A question that reveals a lot of personality insight is if you were a dog breed, what kind of dog would you be?. It is often difficult to distinguish traits that belong to the mammalian part of the brain from those that belong to the human neocortex, and this question strips the baggage that belongs to our culture and upbringing from a more primitive and inherited psychology.

A second revealing question is to ask another person, if I were a dog breed, what kind of dog do you think I would be?, because this gives us information on how others perceive us if we were stripped from the fanciful stories that we tell others and to ourselves. It is also relational—that is, the answer to this question depends on the personality of the person answering it. So a self-described Pit bull might describe you as a Dachshund, but a self described Chihuahua might describe you as a Greyhound.

A third revealing question in a given interpersonal situation is if these people were dogs, what would the situation be like?, because this question also strips narrative from circumstance and gives a purely behavioral answer to it. A friend once complained to me that she met her nephew for the first time, and being excited at meeting the kid she came in for a big hug, but the child ran away and she felt dejected. Put in terms of mammalian behavior, an adult Cocker Spaniel wagged its tail and came to lick a wary puppy, but the puppy was afraid and ran away. There was no reason to feel dejected.

This model is helping me understand the correct behavior I should take with my grandmother. She called me in the morning to know at what time I’d be coming into her residence to bring her smokes. I told her I had many things to prepare at the house, because we’re moving her back in two days, so I couldn’t come in until the afternoon. She was anxious so she was trying to coax me to come in earlier through aggression, and I heard myself pleading with her in a whiny voice.

I was a Retriever being attacked by a very senior Bull Terrier, and knowing growling back would only arise more aggression, I had started whimpering, but this also excites the Bull Terrier into more aggressive submission expecting the Labrador Retriever would lie on its back, feet in the air, conceding defeat.

So I focused on my breath and changed my tone of voice. “I’m not coming in until 3pm grandma, sorry” [yada yada yada]. “Not possible grandma” [yada yada yada]. “See you at three grandma” [yada yada yada]. “I have to go now, bye grandma” [do whatever you want bye].

In dog terms, the Retriever chose to remain still and feign indifference while the toothless Bull Terrier attacked, then it moved away.

When I came in later in the day, she glared at me furiously “What are you doing here? Didn’t you have so many things to do?” she asked with scathing sarcasm. “Well, I’m done now. Come, let’s get our smoke”. I put her in the wheelchair and we smoked. The incident was soon forgotten.

This Retriever, by mysteries of the universe, has been put in the home of very old and aggressive Bull Terrier. Leaving is difficult. The toothless Bull Terrier is biting at it, but it knows better than to attempt to dominate the senior dog, locking into perpetual conflict because this territory belongs to the Bull Terrier, after all. The bites hurt, mostly because this Retriever is not used to being biten, but the bites make no real damage or leave lasting mark.

I also note that this Retriever has had many treats and food taken away from it by more aggressive dogs, because it is more accustomed to hunger and privations than it is to bites. There are many lessons to be learned through these experiences.

Thank you for the lessons grandma, and sorry for thinking about you as a dog. In my defense, you sometimes call yourself a bitch. I’d be more concerned about the bites you’re giving me if you didn’t bite yourself so much.