Honestly Curious

As this past weekend was Father’s Day, I decided to take a break from blogging. In truth it had nothing to do with being a father, my wife and I have no children by choice. I just needed a couple days off to recharge my inspirational batteries.

But as I sat down last night to review my list of ideas, nothing seemed inspire thoughts that would percolate to page. So instead of trying to force it, I decided to get lost in the words and thoughts of someone else; a process that usually pays off, and— did not disappoint this time as well.

A character in a book I was reading made a comment about curiosity. She said she found curiosity a very honest emotion. Immediately, I thought about all the animals that I’ve ever known in my life. Dogs, cats, horses, cows, ferrets, and many more, the one thing I found fascinating about them was their curiosity.

I wondered why I found their curiosity so remarkable. Was it the fact that the behavior lends itself to cuteness? Perhaps, it’s because I acknowledge the similarities to my own behavior? Maybe, I just find their curiosity, well, curious?

Perhaps the most honest answer is a combination of all those reasons infused with respect for the honesty of the emotion.

In every animal I’ve ever spent time with, I’ve recognized the integrity of their emotions. But it’s only after I’ve become curious about animal behavior itself, that I’ve learned that sometimes their emotions are not what they seem. Not because they are employing human like deception, but because I perceive them through a human prism.

We look at our dogs and we often classify their behavior between two extremes, each of which is often anecdotal of the truth. On the one hand, we recognize ourselves in their behaviors and make the leap of assigning human reasons as well. On the other hand, we see dogs as descendants of wolves and derive our behavioral explanations there.

However, the dogs that we have come to know and love as our constant companions are unique and distinctive and their behavior cannot be explained away simply by mammalian similarity or lupine ancestry.

In order to become as good a friend to our dogs as they are to us, we are the ones who need to employ some honest curiosity. Explaining canine behavior using terms like dominance, alpha, pack leader, and wolf like descriptors runs the risk of ignoring the real reason behind the behaviors in the same way that assigning human like descriptors like guilt and anger can.

Honest curiosity means that in addition to watching made (and edited) for TV moments, we take the time to discover what sound science and objective observation have to say about our dogs.

Cheers,

Kevin

7 thoughts on “Honestly Curious

  1. Really nice, and a good reminder to look beyond all the labels. One if my most hated labels is “stubborn” because it immediately halts any other effort to understand the animal and sets up a battle of wills.

    You remind us to stop and think about all of it though, and to not just assume that every reaction of fear or excitement is always the same thing. When we are curious, we see what’s actually happening, not just what we already expect to see happen!

    • I agree with you Erica. Many people say that argument about the words we use is much ado about semantics, but I disagree. The words or labels that we use are often indicative of our ingrained response to them. Context is such an important thing when considering behavior and a quick label often precludes our curiosity about why we label it that way in the first place.

  2. Ideally dominance is just a term to help categorize certain behaviors, as we do with personality types in people. We can’t use it as an explanation for behavior, but that happens all too frequently. There are so many negative connotations and stigma attached to the word dominance. Intimidation. Aggression. I’m trying not to use the word, as there are always more specific and accurate terms that don’t encourage people to label their dogs in negative ways. Labeling causes people to ignore the underlying cause of behaviors.

    Thanks as always. Your writing makes me think, which is the highest compliment I can give!

  3. Curiosity is the mother of knowledge. One cannot learn anything without being curious.

    Jasmine is the most curious dog I’ve ever seen. She’s also the smartest dog I’ve ever seen. There is definitely a connection.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    In this context, if “honest emotion” means innocent and pure than I totally agree that curiosity is an honest emotion. I too have observed it in the countless animals I’ve interacted with throughout my life as well as in young children who have not yet been tainted by maturity.

    I also view curiosity as the single most important trait that’s required for learning. After all, one who is not curios about something new, one never learns about it.

    You’ve also alluded to the fact that curiosity is cute. Of course it is! And it’s not only cute, it is also endearing.

    • Hello Hanna,

      By honest I mean genuine. As humans we often feign emotions in order to manipulate things. We can pretend interest or curiosity in order to curry favor. Although I do believe that animals can pretend (think an animal faking injury to entice or deter closer inspection by another), I don’t believe that curiosity by any animal is feigned.

      And I totally agree about curiosity as a necessary component of learning.

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. Hi Kevin-
    A couple of things came to mind while reading your post. My first thought was about clicker training and curiosity. I love clicker training because, if done right, it seems to make dogs more creative and they seem to offer more behaviors in order to get you to click and treat. Now I am wondering whether curiosity fits into that equation somewhere.
    My other thought was concerning a book I just finished by Ted Kerasote called Merle’s Door. It is one of the best dog books I have ever read and I was wondering whether you have read it. It is a wonderful story about a reflective mand and his dog, but also has a lot of ethology and animal behavior thrown in. If I had the wherewithal I would buy that book for every dog person I know. If you have read it, what did you think? There is quite a bit about dominance theory, alpha dog, etc. in it.
    Thanks.

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