Training influences our behaviour

By Magari Mandebvu


WE can learn a lot about people by studying animals. After all, we are still animals, whatever else we may be as well.

For example, I have learned a lot from some dogs I have known. Where I live now we have two dogs. They are mongrels,

both part ridgeback.

Spider is ill-tempered and vicious and has taken a particular dislike to me, but usually, when he tries to go for me, Shumba heads him off.

The way most people treat them is instructive. They start throwing stones as soon as they see either dog, which is not really fair to Shumba, and is probably not the best way to teach Spider to change his ways.

Whisky, a German shepherd attached to a house where I lived in Hurungwe, was a different character altogether.

There were many interesting interactions when he followed me, as he often did, to visit in the neighbourhood.

As soon as we were outside our own gate, the usual canine negotiations about territory began. Dogs are very possessive about their territory. You have seen how each dog marks the boundaries of what he considers his own territory. Any other dog intruding on this territory has to face a challenge.

It usually went something like this: a couple of dogs from across the road would run towards us. There would be a bit of barking and snarling, but then both sides would pace out a line and, having said to each other, in effect, “this side is my territory”, they would each go about their own business on their own side of the line. That is all clear and simple.

Both sides knew where their territory began and ended and neither wanted to invade the other’s territory. They were just reminding each other of that agreement. What happened when Whisky was following me and I entered the territory of another dog was quite interesting.

When we reached  someone’s home, the village dogs would look aggressive at first. After all, this was their territory. If another dog insisted on entering their territory, that usually means there will be a fight, but it didn’t come to that. 

Whisky never had to prove he was stronger than them. That was partly because he was bigger than them, but also because he was polite. Because he was bigger and stronger than them, the other dogs didn’t want to fight him. Because he was polite, firm but not aggressive, they could give way to him without losing face.

He just made it quite clear that he was with me and considered he had a right to stay with me. But on another dog’s territory, he kept close to me, came into the house and sat quietly at my feet. If he had started wandering around the yard, that would have been to break the agreement between dogs about whose territory the yard was and how you should behave in someone else’s territory.

Some dogs have better manners than some people I know.

But why should two dogs be as different as Spider and Whisky? I reckon it depends on their training. Whisky had been properly trained, by someone who punished him, but no more severely than necessary, if he did something wrong and (this is very important) who rewarded him when he did something right.

After all, as a wise man once said, you catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a bucket of vinegar. It strikes me that Spider behaves as he does because he is treated the way some of our politicians treat people. He never got any positive encouragement to do what people wanted of him.

They just hit him or threw stones at him when he did something wrong. His life was a succession of buckets of vinegar and he had to guess where that spoonful of honey would have been placed if it had existed. No wonder he was so bad-tempered.

He was profoundly insecure inside, because he never knew what would cause the next beating. He was just sure there would be another fairly soon if he didn’t strike first. As a result, he was always ready to attack, because he was fairly sure that any man or dog that came near him would attack him if he didn’t strike the first blow — or, in his case, get the first bite.

By the time I knew him, it was too late to teach him anything new. He had given up on human nature and didn’t have a very high opinion of other dogs either.

Our politicians could learn something from that. We all could.

Proper training includes more than beating your dog or throwing stones at him when he misbehaves. It also requires you to reward him when he does right.

Treating us like Spider assumes that everyone who isn’t a card-carrying, slogan-shouting supporter is an enemy. Spider learned that attitude, which made him very unpleasant to deal with.

Treating us like Whisky assumes that anyone who isn’t trying to tear your guts out could be a friend. Whisky learned that lesson. He could defend himself and was ready to do so, but was ready to give a stranger a chance to prove that he might be a friend.

Since we are not dogs, we can’t promise any would-be leaders that the first time they treat us with a little respect we will all come running, tails wagging and tongues hanging out, eager to vote for them, but that would help. The other approach only ensures that a free election will go against them.

The constitution debate and the many NGO-sponsored conferences in the best hotels on the present crisis in the country and other attempts to invite all parties to discuss serious matters all show that too many politicians have the attitude that if they didn’t issue the invitations, they aren’t interested in coming.

No patting the organisers on the head for having a good idea. Just the big stick and a shower of stones (in the shape of teargas, baton sticks and water cannon) if you do something they don’t like. It wouldn’t cost them anything if they were friendlier, and if the project was successful they could still claim credit for it afterwards.

But no. They are treating us all like ill-trained mongrels. The trouble with that approach is that one day, enough mongrels will gang up on them in a dark corner. But I don’t want to live in a world run by the ill-trained mongrels.

It sounds too like the world we are trying to escape from now.


* Magari Mandebvu is a Harare-based social commentator.

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