24 April 2014

Dog Laws

I've had a lot of dogs in my life. I don't purport to know everything there is to know about dogs, but I do know one thing: they tend to learn from experience. They are capable of linking actions to consequences in the most basic of ways: if x, then y. If I pee in the house, the Person gets mad. If I pee in the yard, the Person is happy. Therefore, I will pee in only in the yard. Everyone who has ever trained a dog knows this. If the consequences follow the behavior immediately and firmly, the dog will make the connection and behave accordingly.

There are several corollaries to this rule that aren't as obvious as the basic rule. For example, the longer the period of time between the action and the consequence, the harder it will be for the dog to make the connection. If the dog chews your shoe while you are at work, and you come home six hours later and holler at the dog about it, he is not necessarily going to understand that the hollering is the result of something he did six hours ago (and has likely forgotten about). He will be confused and will probably chew your shoe again tomorrow and the next day, until he's caught in the act and has the opportunity to make the connection. (For this reason, one of the hardest things about training a dog is correcting behavior that only occurs when you aren't around.)

Another corollary: dogs don't ask why a particular consequence follows an action. They do not inquire at length as to the wisdom of the no-peeing-in-the-house rule. A rule is a rule to them, and its underlying reasoning doesn't matter. They don't understand that shoes are expensive, or that refinishing the floor is a huge deal. It's not generally wise to give them an old ratty shoe to chew on, because they don't know the difference between old ratty shoes and new fancy ones. Chewing on shoes is a binary operation to them: always yes or always no. No subtlety. No changes based on exigent circumstances.

As far as I can tell, this is one of the primary differences between the way a dog's brain works and the way a human brain works. Anyone who has ever lived with a toddler will roll their eyes and smile when I mention the "why" stage. (Or shudder and be glad they got through that stage in one piece.) This is a stage a toddler goes through where she asks "why" whenever something happens. "We're having pancakes for breakfast." "Why?" "It's time for your bath." "Why?" Toddlers, unlike dogs, are not binary. They want to understand why the grown-ups can have a glass of wine at dinner but not at breakfast. They want to know why we sometimes go to the supermarket on Saturday and sometimes on Tuesday. Why does Grandma sometimes say no to candy and sometimes say yes? Why do the rules change according to the circumstances? If your toddler does not ask these questions, something is wrong. It's one of those milestones the pediatrician asks you to keep an eye on. It is one of the questions the neurologist asks when diagnosing autism. Does your child hammer you with constant questions until you are ready to tear your hair out? Where are we going? What are we doing? Why? Why? Why?

Good. That's normal.

Are you with me so far? Because now I am going to make the big leap to what I am actually thinking about this morning. I am actually thinking about the fact that people sometimes make rules the way a dog would. If something bad happens, people make a rule that they think will keep that bad thing from ever happening again. Someone was on their cell phone and got into a car accident. Therefore, no cell phone use in cars. Ever. Or, a convicted felon committed another crime right after he got out of jail. We shouldn't let convicted felons get out of jail. Ever.

And it's the "ever" part that's so dog-like in its application. It's the failure to get to the bottom of the situation, to ask "why," and to analyze the far-reaching consequences of having an unchanging rule. Because, of course, those basic rules are excellent ones, most of the time. Distracted driving is dangerous, and some criminals aren't fit to live in society without very close and competent supervision. But there are times when it's a good thing to have a cell phone in your car, and there are plenty of former convicts living productive, independent lives among us. When Grandma says no candy first thing in the morning on a regular day, that doesn't mean you can't have a basket of chocolate on Easter. The sixteen-year-old dog who can't make it outside in time doesn't get yelled at for soiling his bed. His bed gets washed, and he gets a bath, and all is right with the world, even if he doesn't understand why.

A lot of our laws are what I would call Dog Laws, because the people who make them don't think in a forward-enough manner to fine-tune their wording or their application. Do you agree? Can you think of examples?


1 comment:

hbksloss said...

Very interesting perspective and I agree, but never put it in terms of dog versus human rules.

I remember knowing a woman years ago who only understood dog rules. She was a volunteer with La Leche League when I was to and she was very literal. If told not to do something she took it very literal and the next time would not/could not understand why we would be upset when she broke the rules again because she had done it a bit differently the next time. For example, LLL Leaders are never to charge anyone for breastfeeding help. Ever period. She wouldn't charge per se, but would require the women to make a donation to her local chapter. Each time we told her to stop, she stopped doing it that specific way, but overall did not stop attempting to take in money for what was supposed to be free information.

Sort of like telling a toddler not to draw on the wall with the yellow crayon. Next day she/he does it again but with a different color and is legitimately confused.

Learning how to communicate so that our message is received is a challenge. Will remember your dog analogy for future communication.