In our classes, we often tell our human students that they are the experts on their dogs. The theory is that while we, the teachers, know the science of dog training, the students live with and love their dogs. They know them best, which means they are uniquely suited to the art of dog training- applying the science to a specific individual.
As a student, I appreciate this perspective; there are positive methods that I have no problem with in theory, but that I don’t think are appropriate for Maisy. As a teacher, my goal is to empower my human students to make similar judgment calls. I want them to stand up for their dogs, to not be bullied into doing things they are uncomfortable with just because an “expert” tells them to.
But in telling our students that they are the experts, are we doing a disservice to the dog?
I’m guessing that you’ve probably had a well-meaning friend or family member start off a sentence with “Well, if I were you…” I know have. But the thing is, they aren’t me. I have a lot of great people in my life, people who love me and care for me deeply. People who have lived with me, who have heard my darkest fears, held my deepest pain, celebrated my greatest successes. People who’ve seen me at my worst and my best. People who, in short, know me very, very well.
But they still aren’t the experts on my life. No matter how close we are, no matter how empathetic they are, at the end of the day, they aren’t me. The way that I experience the world is unique, in turn making me uniquely qualified to be the expert of who I am, what’s important to me, what I want and like and fear. I am the expert on me.
Although we humans like to think that we are somehow superior to all other living beings, I am not so arrogant as to think I know what it means to be a dog. I will never know what my dog is thinking or feeling. I will never understand what she can hear and smell- she has abilities well beyond mine. I may know a lot about dogs, but I am not the expert on who Maisy is. She is.
Look, I get that dogs are not humans. I know that we have to make decisions for them. But then, there are times we make decisions for other humans. Parents make decisions for their children. Adults with cognitive deficits sometimes have guardians appointed to help them make medical, legal, and financial decisions. Hopefully, the people entrusted to make those decisions are doing so after considering their charge as a unique individual, not simply an age or diagnosis.
So perhaps I ought to be encouraging my students to consider their dogs as the experts. Heck, I need reminders to do this too. It would mean my students (and me, too!) would need to let go of ego and human desire, but I can’t help but think that we would make different choices for our dogs if we took the time to not only ask them for their opinions, but to really, truly listen.