When I was a little girl, my dad would speak to me about the dangers of narrative thinking.
(Of course, my frequent response was to stare blankly, think “I’m like . . . 9, dad, I can’t read Godel Escher Bach yet, nor understand this conversation. Can I go outside and play?”)
But I guess it sank in anyway.
Narrative thinking can be dangerous, because it’s creative – and sometimes not in a good way. It’s creative in the way that a creationist is creative – ad hoc explanations of phenomenon and trying very hard to fit reality into a hypothesis that a person has already proven correct to themselves.
As we all know, science is all about disproving hypotheses and trying to come up with a better idea of how the world works by cutting away ideas that are incorrect. It’s carving – not painting. Narrative thinking is the opposite of this.
But it’s integral to human process – we were built to understand the world through narrative. Just like pareidolia, human brains try to find shapes in events, in data, to try and make a picture. Thus, science is a way of checking this process, of balancing it – to match our impulse to create a story with the deep need to make sure it’s true.
The problem arises when you allow yourself to think narratively without using science.
Dog training is both an art and a science, and uses narrative thinking extensively – just like in the beginning parts of your research – to try and grasp the scope of a dog’s history, and at that point, science steps in and you try to eliminate things that are unlikely.
And a shape that a huge number of rescues and pet owners has found in the clouds is the story that their rescue dogs have been abused. And it’s not based on a misunderstanding between neglect and abuse – no, the story is that these dogs were physically traumatized.
This assumption has the potential to explain all sorts of things to people – why their dog doesn’t like men, why their dog bites them when they try to clip its nails, why their dog tries to fight every other dog it sees.
“The rescue thought she was abused” they’ll beg, the dog lunging and slavering at the dog next to it in class.
“He was a bait dog.” They’ll explain as their dog snaps at them for trying to put a collar on.
And ultimately I have to step back and ask them, very somberly “What evidence, outside of your dog’s behavior, do you have that your dog was abused?”
And a lot of them stop, and think, and realise that the rescue they got the dog is the only place they heard this story.
(Not to say dogs aren’t abused – I’ve worked with several that have legitimate evidence of abuse – a dog that was set on fire and treated for his burns comes to mind)
The reason that this is so dangerous is because the real reasons for dogs behaving badly quite often – as sussed out from dozens of other clients – are not abuse.
A dog that reacts badly to somebody putting on a collar is likely a dog that has little tolerance for being handled. Likely, they’ll try to razor you up for touching their feet, their backs, or anyplace where they are slightly uncomfortable. Dogs that use their mouths to establish boundaries of behavior with people learn very quickly that they can push that boundary back where the people will do nothing the dog decides they don’t like – if they bite.
It’s a different hypothesis than one of abuse, but one that’s more likely – the symptom of not allowing a person to touch is often caused by the disease of not ever having had to accept that touch, much as this post indicates: http://smartdogs.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/dont-touch-me-there/
And more importantly, without the empathetic heart-pulling of an abuse story, you no longer perceive the biting as “understandable” or “acceptable, given the circumstances”. You instead see it as a challenge that your dog must overcome.
A dog that doesn’t like men might have been abused by a men or males, but more likely that dog grew up in a household only full of women. This is a problem of socialization, not abuse. To that dog, men 1) smell wrong, 2) look wrong 3) sound wrong – therefore, to that dog, men ARE WRONG and NOT TO BE TRUSTED.
This is probably the same reaction that you would have if somebody walked through a store with skin that was bright blue.
You may think “But, you’re just assuming that abuse isn’t the right answer to why my dog is behaving badly! Your hypothesis isn’t any more legitimate than mine!”
And honestly, with a lot of rescue dogs, it’s absolutely impossible to establish what exactly happened to them in the past. But we can use a little bit of logic to determine what is more likely.
There were 550 cases of animal cruelty (Abuse and neglect) in the US. (http://www.pet-abuse.com/pages/cruelty_database/statistics.php NOTE: I’m not entirely sure of the veracity of this source, but it wasn’t immediately apparent it’s run by animal rights people or that it’s patently false. I wish I had a better source for statistics, however.)
As horrible as those 550 cases were, compare them to the approximately 377 instances of violent crime per every 100,000 people that year. (http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/preliminary-annual-uniform-crime-report-january-december-2012)
Granted, this may be a matter of the difference in state law as interpreting abuse as well as conviction rates, but even assuming that number should be doubled, that still means that actual animal abuse is not that common. You’re much more likely to get punched in the face.
That aside, there’s also the matter of the data that I and other trainers have gathered over years of practice (which, by God if that data was written down and quantified, such a happy person I would be) in that dogs that have come in with obvious signs of abuse have not shown these particular bad behaviors, and that many, many more dogs who have been accounted for their entire lives have.
Just like in identifying a pathogen, if you put a pathogen in (abuse) and the symptoms do not appear (aggression to a particular demographic) in some cases, but you put a different pathogen in (being unsocialized) and the symptoms do appear (aggression to a particular demographic) then you can infer that the cause of aggression to a particular demographic is probably being under socialized to that demographic.
And when you can repeat that many, many times, with many, many dogs – well, then you have a hypothesis that hasn’t been disproven yet. Then you have science.
This of course is a very simplistic explanation – when you’re talking about any kind of animal behavior, you have to expect that there are going to be dozens of confounding factors, and exceptions, and changes to the paradigm are going to have to happen.
And that’s another reason why the abuse excuse is such a poor one.
You cannot break the complex inner workings of an animal’s mind down to a simple story – he is aggressive because he was abused. That’s part of the reason why it’s so important to work with a trainer in cases of bad behavior or aggression in dogs – because we’ve got the data to help you narrow your hypothesis down, and a good trainer is willing to look at each case with a critical eye to try and find the best solution for your dog, even if it’s a little-used or unique solution.
And the best trainer is never going to let the “Why” stand in the way of the “How” in terms of helping you live with your dog peacefully.
After all, who wants their past to keep them from accomplishing something in the future? So make sure not to make your dog’s past stand in their way either.