Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I Can Fight You

Put 'em up, put 'em up! Which one of you first? I can fight you both together if you want. I can fight you with one paw tied behind my back. I can fight you standing on one foot. I can fight you with my eyes closed.”1 In what can only be described as a screaming, slobbering, teeth-baring bark, Jack would issue this challenge. Standing on his hind legs, straining against the leash, his front paws raked the air frantically. For clear and obvious crimes, the “others” would have to be dealt with. He would show them no mercy. They had come too close and one of them had made the mistake of being big, and dog.

From my perspective at the time, Jack’s aggressive outbursts seemed to come from nowhere. One minute, we would be tootling along enjoying our walk, another dog and person would appear on the horizon, we’d all get closer and then suddenly, Jack would erupt into a full-blown primal reaction. He’d appear to be angry, menacing and mean.

Even though I was on the Jack side of the leash when the violence erupted, and that was distracting beyond all reckoning, I did manage to take in the reaction at both ends of the leash just ahead. Any reasonable person, and perhaps even canine, knows that an eleven-pound dog probably can’t overtake an eighty-pound dog, but fear isn’t rational. And they seemed fearful. And Jack wasn’t rational, but it took me a while to figure out that a loss of courage was the reason he was acting the way he was.

Unconscious Enabling

All I could think of was that he had been psychologically damaged by prior incidents in which big dogs had chased him. One of them was quite frightening. I came to rely on my stories about those experiences – using them to explain his behavior – and in a weird way, that reliance prevented me from actually helping him to modify it. During this period of unconscious enabling, I hate to admit it, but I developed a case of big-dog prejudice. I even came to look unfavorably upon the people they were attached to. We were your worst nightmare duo to encounter on the daily traipse through the neighborhood.

Without realizing it, I became a partner in the insanity. The mere sight of an approaching big dog and human would cause me to stiffen, take up slack in the leash, grit my teeth and resist the inevitable. To Jack, my actions were a confirmation of his suspicion that all dogs of a certain size were dangerous. Too caught up in the drama to think, I would continue to walk right toward them. Jack would explode and I’d try my best to keep him from being defensively eaten.

It finally occurred to me that Jack was extremely uncomfortable and that I really needed to do something to help him. Not long after, I got the nudge I needed. One day at a crowded dog event, Jack got too close to a largish dog and lost it. The event’s photographer, a friend of mine, heard the ruckus and turned to see who was causing it. In a voice that sounded like that of the Almighty’s booming down from the heavens, she proclaimed “I don’t believe it….that’s the “trainer’s” dog!!!” Quiet fell across the land and all heads turned in our direction. Funny what it sometimes takes to wake us up.

Getting Courage

The next morning, I began a rehabilitation program in earnest. I realized that there was a zone of sanity, a distance at which Jack could see the other dog and still keep his wits about him. I began to test this distance and failed on the first few attempts. There was no sidewalk or shoulder big enough for any encounter. We would have to cross the street. There, Jack could only mange to keep from shouting and pulling. His body, stiff and vibrating was cocked like a loaded gun. Squatting in front of him, I tried to block his view but he simply couldn’t take his eyes off the monster. I realized that we were still too close.

I aimed for a distance where he could actually sit and where his head and neck weren’t going to stretch to enormous “Alice-in-Wonderland” proportions so he could see around me. Those big dogs looked really small from where we started – like toy breeds. This gave us a great advantage. We could both dispassionately look at them. Since I have a brain a little bigger than Jack’s three-ouncer, I would initiate some calming conversation. I’d comment on how normal and even friendly the pair looked. Jack took it all in, we both came to believe it, and we slowly moved closer.

For months, we probably made people feel bad by avoiding them like they had a pox and that was mostly my fault. If the roles had been reversed and I was the non-verbal reactor, Jack would probably have shouted a friendly greeting…“Sorry, but the human’s got a confidence issue. Don’t take it personally. Hey, by the way, there’s a flattened toad in the road just ahead; it smells fabulous.” Eventually, I did begin to explain what we were doing and was happily surprised when a familiar pair would see us coming and volunteer to cross the street themselves, waving and asking how things were going.

