This is the fourth post of a 5-part series about the amazing possibilities that appear when you view your relationship with your dog from the perspective that your dog is perfect. If you haven't read the other posts, here are links to the first, second and third posts.
As you can probably deduce from Wyrm's expression in the photo, nobody likes being put into a box. Today's post is about the mental boxes we place around our dogs and their behavior, specifically our favorite boxes - those that we label "good" and "bad". To get where we want to be we need to discard the good and bad boxes and return our dog and their behavior to the "perfect" box where they belong. The "perfect" box is different from the "good" and "bad" boxes because there is no judgement in the perfect box, just acceptance.
Assuming I’ve convinced you that there is value in seeing your dog as perfect, you’re probably wondering where that leaves you, and I certainly don’t blame you. After all, If I believe that every dog is perfect, how do I justify my profession? How does one improve something that is perfect?
The truth is that you don’t. You are simply trying to arrange the interactions of the dog-owner-environment system in a way that is more to your liking. Dogs are so perfect that within each one of them is the potential to become “better” than you can possibly conceive of. At the same time, they can become “worse” than you could ever imagine. The thing that brings out the dog you see in front of you from the infinite possibilities that could exist is nothing but the experiences the dog has. As the dog’s owner, you have direct control over most of those experiences, as the vast majority of them will be with you and the environment that you allow your dog to interact with.
This gives us an opportunity to reflect on just how lucky we are that our dog, who could demonstrate behavior anywhere in that spectrum of good and bad, is as good as he is most of the time! I promise you, no matter how bad you think your dog’s behavior is, I’ve seen far worse. Recognize that all the behavior, both good and bad, that you have seen in your dog in the past occurred without you really understanding what caused it. Just imagine the possibilities when you begin interacting with him with a truer understanding of what drives this perfect creature’s behavior.
Good and bad behaviors are simply human moral judgements of the natural behavior of a different species. The fact that we live so closely and intimately with our dogs is a testament to the fact that for the most part, the behavior dogs exhibit in a human environment is to our liking. There’s a reason we choose to share our lives with dogs and not with wolverines. A wonderful game to play when frustrated by your dog’s behavior might be to think how much better his behavior is in a given situation than a wolverine’s would probably probably be. Dogs are so good at living with us that we rarely consider what a miracle it is that we can coexist so easily.
Here’s another game to try. Imagine for a moment that your dog always behaved exactly how you would like him to, without any effort or input on your part. At first, this idea would seem to be wonderful. But if you think about it, over time that fantasy dog’s behavior would become invisible. You can only appreciate “good” behavior by contrasting it with “bad” behavior. You can also only realize the value of improving your perception of your dog’s behavior through the work and effort it takes to do so. Anything we value in life is by definition rare, and takes effort to attain.
In order to move to a higher-level relationship with our dogs we need to abandon human moral judgements. Your dog’s behavior simply is. The explanation for it does not lie in goodness or badness intrinsic to the dog. The dog always does what he believes to be the best course of action given a particular set of circumstances. If the behavior is something other than what you want, it is either due to your misunderstanding of the way he experiences the world, or a failure to effectively communicate a different, better (both for you and the dog) way to navigate a particular situation.
This week's homework is to play some more with your perceptions. Pay attention to when you are putting your perfect dog in the "good" box and the "bad" box. When they end up in the "good" box, think about how you and the environment conspired to get them in there. How did you set your dog up for success? How could you do that more often?
When you notice that you've placed your perfect dog in the "bad" box, the first thing to do is to realize that no matter how bad the situation is, it could be far worse. If you're able to see that the behavior you are labelling as "bad" really is just a minor frustration or inconvenience you will be far better equipped to handle it in a productive manner. For bonus points, actually cultivate gratitude that your dog is providing you with low-stakes problems to signal that you have some work to do. Imagine your perfect dog knows just how wonderful your relationship could be, but the only way he can ask you to help him get there is to show you where improvement is needed. Once you're able to mentally pull your dog out of the "bad" box and return him to the "perfect" box, think about what you could have done differently or how you could have managed the situation better. What can you do moving forward that will set your dog up for success next time a similar situation occurs?
Next week we will have a talk about your dog's potential.