Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Last Free Dog

Lola died today. She was barely a year old. She ran across the street to greet some passing joggers and was hit by a car. It happened so quickly. Like most dogs living in the modern world, Lola didn’t know anything about cars. In a way, that’s a strange reality. Back when we had far fewer cars, dogs knew that they were dangerous and could skillfully avoid them. I’ve known these dogs. In fact, the last one I came to know—the last free dog—was the one who marked the standard for what the natural animal might become.

Chigger Road

There were no leash laws and the open range had been closed only three years prior to me finding myself in a small town in Oklahoma. The dogs I came to know there lived either on ranches and farms or in and around town. In either case, most were free to go where they wished and to do as they pleased. I spent time on working cattle ranches where dogs served in a variety of useful roles. Through their own natural inclinations they invented many of their jobs, like keeping opossums out of the barn and assisting in the herding of beef calves for vaccination and castration. They followed the ranch hands who rode out daily to check on stock and when they weren’t otherwise engaged, they would often explore the vast acreage together. The dogs who lived near me, closer to town, were also explorers. Most were in some way attached to a house or family but few were ever allowed inside. Some were lean and some looked as though they enjoyed some dinner scraps. Most were dirty and heavy with ticks each spring and fall. There were a variety of sizes and only a few resembled any particular breed. They roamed the environs in and around Chigger Road and made use of what they could find to satisfy their interests and stay alive. I offered incentives to encourage introductions, as I had done with the free-roaming suburban dogs of my youth. Word spread fast that I was giving attention and edibles to those who happened by and the shade of my front porch became a popular destination.

Among those who made use of my generosity was a black-and-white, freckled hound-of-a-dog. He was tall and lean, with flopped ears and a long, straight tail. I can’t say that he was handsome; he wasn’t. He would take food and sit next to me but would suffer no touching of any kind. I watched what I could of his activities and noticed him in a variety of places as I drove or rode my horse around the outskirts of town. He was independent and resourceful, wise and confident. No one I asked knew for sure, but a few thought that his name was Sando or Sandy.

The Canine-Created Life

Independent life presents its own pressures and one is the weather. Outdoor dogs often don’t survive the icy cold Oklahoma winters. Some of the Chigger Road dogs managed to stay warm by burrowing under a house or sneaking into a barn. I’d look for Sandy on the coldest nights and invite him inside for warmth and a meal. In the days that followed, he would bring things to my doorstep, well-selected items. Gifts perhaps, a way to thank me for my kindness? I would see him coming down the road with a plastic container, ribbon and other objects from trash tins and burn piles and then open my door to find it. While I was sure he was killing most of what he ate and needed to eat what he killed, he also gifted me with freshly dispatched squirrel and rabbit. Sometimes he would be there in the shade as I opened the door to find my surprise but most often he would be headed off on other business.

Having the ability to pass on his befreckeled, houndy appearance to offspring, Sandy often went journeying. The puppies he sired would surely have inherited his natural nature-intelligence, his cleverness and the ability to survive the extremes of hot and cold, lean and plenty, invitation and expulsion – qualities that helped a dog to be successful in a free life. He would return from his amorous adventures more thin then ever and spend long days in the company of the other canine visitors in the shade of my porch. When he was around, he would follow me often and seemed to know my habits, suddenly appearing in the places I regularly visited. He sat beside me in the failing light as I watched my horses in the pasture across the street. With confidence and grace, he became the patriarch of a family of a dozen or so “sooners”1 who found their way to food and affection at the first house on the left, Chigger Road.

I was constantly amazed at the ways in which Sandy imaginatively created and expressed the canine life. He was an explorer of the moment’s opportunities, intensely aware and incredibly involved in the spontaneous unfolding of life. He seemed to miss nothing in his wide world and by watching him I came to know when skunks were under the tack room floor and when the neighbor’s goat was up in the barn trying to pry the lids off the feed bins. He kept track of the movements of the nocturnal animals, following their scent trails in the dewy grass at dawn. If some had relocated into areas where he didn’t want them, he would expel them immediately.

In all of my observations of him, I would never see Sandy reach any type of physical, mental or emotional extreme. He was a portrait of stability and consistency. His range of actions and reactions arose from the confidence one might expect of a being who knows exactly how he fits into the scheme of reality – giving and taking by divine privilege and in divine service. He was a model of harmony and adaptability. His life seemed sure and suspended in some blessed state of neutrality where all was allowed and all forgiven, where each new moment was free of the weight of the one just past. I would never forget these observations. They would influence my journey through life and affect the living reality of the dogs with whom I would come to share it.

