Dogs Culture is Not Polite

World cultures vary enormously through time and place. The distance one stands from another while in a queue, the way men show appreciation for other men, the language that is considered formal or casual, the rituals of special days and holidays, the practices of religion, the traditional expected of when one visits another’s home, and, most damningly, what is and is not polite. While foreigners in another country are forgiven just about any cultural norm they may break, because we recognize that the offenders are just unaware of their fumbles, what is considered polite is so deeply ingrained into our sense of self and innate ethnocentric world view that it is a gut reaction to recoil at such impoliteness and that can have serious and irreconcilable consequences. I love the example of this in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls when Ace visits the Wachoochoo tribe, who express “pleased to meet you” by spitting phlegm in the face. In this fictional culture, that is a heartfelt expression of respect and endearment, while Ace’s gut reaction to the horror of a face full of snot was as pronounced as you would expect (although in the film he eventually adapted). We can forgive just about any cultural foible, except what is polite because it is so personal and can destroy first impressions. Like many Americans, I get chills when I hear someone slurping a soup or eating loudly with their mouth open, and find it takes a mantra of compassion to remove the clammy palms and immediate knee-jerk prejudice against the poor soul who has no idea that in American culture that is impolite because in THEIR culture it is perfectly polite. It is deeply ingrained and takes a great deal of understanding to bypass the knee-jerk reaction to be taken aback. Of all international business travel, the coaching of the people who will be interacting with respected members of international business or politics is most strongly emphasizing what is considered polite and respectful in their particular culture, at the risk of crumbling international relations and losing business deals. It is very, very important.

Despite global stereotype, Americans are very polite by Western standards. I watched a very funny video on youtube recently of a man “invading others’ space” where a guy was in a shopping mall and would sit right up against a random person on a couch. He would then slowly lay his head on their shoulders or put his arm around their shoulders, and these poor souls, obviously VERY uncomfortable and clearly having their personal space and body violated (an extremely impolite action in the West, probably one of the worst offenses), just sat there pretending like nothing was happening. They just looked for a moment, and then erased the situation from their conscious experience like some kind of repressed traumatic memory. This happened again and again, and the person was so polite that they couldn’t stand up in outrage and say “how dare you!”. There are exceptions of course, but overall the funniest part of the video was just how polite and nonreactive the people were because they didn’t want to be impolite. Americans are also very insistent on saying “please” and “thank you” and it is one of the first words small children are taught. Folks in the Northeast and Southwest are a little more lax on the behaviors seen as polite, but even then it is often done as an expression of equality and casual respect rather than an intentional rudeness. These are very strong cultural norms. It can be said that dogs also have a culture. One they have evolved into expressing and one that is so innate that they have to be rigorously trained to assimilate to Western cultural ideas of politeness and what is inappropriate. Teaching dogs what is polite is the entire purpose of dog training, however, that training must be done in a way that the dogs understand, and immersion into the new culture (ours) will be a long and grueling road, even if we consider it more polite. And it is this politeness so deeply innate to us that leads to what is known as pure-positive, or PP for short, dog training.

Upon first impression, especially by lay dog lovers, PP training sounds like a much needed and delightful practice which excludes any correction or discomfort either physical like the use of a prong collar or electronic collar or emotional by using strong tones of voice with verbal corrections. Rather, food, balls, praise and other forms of incentive are used exclusively to both encourage good behaviors and discourage incorrect behaviors. This is all done in an attempt to be polite and kind to their dogs, something we value very highly in the educated and compassionate 21st century West. PP training as a concept and a practice is 100% a representation of cultural ideas of politeness. It is impolite to tell your new employee “NO!” and grab their arm firmly when they do something wrong, instead, we would delicately change the language of “you did that wrong” and show them the right way to do it by saying something like “You are doing great! Let me show you a way to do this that is a bit better”. This would be how PP trainers work with dogs. But not every culture views politeness in this way, especially not animals like dogs. Many, many cultures would be perfectly polite by saying “NO! You are screwing that up, this is what you are supposed to do”. In many cultures in East Asia, intentionally using extreme shame as a form of correction is very common, and it is a practice most Americans find appalling. So we want dogs to learn how to be polite by our standards, which is necessary to live comfortably in a human home, and so we have to train them. It is imperative to teach dogs these things. Don’t jump on guests, don’t bark at the neighbors at 3am, don’t grab our whole hand when we give you a treat, these are all considered impolite behaviors and it is necessary for them to learn the correct alternative for there to be a happy homelife and keeping the dog out of a shelter. Dogs have an average intellectual level of a 2 year old human child, and anybody who has ever been around a toddler knows that they are nothing but impolite. The toddler has to learn how to be polite by our standards, just as dogs do, because it is in a toddler’s innate naturally evolved culture to exhibit behaviors we don’t approve of like kicking and biting when they are frustrated, grabbing food off other people’s plates, etc.

