Dog’s Eye View: The danger of making assumptions
In the past, I’ve worked with a well-known horse trainer who was really good at getting information across to us with little one-liners and mnemonic devices. He wanted us to think through and remember what he taught. Sometimes, we laughed at his sayings, but we remembered them. At other times, we may have thought, “Uh oh, that sounds like me.” A particularly useful one relates to the title of this article.
To keep us safe around horses and make us more observant about what our horse was actually expressing with his body language, the trainer spoke about not making assumptions. He said there are actually three “words” in the word assume; they are, “ass,” “u,” and “me.”
He was speaking of communication and how easy it is to teach a horse to assume what you might do and also about how unsafe it can be to assume a horse will always do the same things each day.
“Make no assumptions about your dogs’ behavior” is something our students will hear frequently. This can take many forms.
For example, we might assume that a wagging tail on a dog means he’s friendly. Sometimes, people teach this simple observation to children, and it gives me chills. Dogs have many different expressions of tail-wagging, and some are saying they are frightened or ambivalent about what’s happening (low, slow wagging). Besides, it’s not just the tail that we look at; it’s the dog’s whole body language and the environment.
Taking the work “assumption” in a different context, I am reminded of the very sad incident that occurred on a TV news special in which a dog that was saved from drowning the previous day seriously bit a well-meaning newscaster. This dog was extremely stressed in the TV studio, and he was being held tightly between the owners’ knees so he couldn’t move away. His ears were pinned back, he was panting heavily and his eyes were dilated. The newscaster was kneeling in front of the dog and commenting on how lucky the dog was to be saved. She leaned in to kiss the dog on the face and was bitten.
She might have assumed the dog was grateful to be saved and would welcome the close contact of a kiss. The dog was actually saying with his body language, “please get out of my space. I am very uneasy here in this alien environment, and I don’t know you.”
Some time ago, I was at an all-breed conformation dog show and Rally Obedience trial with my bull terrier, Stuart. I was walking him outside when a man who handled show dogs for people asked me if I was showing Stuart in conformation. I replied, “no, he was in the obedience trial.” The man stared at us in disbelief.
“You mean you can train a bull terrier?”
He was serious. He’d made the assumption this breed (and possibly other breeds) couldn’t be trained at all. He didn’t know Stuart had already earned several titles and continues to do so.
It’s hard not to make assumptions, sometimes, and I think we all do at times we’re not really paying attention.
Be careful to not ass-u-me.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training with more than 25 years of experience.
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