Be Humble With Animals

“How did you know it was okay when that off-leash dog approached us,” my sister asked.

“Well, his tail was neutral, his ears weren’t folded back, and didn’t stare as he came close. But his legs and body looked a little stiff. So I relied on Honey to tell me it was okay. She knows a lot more about dogs than I do.”

I know it’s my job to care for and keep my dog safe. But she knows things I’ll never understand.

Sometimes it’s smart to be just a little humble around animals.

Golden Retriever with Cayuga Lake in the Distance

I know things you’ll never understand.

What Dogs Know

Yes, the off-leash dog’s person was standing nearby. And she told us he was friendly. But we all know how much that statement is worth from a stranger, right?

So as the scroungy dog (who resembled a miniature Irish wolfhound—only twice as big as Honey) came near, I asked Honey to sit.

I knew Honey would disobey me if she thought she had something to worry about.

But she plopped right down on her butt and as the dog got closer, Honey gave a few gentle wags from her seated position.

Honey stood up at the dog sniffed and started the golden retriever dance: play bow, circle, and a tiny leap in the air. The wiry gray dog responded in a friendly way if not as enthusiastic as Honey. And when they finished saying hello, we chatted for a few minutes with the dog’s person about what trails were open this time of year.

Honey knew the right thing to do even if I was uncertain.

It’s why I continually remind myself of how much I don’t know even about dogs I see every day. And I’ve decided that humility around animals is a good fallback position.

Smiling Golden Retriever in the snow.

One thing I know is that snow is awesome!

Humble Experts

If you asked me why I don’t like a particular celebrity dog trainer or another, I might tell you it’s because they use unnecessary force while training. Or because they don’t rely on current scientific knowledge for their techniques.

But now that I think about it more, there’s another piece I forget to mention.

They aren’t humble. They think they know everything there is to know about dogs. And if you disagree with them, you’re just wrong.

There are other animal experts, people I admire very much, who are humble. They have advanced scientific degrees and years of experience. But they are always open, continually learning, and, yes, humble.

This week I picked up a book that kept me so enthralled that I read it in one sitting. It was A Wolf Called Romeo (affiliate) by Nick Jans. It’s the story of a sociable black wolf who engaged with the dogs (and some humans) in Juneau, Alaska.

The book isn’t sentimental. As I read, I asked myself why I found this book so engaging.

A black wolf is sleeping in the snow.

A black wolf sleeping, not Romeo.

Well yeah, it’s about a wolf that for reasons unknown played with dogs. But I felt touched by Jans’ humility in the presence of animals. As he wrote about encountering other wolves and bears and even the people of his city with different reactions to Romeo the wolf, Jans was humble.

The author was someone who knew he always had more to learn. And until he knew it all, it was probably a good idea to stay humble.

Humans Don’t Know Everything

Here in upstate New York, most of my animal interactions are with dogs, followed by cats, squirrels, birds, rats, and skunks. These are all animals I’ve observed throughout my life.

But as we move aboard a sailboat, I hope to encounter animals I’ve only seen on nature documentaries or viewed from a distance—like whales, dolphins, rays, and crocodiles.

I’ve seen humans without a lick of humility think there’s no reason not to approach whales closely. Or who find it amusing when birds become frantic protecting their nests.

A gray whale's tail seen from a boat.

A gray whale.

I don’t want to be one of those people.

If I understand only a fraction of Honey’s workings despite living closely with her every day, it’s probably a good idea to sit back and be humble in the presence of animals who are strangers to me.

And if I avoid the trap of thinking humans know everything and stay humble, I just might learn something.

photo credits: (sleeping wolf) Arctic Wolf Pictures via photopin cc, (gray whale) puliarf via photopin cc


Disclosure: If you buy something after following a link marked “affiliate,” I’ll earn a few cents. Your item won’t cost you more, however. Thank you for supporting Something Wagging This Way Comes.

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  1. Wonderful! And stated humbly and beautifully! Funny how when I used to watch a certain celebrity on TV, it never dawned on me how he really was. He seemed to know what he was talking about — at least to a novice like I was then — and was usually pleasant enough. But I can’t get NatGeo Wild on my cable so I’ve not watched the “new” show. I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, but there are some things I do agree with him about. Still, when it comes to my own dogs, I tend to fall back on my course material.

