Monday, December 13, 2010

One Strike And...?

I received a call a couple weeks back asking if I would give behaviorism testimony at an upcoming hearing at the county animal care and control agency. The case involved a recently adopted Greyhound whose money-earning career was cut short by a broken leg. One day, while sitting in a park with his person, a woman walked by with a fluffy, white toy Poodle. The Poodle was off-leash, dashing to and fro in a state of obvious canine rapture at having the opportunity to leap and run and explore the world freely as canids have done for tens of millions of years. This is something few South Florida dogs enjoy. We have leash laws (like most places) for one, and most homes don’t have actual yards. The Poodle should have been on a leash and the Greyhound’s person shouted out to her, asking if she would please tether the Poodle. She did but her leash was the retractable style and this permitted the Poodle to carry on as before, running fast, first this direction and then that, yards away from her person.

The Greyhound, only weeks from his life’s work as the fastest-possible chaser of the little, white, fluffy bunny, was watching the Poodle with eyes that go back hundreds of years, and inclinations and genetics that go back even farther. What he saw was not a conspecific; he saw a bunny. He took off as if shot from a cannon and the force of his intent defied the martingale that was, supposedly, guaranteed to hold him. He gained on the Poodle faster than anyone could think. He took the little dog in a rare victory of attainment that was usually denied him and gave a quick shake. The Poodle fell to the ground lifeless and the Greyhound lay down next to her, eyes unfocused and mouth relaxed and open in a state of obvious canine rapture at having the opportunity to do what he had been carefully crafted and selected to do and what his forebears had done for an unfathomable number of generations. He is a coursing machine whose natural inclination is to see, then catch the bunny.

The hearing permitted no actual expert testimony so the adopters were on their own. The process was very brief and the verdict swift. We have a new zero-tolerance law here and any dog who kills another dog is deemed “dangerous.” This is curious for several reasons. One is that accidents - terribly unfortunate combinations of events - do take place. This is a fact that cannot be denied in life. My doctor’s little canine partner was killed in her home by her sister’s dog who, in play, took the Yorkshire terrier’s head into her mouth and had only to close her jaw slightly to end her life. It was a terrible accident. It is also curious because in every other legal way, a dog is considered property – a thing without rights or protections. We don't generally lock up or sentence dogs or even people to death if they destroy property. And how can we pass a sentence on a dog's behavior without considering that we created it and the dog’s specialized genetic development in the first place; we intentionally and carefully crafted it over hundreds of years. We create the dog in a certain way then condemn him when he acts out the program we wrote. We made the Poodle tiny and white; we developed the morphology so that it would not appear to be a member of the same species to a dog who we developed to chase down and kill small, white, furry animals. All of this points to just how little conscious forethought we actually have for what we are doing in our genetic manipulation of dogs.

Before I continue, I must acknowledge the Poodle’s loss of life and the anguish her person must have felt in witnessing her death. Jack has been in very threatening situations with loose dogs a number of times throughout his life. I can imagine the moment going from one of bliss to one of horror in the blink of an eye. I grieve for the woman’s loss of her canine partner and friend and feel great empathy for her experience. I know that you do too.

The Greyhound’s adopters wait for sentencing and while they do, the dog is muzzled and held in check by layers of restraint equipment. And he is held in check by his people’s fear. They are so traumatized by the whole episode that they would do anything to prevent it ever happening again. They could have given the dog back to a rescue organization and he could have been sent out of the state. They chose to fight to keep their relationship and to defend his character. In the end, no one could listen. We love to judge, make wrong and condemn. Will this dog be permitted to keep his life? Will he have any opportunities to have a fulfilling life?

This weekend, the couple came to see me with the big male Greyhound and a female Greyhound who is his housemate. I had a class going on in which there is a very big chocolate Lab who is all play, all the time. We took the three dogs into the yard – a ¾ acre doggie paradise where even a Greyhound can stretch out in a full run. After much coaxing, his person finally allowed him off his leash and then, eventually, out of his muzzle. He and the Lab played and chased until the big boy plopped in the shade where he could have dozed the rest of the day. He was filled up and satisfied by being given the opportunity to express his physicalness, his dogness and his canine personhood. Life was delicious.

I brought the dogs into my classroom and found this big Greyhound boy to be delightful. I could see why his people decided to fight to assert his true nature and to keep him in their lives. He is curious, calm, gentle and he makes immediate welcoming contact with humans - positioning himself for petting. He was a good playmate for the Lab, chasing when she would allow it and stopping when she signaled that she wanted to diffuse the arousal.

We make a grave mistake when we characterize or label a dog's or human’s person, personality or being. All dogs and people have the potential to display behavior that can be seen by us as aggressive or as dangerous, or as this way or that, but that doesn’t mean that they are that. Could this dog display behavior that would be dangerous to another little, white, fluffy dog who happened to run by? Yes, he could. Is he dangerous? No. What is dangerous is the way we change the dog and then forget or ignore the consequences. This greyhound-sees-a-bunny story is just one example of the potential fallout of our acts. The over 500 genetic diseases and disorders that we have created in the process of canine stylization and specialization is another and most of them are truly and horribly dangerous.