What Are We Winning Anyway?

Why are we always keeping score?

I overheard a woman talking about a visit with relatives during which a 5 month old baby, lying on the floor with a toy, began crying. The woman’s son asked her to pick up the baby but she declined claiming, “If I pick him up then he wins.” She then went on to prove that she was correct because after being picked up the baby smiled, knowingly as she tells it, as though aware of it scoring a point on that round.

As I listened my forehead furrowed and my jaw dropped and it was all I could do to not respond, “What are you talking about!” Why was she already assuming an adversarial, competitive relationship with a five month old baby? It’s a baby for crying out loud!

I did know what she was talking about though. She was referring to operant conditioning- baby cries, gets picked up, baby learns that crying gets it picked up. Even still I wanted to shout, “SO WHAT!?” What else was he suppose to do, text her? ‘DIAPER WET PLZ CHANGE’, ‘FOOT STUCK IN JAMMIES HELP’. And so what, if heaven forbid, the kid just didn’t want to be alone on the floor anymore?

Had she gone on to say that after watching the baby she could see that he was frustrated because a toy had rolled out of his reach and if left alone he could work on solving the problem himself, I might have reacted differently. I admit I am woefully ignorant of how much a 5 month old is capable of as far as movement and coordination, but at least knowing that she had given thought to why the baby was crying, and not that it was just scheming about how to manipulate grown-ups, I would have been less offended by her attitude.

People tend to respond in similar ways to dogs. What part of our fabulous human brains have we shut off when we can look at an eight week old puppy, cowering against the back of its cage, the rumblings of a growl in its throat, and think it’s trying to dominate us? How someone can watch a dog trembling in fear at the bottom of a flight of stairs and then proceed to drag it up is beyond me. Or the arrogance of believing we should never allow these displays of emotion. And what emotions are they anyway? It’s fear. It’s uncertainty. It’s pain.

Rather than seeing the baby’s smile as an indication that it was aware that it had ‘won’ a round in a non-existent game, this woman could have smiled herself knowing that the simply act of picking up the baby provided him with comfort and relief. How difficult is it to pick up a baby anyway? How incorrect can it be to teach someone or something that the creatures its life depends on, understand them, respect their points of view and will care for them?

In this era of creating dominance hierarchies with practically every being we live with, I suspect that we’re the big losers.


31 comments so far

  1. Linda on

    Probably it was crying because it had a pain, being picked up dislodged the wind and caused the smile! 😉

    • fearfuldogs on

      The dislodging of wind seems like a good reason for anyone to smile!

  2. wildewmn on

    Excellent blog! It’s unfortunate that some popular television shows espouse the theory that everything from jumping up on people to not responding to a request to do something is due to the dog being dominant. The public is not only entertained by these shows, but they have bought into the dogma. This “dominance theory” is even more harmful when it comes to fearful dogs, as their reactivity is due to fear, not to wanting to be in charge. Owners reacting in a way designed to “put the dog in its place” will only make matters worse. Again, kudos, great blog!
    – Nicole Wilde, author “Help for Your Fearful Dog”

    • fearfuldogs on

      You mean there is someone on television promulgating this kind of silliness and people are actually buying it?! It’s not as if folks like you haven’t been putting the word out for years about the best ways to help fearful dogs!

      (ok I was being sarcastic in the first sentence, but not in the second)

  3. Donna TW on

    Well said, I completely agree with everything you wrote. The example of the crying baby was very powerful.

    Now, if I can only get even some of my longterm clients to quit thinking their beloved dogs’ accidents in the house are “out of spite” …

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good luck! For some folks dogs are at once evil geniuses and dumb beasts, which it happens to be depends on the owner’s perspective, not the dog’s abilities.

  4. Jaqi Bunn on

    You just know that’s a trouble-teenager of the future, don’t you?…

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m not exactly sure what you mean. I’m assuming that you are saying that a baby that is picked up when it cries is going to end up becoming a troubled teenager.

      One of the things I’ve had the opportunity to observe during my years as a tour operator and guide, was the difference in the ways people interact with their children.

      One morning while wandering through a small village in Bali I was startled by a sound I realized, that I hadn’t heard in weeks. It was the sound of a baby crying. I came to learn that in Bali babies are usually carried and never put on the floor, as that was perceived as desecrating something sacred. Babies were soothed and comforted and it would be considered bad parenting to leave a baby to screech itself to sleep.

      The Balinese are one of the most non-violent cultures I ever had the opportunity to experience. Perhaps the connection between that and the way they interact with their children is just anecdotal, but so is, I suspect, your assertion that a baby that is attended to is doomed to becoming a troubled teenager.

      But all that said, the point of the post was not to tell people ‘how’ they should deal with their dogs or kids, but rather that at the very least, let’s think about why we interact with them the ways that we do. Must our relationships be based on competition and establishing some kind of dominance based hierarchy? Are we really supposed to be engaged in power struggles with our own babies, puppies and dogs?

