Do dogs mirror human owners?
Over the years that I have worked with dogs and their owners, I have sometimes been puzzled by the unexpected course a seemingly straightforward training approach to a relatively simple training problem has taken. Most trainers that have noted similar occurrences can readily identify certain factors, such as the owner did not follow through with the instructions they were given or there were certain erratic applications of the advice, coupled with obvious inconsistencies in its application. The question then becomes why? Might it be something other than they simply didn’t understand the instruction?
There is an oft-noted observation that over time many dogs and owners start to look like each other. Indeed this phenomenon has been noted frequently enough that it has been the basis for numerous cartoons and has even been the premise that some rather humorous television adds have been based on. Is it possible that dogs and their owners may come to resemble each other in other ways as well? To take this question even further, is it possible that we sometimes create our dog in our own image?
One of the theories I have is that dogs are often excellent mirrors. They reflect the environment in which they live and in many cases they are in some way a reflection of the owner. Often issues that have been identified as “training issues” are in fact much more than that. In these cases, simply focusing on the dog (who has become the “Identified Patient”) and his behaviour, can lead to a less than accurate understanding of the problem. Some problems are not so much training problems as they are relationship problems and they seem to be the result of the owner somehow placing an ‘emotional load’ on the dog. The resulting “problem” behaviour (what we see) is often the dog’s response to this load.
Humans utilize a range of psychological defense mechanisms in their daily lives and in their interactions with others. Many of these defenses are used without the person’s conscious awareness. The fact that people would use similar dynamics in their interaction with their dogs should come as no surprise. How often does someone for instance, make excuses or explain away certain behaviour? How often does someone deny what is happening around them, the effect it is having on them or they on others? How might an animal (as sensitive as the dog) react to all these inconsistencies, conflicting emotional energies and “cognitive dissonance?”
I am not for a minute suggesting that a dog trainer take on the added burden of psychotherapist to the dog owner, but I do think an awareness of all dynamics involved is important. The dynamics in the relationships between dog and owner, dog and trainer and owner and trainer all contribute in some way to the outcome. Sometimes these observations must in some way be pointed out to the owner.
One possible indication that the training process is touching something personal (in the owner), is mounting resistance to any reasonable suggestions the trainer might make of change to the status quo. Sometimes the owner is heavily invested in maintaining the status quo and despite protestations to the contrary, does not want anything to really change with their dog. Sometimes the dog is an “unwitting player” in the owner’s acting-out stage version of, “What’s wrong in my life.” When the owner is perceived as being defensive, that is probably just how they are feeling. More often than not, these defenses are used to avoid truths, some of which might be quite painful. Sometimes the client sets the dog up as a “surrogate self” onto which they project all manner of their own stuff. It is interesting to note that if given one of these “problem dogs” to handle, the trainer can quickly turn the problem off only to have it reemerge just as quickly once the dog is given back to the owner.
Sometimes in our desire to succeed at resolving a problem, we may miss the fact that the owner does not want resolution. There are instances of owners fearing success and what it might mean. When this dynamic is missed and the owner is pressed harder, it can lead to resentment of the trainer. Resentment can also result from the trainer failing to acknowledge that the problem has been difficult for the owner (a little empathy can go a long way). When interpersonal issues arise between owner and trainer, the dog’s training program might be inadvertently sabotaged because sometimes clients will act out toward the trainer by making the dog fail and thus the trainer fails.
By a process known as “Projective Identification,” I believe some owners falsely attribute unacceptable feelings, impulses or intentions to their dogs. Once these have been projected onto their dog, they then attempt to deal with their own projected issues by attempting to treat them in their dog. This process often induces the very feelings and behaviours in their dog that were first mistakenly believed to be there, making it difficult to clarify the original source of the problem. I believe this to be the case with at least some of the “aggression issues” and also with many of the “fear issues.”
When it comes to resistance, a lack of honesty in rewarding and correcting is one such area where it might be seen. Depriving the dog of a well-earned correction is as wrong as depriving him of a well-deserved reward and it speaks volumes about the owner. After failing to follow through with the appropriate consequence, the owner might rationalize away their failure (to acknowledge their part in the training contract with their dog). They might also deny the behavior approached the threshold at which point action would be called for, but in either case the dog is denied meaningful feedback and a chance to learn the lesson fully.