Last Friday was Epiphany and, in case you’re wondering about the origin of the 12 days of Christmas, this would be it. January 6 is 12 days after December 25, and is traditionally the day that the Three Kings arrived at the manger and first saw the Baby Jesus.

In Mexico, like a lot of Catholic countries, it’s a big deal, but it’s not really observed that much in the U.S. However, English speakers probably have heard of “Twelfth Night,” which is a Shakespeare play that debuted around 1602 and premiered in connection with Epiphany.

The title itself doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with the play — but the story of the play can teach us a lot about our dogs and dealing with them.

If you don’t know much about Shakespeare, you probably at least know that he often had one gender pretending to be the other, which is interesting when you remember that in theater of the time, all of the female characters were played by young men. At the most extreme, that meant a young man playing a woman who disguises herself as a man who winds up pretending to be a woman again. Luckily, it’s simpler in “Twelfth Night,” where shipwrecked Viola pretends to be a man and, as they say, “hilarity ensues,” especially when Viola’s presumably lost twin brother actually shows up.

As with most mistaken identity comedies, the whole story would be over in thirty seconds if anybody saw through the disguise, but nobody ever does. And this is exactly the issue that we often face when it comes to dealing with dogs — both our own, and dogs in general.

People wind up looking at the “disguise” and not the dog. I’ve talked about this a lot in the past, particularly when I remind people of the difference in how we see dogs and how they see themselves. Humans tend to focus on name, breed, species, and animal, in that order, when they are reacting with a dog. Dogs, however, see themselves in the order animal, species, breed, and name.

We get into trouble when we focus on what we think each of those attributes means instead of on what we’re actually looking at. Imagine meeting two dogs named “Kitten” and “Stalin.” You’ve already made assumptions about their personalities based on their names. Now what if one of them is a bull mastiff and the other is a teacup terrier — but the huge dog is Kitten and the tiny dog is Stalin? In that situation, it could be very easy to take the big dog less seriously, while being leery of the small dog. They got those names somehow, right?

The name example may be a bit exaggerated, but we do this all the time with breed. I’m going to make you walk six dogs now, but you have a choice: You get six pit bulls or six corgis. I’ll even let you see the dogs first, before you decide.

What I didn’t mention is that the pit bulls are incredibly well-behaved on the leash, while the corgis are a nightmare. But if you don’t know that beforehand and only look at the breed, you might end up picking the dogs that are harder to handle. This can also make you misinterpret the causes of a dog’s behavior — for example, not seeing aggression because a dog is little or assuming it’s aggression because a dog is big.

It’s this kind of seeing, of being blind to the reality because you’re only paying attention to the “costume,” which can lead to a lot of problems, from individuals completely misdiagnosing a behavioral issue to communities thinking that breed bans are a viable solution to a problem.

In the world of the Shakespeare plays, everything would be resolved if people literally looked beyond the costume and actually saw the person in it. It’s not that different with dogs. We have to look past our assumptions about superficial things like name or breed or size, and pay attention instead to the dog itself.

Luckily, the dog is telling you everything you need to know because, unlike Shakespeare characters, dogs do not lie. And, unlike Shakespeare characters, we need to learn how to look from the beginning beyond the outside to see the truth inside.

Stay calm, and don’t fall for the disguise!


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