Another of Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts strips
Patricia McConnell’s book For the Love of a Dog is one part training manual and one part love story. It is a study of the behaviour of our companion animals and of ourselves, but mostly of our relationships with each other.
Much of the early part of the book is about dogs’ body language and what it tells us about their emotional state. McConnell concentrates on four primal emotions: fear/anxiety, anger, joy and love. Here is a summary of the signs (the book has photos that illustrate them):
Just as we need to be observant of dogs’ body language, and careful to note the signs rather than projecting how we would feel (or think we would feel) in their circumstances, we also need to be aware of our own body language and how it is being interpreted by, and influencing the emotions of, our dogs. That means we should avoid wearing sunglasses or large hats that can conceal or misrepresent our feelings, approach dogs we don’t know as they do (from the side without making direct eye contact, walking loosely with mouth open and relaxed, breathing deeply and evenly, and cocking our head). We can be sure that, though we may be unobservant and inattentive of dogs’ body language, they are very attentive to ours.
We also need to avoid gestures and words that mean nothing, or different things, to animals. Hugs, for example, are generally distressing to dogs, since they block view and constrain movement and hence are ambiguous in meaning to dogs. When our words say one thing but our tone of voice or body language conveys something else, the dog will respond to the latter, even when the words are those s/he has been trained to recognize. McConnell has no use for the show-’em-who’s-boss school of training that has recently come back into vogue. There is no substitute, she says, for positive reinforcement and gradual, patient repetition of lessons, not to the point of intellectually exhausting your dog.
As I read this book, it occurred to me that everything McConnell says about how we signal to and relate wordlessly to our animal companions applies very much to how we relate to other humans as well. “Accurate, objective observation is a skill that requires practice, but it starts with asking your mind to focus on what you see, not on what you think it means”, she writes. This is precisely the instruction we are given in cultural (and customer) anthropology training, to learn to better appreciate and understand our fellow human beings. And she goes on to explain in Lakoffian terms how we can misinterpret our dogs by failing to get outside our own ‘frames of reference’, describing a woman who was convinced her dog’s misbehaviour was an attempt to ‘test’ her, when it was merely a reflection of the dog’s ignorance that that behaviour was not acceptable.
The latter part of the book explores the four primal emotions. The chapters on fear explain the Darwinian advantage of shyness/fearfulness (shades of my last post) but note that shyness combined with other traits can lead to aggressiveness. Fear can be genetic, nurtured (deliberately or accidentally), or the result of trauma. Genetic shyness can be overcome with gentle, gradual, patient conditioning. McConnell explains how to do this in the context of dealing with separation anxiety and excessive barking when someone comes to the door.
The chapter on anger/hatred presents an interesting hypothesis that fortunately doesn’t extend to humans: Competition as puppies for mother’s milk and attention teaches a tolerance for frustration, and puppies from a ‘litter of one’ tend to be intolerant of frustration and prone to outbursts of anger/hatred as they grow older unless they are carefully trained. A good test is to gently roll a relaxed puppy after play over on his/her back and hold him/her in that position for a short while — puppies that become very aggressive in this situation will likely be difficult to handle as they become full grown. Just like some people, some dogs need to learn anger management, and this requires considerable expertise (a series of progressive, positively-reinforced ‘stay’ exercises for impulse control is explained in an appendix to the book to help with this). The danger here is that dogs will learn from the model we show them — if we show anger in our training and response to them, it will reinforce the acceptability of such behaviour, no matter what we do to discourage it.
The chapter on joy/happiness lays out the conditions that make our dogs happy: fresh water and good food, of course, but also companionship, physical and mental exercise, consistency and clarity in our behaviour toward them, respect for their individuality, physical contact (at the right times, the right way in the right places), and a sense of security. Our happiness and theirs is mutually contagious and self-reinforcing, and, as with humans, sometimes the anticipation of happy events is as joyful as the event itself (which is why the ‘clicker’ employed just before a reward is given, works so well as a training tool).
The final chapters deal with dogs’ capacity for love, jealousy, grief, self-awareness and problem-solving. Of all the personal stories in the book about McConnell’s beloved dogs, the one I found most moving (perhaps because it reminded me so much of my story and feelings about Chelsea) is one of the last. Here’s an extract:
About a week before [Luke, suffering from debilitating kidney failure as a result of a lengthy tick-borne bacterial illness] died, I began to feel that my efforts were harassing rather than helping him. Accepting that I couldn’t save him, I switched to hospice rather than hospital care. I emptied my calendar and spent my last week with him, soaking up the touch of his nose, the smell of his fur, the pink of his tongue. I sat long hours with him in the sun up in the pasture, full of the bittersweet emotions that accompany love and grief. At the end, we slept together in a makeshift bed on the living room floor. That’s where the veterinarian and I helped him pass on, peacefully snuggling up against me, nothing but bones and a shockingly beautiful black-and-white coat.
After Luke died, I was dumbstruck with grief, stumbling through the next months in a haze. I felt as if I’d been hit by a train, as though I’d been physically as well as emotionally injured. None of my senses seemed to function as they had before. The colors of the earth were different, wrong somehow, although I couldn’t quite say how. I coped well enough, seeing clients, running my business, tending to my farm. But a day didn’t pass when I wasn’t heartsick and hurt and angry, and that I didn’t agonize over whether there was something I’d missed, something I could have done to save him.
McConnell goes on to relate evidence of the immense grief experienced by Lassie, another of her dogs and Luke’s best friend, in the months after Luke’s passing, laying to rest any doubt that animals feel the same emotions, and in their own way at least as deeply, as humans.
This is a book for anyone who wants to understand our animal companions better, either to solve behaviour ‘problems’ or just to begin to fathom our own species and its relationship with the natural world. In his books, Jeff Vail talks about how the world is better represented by connections than by the things connected, and McConnell’s book is mostly about our connections with dogs, and through them with nature, and our true selves. Read it and discover how much we can learn from, and feel mutually about, creatures who have no need for our strange and imprecise tool of language.
Other Writers About CollapseAlbert Bates (US)
Andrew Nikiforuk (CA)
Carolyn Baker (US)*
Catherine Ingram (US)
Chris Hedges (US)
Dahr Jamail (US)
David Petraitis (US)
David Wallace-Wells (US)
Dean Spillane-Walker (US)*
Derrick Jensen (US)
Dmitry Orlov (US)
Doing It Ourselves (AU)
Dougald & Paul (UK)*
Gail Tverberg (US)
Guy McPherson (US)
Ilargi & Nicole (CA)*
Jan Wyllie (UK)
Janaia & Robin (US)*
Jem Bendell (US)
Jim Kunstler (US)
John Michael Greer (US)
Jonathan Franzen (US)
Kari McGregor (AU)
Keith Farnish (UK)
NTHE Love (UK)
Paul Chefurka (CA)
Paul Heft (US)*
Post Carbon Inst. (US)
Richard Heinberg (US)
Robert Jensen (US)
Roy Scranton (US)
Sam Mitchell (US)
Sam Rose (US)*
Tim Bennett (US)
Tim Garrett (US)
Umair Haque (US)
William Rees (CA)
Archive by Category
My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
My Other Sites
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons License.