Wednesday, November 03, 2021

"Ohne Strafe" (Without Punishment)

We were recently out to dinner at a nice Italian restaurant with our dog Stella. She's been to many restaurants with us and was, as is typical, under the table, working on a bone we had brought with us to occupy her as we dined. We were seated at a table in what had been, pre-pandemic, roadway, which meant that the city sidewalk bifurcated the outdoor dining area. There were many passersby, some with their own dogs who often, sensing the presence of Stella, pulled toward her in a friendly, curious, or aggressive manner. Stella remained unmoved by any of this, looking up, but otherwise focusing on her bone.

Suddenly, a young man on a noisy skateboard came barreling through our midst. The sound and fury startled all of us. Stella responded by dashing out at the man, causing him to jump from his skateboard. Then as he stood there as Stella gave him a couple of solid, scold-y barks. The man seemed furious at first, but then, from under several other tables, came the sound of other dogs joining Stella. He picked up his skateboard and walked away, while our fellow diners cheered the dogs, especially Stella who returned to me with her ears down in apology. I told her she was my good girl and she calmly went back to her bone.

I recently used a metaphor comparing how we often go about "teaching" children and how we "train" dogs. Several readers pointed out that we shouldn't even try to train dogs in this way.

"Good dog trainers don't train this way," wrote Peggy, "They foster love and mutual respect, and comfortable structure."

I've lived with dogs for most of my adult life and I can honestly say that I myself have never tried to "train" any of them. Or rather, I've taken a few "obedience" classes over the years with, at best, mixed results, probably because neither I nor the dogs have been particularly interested in obedience. We did, however, over the course of the decades, come across trainers who we considered to be "dog whisperers." There was one in particular, Joe Bodemann, who would care for our chow Vincent when we were living in Germany. Frankly, what attracted us was his large sign that promised he taught animals "ohne strafe," that is, without punishment. 

I was not interested enough at the time to find out what that meant, but it sounded good. From the very first, Vincent loved Joe. We found this encouraging because his natural instinct upon meeting strangers was a kind of aloofness, but with Joe he cuddled right in. From the start, Joe talked of our dog, a dog amongst many in his world, as unique, immediately identifying personality traits that we ourselves saw in him. When we returned from trips to fetch Vincent from Joe's place, he would be thrilled to see us, but then fall into a kind of depression lasting several days, which told us that he missed Joe. We took that as a good sign and continued to board Vincent with Joe. We think Vincent considered this time away from us as a kind of holiday with his buddy Joe.

When I consider my relationship with the many dogs in my life, that phrase, "ohne strafe," has been a guiding one. The love, mutual respect, and comfortable structure has always come ahead of obedience. And still, ohne strafe, our untrained dogs have successfully and delightfully, flown in the cabins of airplanes and ridden in the coaches of trains. They have stayed in nice hotels and eaten in fine restaurants. They usually walk with me. They usually come when called. They usually stop barking when I ask them to. And, yes, they usually don't lurch out from under the table to protect us from overly aggressive skateboarders. I know that many traditional trainers would consider this to be a failure in that the dogs don't always obey me, but if that were the case, honestly, I'd feel as if I'd somehow broken them. No healthy being, human, animal, or even plant, always obeys the commands of others. 

When I struggle with my dogs' behaviors I begin by trying to figure out what has gone awry with our relationship or our environment, which is exactly where I go when I struggle with the behaviors of the children in my life. Usually, it has to do with my having inadequately listened or not having fully considered that my expectations were somehow unrealistic or unclear. Usually, I find the solution in how I speak or in adjustments to the environment ("structure"). Most of what we call "misbehavior" has to do with a breakdown in the relationship, because children, like my dogs, genuinely do want to do the right thing, to fit in, and to be a beloved, respected member of "the pack."

No one likes to be told what to do, including children and dogs, and everyone wants to be loved and respected. Expectations of obedience compelled through strafe is both cruel and lazy. It puts everyone into a strict, impersonal hierarchy. When we genuinely listen, and by that I mean listen with our entire selves, when we love, and when we seek mutual respect, we create the space for others to belong. When we know we belong we usually do the right thing.

And when we do, out of fear and instinct, occasionally lurch after disruptive skateboarders, that is just evidence that we are human, even if we are dogs.


If you're interested in learning more about alternatives to commands, punishments, and rewards; if you're interested in speaking more respectfully and lovingly to young children, please consider registering for my e-course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think. Please consider joining this last cohort of the year, examining how the language we use with children creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

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