  5. Lisa Waggoner, Cold Nose College on

    Love your blog and love this post! We strive each and every day to help many clients change their relationships with their dogs. Most do, at least a bit…some don’t and you’re so right…it’s their loss. However, just yesterday I had a client tell me she only thought she had a good relationship with her dog, until she started working with us. It brought tears to my eyes. I seem to be doing more and more work with fearful and reactive dogs and thank you for the work you’re doing!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment Lisa. That truly was a heart-felt experience, witnessing and contributing to the relief a dog feels and the expansion of their owner’s understanding.

      Bill Grant, a trainer here in Putney VT, begins his classes by explaining to his students that they are creating a ‘sacred trust’ with their dogs. I like that thought.

  6. Laurie on

    The “conspiracy theory” always gets me too.

    I think it’s fair to say that I expect my pets and children to do as I ask of them. That’s life. Does that make me the almighty alpha omega of a hierarchy (aka “leader”) in my household? Perhaps. That’s also life and part of my responsibilities.

    Do I view everything my dog does as evidence she is trying to take over? No. I view them as her only means of communication and an indication of the type of education she needs at any given time to make her a good and happy canine citizen.

    I totally agree that the nature of the relationship I establish with my dog is the foundation to everything else. When that’s solid, it becomes so much easier to move forward together in a spirit of cooperation.

  7. Lizzie on

    Again I have to agreee with Laurie, I think we share a similar outlook on life!

    Instead of thinking ‘pack leader’, think take responsibility, someone has to, otherwise life would be chaotic. I cannot agree with this idea some people have that dogs are trying to take over as pack leader, why would they want to? Afterall as Debbie says we hold all the resources a dog needs so why?

    However much we love our dogs, they are not human. It stands to reason that as a human we must take ultimate responsibility for our pets, something a lot of humans fail to do.
    And yes the best way to communicate is through a respectful realtionship. That applies to both man and dog I think 🙂

  8. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for your comments! I enjoy hearing about your successes with your dogs and it’s not surprising why they occur.

    • Lizzie on

      Meant to say also Debbie that I found your story about the Balinese people, fascinating.

      I’m sure we could all learn a thing or two from them!

      • fearfuldogs on

        It’s a fascinating culture. Another interesting difference was their attitude about displays of anger. It is considered childish behavior, something one should grow out of.

        Imagine the difference in our lives if we all practiced patience from an early age. Just something to think about during the holiday rush 😉

  9. Lizzie on

    Mmm, now that IS something I definitely agree with.

    Anger is an ugly negative thing and for people who cannot handle it, it makes them ugly too 😦

  10. Jenny Ruth Yasi on

    I love this! I was just thinking something related, visiting my sister and helping out with her home daycare, and a baby would fuss and of course I would pick the baby up!! Great funny smart post.

    • fearfuldogs on

      And if picking up a baby makes it feel better, what can be wrong with that! It’s great to let babies and puppies develop resiliency through having to work through problems and some discomfort but why we often turn relationships into an ‘us against them’ scenario is sad.

      Thanks for visiting the blog and commenting.

  11. Beth on

    My dog had a few traumatic experiences at the vet’s office. The tech restrained her for too long despite my requests that she be given a break.She snapped. Next time she was required to wear a muzzle. It took the 200 pound vet, plus 2 techs to hold her down (a 40 pound dog) while another tech did the wrong procedure, actually. We switched to a house call “holistic” vet.

    The holistic vet said that I had to use her muzzle rather than my own, and when they arrived, they handed it to me in front of the dog. I knew that my dog would put 2 and 2 together and that now, putting on the muzzle would be impossible (which is why I wanted to use my own and put it on her just before the vet arrived.)

    Just as I thought she would, my dog snarled. I was shocked when the vet, who knew about the situation at the previous vet said, “I hate to see the dog win.”

    I was speechless and realized that the new vet wasn’t “holistic” at all.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Holistic does not necessary imply that a vet has experience with behavioral issues. Unfortunately lots of vets are not up to date on the most humane and effective ways to handle scared dogs. I hope you’ve found someone who can help you care for your dog.

      • Beth on

        My comment refers to the fact that “holistic” addresses all matters of body, mind and spirit…which led to my surprise when the vet made such a comment. True holistic veterinary care (which does exist and which is quite successful in treating maladies of both body and spirit)addresses the whole being – and often through homeopathic means, the animal becomes balanced in such a way that fears and resulting behaviors decrease or disappear. Caveat emptor when it comes to selecting a “hoistic” vet.

  12. Lisa on

    Nice Blog. I am fostering a fearful (terrified) dog. How am I supposed to get it outside to go to the bathroom everyday without making her more fearful? She’s too big to carry. She is not interested in any snacks. Have you ever had this problem?

