Respect. What?

Periodically, this question drives me crazy.

What is respect?  In particular, what constitutes the kind of respect dogs are supposed to have for humans?

About 95% of the time someone tells me their dog respects them, or points out a dog who respects people, the dog is visibly afraid of the person.  Is that respect? If that’s what it is, I am not interested, and it’s a very easy discussion for me.

I’ve had herding instructors tell me, “your dog does not respect you.”  Does that mean my dog does not fear me?  If I ask, the answer is something like, “respect means she does what you ask right away” or “does not pull on the  leash” (*oh shit*), or something like that.  But when I ask, “how do you teach that,” they tend to wiggle a bit and not have a concrete answer.  And I’m pretty sure that when they teach if to their dogs, it involves at least partly instilling an element of fear; of “or else.”

Can respect be earned by humans without using fear?  If so, how?  I’m pretty sure I’ve done all those things — controlling resources, being fair, teaching the skills so my dog understands, etc., with Mellie, but it’s also still pretty clear that there are times she’s just going to do what she wants and is “blowing me off.”  For example, leash walking.  Or thinks I’m a raging incompetent (“if you wanted me to go over that jump you should have told me in time”).  is that a failure of respect?

I’m truly at a loss with this.  I know people I respect, so I’ve asked myself “what is it about those people that makes me respect them?”  The answer is usually that they are fair, fairer than usual; or stronger than most people (especially myself) would be in a similar situation.  I have enormous respect for some of the young single moms I’ve met who are also going to school and working one or more jobs.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t ever have done that; it’s enormous.  Just an example.  And this really does not translate well to “dog respecting a person,” because it requires all sorts of theory of mind and abstract thinking which dogs don’t appear to do.

I welcome comments.  I’d really like to hear what people mean by this, and how they teach it.


10 thoughts on “Respect. What?

  1. Thinking about your example of people you respect, does respecting them mean you would do everything they asked without hesitation or question? I don’t really worry much about “respect” when it comes to my dogs (as you are probably well aware!), but I think *if* dogs can be said to respect someone, it is probably reflected in a willingness to communicate, and listen to the human’s requests, even if they don’t make sense to a dog. Which may be why Mellie barks at you in agility and doesn’t just do whatever obstacles she pleases when you aren’t clear.

    I would also look at dog-dog interactions. There are certainly some dogs that other dogs seem to respect at first meeting. They will defer to those dogs and will let them set the tone of the interactions. So I would also define respect with those terms – for example, if one of my dogs asks me to play and I say “not now”, do they escalate or do they defer to my lack of interest?

    I am not sure dogs can really feel “respect” but I do agree that most humans use that term to say that their dog is afraid to disobey them.

  2. I’ve given this a good bit of thought in the past. I can only use my own point of view, but I came up with two types of respect. The first could also be coined admiration, and it’s your respect for the single mother, as an example. If someone is brilliant, or knowledgeable, or in some way amazing, I respect them and it’s in the form of admiration. The second type of respect is based on the power of someone over me or my life. I ‘show respect’ (or another way to say it would be ‘show deference’) to my bosses regardless of whether they have been brilliant or knowledgeable or in some other way amazing. I respect or defer to them because of the position they hold (and as a former Army officer, I ‘respected’ those of greater rank regardless of whether they were blooming idiots or not). So I would definitely call that fear based. It’s not abject, quivering fear. It’s simply a knowledge that this person has influence over my life, and it would serve me to acknowledge that. It makes my life better to defer to them. And I think that’s the kind of ‘respect’ that dogs can have for us. They can choose to subordinate themselves/their wishes to ours because they have discovered that it makes their lives better/easier. I don’t believe dogs are capable of the first type of respect (admiration for us). I think that if we wield power over their lives, they learn that their lives are improved by ‘respecting’ us or deferring to our wishes. If the owner has chosen not to wield his influence over the dog in any way that the dog finds unpleasant, then the motivation to defer to that owner may not be present, or the motivation driving the dog may exceed the motivation to defer to the owner (sometimes you simply cannot be more interesting than the squirrel). I think that’s what most people mean when they say your dog doesn’t respect you. I don’t think respect has to be fear based; for example, I don’t think Susan Garrett’s dogs are afraid of her, but I think they are ACUTELY aware of the power she wields over their lives. I think this concept of respect does have to include some awareness on the dog’s part that the consequences of his actions could be somewhat unpleasant, so he makes a choice to defer to or respect the handler. (Unpleasant does not have to mean physically painful, either).

