While at coffee today, I read an article on Slate penned by Gene Lyons, and which Gina Spadafori recommended on Facebook.
The article was about a fellow who bought a 5-year old German shepherd protection dog, sight unseen, for $7,500, and then tried to return it.
It's a good read; check it out.
Buried in the article was this little line:
Almost as puzzling as dog haters are people who keep pets but have no earthly idea how the animals think and feel.
Cesar Milan has made a handsome living off dog owners whose cluelessness makes “The Dog Whisperer” one of the funniest things on TV.
The word clueless leaped out at me, as some years ago David Dunning used this word to describe why people so often think weird things, a topic I am flipping around in my brain these days.
Recalling Dunning's diagram, I drew a slightly modified version on a napkin while at Starbucks, with an added circle to show what people might actually know about dogs, and a second circle to encompass ignorance, which I think is quite different from cluelessness.
The smallest circle, in yellow, is denial. This is the stuff about dogs that is too painful for us to confront for whatever reason. Sometimes this is about dogs in general or a breed in particular, but often as not it is about the owner and his or her own need to work out his or her own psychological issues through a canine surrogate.
The next largest circle, in white, is actual knowledge about dogs. Here we have the sum total of what an owner may have read about dogs, been told about dogs, or actually experienced or seen with their own eyes with their own dog. This is a surprisingly small circle with most people, and it is probably way over-represented in this drawing.
The next largest circle, the one in orange, is self-deception or what Dunning describes as "rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning." This is the circle that encompasses all the falsities we tenaciously hang on to, or refuse to reexamine because re-examining them is not very convenient. How many people position their dog food or dog training choices as the only ones that work, and never mind the evidence to the contrary? How many people blame the dog for their failure to be clear and consistent? How many people are breed or kennel blind? How many think they exercise their dog when they walk it around the block? How many people think they know all about dogs even though they have never read a book or bothered to teach a dog a simple trick?
The next ring is ignorance. These are the things we know we do not know. We may not know how to teach a dog how to climb a ladder, for example, or how to close a barbed wire flesh wound, but we know it can be done and it can be learned.
Finally, on the very outside, and encircling all in purple, we have cluelessness. This is the stuff that we do not know that we do not know. This is the eternal mystery of dogs. Humans do not smell the world as dogs do, nor do we see the world in the same visual spectrum, nor do we see the world from the same angle. We do not hear what a dog hears, and we do not have the same internal drives or all of the same motivations. When a dog throws a sign, we generally do not know how read it or even that it is being given, much less how to send it back (or that we should) with a wag of our tail or a slight movement of our ears, or a curve in our gait.
We have no idea.
In the world of the dog, we humans seem to bump around blind, deaf, loud, incoherent, manic and stupid.
Look at what is in white versus the sum of what is colored, and remember that knowledge is probably over-represented here!
Now is there really any wonder why so many people think strange things about dogs?
Self-deception alone has made us blind to the large numbers of deformed dogs paraded around Kennel Club rings. Self-deception is what enables us to call a place a "shelter" when 75 percent of the dogs admitted are summarily killed.
Denial is what enables English Bull Dog owners to claim their dogs are fit for function and Pit Bull owners to tell each other that their dogs are exactly the same as all the others.
And as for knowledge, it is not that easy to get, is it?
The all-breed books are packed with invented stories from dog dealers, while so many of the dog training books are either autobiographies or tips on how to train a dog to do a trick. Veterinarians seem to be more interested in bill padding that setting the world straight on how to breed healthier dogs. And how much of what we read or are told is nonsense copied from one autodidact to another?
And, of course, book learning will only take you part way.
You cannot really know dogs until you have spent a lot of time in action with them and observing them, and not just one dog but many.
If you truly want to know about dogs, you have to take them out into the elements for which they were created. And even then, there will be mysteries.
While you may be able to shrink the denial circle, and expand the knowledge circle, there will always be the vast land of Clueless lying just over the horizon.