“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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