Friday, 9 January 2015

"My Dog Ought To Sit"

Owners of dogs with problems are often confronted with the charge that they just haven�t done a good enough job of training their dogs.  Sometimes, the owners themselves believe that if their dogs were less stubborn and more obedient, they wouldn�t bark and lunge at joggers, or charge the door when guests come around.  The perceived failures of obedience in their dog leads them to feel resentment and guilt. In short, many people see all dog behavior problems as obedience problems, and are liable to blame the owner and the dog for having them.  

A Misconception

This tendency to see frightened and/or aggressive dogs as poorly-trained dogs is actually symptomatic of a deeper misconception about how we should see the dog-human relationship. As humans, we exist in a world of agency, responsibility, promises and obligations, and we�re liable to try to impose as much of the model we live in on how we relate to our pets.  But in fact, allowing our human-centric focus on what we owe to each other to creep into what we expect from our dogs can lead to frustration on both sides. 

The key is in how we understand just one simple word: �ought�.  When I say, �when I tell my dog to sit, my dog ought to sit�, what I mean by this shapes my whole understanding of our relationship.  As I�ll explain, the appropriate way to understand �ought� precludes the kind of resentment that�s so toxic to our lives with our dogs.  This is why such an abstract enquiry is, I hope, useful work. 

Two Kinds of Ought 

When I say someone ought to do something, there are two ways to understand �ought�. One is statistical: �when I toss a coin, it ought to land on either heads or tails�.  The other is moral: �when you make a promise, you ought to keep it�. 

The difference is important because moral �oughts� are related to what the philosopher P.F. Strawson calls �moral emotions� like resentment and guilt.  We feel resentful towards someone, Strawson contends, when they fail to fulfil an obligation we believe they have towards us.  We feel guilty when we become aware of our own moral failings.  Lying, stealing, humiliating and breaking promises are all examples of failures to meet our moral duties, and all of these things make us feel resentful towards others, and guilty when we do them ourselves.  

When I say, �my dog ought to sit when I tell her to sit�, it could sound like a moral ought.  If we believe that dogs can be deliberately spiteful or can fail to respect us, it certainly sounds like we�re saying that failing to sit means failing to fulfil the obligation to sit.  So it makes sense, on this logic, to believe that a dog that doesn�t sit when a skateboard passes by, or won�t lie on a mat when guests come over, is worthy of our resentment. 

However, it�s a lot more profitable and parsimonious to see �my dog ought to sit� as reflecting a predictive, statistical kind of ought.  An ought that does not depend on imputing bad character to our dogs when they fail to do what we ask of them.  A coin ought to land heads or tails, but very rarely it will land on its side.  My favorite tea is oolong, so when I visit a tea shop I ought to choose oolong - but sometimes I�m in the mood for genmaicha.  When a dog is under pressure, the likelihood of what ought to happen actually happening will go down.  Seeing �ought� as purely practical means we don�t resent our dogs for failing to perform as we expect - if any frustration or guilt is in the picture, it is us feeling bad for not setting our dogs up for success.  

It�s All Semantics, Anyway

Often in debates with trainers and behaviorists, the charge of �it�s all semantics� is levelled at anyone trying to clarify the meaning of key terms.  I hope to have shown that there is a lot of unpacking to be done even within a single, non-technical word, and that this conceptual work can shed light on how we see the world with our dogs.  The better we get at understanding the underlying concepts at work when we talk about dogs and dog training, the more effective our communication will ultimately be.  

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