The long and unbroken line of resilient survivors that produced Sandy is gone now. In most places, dogs like him were methodically ushered off the streets; done away with or sterilized. Today’s dogs, like Lola, come from generations of forebears who have lived inside of homes where the most significant danger is an angry human. They have been created to meet little more than standards of appearance. These dogs don’t have knowledge of the world that we have made. They are completely dependant upon us to make all their decisions for them.

1. The term “Sooner” was used to describe a settler who entered the unassigned land located in what is now the state of Oklahoma before it was officially proclaimed to be open. The name derived from the "sooner clause" of the Indian Appropriation Act of 1889 which stated that no one should be allowed to enter and occupy the land prior to its official opening time. It came to be used to describe a dog of uncertain lineage, as in “He might just as soon be this breed as that.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fixing the Problem “Out There”

Our models of superiority and domination have their roots in our modern views of the self and its place in the universal whole. Underlying all that we can think, believe and conceive is the notion that we are separated beings occupying or showing up as distinct bodies or “things.” This individualized view contracts us. It separates and divides us from all else. We are disconnected from each other except through certain associations and affections. We feel no real connection to our earthly environment or to the fullness of perceptible reality.

This doctrine of detachment produces some unfortunate illusions. We see the self as “in here” and all the rest of reality as “out there.” Things seem to happen or be done to us and, as a result, we are ever poised for defense and attack. When we feel threatened, displeased, frustrated or irritated, the source of the problem is immediately considered to exist outside ourselves. The dog gets caught in the trap of this irrational thinking again and again.

At any given moment, dogs are demonstrating the sum total of their genetic possibilities, innate inclinations, conditioned patterns and mental and emotional states – just like humans. But when those demonstrations of an authentic canine reality clash with our standards and expectations, our desires, our beliefs, and what we think of as our knowledge, we consider the dog “wrong” or “bad.” We’ll feel compelled to immediately project force and energy to fix or stop her and to thereby relieve our uncomfortable feelings.

Operating from the perception that the dog has done something to us, we will interpret her actions in a variety of insane ways, especially upon recurrence. We will believe that she is willfully disobedient or spiteful. We will believe that she intends to usurp our power, to be our boss. We will think that the dog exacts revenge or punishes us. We will regard her “failure” as an intentional slight or refusal and as disrespect for our ultimate authority. All of these ideas will make our acts of retribution seem justified and necessary. We will deliver what we like to call a “correction.” Yet, to correct is to “lead straight.” To punish, on the other hand, is to “impose a penalty upon; to inflict with pain, loss or suffering for a crime or fault.” When we look closely and honestly at the unexpected, unpleasant experiences that we give the dog to get her to stop doing things that irritate or displease us, we’ll recognize our “corrections” for what they really are.

In truth, a moment of dissatisfaction with a dog is a signal that, if a mistake has been made, it's ours. We’ve missed something; we weren’t attentive or perceptive enough. Perhaps our standards didn’t match the dog’s nature or reality. Maybe our expectations were too high for her level of understanding. Competing stimuli may have overwhelmed her. Maybe we ignored her emotional state or the fact that we had inadvertently reinforced the very behavior we complain about. If we were to willfully change our perceptions and begin to respond in this way, we would reap a benefit too enormous to imagine. We’d suddenly find that we are fully aware and present in a moment of interaction with a dog – free from the skew imposed by our rational, intellectual interpretations. We would be able to intuit her genuine thinking and feeling reality and the very nature of her being. And we could use what we see in that dynamic experience to know how to correct our errors.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Notions of Superiority and Dominance

Our unfortunate beliefs about canine behavior and education lead millions of dogs to lives of constant repression and harsh control. Convinced that canines create societal structures that rely on domination as a means of maintaining order, their guardians assert themselves as rulers and masters. Seeing a structure that’s organized by rank with the most powerful individual in the position of greatest significance, they rule over and “command” their less powerful and less significant subjects. Interestingly, this model of rank, class and order isn’t a completely accurate portrayal of a typical canine family group, or “pack.” This is a human model of hierarchy. We create concepts of value, worth and power and they influence our interpretation of all that we perceive. This wasn’t the way it always was and it isn’t the way it must remain.

A Beautiful Balancing Act

Over 30,000 years ago Pacific islanders were navigating the seas using nothing more than myths or “star stories.” Since star positions change by only one degree in 72 years (that’s pretty much equivalent to a human lifetime), a complete understanding of their movements was only possible through the continuous observations and reports of many generations of skywatchers. On the Polynesian Island of Raiatea, there is evidence that by ancestral connection, the precise northernmost position of the Milky Way Galaxy was known for a complete precessional cycle of 26,000 years!

In this model of society, every tiny generational contribution was vital to the whole. Ancestral archetypes were held in high esteem. The living experience had an eternal, cosmic quality that rooted the soul and expanded awareness and concern outward from the self. This is a natural hierarchy. It can be imagined as a pyramid standing on its tip. Maintaining the topmost position in the structure of the pyramid are the lives of the many and their placement thus maintains the delicate balance. This is no longer representative of our modern world view or of our societal models.