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s a tough situation. With my own dog I put papers near where he liked to hide/hang out. When I did finally start taking him out he stopped using the papers. An unwillingness to eat is common. Fear does that to us. Have you had a chance to visit http://www.fearfuldogs.com? I’ve got lots of information on that site for dogs just like yours. Sunny was the same way.

  13. Lizzie on

    Yes vets, holisitc or otherwise, are not my number one port of call for Gracie. This is the main reason I am not using any medication.

    I think that because they don’t encounter this scale of fear in dogs very often, if at all, it’s just not something that they need to think about too much.

    I have only allowed one vet to handle Gracie, a woman, who is interested in her, and commends the fact that I took her on. She’s only seen Gracie 3 times in 15 months, for routine stuff but each time she’s peed and emptied her anal glands as the vet approached. So I try to avoid taking her unless it’s something I just can’t handle. She is very good though, the vet, and will dispense simple stuff, ear drops and the like, withoiut seeing her as she knows how stressful it is for Gracie.

    As far as meds are concerned to help with Gracie’s feelings of fear, she has little knowledge of which might work. Also here in the UK there are lots of drugs that vets are not allowed to dispense for dogs, like Prozac. I am not about to try this or that in the hope that we may find something that might work, but would rather manage Gracie’s environment to the best of my ability.

    She suffers little stress nowadays and virtually non in the home, so I just have to keep working on the outside fears where people are concerned. However Gracie has developed her own tactics for this, she simply turns around and goes home! WTG Gracie.

  14. Lizzie on

    Debbie, I don’t know how my post has appeared before your last one. I made my reply in the usual way in the ‘leave a reply’ box.


    • fearfuldogs on

      No worries Lizzie!

      If owners can manage their dog’s environment it makes a big difference. Sunny is probably as happy as he is because he does not have to deal with scary things on a daily basis, except my husband!

  15. Lizzie on

    It’s interesting isn’t it why our dogs have problems with the men that live with them. Gracie watches my husband like a hawk, any sudden moves by him and she takes off. She particularly doesn’t like it if he tries to talk to her, I don’t know if it’s the deeper tones or that any male voice scares her.

    However we have been working very hard to get Gracie to accept food from him. I’m not talking hand feeding here, she’s not willing to go there yet but she will approach if he puts it on her feeding table and yesterday for the first time she came forward when he called her name, to get the treat from the floor. But as soon as his hand moves to produce another one, she runs away again 😦

    You know, my husband has never run his hand over her back or felt the softness of her ears in all the time she’s lived with us, it’s such a shame for both of them really.

    But we will persist!

    • fearfuldogs on

      My theory on this is that Sunny gets lots of practice being afraid of my husband, since he’s always around. Early on his fear responses to my husband were more intense, so that’s what he ‘learned’ to feel. When he meets new people he’s afraid but not as afraid as he was when he first interacted with my husband. It is hard to undo that kind of fear response which is why preventing them from occurring in the first place is so important.

      If my husband was the primary care giver AND tossed frisbees for him a couple of times a day I’m confident that Sunny would learn to feel better about him. That however is not likely to happen 😦

      Keep working on hand targeting. It can help with the startling at his hand movements.

  16. Laurie on

    Experiences like Beth described are so unnecessary. Makes me angry just reading about it.

    One of the things that helped me with this was taking Chewy to the vet’s office once a week just for a treat, say hello to the receptionist, then leave. In the meantime I taught her basic obedience (especially “stand”) and handled her ears, mouth and paws daily.

    Chewy always reacted badly in the early days to being physically managed, so her exams became much easier when I could just tell her to stand rather than a vet trying to haul her hind end up.

    I also only go to vets who are willing to examine her on the floor (when possible). There are some good ones out there. I rely strictly on word of mouth for vet care for Chewy and ensure each one knows my expectations of how she’s handled before we get started.

    I’m no expert when it comes to her medical care, but I am when it comes to her mental and emotional health requirements, no matter where we are.

  17. Anne B on

    This crying baby story reminds me of a post I saw a while back:


    A much more sensitive and sensible mom, IMO.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Anne! That was an apt post for this topic.

      What I see going on is that we focus on the behavior, which of course makes sense given it’s what we see and what affects us, but emotion often drives behavior and if we address that we change the behavior. The perception is that we are rewarding the behavior by providing attention or whatever it is we do and will suffer the dire consequences of that, when what we are doing is rewarding the emotion. Emotions decrease when rewarded. When I have two dogs grumbling at each other and I start popping treats into their mouths they usually stop grumbling and their behavior rarely escalates (not the case with resource guarders & food!). So far I have not noticed any collaboration between them to ‘act’ grumpy with each other to get me to give them food. Like the toddlers in their strollers the emotional tone of the situation has been changed and the behavior followed right along with it.

      This is perhaps one of the hardest concepts for owners or handlers of fearful or reactive dogs to digest, though we ‘get it’ when it comes to our own personal experiences.

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