I leaned down to pet my dog the other morning as we came back from our walk and I felt this rush of affection that I’ve never really felt for a non-human before. Well, I have but not this deep or resonant, and certainly not for a long, long, long time. This wealth of emotion for my Pom is almost always there. It doesn’t matter what is going on, it’s like a little warm hum in the background of my heart. Even when he misbehaves, if I do yell momentarily to get his attention, once I have it, I tend to stroke him and whisper to him as he sits before me, knowing I am displeased about what he just did but confused as to why.
A few mornings ago, I opened the door without putting his leash on first. That had become a regular practice for me because he would stand on the porch and wait for me to put on my shoes. He is a rather obedient doggy under normal circumstances. This morning, however, a neighbour was jogging by with her dog on a leash. And my dear Pom, excited as he usually is to see other people and other dogs, raced out to greet them.
As I screamed at him, one of the Internet’s most beloved pups came to mind:
I screamed at him but he refused to listen as dogs do. I had to do my stern come-now-pet-voice, “No. Rusty. Come.” before he listened. Good doggy. He came. Stopping sheepishly to pee on a bush first. I repeated my stern, low-pitched, “No. Rusty. Come.” And come he did and sat, ears back, at my feet wagging his tail.
I smiled at him, scratched the top of his head, clipped on the leash, murmuring, “Bad doggy. You know better too.” as I did.
This is how I deal with his misbehaviour. I scream at him, I get gruff and order him to my side, and praise him when he arrives. Because ultimately I want him to remember how good he feels when he obeys me.
A few weeks later and I’m marvelling at this approach. Aside from it being the complete opposite of what I am usually like otherwise (I am a bit of a screamer when I’m angry or upset), it’s an unusual instinctive approach to a misbehaving pet. The scary part is that it’s sort of second nature to me now. It’s an approach I was told about when I was just getting him. An approach that I’ve read about scores of times. Praise them when they do good so they know which behaviours are welcome. Don’t dwell on the bad because they are primarily happy, loyal creatures who respond better to coaxing rather than punishment.
Humans are far more evolved animals. It would be insulting to compare ourselves to dogs. But humans do love praise too, don’t we? When we are right, and someone acknowledges it, don’t we preen and grin and feel damnably good about ourselves? When we do bad and are criticised, don’t we stiffen our necks and feel badly, maybe even vindictive; violent? Our evolved state means we’ll put in more effort if required to get it right next time. Or be stubborn about it and decide to move onto something or someone else.
I see this approach almost everywhere. Think of the cashier who didn’t charge a customer properly and comes in short. Do you think she gets praise when she helped that blind man figure out what he wanted to order, helped him pick off the shelf, put it in his cart, get it paid for, and directed out the door with his purchase? Nope; she just got yelled at and her pay docked because she charged him $9.99 instead of $19.99 for that same item.
What about the military member who gets pushups every time he is late this week because traffic is particularly bad this week and difficult to predict? Think anyone remembers the time he was really early and helped another military member get there on time?
These are examples, I know. But how far from actuality do you really think they are?
What if we changed how we interacted with one another? What if we praised and applauded one another when we did good instead of yelling and screaming when we did bad? What if instead of listening to our natural evolutionary tendency to point out when things aren’t working so that we can improve them, we stress that the effort to make things work is just as impressive? What if we praise people for trying at all and encourage them to keep trying? What if while pointing out where we could improve, we stressed the positives?
Do you think we might make one small step towards reducing the violence that we live with everyday? Do you think that by dwelling more on the good aspects of our behaviours that we might gradually reduce the obsession with the bad? Do you think our children might get the idea early that happiness lies in doing what is right?
I wonder …
First published on Medium on February 24, 2016.