You Get What You Pet! Are you petting the past or the future?
A few days ago, I was taking my nonprofit consultant for Soul Mutt to a thank-you-you-are-amazing appreciation breakfast in Santa Monica. Cindy has been such a tremendous asset to Soul Mutt. Walking along chatting we chatted nonstop. Cindy is the president of the Santa Monica Humane Society so our walks together go like this: she bombards me with questions about dogs and I do the same to her about running Soul Mutt. Let's just say there aren't many moments of silence when we get together.
As we rounded the corner a few blocks from our destination, there was a young woman sitting with her young Doberman who couldn't have been more than 2 yrs old. They were sitting together in front of a cafe, her sipping her coffee, him sitting quietly both people watching and enjoying the morning sun.
Just in front of us two people passed and promptly initiated a conversation with the dog, in full embarrassing baby talk voice. I believe the exact quote if I'm not mistaken was “Hey baby, how are you? So handsome you are. Aww!”
I had my iPhone ready, but I was let down again because the dog didn't respond back in dog-human speak :( That would be millions of views on Youtube for sure if he did! One day ;).
The dog got a little excited and the owner reached out petting her dog with the goal of soothing him to calm him down. After the confusing interaction, the dog sat, ears now perked up on alert for the next possible stranger to pass and give him attention. He wasn’t the same dog I saw moments before.
That leads me to a phrase I often say...You Get What You Pet!
Most people don’t ever think about the connection between touching their dogs and their dogs’ behavior. This young woman didn’t for sure. I get what she was trying to do intellectually as a human, but dogs don’t understand our communication in the same way. They aren't humans, and that's cool!
Has that thought ever crossed your mind? You get what you pet?
It makes a lot of sense, so let me explain from my experiences.
Many people when they touch their dogs don't take into account what the dog is thinking - they just see it from the human's side. Often people are petting their dogs for behaviors or moments done in the future or the past, not necessarily for that current moment.
Folks will pet their dog for being good at the groomer last week, being tough while they got their shot early this morning - regardless if at that moment the dog is thinking, "I wanna run and chase that bird down like the predator I am. And you, my leader, must like it too!" We expect them to understand what we want, they can only think like a dog! And the cycle of confusion begins, or continues!
I've witnessed humans pet their dog because the dog may bark at a stranger walking down the street. Owners want to avoid the embarrassment felt of their dog barking loud and uncomfortable feeling for them creates, so they pet their dog to calm him down. Maybe you have experienced the people who pet and talk to their dog hoping it will calm them down while out on a walk? The owner is thinking, "Please don’t bark" while they pet or rub the dog. The dog is thinking, "You like it when I act like this so here we go again" and the lesson is learned.
Rarely do I see people share physical touch with their dog consciously for what's happening in that exact moment while also being aware of what's happening in their dog’s mind. Like many issues humans experience in life, I’ve learned they arise when we project into the future or focus on the past. Neither is happening now in reality, but that is the power of the human mind. We can create the a story.
Focusing on onlythehuman perspectiveat that moment is the cause of many dog owner's perceived dog behavior problems.
We expect dogs to relate to what we are petting (being good 3 weeks ago), but being dogs, they are only able to think like a dog. They are thinking you like what I’m doing right now and not what we are thinking, "Awe! You look so cute" after they ate breakfast.
What owners are thinking and intending and what the dog is thinking in those intimate moments of contact are different and lead often to unintended outcomes later.
When I’m faced with humans that contact me about behavior problems, we often don’t work directly on the problem at first. We work to understand how the behavior was created and learned then put a treatment plan together for lasting change. To me, it’s animal abuse to create stress in a dog by asking them to change when we are the ones responsible for the stress the dog is feeling in the first place. (That will be an article itself one day.) I often share insights with owners, “If you didn’t pet your dog right now you wouldn't have the problem you are suffering from later.” And for some, they can't let it go. They are addicted to it.
I’ll share a final story from a recent meeting.
I was visiting a woman about her dog who had aggression towards humans. During our consultation, she pet the dog nonstop while she was reliving so many traumatizing events they shared together. The fear she was feeling was real and understandable.
After a moment of reflection, she mentioned to me, "Isn’t he being so good now? Wow, I wish he was like this all the time." I waited a moment, started to get up, and the dog lunged at me. She gasped and said, “See this is what I mean. He is so unpredictable.” I asked her, “Did you notice you were petting him for the last 30 minutes nonstop while he was staring at me?” The whole time you were talking to me you were petting your dog and he was thinking naughty thoughts about me, and was reassured by you that you like it.
We discussed how she was self-soothing using her dog for her own needs regardless of what he may be thinking. She was living in the past and her dog was thinking, "I’m gonna bite this asshole if he moves and she really loves that!" She got it immediately and has made great strides since then.
Two different realities from two different beings. One living in the past, one experiencing the present moment.
My goal with sharing this is that hopefully owners are able to see the direct connection to telling your dog what you like unbeknownst to you and how that may not actually be what you like. What your dog learns is not always our intention.
Your intention has to be clear and understood from The Dog’s Side or dogs create their own meaning to it.
When you pet your dog are you in the present moment? Are you petting a past memory, an exciting moment, or rewarding an emotion in your dog that could be causing you sleepless nights?
You get what you pet!
Head rubs and belly scratches,
P.S. Here are a few more resources if this topic is something you want to dig deeper into.
- What drives human behavior Article