My husband, Stan, likes to say that the secret to a good marriage is that both parties make and keep a promise to "love, honor and negotiate" with each other. I think he's absolutely right. Throughout our nearly 25 years together -- most of them in wedlock -- we've managed to surmount some significant challenges not just through love and respect but also through what at times are painstaking negotiations. From money matters to who does what chore to the way we balance work time and play time, solo time and couple time -- all these issues need to be open to negotiation.
I found myself thinking of that maxim of Stan's a couple of days ago when, as part of my dog training apprenticeship, I was working with a shelter puppy named Chloe. She looked to be a Border Collie mix, four months old, and she was smart as a whip. She already knew a verbal sit, and was easily lured into a down and a spin. She seemed to have just one problem: a very rough mouth that was filled with sharp puppy teeth. Giving treats to her was, literally, painful.
To teach Chloe to take treats nicely, I would hold the treat for her, then close and withdraw my hand slightly if she performed a tooth-lunge for the treat. That would prompt her to bump, nuzzle and finally lick my hand, at which time I would open the hand and allow her to take the treat. We continued this routine for a couple of minutes until Chloe herself appeared to offer me a proposal.
Whenever she performed a tooth-lunge and I began to withdraw and close my hand, she would gently place her paw atop my wrist to hold my arm still. Then, she would gently nuzzle my hand for a treat. Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing, but it seemed to me that she was saying, "Hold your arm still, and I'll take that treat nicely. I promise." Which is exactly what I did and, subsequently, she did.
And certainly, I've learned to negotiate with Allie, or at least to listen to her. Take the matter of wrestling and rough-housing. Allie's favored play-style is body-slamming and wrestling, an activity that I've shied away from sharing with her because she plays too rough and gets overstimulated to the point where she engages in (what for me are) painful play nips. At the relatively mature age of nearly 7, Allie's not much into playing with other dogs anymore. I am her #1 playmate, so my refusal to engage in any form of a human-canine smackdown must have frustrated her no end.
But Allie recently came up with a solution to our problem. A few weeks ago, she trotted over to me with a tug toy in her mouth, but indicated that she did not want to tug. Instead, she body-bumped me on one side, then the other. I gently pushed back, and soon we were engaged in some not-so-rough rough-housing. With the tug toy firmly between her teeth, Allie couldn't play-nip me, and we could enjoy some lady-like rough-and-tumble that proved enjoyable to both of us. Since then, we've had several repeat sessions.
Those who are devoted to so-called dominance theories of dog training would probably be appalled at the above accounts. In no way, would these devotees say, should I have allowed Chloe or Allie to set the agenda. These devotees often subscribe to the idea that the humans must be alpha wolves and the dogs must be, well, subservient 24/7. After all, dogs are descended from wolves, aren't they?
Probably so, but descendance from wolves may be kind of beside the point, according to a recent article in Time magazine. In that article, author Carl Zimmer points out that researcher Brian Hare believes that "the evolutionary pressures that turned suspicious wolves into outgoing dogs were similar to the ones that turned combative apes into cooperative humans." In other words, some of what makes the human-canine bond so profound is not that one species necessarily and always must dominate the other, but that they cooperate with each other. And one form of cooperation is negotiating.
Here is the article from Time. May it serve as a nail in the coffin of the whole alpha-wolf thing, and open us all to the idea that our relationships with our dogs can flow from cooperation, mutual respect and love.