By Huw Le Lytle
It has certainly been a tumultuous summer as far as all the humans are concerned. We have seen first the Referendum vote in the UK, and then the US presidential campaign has reached dizzying levels of drama. And in both cases, there are many incidents where once good friends have fallen afoul, fallen out, and fallen from grace.
But the one thing that seems to be central to both of these very “interesting” moments in history is fear.
The various campaigns have all relied on fear in one way or another. And in generating and relying upon fear, every “side” has claimed the truth. And as such, every “side” has been accused of lies. And the conflict that arises if trying to refute any accusations has been the stuff of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie franchise.
For me, a wise Bedlington Terrier watching things unfold from my sofa, it seems to me that politicians and voters could learn a lot from dogs. And it makes me also think quite a bit about what is wrong with a lot of approaches and punitive gadgets applied to us dogs and our learning. And most important of all, it makes me think about what that does to our trust.
You see, learning is never best in a condition of fear. Not for dogs, not for people. And when a dog does something that a human thinks is wrong, punishment leads to wariness, even if it looks like the dog “learnt his lesson”. If a human reacts this way, whether you call it correction or discipline or punishment, this kind of approach to learning means the undesirable behaviour is all we can think about. The behaviour that attracts all our focus is the very one you don’t want.
And what is lost is trust. Dogs and humans can feel similarly disenfranchised and demoralised through a loss of trust. Fear is not respect. And fear is not trust.
Same with politics. Instead of trying to prove the opposite through fear, why not try affirming what you do want to say? To me, this is like the difference between punishment (whether positive, such as a physical punishment, or negative, such as removing your attention) and positive reinforcement. With punishment the focus remains the same and, worse, it becomes a relationship based on fear. In the short term this may be a victory, but in the long term nothing has been built at all. But positive reinforcement of the desired behaviour not only creates a whole new thing for us to think about, but also builds our confidence and makes it easier and faster for us to learn more and more. We are then no longer on the defensive. We are engaged. We are “enfranchised.” And best of all, we know we can trust you.
And interestingly, all the political commentators and even the voters point to the “incoherence” of the political campaigns in the UK and the US. And such is any campaign or programme that is built on fear. If you teach a dog through fear, you are behaving incoherently and you can expect similarly incoherent and unpredictable behaviour from us. And sometimes that can end quite sadly indeed.
So maybe that’s what they mean when they say dogs are social animals. We certainly don’t understand the antagonism of politics, or an adversarial relationship through punishment, but we thrive in the social life of positive learning.
Be that dog!