I’m out walking the dog around the neighborhood when I see a man with his dog walking toward us a block ahead. I see him start a sequence that I know well. As soon as we round the corner and he sees us, he steps off the sidewalk and asks his dog to sit. This causes the dog to start looking around for the problem and see us. She does not sit. The man moves her further from the sidewalk, still telling her to sit. She gets increasingly agitated and tries to get around his legs to get a better look at us. I recognize this sequence because I engaged in it a couple times a day for a couple years with my own dog. Sometimes dogs hate/fear/get-overly-excited-about other dogs and it’s a real pain to deal with.
I have a lot of sympathy for the guy down the block, so we cross the street and I make sure Corrie (my dog) is on my far side, so that the other dog can see less of him. We walk by briskly, without looking at the other dog. Just as we pass by, the other dog starts to growl and lunge against his collar and the man jerks her up by the leash and starts shaking a can of rocks in her face and telling her to sit. As you might expect, this does not compel her to sit and relax. I feel a strong urge to say, “No wonder she doesn’t like other dogs going by!” but I realize that I would have to talk really loud in order for him to hear me over the growling and can-shaking. After we pass and are out of sight around the corner, I hear him praising her. I assume she must have sat down finally when she couldn’t see us any more. “Good girl!” he says. “Good sit!”
The whole exchange makes me really sad. I started out with a dog who was much worse than his appeared to be, and I started out with similar methods. I never used the rock-can thing, but only because I never got around to making one. I know that he is well-intentioned. He is doing his best to teach his dog how to act right in the world. He’s just lacking some basic information about stimulus-response and how it works. I understand; I’ve been there. And I also know that when you’re trying to restrain your 50 pound pitbull who is lunging and snarling at a passing dog, you’re not super open to being educated about science.
I spent a lot of time on the rest of my walk thinking about the interaction and why it bothered me so much. Of course, I’m sad for the dog and the owner who are starting down a long and frustrating path. And I’m just affected in a physiological way by walking past a lunging and snarling pitbull, even though it obviously was restrained and not after me personally. But after the adrenaline clears, I’m still bothered.
A while ago, I heard an interview with someone who was talking about realizing well into adulthood why it was that he didn’t get along well with most people and had a hard time in professional environments. The realization came to him when he was walking with some co-workers and one of them mentioned, as part of a joke, humans being most closely related to gorillas. “Actually,” the man said, “it’s bonobos. Bonobos are even more closely related to us than they are to gorillas.” And then he continued on telling the group of coworkers some more facts about bonobos, until he saw them all staring at him blankly and realized that they didn’t want to hear about bonobos. And that’s when it struck him that the reason many people didn’t like him is that he tended to “inform without consent.” People do not always want to be educated. Sometimes they just want to make a joke about gorillas. And sometimes they are busy trying to figure out how to restrain their pitbull. It’s not always a good time to share information with people.
When I heard that interview, I felt like a huge lightbulb went on in a dark room of my psyche. “I do that too!” And much like the man being interviewed, I totally don’t understand. I value data so highly, I can’t imagine not wanting to know about the difference between gorillas and bonobos. (I actually went and looked it up just now, to make sure I remembered right.) I do understand not wanting to have information at some particular moment, like when I’m already overwhelmed, but I still would want to have it sometime. Even if I think the information is wrong, I still want to know what you think is the correct information. I want all the information. But I am forced to recognize that not everyone feels this way. That man does not want me to follow him home and leave him a note explaining how he could have a better relationship with his dog. He doesn’t even want me to leave a friendly note with a business card of the local positive-reinforcement trainer. He does not want me to share information with him. That’s not the kind of relationship we have.
And that is why I am bothered. I have something that I think is important to share, and there is no outlet for sharing it.
And that brings us to the present moment, dear reader. This love of information is at the core of why I write. So let me tell you some really simple things about how stimulus-response works, okay?
If you pair a negative experience (say, yanking on the collar and shaking a can of rocks in the subject’s face) with a particular stimulus (say, a dog walking past), the subject will begin to believe that the stimulus (dog) CAUSES bad things to happen. If you also pair a positive experience (praise, treats) with the disappearance of that stimulus (the dog disappears around the corner), you cause the subject to think that dogs leaving the premises results in good things.
This is super basic stimulus-response science, and it works on everything from humans to goldfish. (Although goldfish are notably lacking in a neck, so you would have to get creative about how you jerk them around for the negative stimulus part.) So the subject begins to believe that Appearance of Dog = Bad Things. Also that Disappearance of Dog = Good Things. If you were the subject, would this make you more or less friendly towards passing dogs? It would make me want to chase those strange dogs away as fast as possible. Predictably, that’s what it does when the subject is a dog too.
The beautiful thing about writing is that I have implicit consent from you, the reader, to inform you about what I think. You can revoke consent any time you want of course, but in doing so you also lose your label as a reader, which makes it possible for me to be absolutely assured that if you are my reader, you consent to being informed. It’s a beautiful symbiosis. Thanks for being here. If you have a dog, please go give it a treat from me.
Want to read more of my writing? Check out my short collection of essays, Breathing Underwater: One Woman’s Take on Nature, Empowerment, and Being Right.