Imagine you live on a planet where the dominant species is far more intellectually sophisticated than human beings but often keep humans as companion animals. They are called the Gorns. They communicate with each other via a combination of telepathy, eye movements and high-pitched squeaks, unintelligible and unlearnable by humans, whose brains are prepared for verbal language acquisition only. What humans sometimes learn is the meaning of individual sounds by repeated association with things of relevance to them. The Gorns and humans bond strongly but there are many Gorn rules that humans must try to assimilate with limited information and usually high stakes.
You are one of the lucky humans who lives with the Gorns in their dwelling. Many other humans are chained to small cabanas in the yard or kept in outdoor pens of varying size. They have become so socially starved that they cannot control their emotions when a Gorn goes near them. Because of this behaviour, the Gorns agree that they could never be house humans. They are too excitable.
The dwelling you share with your Gorn family is fitted with numerous water-filled porcelain bowls, complete with flushers. Every time you try to urinate in one, though, any nearby Gorn attacks you. You learn to only use the toilet when there are no Gorns present. Sometimes they come home and stuff your head down the toilet for no apparent reason. You hate this and start sucking up to the Gorns when they come home to try and stave this off but they view this as increasing evidence of your guilt.
You are also punished for watching videos, reading certain books, talking to other human beings, eating pizza or cheesecake, and writing letters. These are all considered behaviour problems by the Gorns. To avoid going crazy, once again you wait until they are not around to try doing anything you with to do. While they are around, you sit quietly, staring straight ahead. Because they witness this good behaviour you are so obviously capable of, they attribute to “spite” the video watching and other transgressions that occur when you are alone. Obviously you resent being left alone, they figure. You are walked several times a day and left crossword-puzzle books to do. You have never used them because you hate crosswords; the Gorns think you’re ignoring them out of revenge.
Worst of all, you like them. They are, after all, often nice to you. But when you smile at them, they punish you, likewise for shaking hands. If you apologize, they punish you again. You have not seen another human since you were a small child. When you see one on the street you are curious, excited and sometimes afraid. You really don’t know how to act. So, the Gorn you live with keeps you away from other humans. Your social skills never develop.
Top Ten Behaviour Problems of Pet Humans on Planet Gorn
- Watching TV
- Use of water-filled porcelain bowls as elimination sites
- Listening to music other than Country & Western
- Talking to other humans
- Sitting on chairs (“How can I get him to stop sitting on CHAIRS?!”)
- Eating anything but (nutritionally balanced) Human Chow
- Shaking hands to greet
Finally, you are brought to training school. A large part of the training consists of having your air briefly cut off by a metal chain around your neck. They are sure you understand every squeak and telepathic communication they make because you sometimes get it right. You are guessing and hate the training. You feel stressed out a lot of the time. One day, you see a Gorn approaching with the training collar in hand. You have PMS, a sore neck and you just don’t feel up to the baffling coercion about to ensue. You tell them in your sternest voice to please leave you alone and go away. The Gorns are shocked by this unprovoked aggressive behaviour. They thought you had a good temperament.
They put you in one of their vehicles and take you for a drive. You watch the attractive planetary landscape going by and wonder where you are going. The vehicle stops and you are led into a building filled with the smell of human sweat and excrement. Humans are everywhere in small cages. Some are nervous, some depressed, most watch the goings on from their prisons. Your Gorns, with whom you have lived your entire life, hand you over to strangers who drag you to a small room. You are terrified and yell for your Gorn family to help you. They turn and walk out the door of the building. You are held down and given a lethal injection. It is, after all, the humane way to do it.
This nightmarish world is the one inhabited by many domestic dogs all the time. Virtaully all natural dog behaviours – chewing, barking, rough play, chasing moving objects, eating food items within reach, jumping up to access faces, settling disputes with threat displays, establishing contact with strange dogs, guarding resources, leaning into steady pressure against their necks, urinating on porous surfaces like carpets, defending themselves from perceived threat – are considered by humans to be behaviour problems. The rules that seem so obvious to us make absolutely no sense to dogs. They are not humans in dog suits…
It is as inherently obvious to dogs that furniture, clothing and car interiors are good for chewing as it is inherently obvious to you that TV sets are good for watching. If I reprimand you for watching the TV, your most likely course of action is to simply watch TV when I’m not around… Housetraining is another classic example… Owners interpret dogs who “refuse” to eliminate on walks and then go on the carpet when the owner leaves the room to answer the phone as “getting back at them”. Absolutely not so. The dog has simply learned to go to the bathroom on an obvious toilet – the carpet – when the attacker is not present. He behaves obsequiously on the owner’s return to try and turn off the punishment that inevitably occurs when certain context cues (owner plus poop on rug) are present. It is clear from his terrified, submissive posture that the dog would dearly love to avoid that punishment if only he knew how. If someone punished you in a certain circumstance, you would beg for mercy too, regardless of whether you had any clue as to why they were about to punish you. It’s Orwellian what we do to dogs.