Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Hitting . . . Dogs and Children

Hitting is not nice. I’m talking about the non-self-defensive kind, the initiation of the use of physical force to get your way. Its goal is submission. Just think thief with a knife. If you don’t hand over your wallet, that is, submit to the thief’s wishes, you may suffer the physical force of a knife or fist.

Why are dogs and children hit? “Smacking” is a word one still hears today as a recommended teaching method for both. Pre-teen children are not usually known to be aggressive, requiring self-defensive restraint, though some dog breeds have the reputation of being aggressive and unpredictable. And it’s not uncommon to hear something like, “A Rottweiler can bite your nose off. You have to teach him who’s boss. Be the alpha dog!”

Well, let’s take that comment first. I probably could bite a nose off if provoked in the right (or wrong) way, and I suspect many a small dog could do the same. Indeed, in the very act of making a friendly overture, I have been bitten by a small dog. Does dog training require hitting? Does a dog that jumps up on the bed have to be smacked?

Consider the similarities between dogs and children. They both have minds. They both can learn. They both want to please their parents or owners. They both experience (sometimes strong) emotions, which means they can feel confident or insecure, happy or sad, eager or listless. Inappropriate methods of relating to a child or dog by using, say, force and fear can result in insecurity, which in turn leads to compensating behavior. In older children, this can lead to depression, drugs, alcohol, or crime. In dogs, it can lead to uncontrolled aggression. Teaching, whether of dogs or children, requires positive motivation, not negative. The alpha dog notion is a myth.

What about the original sin, or rather, the alleged aggressiveness of certain breeds, such as Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers,* German Shepherds, and the notorious Pit Bull Terrier?** Uninformed hysterics aside, these dogs all have pleasant temperaments, if trained properly. Hit a dog—or me—and you might be surprised by the attack mode we each quickly move into. As with child rearing, pet ownership requires teaching and is the responsibility of the adult.

Of course, dogs are protective of their families and territory, but again the adult is responsible for the dog’s behavior, just as the adult is responsible for the child who hits a playmate or takes a playmate’s toy without permission. Dog bites are common among unsupervised children. The responsibility of the adult is to teach the child how to approach and relate to animals, not to leave the child alone with a pet. Pulling a tail or ear will certainly generate a response from a dog. Just try pulling my ear and see what will happen!

Higher-level mammals that possess a consciousness also possess a psychology. They are not stimulus-response black boxes. Their psychologies must be acknowledged and interacted with supportively. This does not necessarily mean that your dog should be allowed to sleep on all the furniture in the house or that your child should be allowed to eat ice cream anywhere he or she desires. Teaching, not hitting, which means positive communication and reinforcement, along with the nurturing of a warm relationship, is key to training an animal. This is not much different from what is required for raising a healthy child, except that the techniques used for the child must be more sophisticated in order to be appropriate to the higher level of consciousness. Even then, the techniques used must match the child’s stage of development. This means, for example, not treating the child as a small adult.

Wild horses, unfortunately, are sometimes still broken by tying them to a tree, letting them kick and fight until they give in, that is, are “broken,” so they will finally let a rider get on its back. Come to think of it, human slaves have also been treated the same way. Breaking the spirit is the goal of any initiation of the use of physical force; it is the goal of hitting. Dogs and children do not deserve to be treated this way. Their behaviors, with a little awareness, are predictable and understandable.

Smacking is the tool of a slave owner.

*As an undergraduate, I shared a basement with two Dobermans. (I had my own apartment; they had their own space.) They were two of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever met.

**Contrary to its reputation, the American Pit Bull Terrier can be used as a therapy dog. Are service dogs and all the exotic animals used in the entertainment industry trained by using negative motivation? I don’t think so. Check the links in this post.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with treating animals with dignity, but then I wonder - Do pets "choose" to be our companions, or do humans force them to be? I don't really see how we can tame a wild dog from the desert and without using physical force, eventhough ultimately we only do so to be its friend as most pet owners do, not to ride it like we do with a horse.


Toronto, Canada

Jerry Kirkpatrick said...

A little searching on Google shows that all kinds of wild animals have been tamed and trained. It just requires the right technique. The link in the post on therapy dogs talks about how one of Michael Vick's neglected, fighting Pit Bulls was turned into a cancer therapy dog.