    • I am so glad you replied, Lee. I was thinking, “hope Lee sees this” when I was writing it. You’re quite right about the two different meanings of the term “respect.” I think I have a lot of personal trouble with the second type of respect, deference, in general. Perhaps a few years in the military might have helped… 😉

      So how do you get deference, generalized deference, with zero to minimal fear? And what if you’re not as OCD and on-the-job-24/7 as Susan Garrett? I am not baiting. I’m asking.

      • I’ll be totally honest here….unless you can be incredibly consistent in ‘controlling the resources’ like SG, I don’t have much faith that mildly aversive consequences such as time outs will get you there. And especially when the dog has strong motivations to do undesired behaviors. Dumpster diving for last nite’s roast is TOTALLY worth a few minutes in a crate, KWIM? If you have totally convinced your dog from puppyhood that you will not allow him to self-reward (that you will interrupt EVERY SINGLE effort on his part to do the undesired behavior, a la SG), then I think you can convince the dog that it is simply pointless to go against your wishes; it’s futile. That’s respect or deference without fear. But if you can’t hold yourself to that standard, I don’t think you can get consistent deference, because you haven’t been consistent in your response to his behavior. To be clear, I’m not talking about getting a dog to heel by using a toy, etc. In that instance, you’re fulfilling his motivation of getting the toy. I’m talking about when the two of you have a difference of opinion and you’re asking him to put his own desires aside in favor of yours.

      • Lee, I think I am agreeing with your overall analysis. I think there are not a lot of owners/trainers who can be consistent enough to gain what others interpret as respect, without resorting to aversives. And some dogs make this much harder than others. So basically what I’m getting is that by a definition of respect that involves consistent deference in cases of a difference of opinion, most dogs are not very deferential. And since more traditional trainers feel free to use aversives to obtain generalized deference, it’s probably easier for them to get that thing that looks like respect. This job becomes much harder for those who have committed to minimizing aversive use. I’m not saying it can’t be done; I am saying it’s not easy, at least in some regular percentage of cases.

        The worse a dog generalizes/the better she distinguishes contexts, also, the harder this will be.

        This has been a good discussion!

  3. Greta, as you know I’m pretty new to this party, so feel quite bold joining the conversation. That said, I’ve thought lately that an important part of respect is the respect that I have for my dogs—for their cognition, their emotional lives, their ability to make choices—all attributes which are increasingly supported by reputable scientific studies. The fact that I am willing to respect a “no” answer when I ask for a behavior, and use that as an opportunity to troubleshoot, makes it more likely that they will answer “yes”. Respect as with an employer can be very one-sided and somewhat coercive, albeit effective in getting the job done. When possible I prefer a more reciprocal version.

    • I think in general most would have said my Aussies respected me. I was more consistent with Mellie yet she is more likely to openly “defy” me by visibly making a choice not to do what I ask. I like your concept, but I can tell you there are dogs who will make you look out of control and incompetent to observers if you are not much more thorough at controlling reinforcers. I guess I’m just glad it was my third dog and not my first….

  4. Thank you for your interesting post. I have noticed recently that many more organizations are no longer deferring to the old military idea of “do it because I said so”—-including the military! Why? Because the results aren’t that great. The military has been clear that in modern maneuvers they need their soldiers to be good thinkers and problem solvers. It requires education, common sense, a high level of personal ethics and the ability to freely make a decision on the fly. Personally, I think that we are at that same place with our dog training. Our dogs are placed, by us, in complex urban environments and we hope that they can make great decisions on the fly. So, what does this have to do with respect? To me, respect is not a one way street, and does not mean deference in a vacuum. It may mean deference in a specific situation, but that would be within a trusted relationship where respect goes both ways. When my dogs are put into a sketchy situation (by me–who else would do that?
    !) they look to me for guidance and they usually trust me to do my best to get them out of trouble. If I don’t, then I feel that’s when I have not met the level of responsibility that they have every right to expect. If I do that frequently, then they will take matters into their own “paws”. What else can they do? I earn their “respect” and more importantly their trust, every day.

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