I learned a lot of Jack-speak during those months as a psycho-doggie therapist. I noticed that hesitation with a paw-raise and lip-licking were dog talk for “I’m not too sure about this.” The full-frontal freeze, eyes, ears and tail up, stiff and forward was a way of saying “Come any closer and I’ll fight you both together.” All of these signals preceded a blow-up but I had never been aware enough to catch them before Jack became overwhelmed by his feelings. I am now! I’m still not certain what caused this to happen. It may have been those prior chasing incidents and it could just as well have been Jack’s lack of contact with dogs larger than a matchbox car.

By creeping closer and closer, sitting and talking, and perhaps enjoying a piece of lamb lung, Jack and I not only saved our dignity, we added a few days, months or maybe even years to our lives by eliminating some incredible stress. Today, Jack will approach any dog. He has acquaintances who are Weimey, Goldie and Rottie and I have a few new friends too. Life is good!

1. Spoken by the Cowardly Lion, a character in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 American musical-fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz, based upon a 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Misbehaving Dog

I was at a dog park the other day and heard one woman tell another “He’s got to learn not to do that.” She was referring to the dog she brought with her, the one she said “misbehaves” and “tries to get away with things.” Like so many of the words and phrases we use to talk about dogs and our relationships with them, these statements left me with an overwhelming feeling of incongruity.

Why didn’t the woman say “I’ve got to teach him not to do that” or “I’d like to teach him (the opposite of that)? Obviously, there is an underlying belief that the dog is somehow responsible for what he does and does not learn. Yet, he bides his life almost completely in our homes, care and company. He has little freedom of will or action. The dog is unable to discern what he must know about our world. He can not devise an education plan or teach himself something we’d like him to know but have not taught him. When we make a dog responsible for something over which he has no power or authority, he will fail. We will fail to recognize that the responsibility is ours. And the dog will never learn what “he’s got to learn.”

Does a dog really misbehave? To "misbehave" is to conduct oneself without regard for good manners or accepted moral standards. To behave is to conduct or comport oneself in a proper manner. Dogs behave in the ways that are natural and proper to dogs. The problem with this is that most of us don’t really know what proper doggish behavior is; many of us have never have even contemplated it. Instead, we have opinions, beliefs and concepts that we gather from lifetimes of influences and we set out to impose them upon the dog. Sometimes, when we’re done, there’s very little doggish left.

The accepted standards of conduct, the “good manners” by which we expect a dog to behave are guidelines that we create and think a dog can uphold. The dog does not know them and can not know them unless taught. Even then, if they run counter to what it is to even be a dog, he may not be able to demonstrate them. The responsibility for setting realistic standards is ours. This can be done in a couple of ways. We can turn off the mind’s chatter program – the one that feeds us only history and makes us believe that we know it all – and observe the dog from a fresh and vigilant perspective. Dogs aren’t too much different from people in the ways they feel and express their feelings so we can learn a lot about them just by being aware, open and receptive. Or, we can soak up information on ethology, behaviorism and canine education practices. Either way, it is our responsibility to teach a dog how to meet the standards we conceive. Therefore, any dog who "misbehaves" is a dog who has not been properly educated and this is certainly not a failure that can be attributed to the dog.

And what about trying to get away with something? Do dogs really do this? This sounds like dogs are attempting to foil, overthrow or usurp us by conniving or conspiring against our standards or wishes. It implies falseness – tricking, misleading or deceiving. Fortunately, dogs aren’t that complicated. If a dog knows the rules, he plays them to his advantage. This isn’t something he deliberates about; it’s part of his canine constitution. We either teach him the rules, as we’ve already learned, or we don’t and he just does what serves him in the void. There’s nothing conniving or false about this. In fact, we do the same.

When we truly don’t know much about dogs we will fix them with human models of conduct and comportment. This will lead us to create unreasonable standards and expectations – like making a dog responsible for learning something we have failed to teach. When we truly do know dogs, we actually don’t believe very much about them. We just continuously discover the wonderful ways in which they doggishly happen.