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No, They're Not 'Just' Animals

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Megan Griffo
Nicole Wilde Headshot

No, They're Not 'Just' Animals

Posted: Updated:

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Denise Herzing's work with dolphins is not only fascinating, but inspirational. The truly captivating aspects of her research project have to do with devising ways of communicating with dolphins. In one experiment, Denise's team teaches the dolphins specific sounds for individual toys so the dolphins can request the one they want. As Denise puts it, the goal was to "empower the dolphins to request things from us." And that concept--empowering the dolphins--is the inspirational part, as it's all about two species working together with mutual cooperation and respect.

As a canine behavior specialist, I can't help but think about this concept in relation to dogs. Over the years we have bred dogs to be biddable, and that's a good thing. I mean, it just wouldn't do for someone to ask their dog to get off the couch and the dog to think, Nah, I'm pretty comfy up here. Why don't you try that piece of sheepskin on the floor? If dogs weren't biddable they wouldn't be trainable, and we wouldn't be able to cohabitate with them. But, if they weren't so biddable and forgiving, we couldn't do all the terrible things we do to them in the name of training.

When you've spent time with animals other than dogs, you gain a broader perspective. In addition to being a canine behavior specialist, my background includes working with wolves and wolfdogs. Back in the days when Villalobos Rescue Center was a wolf sanctuary (before the pit bulls and parolees came along), my rescue partner Tia and I took in animals from people who could no longer handle their exotic "pets." Our residents included low content, mid-content and high-content wolfdogs--"content" refers to how much wolf is in the mix--along with many pure wolves. We didn't have the benefit of having worked with them from a young age; most were adolescents or adults when they arrived. (You think human teenagers are bad? Try an adolescent wolfdog!) Many were unsocialized and/or fearful of people, and some were aggressive. Since they were to live out their lives there, we had to be able to not only go into the enclosures to clean and feed, but to be able to handle them for minor medical issues and to get them leashed or crated. But even more importantly, we wanted them to feel at ease. My specialty was socializing and training.

Successfully working with animals--any kind of animal--is all about forming relationships based on trust. -- Nicole Wilde

I'm 5'2" and petite. Pretty much every one of our wolfy residents outweighed me, and all were definitely stronger and had bigger teeth. Do you imagine that I strode in to their enclosures, rolled them on their backs, and stood over them scowling and staring to establish dominance? Here's a clue: I'm typing with all ten fingers. That's right, the answer is of course not. And yet, that very maneuver--the "alpha roll"--is still widely used in a misguided attempt to show dogs who's boss. The technique is based on an old wolf research study where it was observed to be how one wolf demonstrates dominance over another. The study was later found to be incorrect. (You can hear about the erroneous "alpha wolf" theory here from wolf ethologist David Mech) Unfortunately, many owners extrapolated that original bit of misinformation to working with their dogs. Beyond being wrong, not only does your dog know you're not another dog, but a wolf who does that to another wolf is indicating a serious intent to cause harm. Is that what you want to communicate? That you're bigger, stronger, and a threat? And yet, I see this and similar techniques meant to prove dominance used on television programs and hear about it from owners on a disconcertingly regular basis. And the way top dog status is sought can be harsh. One woman recently told me that when she informed her group class instructor that she was uncomfortable with the way her dog was being roughly jerked around, the instructor replied, "They're just animals." Maybe that's at the root of it. In this day and age, is that really how we see things? With the work being done by Denise Herzing with dolphins, and so many other scientists and biologists revealing surprising discoveries about the intelligence of other animals and the range of their emotions, how can anyone continue to justify that superior, disrespectful attitude?

Every time I watch a television show where someone jerks, kicks, or otherwise bullies or abuses a dog in the name of training, I think, I'd like to see them try that with a wolf. That's called one-trial learning for humans, folks. We don't put choke chains on dolphins or killer whales and, yet, we are able to work with them. And lest you're thinking that kind, gentle training is only for puppies or otherwise "easy" dogs, nothing could be further from the truth. Successfully working with animals--any kind of animal--is all about forming relationships based on trust. It's about communicating clearly and building skills incrementally, setting rules and boundaries, and rewarding good behavior. It's about observing the body language of another species and having enough respect that when that being, whether a dog, wolf, or dolphin is clearly uncomfortable, we don't push things to the point that they feel they must defend themselves. In the end, it's not a matter of who's dominant. It's a matter of who's more evolved--and that's supposed to be us. Let's start acting like it.

Nicole Wilde is a canine behavior specialist and author. Visit her website. Follow Nicole Wilde on Facebook and Twitter @NicoleWilde.

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