And Why Can’t He Refuse?
“Don’t want to. Don’t care.”
He’s not a teenager anymore, but boy does he sure act like one at times.
(Of course, I’m sure he’d say the same thing about me: “doesn’t listen,” “knows what she wants and relentlessly pursues it,” “head like a sieve”…we’re not going to talk about my counter-surfing at this point).
But he’s a dog who has a very strong idea of what earns rewards, what rewards he wants, and what has helped him acquire those rewards in the past.
Don’t we all? And isn’t this how we learn?
Most often, his “prefer not to, thanks very much” arises out of that learning history: either a strong history of rewards that exerts an equally strong influence over his choices, or a gap in his learning that I’ve overlooked in making a request of him. And it’s absolutely his right to refuse. And the onus is entirely on me to ensure the foundational learning is in place before asking anything of him.
This is most certainly not stubbornness.
Still for him, and for all dogs, I bristle at the insistence that a dog will assent to any request we make if they understand what we’re asking and if the rewards we offer are of sufficient value.
There is as great a risk in perceiving our dogs as creatures who may wilfully refuse as there is in perceiving them as creatures who can be trained to do anything. Neither of them is respectful either of who they are or of the learning process itself. And these positions aren’t as far apart as they might appear on first glance.
I appreciate that the claim that dogs don’t wilfully refuse our request grows out of a resistance towards traditional training methods that treat a dog’s learning like a battle of wills. But the suggestion that dogs can be moulded into doing whatever it is that we desire if our training and our rewards are of sufficient quality is equally coercive. Both perspectives arise from a tendency to desire that our dogs’ lives and decisions be ultimately within our control, however seemingly benevolent the underlying intention.
Instead, we can, and perhaps should ask questions about what we seek to teach them and why, whether it is in line with who they are and what they have already learned. We can think about designing and engineering their learning to set them up for success.
If we view learning as an opportunity rather than an imperative, then it becomes dialogic: a way of engaging with, connecting with each other, of conversing, and exchanging knowledge. In this, we open ourselves up to the wonderful potential of filling our own learning gaps: of understanding the why behind what we might perceive as error or refusal…and perhaps of being humble enough to recognise that like all of the most successful partnerships, we can negotiate and compromise with our dogs while helping them develop the skills to move through our human-oriented world. Much as they do for us in theirs.
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