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Giving Dogs the Benefit of the Doubt

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

dog lying looking at camera

Walking my dogs in the freezing cold of 6:30 a.m.—yes, it dips below freezing even here in southern California—has its benefits. It gives us exercise, and a chance to practice our training. It also gives me time to think. This morning, while Bodhi was running around the deserted dog park leaving p-mail on every available surface, I walked the perimeter. As I dodged the minefield of souvenirs left by other dogs, it occurred to me: Dog poop is like karma. You really need to clean up your own. Okay, so brilliant bits of philosophy aside, more serious thoughts do surface.

I had been trying to get Bodhi to chase a ball. He’d begin to run after it, but would stop halfway. I tried again, with the same result. This wasn’t like him. Soon enough, it became apparent that he had other business on his mind, and he soon contributed to the dog park souvenir collection (which, of course, I promptly cleaned up—who wants bad karma?). It got me thinking about a friend, a trainer who has been working long and hard on teaching her dog a solid retrieve. She trains gently and very well, and she and her dog have both been enjoying the process. But I wondered: If it had been me teaching Bodhi the retrieve, and it had been very important to me that he brought the ball back this morning, would I have become frustrated? Would I have insisted that he do it, or would I have given him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe he had a good reason for not complying?

We soon left the dog park and took our usual on-leash stroll along the winding pathways of the larger park. I like to allow my dogs to sniff and explore, but as I also like to remain upright, teaching Bodhi to walk nicely on leash has been a necessity. I don’t mind if he walks out ahead (we have a separate cue for him to walk by my side), so long as he doesn’t pull. Teaching this adopted, previously untrained, wild and crazy adolescent malamute mix not to pull has been quite the adventure, but things have been going well. Then there came a point toward the end of our walk where Bodhi suddenly almost yanked me off my feet. Following his gaze, I realized that there in the distance was his nemesis, the black Lab who is Bodhi’s personal Darth Vader. I gently redirected Bodhi to walk away with me, and although he was reluctant, we continued on. But what if I had taken the attitude that my dog was defying me? It’s easy to see how that line of thought could lead to a correction. And would that have been fair? Sure, it’d be nice if we were at the point where I could expect Bodhi to give me 100% attention and behave perfectly regardless of what’s going on in the environment, but the reality is, we’re not. That we’ve gotten as far as we have, where he can still focus on me and comply with minor distractions around is a beautiful thing. I don’t expect him to go from 0 to 10 with no steps in between.

Once again, it was a matter of giving him the benefit of the doubt, allowing that there might have been something outside of the norm happening that was causing his behavior. Assessing the possibilities before jumping to conclusions—giving our dogs the benefit of the doubt—can avoid needless frustrations and corrections. And, hey, it’s good karma. ___________________________________________________________________________________

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