The Real Meaning of Respect in Dog Training

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What dogs teach us about our relationship with themand others.

Photo: Christian Mueller/Shutterstock

Guest post by Koltan Nelson

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To Whomever is Concerned with Respect:

Let us dive right in and begin our discussion with a clarification of what “respect” is:

        ““respect” noun

        re-spect | ri-‘spekt

        1 : a feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc.” (Merriam Webster)

For the purposes of this discussion, we will narrow our definition of the word “feeling,” which will here mean an “emotional state or reaction.” (Merriam Webster). 

Then, in as plain English as we can muster, we have “an emotional state of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc.”

To further break this down, we will remove the word “good,” as dogs cannot make moral judgements. The word “positive” in animal behavior can be defined as “contributing toward or characterized by increase or progression [of stimulus]” (Merriam Webster) and, for clarity’s sake, we will eliminate this term as well. Additionally, we can eliminate “important,” for similar reasons. 

We will, however, replace “important” with “high-priority.” When I see something I love, I smile. I take photos of my loved ones to look at when I miss them. I imagine what someone looks like if I think of them. 

A handsome large dog wearing a muzzle sits politely in a living room
Photo: Koltan Nelson

Dogs’ primary sense is smellit would stand to reason then, that they would do similar things with that sense. For example, fMRI was used in a cohort of 12 unrestrained and unsedated dogs as they smelled biological odors of themselves, strange dogs and humans, and familiar dogs and humans. What we can conclude from the results is that each of the dogs in this study had a biological reaction in their brain upon sniffing the smell of their owner that was statistically significantly greater than the second most stimulating smell, a familiar dog (with a mean difference of .12%) (Berns, Brooks, and Spivak 2015). 

Anecdotallymy own dog brings my rubber sandals from the door to the couch and cuddles them while I am away from the house in the summer and fall, but stops about a month after it’s gotten too cold to wear them anymore. I can only assume the smell has lost its potency, and she prefers the shoes I wear without socks. Funny how different it would seem if a romantic partner was caught cuddling one’s shoes…

So in plain and dog-relevant English, we have defined respect as “an emotional state of admiring someone or something that is high priority or of value.”

So your dog respecting you, then, means that your dog likes you, and values you. I’d venture a guess that you already have your dog’s respectwhether you’ve earned a sense of pride for that or your dog’s domestication is doing the heavy lifting is not up to me. 

It becomes quite clear, then, that the learner is not responsible for a lack of respect. In fact, in order to use respect as a means of currency it has to come in the form of trusting, meaningful contingencies based on what the dog finds motivating and wants to do. In order to be respected by my dog, I have to be likeable, fair, and respect them in turn. Not who I think they are – but who they actually are. Of the ~8.7 million species on Earth (National Geographic), are humans not the most important? But we have credit scores and think about ourselves! And manufactured a language! And drive cars! Don’t you know who we think we are?! WE BOUGHT THE DOGS.

What about the dogs I see behaving perfectly, I say! (who is the judge of “good” behavior? What is “good?”) The ones who get no treats? There’s no shock collar, or prong collar? No perceived motivators? Is that not respect? They do exactly what their owner says, I want that!

One possibility, the one I hope and dream for, is that the dog and handler have such a precise and well-honed level of communication developed through time spent together that there are tiny conversations happening all the time. “Can I go pee?” “Do you mind if we skip this sniff spot?” “There’s people coming, stay by me.” “Do I need to be worried about that dog over there? Blink twice if yes. Give me one of those tennis balls you never seem to run out of if not!”

You can have this level of honed communication with a dog (it is a mechanical skill, I promise) and use a prong, shock collar, etc., with very clear contingencies and a clear understanding between you and the dog, if you want. When you can do one, you can do the other, and anyone who has that level of practice knows that. 

I don’t consider using aversive tools an option, but you’re welcome to, I guess. I enjoy my dog Clementine’s butt wiggles when I get to the door, her confidence in the face of most things, her willingness to try, her trust in me, the fact that she leans into my hand when I extend it to her as opposed to pulling away, and I enjoy the knowledge that my dog feels comfortable and safe and capable. I have to imagine that if I take a collar that looks like a tangle of forks went through the garbage disposal and put it on her neck, pulling ever so gently when necessary (and knowing that her “obedience” was from fear, not from respect) or a dog-strength cattle prod that is conveniently tied to her neck, I might lose all of that. I might even lose some of those things from simply “popping” her leash, yelling, or staring. 

Another possibility, one I’m significantly less excited about, is that some people’s dogs  are REALLY sensitive. I won’t provide research that dogs have distinct personalities linked here, as it feels pedantic (have you ever seen a litter of puppies?), but a great resource for stories of different dogs’ personalities and their mental wellbeing is Zazie’s book, “Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.”

Free-ranging dogs in India were subjected to high and low impact behavioral cues, both friendly and threatening. The results suggest behavioral plasticity in dog-human interaction, and especially salient is the willingness of a free-ranging dog to remain in proximity to an unknown human at first for no apparent reason (outside of the aforementioned non-aggressive communicative cues). Once food is brought into the picture the dogs retained their agency and chose to engage with a novel human at the potential for food (my own naivete with the region aside). Let us make a bit of a leap, then, and assume that the same ABILITY to “read the room” must hold true in our pet dogs. 

If free-ranging dogs will remain in proximity under mild threat for the possibility of food, our pet dogs understand that they acquire resources via us, and fear responses are well proven in dogs, we can draw a new hypothesis. There might be a world in which some dogs are sufficiently sensitive, understand contingencies with their owner (canine behaviors that may create an elevated [and upsetting to the dog] reaction in the human are, for the most part, well known by the dog), and tend towards a “fawn” (conflict avoidance via appeasement) response so that they appear to require “no motivation.”

Cut yourself, and your dog, some slack. While it hurts at first, ditching the idea that dogs do things out of “respect,” opens up a world of possibilities. You can grind your dog’s nails down with a power tool for a piece of watermelon, you can have them eagerly anticipating a “pizza bone” as they calmly receive an insulin injection, and you might even find yourself applying the same lessons to your interpersonal relationships. I know my friends appreciate it.

Dogs teach us that words mean nothing, and actions mean everything. What actions have you taken with your dog today, and what did those actions mean to them? 

P.S. Nervous/fearful/loud/boisterous/energetic/lunging/barking/pulling/humping/jumping dogs and their humans deserve respect too.

About Koltan Nelson: Koltan (also known as Pat) is a young queer 25 year old photographer and dog person in Denver, Colorado. They spend their days hiking and wrestling with their dog Clementine, and currently are working towards living full time in a camper van so they can spend more time dirt-adjacent. You can follow their adventures both photography and dog related at @mxgump on Instagram!

Photo of Koltan Nelson, a young queer photographer and dog person

References

Berns, Gregory S., et al. “Scent of the Familiar: An Fmri Study of Canine Brain Responses to Familiar and Unfamiliar Human and Dog Odors.” Behavioural Processes, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2015, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24607363/

Bhattacharjee, Debottam, et al. (2018) “Free-Ranging Dogs Understand Human Intentions and Adjust Their Behavioral Responses Accordingly.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 21 Dec. 2018, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2018.00232/full

Franklin, Aretha. “Respect.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 Nov. 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iayJ8u4Qew

Lensen, Rian C M M et al. (2019) “Physiological stress reactivity and recovery related to behavioral traits in dogs (Canis familiaris).” PloS one vol. 14,9 e0222581. 17 Sep. 2019, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0222581

National Geographic Society, and Tyson Brown. “Biodiversity.” National Geographic Society, 5 June 2019. 

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