27 September 2009

Nature or nurture?

In my immediate household, there are 2 people, 5 dogs and 1 cat. In an attempt to maintain as much relative order as possible, we try to adhere to a set of feeding time and playtime rituals that seem to work. But dogs, being the clever creatures that they are, do their best to steer our behavior toward meeting their desires as much as possible. They learn that humans will sometimes relent after being pestered for a while. I also think that dogs are perceptive enough to detect human dynamics that contribute to stress, fear and sadness and I think that if these situations are not corrected, the animals’ behavior could be permanently affected.

A number of years ago, I volunteered as a docent in the butterfly conservatory of the local museum. It is a beautiful place and on many days, moms and their young children would visit the museum together and enjoy a stroll through the conservatory. The pretty paths are lined with dense plantings featuring plenty of nectar producing flowers to attract the brilliantly colored butterflies. My role was to provide information about butterflies to anyone who might be interested. Mostly though, the visitors just liked to experience the natural wonder of the conservatory on their own.

On one particular day, I noticed a mom pointing out a lovely swallow-tailed butterfly to her child. As the butterfly flitted closer to them, the little boy ducked his head. I heard his mom exclaim, ‘you don’t have to be afraid, these are good bugs!’ She glanced at me and admitted that through her own behavior, she had probably taught him to be afraid of insects without understanding why.

Hmmm. So I guess this might mean that my dogs’ neuroses originate with me? They have observed my behavior, moods and emotional responses to conditions and situations long enough to develop complementary behaviors? Their unruly manners are essentially a reflection of unchecked mixed signals on my part? Could it be true?


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