what your dog needs, your partner needs

Ugh. So this has been me sick in bed with some horrible plague that’s going around campus. TWO WEEKS of snot and aching and struggling to keep my lungs where they belong, in the face of great resistance on the part of said lungs. UGH!!

Anyway. That’s how I’ve been lately. How are you?

While I’ve been lying in bed, I’ve been listening to John Bradshaw’s Dog Sense, which is chock full of fascinating stuff about the science of dogs, how they evolved, how they develop, how they learn, etc. It’s not a training book, isn’t trying to be a training book, but it does offer critiques of various training methods, inevitably supporting Ian Dunbar’s positive reinforcement approach and maligning Cesar Millan as scientifically deficient. Which is true, Dunbar totally has the science and Cesar has no science.

Then yesterday I completed a mandatory online sexual harassment training and I had the response that I imagine Ian Dunbar has when he hears Cesar talk about dog psychology: “GAAAH! NOOOOO, THAT’S NOT RIGHT OH MY GOD THIS IS GONNA MAKE PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW BETTER THINK ALL KINDS OF WEIRD THINGS!!!”

But. I mean. Maybe it’s okay?

A while ago I wrote me and Cesar Millan. I read his stuff and watched his show when I got a dog. I read Ian Dunbar’s book too, and watched lots of his videos, and it was helpful – ish. He taught me how to shape my dog’s behavior through reward and denial of reward. Nice.

But Dunbar’s advice was to get a puppy that had had lots of contact with humans, and train it from scratch. Which I didn’t do. I did what every dog advocate in the world would want me to do: I adopted a 7 year old dog that had been tortured and then had lived in an orphanage for 5 years. He had fears and insecurities and poor social skills and worse leash manners.

So what did I learn from Cesar Millan’s book that I didn’t learn from the science? I learned that my dog needs me to create a stable, secure psychological structure, so that he knows where he belongs in the world. I learned that needs me to stay calm. I learned WHY being calm and patient is important, which motivated me to do it. It turns out that reason is technically wrong, but it’s close enough to be very very helpful.

As a person who is wrapping up writing a guide about relationships (it’ll be available sometime in February I think, at goodinbed.com), this is a really useful bit of insight:

Just because something is grounded in the best science (Ian Dunbar) doesn’t mean it’s the thing that will be most helpful to people in an imperfect situation. And just because something is technically wrong doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry the important message.

It’s weird for me because I LOVE science and I share with John Bradshaw a puzzlement that the people who get TV shows as “experts” are hardly ever the people with academic credentials and scientific expertise. Yet the guy with the credentials and the expertise (Dunbar) hasn’t been anything like as helpful to me in having a positive relationship with me dog as the guy with unsubstantiated ideas but a dazzlingly useful approach (Millan).

So maybe – maybe – the sexual harassment program, despite being wrong, is actually helpful for people who don’t know about these kinds of things.

I can’t even tell you how foreign that idea is to me.

My guide is all science. I think (I hope!) it’s also really helpful. It happens to have very much the same message about human relationships as Cesar has about dog relationships: stay calm, listen, don’t assume that what your partner needs is the same as what you need, and don’t make your feelings more important (or less important) than your partner’s.

And if the science doesn’t work, turn to folk wisdom. I’ve also been watching a lot of West Wing, and there’s a whole episode grounded in Ephesians: “Be subject to one another.”

If you can’t do it because the science says so, maybe do it because it’s in the frackin’ Bible.