Yesterday on Facebook, I saw yet another video compilation of so-called “Guilty” dogs being “shamed” by their owners – The Many Faces of Guilty Dogs. These dogs had supposedly done something naughty, be it chewed a favourite shoe, chewed a table leg, “killed” a sofa cushion or “stolen” some treats. In all instances, the person taking the video was questioning the suspect in what can only be described as a patronising and suspicious tone and the result was predominantly laughter on the part of the person, sniggering and further provocation.

The dogs in the videos were invariably giving their owner a “look” that were we looking at a person, would be described as guilt, shame, embarrassment or … fear. Yes, fear.

I will put my hands up and admit that I too was guilty of chuckling at some of these videos but I am also aware of the true nature of this “look”. And this is where anthopomorphism can become dangerous. It is the very reason, as dog owners and other animal owners, we should do our utmost to understand what we can of our animals.

Before getting Flossie, who is my first ever dog, I started by going to dog training classes over three years before I finally made the leap. I had initially been going as I was trying to decide which path I wanted my future and my career to take – should it be with people, caring for them, offering help and support or should it be with animals, that I have loved my whole life? I didn’t know much about dogs or animals that was practical or useful so I decided to find out for myself hence volunteering at dog training classes. Those three years opened my eyes to a world and a new perspective I had no idea existed.

It was in those years that not only did I learn how to teach dogs to amongst other things, sit, lie down, roll-over, heel and stay; but I also witnessed the power of the human-animal bond, the immense communication barriers and gaps between the species and the mistakes we make as dog owners. We are often  presumptuous and self-confident, which seems to emerge simply on the basis of being human. I also saw the smiles, the laughter and the joy of being a new puppy owner.

At Puppy class

With our “immense” intelligence we are privileged to be able to learn from our mistakes and it was seeing these gaps, hiccups and holes that made me want to know as much as possible before I took the leap.

Most dog trainers will most likely tell you that their dog training class clients are either completely new to dog ownership or have had dogs in the past. I imagine it is quite rare to come across people coming dog-less, wanting to observe, learn the ins and outs, listen and absorb the information without having to handle an exuberant, feisty, hyperactive or even painfully shy or fearful puppy!

But this is where our responsibility comes in. As animal owners we have a responsibility to meet their needs – not just physical or biological needs but also their emotional and psychological needs. I often saw dogs and puppies at class who were labelled “problem” dogs because they were energetic, lively and difficult to “control”. What right do we have to control them? Just because we’re human? These dogs were bored, not exercised enough and certainly weren’t challenged or invited to use their brains. I remember as a puppy, when taking Flossie to class I would return home happy because I knew that not only had Flossie been learning, interacting with others – dogs and human – but she was also having to use her brain. And that is why now, every now and then, throughout the week we have little training sessions to get both her and Dinky thinking. After these sessions the dogs are always tired so it gives us a rest from being pestered to throw the ball. Again!

Dog training classes are a wonderful opportunity to learn with your dog, about your dog and from your dog but there are also a lot of missed opportunities. Classes are a chance to strengthen your relationship, enhance that bond and really become quite the team. (To learn more about relationship-based training, read Suzanne Clothier’s book “Bones Would Rain From The Sky”! I give it ten out of ten!)

How can we improve our relationship with our companion animals? Well, the big opportunity that seems to be missed is looking at the world from our animals’ perspective. Be empathic. First factually and objectively identify what is happening. Which senses are being stimulated? What do they see? What can they hear? What can they feel physically? What can’t they see? What can they smell? Then, ask yourself “How would that make me feel if I were a dog?”. It is important to avoid human interpretation but then that is difficult. We are human after all.

So if we think back to the guilty dog scenarios what do you think they are experiencing? Imagining it from a Charlie Brown perspective can also be helpful. The words mean something to us, but nothing to the dogs. Only the tone and body language.

Also, one of the biggest mistakes in these videos, from a punishment point of view, is the time element – the dog will not connect your scolding body language with an event that took place so far in the past unless caught in the act at that moment. As animals that live in the moment, they have moved on and are in a different place psychologically, cognitively and emotionally! It is unfair to scold them for something when they don’t understand what they’re being scolded for.

What is he thinking?

“But he looks so guilty! I’m certain he knows what he’s done!” you might say. Again, look at the event objectively. You are waving a damaged object in their face, your body language is tense, tone of voice, hard and posture very forward and stiff. How do you think that makes them feel? Out of all the instinctive reactions they might have – fight, flight, freeze, flirt – which do you think they will be inclined to use?

So next time you’re laughing at your or someone else’s companion animal, put yourself in their paws and ask yourself “What’s happening for them right now?”.