Taylor: Finding freedom by figuring it out yourself

Lessons to be learned from a dog who seems to learn from his own mistakes.

The dog we got after we moved to our present home almost didn’t survive his first months with us.

We didn’t know, at the time we got Brick from the SPCA, that he wasn’t housebroken.

And I don’t mean just being trained to go outside for his personal emergencies.

He knew nothing about living in a house, period.

He ripped holes in my good leather jacket. He tore the back off my Bible. He scattered through the house the contents of the compost pail, the bucket of fireplace ashes, and the pages of a whole box of loose-leaf binders for a workshop I had to teach.

One day, we came home to find that he had torn open a 12-kilogram bag of flour and dragged it all through the house.

He left a trail of flour two inches deep on our carpets.

Then he was so happy to see us, he rolled in it, ecstatically wagging his long plumed tail, spraying flour everywhere…

Murder occurred to us. Instead, we laughed hysterically.

I have to say, in Brick’s favour, that he never made the same mistake twice. Once he realized he should not chew a ruler, he never touched it again.

He chewed my socks instead.

It took him several months to learn that “No” didn’t refer only to the fireplace matches, Joan’s pantyhose, or the TV remote control. “No” meant “None of the Above.” Ever.

That’s a big step for a dog. Specially for a scatterbrained Irish Setter.

He had to induce general principles from specific instances.

It’s a big step for humans, too, though we’re supposedly blessed with much more reasoning power.

There are humans—lots of them—who treat individual incidents just as literally as Brick did.

So they pick up litter off their front yards, but chuck litter out their car windows.

They demonstrate against industrial pollution, while smoking.

Businesses count on customer loyalty, but don’t reciprocate with loyalty to their employees. The values people profess for home and family don’t make it to the car lot or the boardroom.

The Hebrew rabbis —including Jesus—expected their hearers to use inductive reasoning. So they told stories.

Perhaps from what we now call the Old Testament. Just as likely, from the vast repertoire of tales in an oral culture.

If their hearer didn’t get the point, they told another story. And another…

Eventually, the point got through. Even if some stories differed in detail, perhaps even contradicted themselves in some ways.

Jesus parable of the wealth entrusted to three servants, for example, portrays a dramatically different “master” from the one who insists on giving all workers the same wage.

The vineyard owner who kills his rebellious tenants differs from the loving father who welcomes back the son who disgraced him.

Why didn’t the rabbis just tell people what they meant? Because then people wouldn’t have worked out the principle for themselves.

We could have continued defining Brick’s life forever with endless rules and restrictions.

But once he figured it out for himself, his behaviour changed. And he found freedom instead of frustration.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author.