Dogs have a culture of their own, they have their own language, their own social patterns, their own ideas of what is acceptable and unacceptable and most importantly, their own ways of teaching those norms. It is interesting to watch a dog that was bottle fed and never grew up being taught what is considered polite in dog culture by its mother and littermates. A mother dog will physically correct a puppy that bites her, teaching him that biting their mother is not appropriate, among other social norms like how to deescalate a confrontation by showing submissive behaviors. These dogs have no social skills, they are obnoxious and other dogs hate them because they are so rude in terms of dog culture. This proves that dogs not only have innate behaviors, but they are also taught what is acceptable and unacceptable by other dogs, which is the definition of a culture. But unlike how Westerners teach cultural values to others, dogs’ teaching methods are not polite by Western standards. Like, at all. Humans that act with a dog’s culture are in jail for child abuse, theft, assault and murder. Dogs correct inappropriate behaviors with violence and intimidation. Dogs will know they got their lesson across when the other dog cries out, falls to the ground or backs away quickly showing very uncomfortable body language. Dogs do not go about their lives trying to be kind or counting to 10 when they are angry, even to their own packmates. It is not part of dog culture to be kind, compassionate and polite when something is happening that they don’t like – these things are taught to them through training. It is the entire purpose of dog training to show the dog the polite alternative to whatever behavior they are raised with. No biting when we touch their food, no jumping on guests, walking slowly on a leash, having impulse control, thinking before they react, etc. These are all human expectations based upon our cultures that are completely foreign to dogs, and so we teach them. In some cultures violence is totally acceptable and not necessarily impolite, where dogs are corrected for being too gentle and are used exclusively for guarding homes or businesses, and so in those cultures the idea of politeness is very different. In other words, the politeness we require from dogs is our own specific culture and not a universal form of kindness. So rather than teaching dogs while communicating in a way they innately understand, PP trainers teach dogs using their own cultural ideas that are completely foreign to the dog. It is like trying to teach an English speaker how to bake a cake while speaking in Swahili. We would be totally lost. If the Swahili speaker spoke English to them, they would learn very quickly, but because they can’t understand what the teacher is saying or what they want from them, it is a very tedious and unpleasant experience, even if the end result is the happiness of being able to bake a cake. It is the exact same thing with PP training. A dog’s language is in its physical interactions pleasant and unpleasant, as they have no concept or understanding of language, and so because we brought the dog into our home against their natural habitat, it is our responsibility to accommodate the dog by speaking their own language to teach them things. PP trainers are the Swahili speakers, and the dogs are the English speakers totally lost. With dozens of frustrating repetitions, the English speaker would begin to pick up on what the Swahili speaker is teaching, but if they were speaking English then the student would understand right away, saving a number of headaches and much emotional distress for days or even weeks. And so, because PP trainers only use techniques that avoid all chances of physical discomfort for the dog, and because dogs exclusively use physical discomfort to learn by nature, the learning process for the dog is laborious, long and frustrating because not only is he being forced to perform arbitrary behaviors, he is also being taught in a completely different language than what he speaks. The most important thing to take away from this concept is that with PP training, the dog is never treated impolitely by Western cultural standards that we have learned from growing up there, while everything in a dog’s nature is to learn with impoliteness. We are attempting to teach them with what is the exact opposite of their native language.

Now, of course, it can be argued that if it is possible to teach a dog without using physical or emotional correction, then why would we resort to something that causes unnecessary harm? Well, the truth is that the frustration and tedium felt by dogs when learning in this matter is far more unpleasant than the use of correction. Studies have shown that more stress hormones are detected in dogs who are being trained with PP techniques than ones using prong collars or “shock” collars. This is because dogs understand discomfort fluently, and so it takes very few uncomfortable stimuli for them to learn and then never need it again. I want to be sure to make this very clear: prong collars and remote collars (which do not “shock”), do NOT CAUSE THE DOG PAIN. Period. It is an uncomfortable and unpleasant sensation, it is not pain. Our human ideas of what these tools would feel like are not the same as dogs’. Remember that dogs use pain and fear to teach others, and these tools are nowhere near as intense as a dog snapping at another dog for trying to take his toy or being forcibly scared into being excluded from play for being obnoxious. Because dogs experience frustration and anxiety when experiencing negative experiences like having food or toys taken away without any communication as to why, PP is actually far more unpleasant than using physical corrections that they claim is cruel.

This all boils down to ethnocentrism of Westerners and their inability to respect and accept the way others live and what they require, whether human or animal. We impose our ideas of politeness onto a species that has no idea what that means, and using foreign languages to try to teach them while using deprivation as a punishment for not understanding what they are saying in that language. Because PP methods are now considered the only ethical way to train dogs, the result is having owners that don’t have the patience or skill to teach their dogs using these methods, and thus behavioral problems escalate until the dog is surrendered to a rescue. So many small behavioral problems could be cured with a single session with a balanced technique using correction, whether that is a firm verbal correction, or a small physical correction from an uncomfortable sensation, and this lack of acceptance of these simple and effective training techniques only furthers the shelter overpopulation epidemic as an endless line of dogs are given up for minor and easily fixed issues that, if were more socially accepted, would contribute to a long and harmonious companionship where dogs and humans are able to fluently communicate and assimilate.

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