Reality Turned Upside-Down

As a species, we have lost our connection to the natural world, to our traditions and mythology, to the long and unbroken line of our ancestors and to our essential relationship with the greater whole. We have contracted from cosmic awareness to self-awareness, becoming self-centered or egocentric. To indigenous peoples around the world, we are “the wandering ones,” lost in the wilderness, adrift at sea. We create and inhabit artificial systems and conventions built by nothing more than illusions of structure and control. Our models of reality have their foundation in pathological hierarchies. This can be imagined as a pyramid sitting on its base. In the position of prominence are the one and the few at the top. These are the kings, the presidents, the popes, priests, politicians, masters and owners. They are the wealthy, the influential and the intelligent. As the order descends, the “many” inhabit the lowest levels of prominence. This hierarchical model can be seen in all of our modern structures – from the structure of our thoughts and our use of language, to the structure of society, government, religion, and family. It is the model that we unconsciously apply to canine nature and society, and our relationships with them can but fall under its influence.

We all have great affection for the dogs in our lives, but if we were to really look at our beliefs, we’d be surprised by what we find. We generally consider humans to be more significant than other animals. We are more intelligent, more evolved, more important in the scheme of things, and we are certainly more powerful than a dog. We consider ourselves to be superior in the natural order therefore, we possess sovereign authority. We have been conditioned to believe that we have “dominion over all.” Creations of value and significance distinguish the powerful from the powerless. The superior rule over and control the inferior. Through a belief in our superiority we enslave the canine to our will, to our home and to our inattention. We conquer him. Without awareness we deliver him to a life of constant stress and pressure and/or a tedious and empty existence of understimulation and forced repose. And we will be unable to see in him anything that we do not see in our pathological models of worth and value. As one rises to prominence, others must fall; as one obtains power, others must surrender it. The “master” creates a slave. In this portrait of superiority and disunity, the dog will always lose.

Our observations of dogs are filtered through these concepts of rank, class and “top-down” control. We justify this structure and our own acts of aggression and domination by believing in the dog’s dominating and aggressive nature. To believe that canines seek power with the intent to dominate and rule over the many is to believe them to be human. And so is believing that they aggress with intent to hurt or destroy. This isn’t the way dogs live; this is the way humans live. What we think we are seeing in canine behavior is actually just a reflection of our own beliefs and concepts. Until we become aware of their presence and their influence upon us, we have no ability to judge their aptness or to alter or abolish them. We will continue to perceive reality through them, seek their validation, and be blind to and resist that which actually manifests before us.

Finding Our Way Back Home

Hidden behind the veil of these constructs of reality is a clear and present moment of thinking, feeling, being experience. The actual dog exists within this moment and in it, we are the same. But the course of human evolution separated us from this critical axis of life. As our awareness of the fullness of our reality atrophied, we separated from the clear and present moment and from each other. Today, we inhabit a world of intellect, knowledge and reason. We see metaphors of rank and order because we live in them and unconsciously create them. The words we use to speak about canines and human-canine relationships perpetuate them. What we think we see “out there” actually lives within us.

Our ancient ancestors spoke of the primordial “First Time,” when possibility was converted to actuality and the universe appeared. Consciousness arose and in it was the seed of the source. This is the place where we all meet. Truly, each conscious seed is equally significant in the whole story of the stars. It will be us—you and I—who, with our every-day actions and attitudes toward “the other,” will cause the pyramid to once again stand on its tip. And when we do, notions of superiority and dominance will be ridiculous contradictions. They will be attacks on the sanctity of the whole.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Automaton

Our unconscious controlling attitudes toward dogs cause us to regard them almost as RenĂ© Descartes* described them – as automatons. Descartes argued that because animals do not use language they would be completely indistinguishable from machines built to resemble them. His point was that the use of language is a sign of rationality and only things endowed with minds or souls are rational. All else are mindless slaves. This fallacy persists in the thoughts and actions of many. Instead of allowing a dog to think, to imagine and create, to formulate a plan and to bring forth the resolve to enact it, we command him. And he becomes an automaton – a mindless follower.

The word “command” is the very source of our unconscious controlling attitudes. We use it so casually and so often that we are numb to its meaning and to the ideas it conveys. When we command, we make another comply, we force, threaten and intimidate. One who commands must demand compliance to maintain authority and control. To give away any power to subjects would eventually bring them into conflict with our edicts. The disagreeable, slow and the reluctant-to-obey must be punished.

