A big mistake many of us make when we get dogs is that we have a preconceived notion of what a dog or a breed should be. But animals, much like humans, have personalities, histories, choices, moods, sense of humour, insecurities and all the good and bad stuff that make us wonderfully unique and unpredictable.
However, our preconceived notions get in the way of us recognising and celebrating the individuality of these animals. Instead, we get caught up in trying to “fix” our dogs through training, so that they fit into this neat little box we have created for them in our minds. This not only leads to frustration, but we also miss out on cherishing the personalities of the animals in our care.
Consider my dog Cheeru. When people ask me if she is “dog friendly”, I never know how to answer the question. “Dog friendly” Vs. “dog reactive” are overly simplistic boxes that we try to shoehorn our dogs into and my Cheeru refuses to fit. Look at this video below that was shot on our recent farm stay in Coorg.
The farm had at least eight dogs, seven of whom were amiable to a friendship with Cheeru. But she either gave them a cold shoulder or got into minor arguments with them and burnt bridges. So, one might say that she is not exactly “dog friendly”. But then, there was this one dog, Bhishma (the one in the video below), who kept growling at Cheeru, making it very clear that he had no interest in befriending her.
And guess what? My strange little Cheeru was very interested in befriending him.
What you see in this video below is Cheeru (the brindle dog) putting on a little show for Bhishma, using several “Calming Signals” in an attempt to mediate friendship with Bhishma.
In the second video, you will notice Bhishma come right up to her face and growl at her, giving her a much stronger message that he does not particularly like her. Yet, there she is, bringing out the best of her social skills to diffuse this tense situation. This clearly shows that Cheeru is not “dog reactive” either. In fact, her communication skills are so good that I feel they are better than what I have seen in most dogs. She can navigate the hairiest situation with ease and skill.
Navigating challenging communication with disinterested or hostile dogs seems to not only be Cheeru’s forte, but also her preferred social interaction. I have videos from farm stays in the past few years where she is doing exactly this – she picks the one dog on the property who is least interested in befriending her and brings out the best of her social skills for them, while her attitude towards the rest of the dogs can range from indifference to even being mean.
Check out the following video that looks almost identical, with Cheeru doing her little dance for Blacky, a dog from another farm stay. Cheeru clearly has a “type”.
After watching these videos, if you’ve concluded that Cheeru is “dog friendly”, I would not blame you. Her social skills are excellent.
Now, have a look at the following clip. You’ll see her being somewhat mean to a dog named Xavi whom she didn’t like. This was not something I appreciated. After all, I badly wanted her to get along with this dog because I personally liked the dog and wanted all of us to hang out together as friends. But that is not what Cheeru had in mind.
As one can see, Cheeru cannot be shoehorned into the “dog-friendly” or the “dog reactive” box. It’s more complicated than that.
And this makes sense, given dogs are social beings. Social beings have rich, complicated and nuanced social lives. When I observe street dogs (free-ranging dogs) in my city, I get to witness these types of complicated relationships all the time.
I see dog-friendships, feuds, politics, changing dynamics, friendships blossoming and going sour, spats forgotten between old friends, convenient friendships, deceptive pacts and all other kinds of complicated social interactions within all kinds of social connections.
Yet, we expect our pet dogs to walk into dog parks and be social butterflies blowing “air kisses” all over the place. Anything else is unacceptable. In our minds, if dogs are not being “polite”, they will start ripping off each other’s throats.
But street dog ontology tells us there is more than just “dog-friendly” and “dog reactive” and that the social lives of social animals are rich with complex and dynamic social relationships and interactions.
Perhaps our idea of a dog is moulded by TV shows and Hollywood movies and that’s where we get these mental boxes from. But if I were to shed the unrealistic expectations and look at Cheeru as a unique individual, then she becomes fascinating to me.
I do admit that it is not always convenient. I badly wanted her to be friends with my friends’ dogs so that we can all hang out together. Hence, her refusal to befriend them did not go down well with me.
I even remember muttering under my breath, “I ask so little of you, why can you not do this for me and be friends with that dog.” But then, when I sat back and thought about it, something struck me. Cheeru is actually a lot like me!
Her behaviour reminds me a lot of my life, back in my 20s when my parents were trying to do the typical thing Indian parents do – trying to arrange my marriage with someone they felt was right for me. But that is not what I had in mind. I had a massive crush on this one guy who seemed to be the least interested in me. To impress him, I put forth the very best of myself and eventually won him over. I know how to be impressive when I want to, but I can also be quite snarky. More often than not, it’s my snarky side one gets to witness. So how can I fault Cheeru for the exact traits that I have.
When I have been accepted and loved for who I am, why can Cheeru not enjoy the same? Of course, loving and accepting another will mean that I have to find a way to make it work even when it is inconvenient to me. But isn’t that what we do for those we love? Don’t we support them even when we don’t understand them or agree with them and find it all a bit inconvenient?
However, the upside is that we get to experience the best of them when we cherish them for who they are.
Those videos of Cheeru’s dance for the dogs she likes are a treat to watch. The more I park aside my expectations and observe her for who she is, the more I get to see what a remarkable creature she is. I get to see the full extent of her cognition, social skills and emotional resilience. It is like stepping into the magical world of animal lives. I get to see what a dog is capable of, outside of the realms of what I can train them to be. I get to see what dogs really are and if you could see what I see, believe me, you will be in awe.
Animals are remarkable – but we only see their magic if we stop fitting them into boxes created by our limited minds and instead let them be and observe them with acceptance, curiosity and humility.
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