My Smart Puppy

with Dog Expert, Sarah Wilson

Beyond Fault Judging: Dogs and People


“Fault judging” is a term I read about years ago in a dog book whose title I have long forgotten. The term means to look for the faults in the dogs being judged – something the author makes a strong case against. He points out that all dogs have faults but that greatness in a dog is not defined by an absence of faults but rather by the presence of virtues. And that fault judging – honing your eye to seek out each flaw – can blind you to seeing greatness.

We probably all start out as fault judges. We’re learning the ropes, insecure in our skill set and finding faults is pretty simple since they are always present. But, if we really want to understand what “great” is, we have to move beyond looking for flaws and learn to see the wonderful.

Years later, when I studied positive psychology – the study of what makes us happy – this term came back to me. Psychology started out fault judging – almost exclusively looking at and labeling problems. That being the template we were steeped in, it’s no surprise we may approach people/situations with “fault finder” lenses on. But, just as in judging dogs, doing this to each other can blind us to the strengths in those around us.

This tendency is something I wrestle with – trying to catch myself in those old patterns and reminding myself to look for the good just as persistently as I sometimes look for the flaws. Here are a few things I contemplate when I interact with others both professionally and personally. I’d love to hear some of your tactics and ideas in this matter.

1) Everyone is doing the best they can

Dogs and people. As the saying goes, “When we know better, we do better.” The great (and terrible) thing about growth is that it inevitably comes with regret. I often think back to that client who would not crate her unhousebroken dog. I made my very good and logical points over and over again but she refused to crate. As she steadfastly refused to take my advice, I started to label her in my head (she was ignorant, she didn’t really want to help her dog, she was being difficult, etc). When, finally, I asked her why she would not crate she explained that she had been routinely locked in a closet as a child and simply could not confine her dog.

In an instant my frustration turned to compassion and the labels I had applied to her made me cringe. I think of that all the time – what might I not know about this person or situation that would – in an instant – change my negative feelings and thoughts into compassionate ones?

2) Histories vary

Early on, when Brian and I were just starting out, we had a fight. Or rather, I had a fight. I was annoyed and worked up the courage to state my case. From my Quaker-influenced background, my firm words were a big deal. My heart was pounding in my chest. Brian’s response? Nothing. Nada. Didn’t even look up from the paper he was reading. After what was to me a long pause, I asked – emotionally – if he just didn’t care. He put down the paper with a surprised look on his face. “Was that a fight?” he asked, “I didn’t realize…” His family background was one of routine violence. The “tone” I mustered was, as he phrased it, “breakfast tones” in his childhood home. He absolutely didn’t know I was upset and once we got on the same page, we resolved things quickly.

But our histories influence us for our lifetimes – not define us but influence us. If we come from chaos and combat, then our tones may have an intensity people without that background find to be like an assault. What is one group’s “conversational” tone is another’s “worst argument they’ve ever had” tone. Where one group figures no swearing/no hitting = no fighting, another group figures the tone used is a threat. And that can create confusion all round.

So I try hard (with varying degrees of success) to listen more to the message than the tone and I also own that my history of calm conversation can leave me more sensitive to combative tones than many might mean. Knowing what we believe and that it is just one of many options of things to believe can help us calm down, breathe deep and listen for content.

3) I’m never that “right.”

Decades ago now, when I was young and getting divorced, I remember lying in bed thinking about all the flaws in my soon-to-be ex – I had a robust list which I was working on like a squirrel works on a nut. A thought went through my mind then which can be summed up as “You’re never that right.”

It stopped me cold and changed the way I thought forever. You’re never that right that you get to say hateful things in a hateful way with the goal of hurting another person or in pursuit of being “right.” That sort of “right” is usually just wrong – for many reasons but not the least of which is because of what is stated above – our perspectives are limited and situations/actions are often rooted in something we do not fully understand.

Changing how we think is an ongoing process. I certainly don’t have a corner on the market but I am trying and plan to keep trying. When we work away from fault judging toward more compassionate understanding – we serve our communities better, the dogs better and ourselves better. And frankly, it just feels better and that counts, too.

by Sarah Wilson,

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