Yes, there are situations in which a dog’s response is urgently important but research shows that performance latency and predictability degrades in dogs who have been made to comply, particularly when their guardian is not near enough to make good on their threats. There are some very essential conditions under which dogs don’t or can’t give us the response we expect when and where we ask for it but the unconscious processes that follow the intent to command will disallow us any awareness or consideration of them. They will cause us to leap off into immediate corrective action. We will repeat our command again and again, to the point of shouting. We’ll handle the dog’s body. We'll become arbitrary and oppressive, frustrated and angry. We will give threatening facial and body-language signals. We may use our might and force to gain compliance and we might deliver a painful and frightening punishment.

The failure will be regarded as an intentional slight or refusal and as disrespect for our ultimate “pack-leader” authority. The act of commanding gives us an unconscious “do this or else” perspective. We turn the energy of absolute power upon the dog and deliver him unto powerlessness. I don’t believe that we really mean or intend what this word implies.

If we were to issue requests or suggestions instead, we would create opportunities to see how the dog we are communicating with actually feels about the interaction. That surely stands an old paradigm on its head and its something that commanding doesn’t allow. We can learn what makes him happy, what he’ll absolutely flip for and what he considers to be uninteresting. We can give him a chance to think and to create unique responses. In turn, we can alter our thinking and behavior to meet the dog at the place where he is most joyous and most involved. Instead of commanding an automaton, we'd be participating in a creative, happy and inspired partnership. And this experience will kill off another old fallacy – that the dog actually lives to please us.

*A 17th century philosopher, mathematician, scientist and writer considered to be "The Father of Modern Philisophy"

Monday, June 1, 2009

Style Over Substance

Make no mistake; things are changing in our life with dogs. New laws are coming and they are heading our way. Initially, “animal-limit,” “breeder-restriction” and “mandatory spay-neuter” legislation was successfully passed on city and county levels. Now, it is sweeping the country in state-wide initiatives. This week, such a bill will go before the full California State Senate. If it passes, with a few exceptions, all dogs must undergo pediatric sterilization. And if you are partnered with a dog who is an exception, you can be permanently denied the right to ever be again if you are cited for any of a number of local ordinances such as: Allowing a dog to bark, not displaying his license tag on his collar and walking him on a leash that’s longer than the length specified in the municipal code. Similar state-wide legislation has been proposed in Florida; House Bill 451 is heading to the Legislature.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are putting their enormous bankrolls behind these legislative agendas. In an incredible irony, their goal of ensuring the humane treatment of animals will actually cause millions more dogs to be put to death. Upon being confiscated from their people the great majority will immediately fall into the killing hands of the lethal injectionists in overcrowded shelter systems. But, according to these highly respected voices for animal safety, a quick and painless death is a better fate than living with a person who has three or four other animals or one who won’t license or one who, like many medical professionals, are concerned about the side-effects of pediatric sterilization and who will not spay or neuter a puppy.

It is estimated that 10 million dogs are put to death in United States animal-control and sheltering facilities annually. HSUS and PETA contend that overpopulation is the problem. Pointing their long fingers at “puppy mills” they conduct raids, looking like heroes as they pose for photos with the wretched bodies of imprisoned procreators. Sadly, those “rescued” dogs don’t find forever homes; they are destroyed.

But if we were to really look at this tragic situation, we might actually come to realize that other forces actually hold it in place. We are a nation of consumers who demand the right to own what we want. It is we, the American buying public, who drive the demand for dogs. Breeds become popular; colors and cross-breeds come into fashion. We “buy,” “own” and “have” dogs and we will pay almost any price for the look and style we want. A lot of “product” must be produced to fill this ever-growing consumer demand. When you think about it, puppy mills and other breeders-for-profit wouldn’t exist without that demand. If we saw the canine-human partnership to be the privilege and blessing that it actually is, we wouldn’t much care what a dog looked like. We wouldn’t be using them as symbols of our taste, style and success.

Our style-over-substance mentality presents another problem. An estimated 10 million additional dogs are privately euthanized annually due to the cost of their medical care or because of their behavior. Genetic defects and diseases are being bred into dogs at such a rapid pace that the offspring of some breeds can inherit over 50 of them. Fewer than ten percent of these sometimes life-ending problems can be tested for. Breeders pair up dogs and bitches without knowing what heritable flaws they will give to their offspring – that won’t be known until puppies fully mature. But by then, those dogs won’t be able to pass on their genetic hardiness. By law, they will have been sterilized. And so will the dogs who prove to be emotionally stable and affable companions, able to tolerate child’s play, learn the ways of the human world and prove impervious to the behavior extremes and personality changes that result from the stress of social isolation, confinement and understimulation. Those dogs won’t be able to produce more like themselves. If market demand for the pretty, popular, stylized dog endures and HSUS and PETA continue to influence our legislators, the ideal dog—a healthy, smart and well-adjusted canine—will become extinct.