What pets teach us about teaching them

Between us and our pets, who is the teacher? Who is teaching whom?
Last Updated : 01 October 2023, 00:54 IST

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Last week, as Pippi and I sat in the park soaking up the morning sun, my brain was ruminating on the lessons we impart to our pets and the lessons we learn from them. Between us and our pets, who is the teacher? Who is teaching whom?

On the face of it, these ramblings may sound a tad bit anthropomorphising, but let me explain why it isn’t. As humans, we tend to be know-alls and quickly assume the role of teaching, no matter how different our students are from us. Case in point: our pets, especially dogs. Try teaching a command or two to an unwilling cat and you’ll end up with bloody scratches! So far thus, felines have been exempted from the training drill. 

Most pet dogs begin their lives with their humans as puppies, separated from their conspecifics who can teach them survival and social skills. Instead, we humans surmise we can play that role and begin the drill of ‘obedience’ training: hammering the commands for ‘sit’, ‘stay’ and ‘heel’. First-time pet parents resort to scouring the Internet for a head start. Television shows featuring dog trainers also serve as resources. Personally, I have big reservations about the terms ‘obedience’ and ‘training’. I believe we have no right to expect our pets to obey us. Why should they? I also don’t think I can teach Pippi anything about being a dog — he is a dog and a perfect one at that! But I’m all for communicating and negotiating with him and investing my time in learning how best to do it so that our ‘language’ transcends the species barrier. 

Unregulated training

When the DIY training fails, and the dogs begin to show behaviours that inconvenience their humans, many pet parents approach trainers, and that’s where things begin to get icky. The world of dog training is highly unregulated. Practically, anyone can claim to be a trainer and promise that their approaches can magically solve all the ‘problem behaviours’. As our understanding of canine cognition advances with new discoveries, trainers and pet parents need to update their knowledge and tune their canine pedagogy accordingly. 

So far, we know that pain and punishment-based training approaches, which were the norm until recently, can lead to severe trauma in our beloved pets and shut them down completely. Positive reinforcement, which is a gentler approach, doesn’t address the underlying cause, like fear, discomfort or pain, which leads to certain behaviours in our dogs. Around the globe, an increasing tribe of canine behaviourists (not mere trainers) are rooting for approaches that focus on dogs as individuals with specific needs — a recognition that was long overdue — and devising tailored plans for their humans to better help (not teach) their dogs. 

Here’s how the third approach is working for Pippi, who hasn’t been trained with any commands. Five years ago, when he became ours, he came with a long biting history, reactivity at the sight of people and dogs, and extreme fear of anything moving fast, including people, cars, and bikes.

He needed help to recover with his canine instincts guiding him, and not humans teaching him how to be a dog. We did just that: helped him heal at his pace and gave him the space he needed to be away from any of his triggers and stressors. 

Fast forward to today, he’s become a darling dog for many people in our neighbourhood. Does he bark at other dogs? Sometimes. Does he growl at motorbikes? Yes. Will he go on a rampage at home, chewing and destroying things because he isn’t ‘trained’? Absolutely not. Can he make decisions on his own that stress him less? Yes, he’s learned to do that over time. Ultimately, is he a good boy? He’s the perfect one for us!  

While this transformation was a journey of its own, I think the best teacher who helped us navigate these ‘problem behaviours’ is Pippi himself.

We bit the humble pie in learning from him about what it is to be a dog, and that has been so rewarding. So this is a good time to send out a big thanks to Pippi and all our furry companions who teach us so much about life — theirs and ours. 

Tailspin is your monthly column on everything that’s heartwarming and annoying about pet parenting.

(The writer is a science communicator and mom to Pippi, a five-year-old rescued Indie, who is behind her drive to understand dogs better. She tweets @RamanSpoorthy)

Published 01 October 2023, 00:54 IST

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