November 10, 2016 12:00am
IT seems hard to believe that our slightly stout, middle-aged kelpie was once a sleek, wriggling puppy full of energy and boundless optimism.
The optimism faded slightly over time as he realised he’s not included in every outing. He visibly braces for disappointment during summer when the beach-going energy of his human pack excludes dogs in response to by-laws.
What hasn’t changed is the intense desire to please and the ever-willing work ethic so typical of his breed.
These traits have invited unwanted attention at times, most memorably from a small white dog who was determined to have an inappropriate relationship with our puppy’s face on his first beach visit.
Seeing the two-month old kelpie locked into this affronting embrace, I earned the ire of the owner by pushing the older dog away and admonishing it. I was snappily told, “It’s natural, you know.”
A few months later, a family member’s mature labrador tried to assert itself over our puppy in a more traditional doggy style in my sister’s lounge room at Christmas. When the kelpie’s terror evidenced itself with a diarrhoea delivery on the beige carpet, for some reason the lab was defended and our puppy was deemed rather pathetic by the extended family.
Given that neither humping dogs nor diarrhoea are suitable lunch table conversation, not much was said at the time. Family Christmas, say no more.
Back in our own lounge room we discussed the difference between natural and “not on” with our kids.
I’ll accept humping, biting and fighting over food can be “natural” canine behaviour, just as shouting, sulking and hitting are all natural human behaviour. Natural behaviour for wild dogs also includes hunting in packs and dragging down small creatures for dinner.
But imagine if we just let that ride. What’s natural doesn’t always apply in a suburban context.
I had assumed that dominant behaviour in dogs is unmistakeable and that most people see it for what it is. But my assumption proved to be wrong.
We may think it’s similarly obvious that some human activities are acceptable and others not. Our social contract determines what are bad manners or unsuitable acts; our law and order system sanctions those who push things too far.
But not everyone understands, or sees, aggression and dominance the same way. Consider the US election discussions and the Australian rates of domestic violence. We actually struggle with a universal understanding of addressing inappropriate or unwelcome behaviour.
We are falling at the first hurdle — identifying aggressive behaviour, naming it and calling it out when it happens.
Parenting taught me that you can’t manage dominant behaviour by using dominant behaviour. Not only does it feel morally wrong and so incredibly uncomfortable, it actually doesn’t work.
And when our family invested in puppy training we quickly realised the training was for us, not the dog. We learned that the words “good dog” are virtually all that’s needed. Yes, poor behaviour is acknowledged — and the kelpie knows full well when he’s crossed the line — but positivity is a better teacher.
In dogs, using aggression to get a result is anxiety-based behaviour. Responding with dominance exacerbates the situation. Understanding the insecurity, acknowledging it but looking to reward positive effort is far more powerful.
In humans, it seems we definitely need the naming, but perhaps less blaming and shaming.
Stephanie Asher is a professional consultant, writer and speaker.