    • I’ve always appreciated experts who are able to share when they don’t know something. It’s one reason I’ve always appreciated Patricia McConnell so much.

  2. Thanks for the book recommendation – sounds like something I’ll enjoy. Hope you had a wonderful holiday!

    • It was amazing. I do think you’d enjoy it.

      Like Patricia McConnell (who wrote a blurb on the back), I read it in one sitting.

  3. Also I think a lot of people have watched too much Disney. When they go camping they expect the little woodland birds and animals to pitch in on doing the chores. I’ve seen them allow small children to feed a bear…scary stuff.

    • OMD! Yes! What’s wrong with people?

      When I read that part of Romeo where someone brought their little child who had a tantrum while the wolf was nearby, my heart was in my throat. And I couldn’t understand what people were thinking.

      BTW, it was your assurances on The Poodle and Dog Blog that A Wolf Called Romeo wasn’t sappy that made me want to read it. I had been avoiding it up to then. So thank you.

  4. I loved A Wolf Called Romeo! I got it as soon as it was released, after reading Patricia McConnell’s recommendation. I did a review/giveaway, and one of my page visitors was from Juneau. Figured it was Nick 😉

    • Yes, I remember your review. And I really did love the book. I couldn’t put it down.

      I thought Nick Jans was amazing for his even-handed telling of a story that could have been really nasty in someone else’s hands.

  5. I’ve never made that correlation to dog trainers before but it’s so true. I know it’s an overused example but I always think about the Cesar Milan clip where he got bit by the yellow Lab; I think it’s funny that this “expert” didn’t see the waring signs that were so clear while watching. With Laika I’ve been pleasantly surprised so many times with her behavior when I thought there was potential for a bad meeting with a strange dog. It’s really hard to remember all the positive interactions when the negative ones are so easy to fall back to. As hard as I’ve tried to predict her behavior she still amazes and surprises me everyday. Whenever we deal with sentient beings it’s important to stay humble; we might consider ourselves intelligent but we certainly don’t have the right to say we know what an animal is thinking all the time. Great point; and another reason I love this blog – I always leave pondering something new.

    • “Whenever we deal with sentient beings it’s important to stay humble; we might consider ourselves intelligent but we certainly don’t have the right to say we know what an animal is thinking all the time.”

      Well put.

      And glad to hear that Laika surprises you. When we have reactive dogs, we constantly brace ourselves. But it makes it hard for us to see our dogs’ progress. And to notice that they will react differently to different dogs.

  6. I no longer call my dogs “a pack,” because they are not; they are not blood family like wolf packs. They all are disparate rescues of varying sizes, breeds (mostly mixes), and ages. I’m the Mom/Boss, not the Pack Leader, and yes, I’ve been humbled more than once. Two weeks ago I was laid flat with the flu. Eighteen hours on my couch after collapsing at work. No one got fed but no one complained. Somehow, they KNEW my collapse was serious. God bless them all – we all finally ate after midnight. I’m much better now and they are demanding their walks :). Thank you for this post. Dogs read us SO much better than we read them.

    • Sorry to hear you were so sick. But glad to know your dog family made things just a little easier on you. They sound just amazing.

      I don’t believe Honey would be so understanding.

  7. Well said!!! It’s easiest to trust the judgement of a well-balanced dog like Honey. It’s tougher if you have a naturally fearful dog who displays “scared” behavior whenever an unknown dog approaches. So, with my current dog (my first fearful one), I have to be very vigilant about the slightest sign that other dogs are not OK and then be very assertive with the owners that they must leash their dog. All it takes is one “incident” to set my dog way back.

    But, with all my previous and other current dogs, I can rely on them, just like you do with Honey!

    • Yes, reactive dogs do rely on us to advocate for them. Your dog is very lucky you do that.

      But I have also learned interesting things with my past fearful dogs. Shadow was always fearful around other dogs. But she responded differently off leash. And she reacted more fearfully around male dogs than female dogs.

      As long as I didn’t assume I knew everything about her, I always learned something. Just like I do now with Honey.

  8. Sometimes we do get too caught up in how we would like our dogs to behave for our benefit. I love how you let Honey tell you how she felt about the approaching dog. There’s always something new to be learned from our dogs and they definitely have ways of helping us stay humble. Awesome post!

  9. I have to agree with you. People who think they have nothing to learn, show how little they actually really know!