My dad was visiting a few weeks ago to help with some electrical and plumbing work on the farm (we call this Bensonning). Unsurprisingly, we talked about dogs quite a bit...mine is a dog-laden existence, after all. But something really caught my attention this time around: I heard him say the word mean over and over. He used it to describe doggy communication ("that dog sounds mean"), doggy personalities ("it was a mean dog"), and doggy behaviour ("he was being mean").
This interested me greatly, because dogs aren't mean. Ever.
The word mean, according to Random House Unabridged (the dictionary behind www.dictionary.com), conjures up some remarkable negativity: offensive, selfish, or unaccommodating; nasty; malicious; small-minded or ignoble; penurious, stingy, or miserly. Or how about inferior in grade, quality, or character.
Dog cognition research has rightfully exploded in recent years, and is showing that dogs have complex cognitive abilities and interesting, alright frankly fascinating, brains. They're not "dumber wolves", as we used to think. But here's the important bit: they're not people, either. And if you look at all those words in that definition? Those are words that describe people, not pets.
A mean-sounding growl?
One of my dogs guards his bed from other dogs. When he's snuggled in, if another dog comes too close, he growls. "That's a mean growl" my dad said, moving away uncomfortably. But the growl is just a bit of doggy communication, saying "please, old chap, could you promenade a bit further to the left? Ta." There is certainly a time and place to ensure dogs feel comfortable when being approached. But this isn't, in my opinion, one of those times. My dogs have the glorious freedom to express minor grievances with each other in a species-typical way, as long as no one is getting hurt or scared. Is a dog who is using standard communication techniques and asking other dogs to give him room being ignoble? Or malicious?
My dad also said the M word when my dogs were playing. They play vociferously, and their play includes loud and proud play growling. Now, my regular readers will know that play is something I love to drone on about, so won't be surprised that my dogs play to their heart's content, in the style and manner they please, as long as there is consent. So if play growling, just like play fighting, is a normal part of healthy play, is it ...penurious? Or nasty?
A mean dog?
My dad also talked about another dog he'd met. A mean dog. I asked for details, and found that this dog was nice to the owner, but growled, snarled, and ran and hid if anyone new came around. My dad's description was pretty much "meaner than a junk-yard dog". My dad leaves this dog alone, which is smart, as aggression is a dog's way of asking for space. But is the motivation of this dog something selfish? How about small-minded? No, this dog is, through some sad recipe of nature and nurture, terrified of people he doesn't know. I repeat: dogs who are aggressive towards strangers are scared. Panicked. Terrified. They need help and they need care.
A whole new meaning
So I asked my dad to chop his "mean" category into two really different halves. On the one side goes dog play and normal, run-of-the-mill dog communication with other dogs. If no dogs are getting hurt, and no dogs are getting scared? (And no oldies are getting pestered by youthful exuberance, I'll add). Well then: we brought domesticated social predators into our homes. Let's pull out the popcorn and watch them act like domesticated social predators!
On the other side there are dogs who are aggressive and fearful. Here, we have dogs who bite when they're being patted, dogs who growl when kids hug them, and dogs who bark or bite, or maybe run away, from new people. While they're being no more mean than dogs who are play-growling, we really shouldn't let these dogs continue to experience this fear. Scared dogs need help, for their own welfare and ours.
No popcorn time for those dogs, I counselled my father sagely. For those dogs, it's time to act. And maybe one day, one day, when plutonium unicorns fly through the sky on rainbows made of cotton candy, my dad may actually listen to what I—a professional dog trainer—have to say about dogs.
Plumbing and electrical fix-its are neverending on a farm though, you know. And while we're Bensonning, my dad's a captive audience. I'll wear him down.