I recently arrived home after a long day at work to discover that my two boxers, Gizmo and Gonzo, had gotten into a fight in their kennel. I did not see the actual fight but I did see the horrifying marks left on each of my beloved animals, as they were each covered in small scratches and tears, their matted fur sporadically jutting from their necks (note: they have since experienced a full recovery). This was a very disturbing incident for two reasons: first, the dogs had always gotten along before this fight and appeared to be best friends; second, we had kenneled the dogs together since we owned them. What was most startling to me was trying to figure out what went wrong, what triggered this aggressive outburst that has now forced us to keep them separately when not home.
In the 48 hours following the dog fight, my wife and I observed very unique behaviors in the dogs, and I began to think about what lessons I could apply from this incident to better understand how humans deal with the immediate aftermath of conflicts. In addition to being very swollen and sore, the dogs were acting lethargic, would not make direct eye contact with one another, and seemed to be trying to reclaim territories within the house. A little background knowledge is necessary. I bought Gizmo as a puppy and she has lived with me for six years, so I have a long relationship with her — we understand each other’s quirks. We adopted Gonzo from a Boxer Rescue organization a little over two years ago and we are still getting used to some of his behaviors. Because he is 100% deaf, his puppy years included travelling through several foster homes and rescue organizations before landing with us…he also looks like he may have been used for dog fighting early in his life as he has several scars around his neck. I have distilled a few lessons from this event that will hopefully spark some creative comments from the mediation community:
Like other species, humans strive to maintain and improve our roles in social hierarchies by going beyond survival and constantly trying to improve our standing. We enhance our lives by using our biological gifts to achieve our passions, and we do this through rational thought and action that is tied to emotional satisfaction. While not every person subscribes to this Maslownian philosophy of continual self-improvement, many people do and this is a crucial factor in understanding what makes people tick.
When dogs don’t like their position in a social hierarchy, they have fewer choices than we do: they can fight or run away…but when they are in the same environment (i.e., a kennel) they are forced to confront problems through fighting. Humans are no different. When we feel cornered most people lash out at others through a self-defense mechanism. The important question is how to change our environments to limit the feelings of anxiety and fear that contribute to unproductive reactionary responses, thus preventing horrific fights. Although mediation cannot necessarily prevent the initial disagreements between two parties, it does offer a safe environment that allows us to use our mental capacities to solve our problems rather than continue fighting like caged dogs. Mindful mediators ask appropriate questions to uncover how environmental factors contribute to conflicts.
Leader of the Pack
Gizmo is clearly the dominant dog in the Schaefer household. She had staked out her territory long before Gonzo entered the picture: she knew her feeding times and routine, knew when we were going for a walk, and could tell when she was in trouble just by our facial expressions. Although Gonzo is much more muscular and athletic than Gizmo, he was submissive to her from day one and followed her cues (Note: most deaf dogs take their cues from dogs that can hear). For any dog lover, it is common knowledge that they are pack animals. They take their behavioral cues from the pack and constantly adjust and joust for a better position in the pack. Although humans are not necessarily pack animals we are social creatures that struggle for emotional connection. When a person’s social position is threatened, their entire world is turned upside down because position is tied to their self-image and self-worth. Social position includes occupational field and rank, familial status and norms, and one’s professional and social networks. In many of the conflicts that end up in mediation, a person’s identity is being challenged and most likely will be changing…they might not be the leader of the pack anymore and that is tough to swallow. Mediators need to help people understand that although their social positions and norms will change, these changes create opportunities for self-growth.
Ignorance is Far From Bliss
The conventional wisdom that “Ignorance is Bliss” is true in many situations but is rarely true in times of conflict. In general, humans enjoy knowing things about the world, being informed about current events, and understanding the motives for our actions. This knowledge is often incorrect because we get locked into behavioral norms based on initial decisions that can be quite irrational. In the book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely makes the argument that our most cherished and most frequent behavioral patterns are based on irrelevant information, arbitrary evidence, and spontaneous emotional cues rather than the predictable cost-benefit analyses that form the core of rationality. He suggests that people need to train themselves to question repeated behaviors, even when those behaviors seem favorable to us.
Further, when we are in conflict the “red” that we see causes us to view a situation different from other people; the problem is that there are many shades of red that influence how conflicts are discussed and experienced. We let unproductive emotions control our thoughts and we project negative assumptions onto other people and extend our locus of control to external factors. That is, when things go well it is because we worked hard and are good people, but when things fall apart it is the other person’s fault because they are inherently a bad person. When conflicts emerge, people will either have different explanations for how it started or they will be completely blindsided. The latter case applies to my dog fight and is more difficult to reconcile.
I can’t get several questions out of my head, and until dogs learn to talk, these questions will remain unanswered…causing me some minor emotional distress. Why did the dogs get into the fight in the first place, why didn’t this happen before, and will this happen again? These questions led me to think about the dogs’ behavioral norms and anomalies: did they previously show aggressive tendencies that I overlooked; did they really get along well or was that what I wanted to see; and most important, how did I contribute to the fight? Effective mediators help disputants answer important questions by (a) shifting their blame game patterns, (b) identifying and labeling positive/negative behavioral patterns, (c) identifying and labeling behavioral anomalies, and (d) discussing ways to move past the “Ignorance is Bliss” mentality and recognize that knowledge – even when emotionally uncomfortable – provides a way to rectify many fights. This obviously entails participants approaching mediation in an honest manner with a willingness to look not only at the other person but at how one’s own actions may have contributed to the problem. This self-knowledge is the most important type but also the most difficult to recognize.
As for my dogs, Gizmo and Gonzo are healthy and back to their normal behavioral patterns of wrestling with each other. We individually rotate them in and out of the kennel when we are away, meaning one of them gets to roam the basement while the other enjoys the comforts of their kennel/den. In retrospect, I overlooked the fact that my dogs are still animals, that one is deaf, that one is becoming older and crankier, and that their positive and negative behaviors reflect my identity as a dog owner. Who wants to be viewed as a lousy dog owner? You can teach an old dog new tricks, but you usually can’t get an old dog owner to take the time to do so. In the future I will take the time to think about how I can prevent dog fights before they occur.