoy it.

Paying attention to what each individual dog wants and needs will help to develop and maintain a healthy and long-term relationship that works for you and your dog. When we make the choice to share our homes and hearts with another being, we must do no less. They depend on us to do all we can to give them the very best life possible. Putting the time into learning to understand a dog is a win-win for them and their human(s). The best and most respectful relationships have to work for all parties. Myths and false expectations can be harmful to dogs and their humans and can undermine building a healthy, respectful, and enduring relationship that works for everyone.

Beware of quick answers from people who don’t really know what’s going on 

It’s a very exciting time to study and to learn more about dogs and what makes them tick. I look forward to sharing this information as it becomes available. In the meanwhile, cherish and love your dog for who they are, and don’t worry if they don’t fit into a hypothetical or widely held stereotypical and oversimplified image of who they’re supposed to be, how they’re supposed to behave, or how you’re supposed to interact with them. Respect their individuality, appreciate the large amount of diversity among these wonderful beings, and give them all they need and then some.article continues after advertisement

And also beware of quick answers from people who don’t really know what’s going on, either because they haven’t actually observed the situation or because they really don’t know all that much about dog behavior and dog-human interactions. This could involve some people who call themselves “trainers,” because training is an unregulated business. Think about Warren getting distinctly different advice about his dog’s behavior from people who didn’t really know what was going on, and that nothing worked until he found someone who took the time to observe the problem and could, in fact, help his dog and him along. As my friend Betty Moss puts it, “If you don’t know the answer to a question, just say you don’t know. If it is something you think you should know, look it up.”

The lack of detail about some common dog behaviors and individual variability is what makes studying them so exciting.

Original article first published on Psychologytoday.com on Apr 25, 2019 and republished here by kind permission of the author. Marc Bekoff Ph.D. also publishes regularly for Psychology Today and you can see his other essays here.

Author’s Books on Amazon

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do

Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible

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Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published 31 books, won many awards for his research on animal behavior, animal emotions, compassionate conservation, and animal protection, has worked closely with Jane Goodall, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. Marc's latest books are Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (with Jessica Pierce) and he also publishes regularly for Psychology Today. Currently, Marc and Jessica are writing a book about what the world will be like for dogs as and when humans disappear (Dogs Gone Wild: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans, Princeton University Press, 202?). In 1986 Marc won the Master's age-graded Tour de France. His homepage is marcbekoff.com.