But ask the animals, and they will teach you,       Job 12:7 - 10                                                                                     


At eighteen months, Sabai is a rising power in the Oglesby pack. Instead of whining patiently for a toy at the base of the boulder, she climbs Toy Rock, tossing down all toys shelved there. She chooses one, brings it for us to throw or tug. She initiates play with a Mad Cao* routine: racing around the garden, leaping over stone steps, cutting through shrubbery gaps until she collapses in happy exhaustion. Her twit is even more intense if we join in the dance waving floppy objects. We love her new found confidence but are a bit less pleased that she no longer comes when called. Unless she wants to. 

Seeking advice on how to proof the off-leash recall in my extensive collection of dog training books, I was suddenly struck by the similarity in language and theory at play in the recent to-do about soft power. At about the same time as Joe Nye's concept of soft power was gaining traction in international relations theory, a movement to train dogs by non-coercive means began. The seminal tract was A Dog and a Dolphin: Training Without Punishment by Karen Pryor (1992). Since then, dog owners have been faced with an ideologically riven dog training community.  The principled choice is to ignore undesirable behavior and motivate the outcomes we want with incentives and positive reinforcement only; or, try to achieve the outcomes we want by combining incentives with appropriate physical or verbal discipline to correct the undesirable behavior in our animals.

Both the positive-only Humane Society and the equally ethical Monks of New Skete (1978) -- who use appropriate force to discipline dogs -- are dedicated to the animals in their care. Yet, they differ significantly on their conceptions of power in the human/dog relationship. Positive-only folks, writes trainer Suzanne Clothier (1996) mistakenly believe that, 

the word relationship carries with it a world of bonds and ties that, while not always perfect, sustain and enrich our lives. …our relationships with our dogs are not one of power, but of love and caring.

Like many idealistic soft-power acolytes in our public diplomacy community, the positive-only dog training folks have moved beyond the science of operant conditioning undergirding Pryor's theory to assume that it should always be possible to attract desired outcomes through non-coercive means. Praise, treats, and compassionate leadership are all they imagine are required to motivate compliance and build communal bonds. If the intentions of the human are good, the animal is expected to be good too.  It does not work that way.

Having attended positive-only puppy kindergarten and obedience training classes with Sabai last year, I have seen big hearted humans be willing to open their lives to rescue animals yet fail to gain the respect of their dogs. The focus on non-coercive training methods, Gentle Leader Headcollars and hot dog bits suggests to loving, compasionate owners that the solution to frightening and unacceptable dog behaviors lies in treats and technology. It does not. As the dolphin trainers at Seaworld know,

Trainers build strong and rewarding relationships with the animals based on a history of positive and stimulating interaction.

Key to that development is a recognition that relationships and power are inextricably linked.  For example, Seaworld trainers may not be able to push and prod the marine mammals they train in containment pools, but they do control access to the fish the dolphin eat and therefore their survival. We may reveal our distrust of the very idea of power by conditioning it with qualifiers like soft or smart in our international politics.  Unfortunately, as Craig Hayden writes about the use of the term soft-power,

the problem here [is] the the way in which the concept short-changes thinking about how power and politics are inextricable.

Hayden's criticism applies less to Nye's more recent theorizing than to the how the term has come to be used by others as a "free floating signifier of non-coercive means." The confusion that arises from this general misreading of Nye as a "just say yes … with treats and praise" Humane Society partisan when he is conceptually a New Skete Monk -- who is more than willing to use choke collars and alpha roll a misbehaving animal -- is what has Amy Zalman calling for a return to the simple term power. The developing soft-power dogma is the problem, not the latest edition of the training manual. After all, as Nye (2011) admits in his latest book, the Future of Power,

If we had to choose between having military or having soft power in world politics, we would opt for military power. (p. 24)  [HT Bruce Gregory]

Power does not mean inevitable violence either in a pack of dogs or a community of nations. But it does mean clear and effective communication is required to manage the equanimity of the communal space. Taking Sabai to a corrections permitted training session in a boarding facility where dogs roam freely is a lesson in the balance of power. Every new dog's arrival disturbs the established heirarchy of the pack. Calmly sleeping and quietly playing dogs suddenly are on their feet at alert. The scents of agression, fear and anxiety fill the air until effective dog-to-dog communication helps sort the social hierarchy and order returns again. 

Fortunately, Sabai is an excellent communicator. Her entrance into the jostling pack is always uneventful. She manages to calm down other dogs through a variety of signals indicating that she has control of herself and she is not interested in being in charge of the pack. It also helps that the trainer in this situation is perceived by all of the unleashed dogs to control the resources of power in that space. The trainer communicates both her power and her wishes effectively. She has satisfied the criteria of leadership to the dogs' satisfaction which are, according to trainer Suzanne Clothier:

- Control of or undisputed access to resources

- Proactive intervention

- Ability to control, direct or inhibit the behavior of others

That's a pretty tough standard and it does not come with a lifetime sinecure. Humans earn the respect of their dogs daily through consistency and fairness. Possible perhaps between a human and her pet pup but impossible to imagine for any international organization or state, even the United States, in world politics today as the unfolding tragedy in Syria makes clear. Neither the United States, nor anyone else controls the resources, or the behavior of others in this situation. The unarmed UN peacekeeping intervention, now abandoned, did nothing to mitigate the conflict. If anything, the escalating violence worsened, revealing the absence of power rather than its application. 

In the prevailing condition of anarchy in the international system, and unwilling to intervene forcefully without UN mandate, the United States seems reduced to voicing commands and corrections yelling "bad dog" to those misbehaving. As David Ignatius writes,

An advertisement of the limits of U.S. power was the tirade ... by U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, who called the Russians “pitiful,” “dangerous” and “deplorable” after they refused to back a strong Security Council sanctions resolution on Syria. In this fulmination, she was emulating her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has described Russian actions as “despicable” and “intolerable.” This diplomacy-by-insult toward a country we are nominally seeking as a partner is counterproductive. Enough, already.

Repeating commands and corrections in exasperation with no hope of compliance erodes legitimacy. The disconnect between the tone of speech and the actions taken confuses anyone still paying attenton. Like dogs and wolves, humans may have a strong instinct for conflict solving, communication and co-operation because our survival depends on it. Yet, in today's world of diffused power, the lesson from dogs that power and relationships are inextricably linked should lead us to a recognition of the primacy of politics wherein power arises from actors coming together as Hannah Arendt (1958) wrote to create 

the unreliable and only temporary agreement of wills and intentions.

The United States leads not by proclamation or default in today's world but by continuously earning position and respect through actions that are beneficial and stabilizing to the international community. To achieve that we must manage our way through the current diffusion of power with sharpened communication skills: observing and reading other actors correctly and signaling our intent effectively. Surely, with a bit of effort, we can understand both the inevitability and the limits of power in world politics and learn to signal as well as Sabai.


*Cao is Portuguese for dog. A Mad Cao is an exuberant burst of racing around we first encountered with our Portugese Water Dog Bonegee.

Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License