It’s hard to believe that it’s April already. Of course, on April Fools’ Day it’s not a good idea to believe anything, especially in this age of the Internet. Last year, my staff pulled a little prank on CesarsWay.com with a story called “Leader of the Pachyderm,” which told all about how I’d rescued an elephant and brought it to my Dog Psychology Center.
I didn’t. But no matter where I go over a year later, I still get people asking me, “Did you really adopt an elephant?” No, but I would in a second if I had the chance.
In México, we celebrate our version of April Fools’ on December 28, el Día de los Santos Inocentes, or Day of the Holy Innocents, but we do it the same way, by playing harmless jokes on each other. This idea is almost universal in all human cultures. It’s also why so many dogs wind up needing to be rehabilitated.
You see, while dogs can only tell the truth, only humans will tell you a story. On every case I’ve ever handled, I start by asking the people, “Tell me what your dog is doing wrong.” And I get a story, but a lot of the time as soon as I look at the dog, I get the truth, and see how untrue the story is. (This isn’t intentional on the part of the humans, by the way. It’s just how our minds work.)
One of the biggest stories I get is this. “My dog is aggressive and a killer.” Nine times out of ten, when I move past the story and get the truth from the dog, the reality is not an aggressive dog. It’s a dog that is energetic yet bored because it isn’t getting any exercise or discipline, only affection, affection, affection. Humans misinterpret the dog’s excitement and dominance for aggression, but it isn’t.
It’s actually a desperate call for the humans to do their jobs and become the pack leaders by creating rules, boundaries, and limitations. A dog that acts out like this is asking for correction by testing the limits.
Why? It’s because that’s how they were raised as puppies, or should have been, whether by their own mother, a surrogate dog, or humans.
Another big misinterpretation I hear from people involves adding a puppy to a pack with older dogs. The puppy acts like, well, a puppy. The older dogs pin it down, the humans freak out and drag the dogs off of the puppy, then become wary of the dogs, then the situation continues to escalate.
I’ve actually seen people who go out of their way to keep certain dogs in their pack always separate within their own homes, and that’s no way to live. It’s not fair to the dogs or the people, and it’s not necessary if we realize one thing.
In the dog world, the most important thing that the adult dogs do for puppies is teach them the rules, boundaries, and limitations of the pack. They do this by providing immediate and very direct corrections when the puppy oversteps its bounds.
Mother dogs will actually stick a puppy’s entire head in their mouths when the puppy is not respecting the rules. Now, to human perception, this might look like the dog trying to eat the puppy, but it isn’t. It’s just the most direct way to send the message, “I don’t like what you’re doing right now. Stop it.”
When one dog corrects another with its mouth but doesn’t draw blood, there’s no reason at all for humans to intervene. The dog giving the correction knows exactly what it’s doing. Remember: the main tool that dogs use for manipulating things around them is their mouth, and a dog has similar control over its mouth that a concert pianist or surgeon has over their hands.
Look again at the simple truth the dog is communicating. “I don’t like what you’re doing right now. Stop it.” Compare this to the human story that is told about the same incident. Because humans tell stories with emotion, a straightforward correction suddenly turns into, “Oh no! The dogs are fighting! What do we do?”
When humans become overly emotional, their energy becomes elevated. This elevated energy is communicated to their dogs, to the point that a simple correction can suddenly turn into aggression because the dominant dog is kicked into a state of high alert by the humans’ overreaction.
This is what behaviorists call a feedback loop, and in this modern age we see it constantly on April Fools’ Day, when one successful prank — or story — is believed by enough people to suddenly escalate and turn a joke into serious news.
At its most benign, it means I have to tell people, “No, I didn’t rescue an elephant.” At the most extreme, it leads to divided households where two dogs live in this room, and the other dog lives in that one, and nobody can ever truly enjoy the wonder that is a single happy pack.
The solution? Listen to your dogs. Or cats or ferrets or elephants or whatever other animals you live with. Humans tell stories. Dogs tell the truth.
Which one would you trust more?
Here’s the most important part. In order to learn to trust your dog, you need to make sure that you are the person your dog trusts the most. Stop telling stories. Live in the moment, tell the truth, and the results may surprise you.
Stay calm and… no fooling.