Be wary of this critical m.a.s.s.

border collie looking uncomfortableWhen I first got out of college I had the good fortune to work for Susan Herman, who along with her husband at the time, ran a progressive summer camp that also offered summer student travel programs. I was hired to lead 4 week travel adventures with 12 teenagers and a co-leader. We worked 24/7, organizing and preparing 3 meals a day, driving hours to hiking trails, setting up tents, navigating teen angst and drama, and cajoling 14 year olds into carrying heavy packs up hills.

During an extensive orientation Susan shared one missive with us that I have never forgotten, “Assume goodwill, no ill will intended.” It is all too easy, when confronted by someone’s behavior, or the results of that behavior (dirty dishes left in the sink, laundry languishing in the dryer, or a gas tank needle pointing precariously toward empty, for example) to think the worst. How selfish! Lazy! Inconsiderate! And when we think this way, our own behavior is affected. We may become angry, short tempered or frustrated, and it shows.

It’s not unusual for dog owners to ‘assume ill will’ when it comes to challenging behaviors in their dogs. When describing their fearful dog these adjectives are often used; mean, aggressive, stupid & stubborn. The first time I heard someone describe their fearful dog as ‘stupid’ I was flabbergasted. Because the dog had not learned not to be afraid of things, the owner assumed it was due to a lack of intelligence on their dog’s part. Just because public speaking isn’t your ‘thing’ doesn’t make you an idiot.

Snarling dogs can look mean and aggressive, but when you understand the underlying emotion, their behavior can be assessed in a very different light. If every time you had politely asked to be left alone, and you weren’t, should you be faulted for raising your voice? What is viewed as ‘stubborness’ in a dog may be an indication of the lack of skills to perform certain behaviors, or the inability to perform them because fear prevents them. Imagine being labeled ‘stubborn’ because you refused to lie down amidst a writhing mass of snakes (even non-poisonous ones!).

The next time you find yourself upset or frustrated with a dog (or even a human!), changing the way you think about their behavior will change the way you behave, and sometimes that’s what really needs to happen.

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18 comments so far

  1. Tawny on

    How true! It is unfortunate how easy it is to throw accusations, even mentally. I’m understanding with dogs… You just inspired me to be a little more so towards my husband!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Your husband owes me big time! But he should still clean the bathroom more often 😉

  2. Mary Haight on

    This is basically what I was just telling a friend who got a dog and didn’t understand why the dog wouldn’t do what he asked when he asked…patience is such a rare thing these days! But if instead of getting angry with a dog change the way you’re thinking about the situation. There’s no point in getting stuck in a place that ensures no results. Changing the way you think changes your own state of frustration, anger, etc…and hahaha – yes,I aagree this concept should be used with people too. I often use this myself:))

    • fearfuldogs on

      We can be so impatient with change in others, yet when it comes to ourselves, heck many of us are still trying to lose weight, quit smoking, curb drinking, etc., after years of trying.

  3. Sweetpea on

    A very powerful post with some very POWERFUL reminders.
    Thank you for these words about *change.*

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you for saying so. The first step toward any change happens in our heads.

  4. Lizzie on

    I have all the time and patience towards my dog’s behaviour. With them, what you see is what you get, dogs don’t pretend to be something they are not!

    That’s why I prefer to spend my time with them, you know where you are with a dog 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m sure many would agree with you about preferring to spend time with our dogs!

  5. Dan Lutts on

    Labels are powerful and affect behavior. If you label yourself as shy or mean, chances are you’ll act that way. If you label your dog as mean or stupid, chances are that you’ll treat her that way and reinforce your preconceived behavior in your mind and in your dog’s so that the dog will act meanly or stupidly.

    I think it’s better to see dogs (and cats) as exhibiting different traits in different situations. After all, we humans do that — unless we label ourselves and act out those labels.

    • fearfuldogs on

      This has been documented among students and teachers. Teachers told they were working with ‘high achievers’ vs. ‘slow learners’ responded differently to their students, regardless of their actual ability. The ‘high achievers’ showed more improvement in skills when tested, the ‘slow learners’ less.

      I am currently having a hard time describing Sunny as a fearful dog. When he first arrived that description was more apt, but now I’d say he is a dog that was not socialized to people or exposed to novelty as a pup, he is easily startled. Otherwise he runs through the woods with reckless abandon, races off after sounds and leaps from rock to rock in rivers like a dancer.

  6. caring4dogs on

    Too true.

    Dogs or humans – it all boils down to empathy.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Which should be easy for us right? I mean we think it’s what makes us unique among animals.

  7. Kenzo_HW on

    People can be so ignorant. I bet the persons in this case neither had any emphatic ability to put themselves in the shoes of fellow man, let alone dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think some of it is due to a lack of skill in the case of empathy but also due to what some trainers teach in regard to dog behavior and ‘psychology’. Grumble.

  8. Donna in VA on

    Sometimes it’s the flip side that causes problems. Max is a cute Sheltie. People often assume he is friendly and would adore being petted. Not so. I have to turn them down all the time – at least the ones who think to ask first. He doesn’t trust people he does not know and will defend himself. I need a brief and kind way to explain this. I have tended to be short with people when refusing to allow them to touch him. I know the strangers intend this in a friendly way but I think it’s not beneficial for either Max or the person.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m with you. I never hesitate to stop people from approaching my fearful dog. I will get in front of him if I need to. I’ve had to say to people, “NO really, you cannot touch him!” I usually say something right away. I must be getting good at it because I am rarely challenged anymore.

      • Sue on

        I need to practice ‘no, you really can’t touch them’ in front of the mirror!
        I have 2 small cute looking dogs, but one is terrified of children and can snap, and the other is an ex breeding girl from a puppy farm, who is terrified of people.
        Why do people respond to ‘please don’t touch them’ by bending down, face close to the dogs, hand outstretched saying ‘oh, i won’t hurt you’!?
        My fear is that Molly might bite and then that person could be demanding she be put down. With Poppy,my puppyfarm girl, by frightening her, they are undoing the hard work i have put in rehabillitating her.
        Just because they look cute, doesn’t mean its ok to touch!

  9. fearfuldogs on

    If people ask if my dog bites I usually say, ‘he can!’ as I’m moving away. If someone asks if they can pet a dog I don’t want them to handle I may say, ‘oh no he bites’ as though it’s the craziest thing in the world for them to want to do. Yesterday I was walking a very gregarious lab in town and someone asked if they could pet her and I said ‘better not she’ll pull your dress off!’, the young woman was wearing a strapless dress. I also thank them for asking.

    But a firm ‘nope!’ usually works. I always keep in mind that I have worked a long time to get my fearful-of-people dog so he can function in places around people. I am not going to have someone, who I probably don’t even know, set us back by doing something that scares him.


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