Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Courage and Protectiveness

Blaise, my Doberman Pinscher who attacked and routed a pit bull who was charging me on the street.  She also held a house-breaker at the top of a fence until the police arrived to take him into custody.  The would-be thief needed a large number of stitches. 

How do you know your dog will come to your aid if you are in danger?

Certainly the likelihood of Fido coming to the rescue will vary from individual to individual, and from breed to breed.

But what if there is a component of “nurture” rather than “nature”? 

People talk a lot about doing exercises to “give their dog confidence.”  And these exercises do help dogs to negotiate strange textures underfoot, to learn to ignore loud, potentially scary noises, and to learn that they need not shrink from new humans or dogs.  And there are a variety of other things it may help with. 

A dog who has overcome fears of the things described above is seen as having acquired confidence.  And of course, within the context of the things that the dog has been desensitized to, it has acquired confidence.  But I think that the nature and extent of this sort of confidence is not well-understood by many dog owners.

I do not think it means that the dog has gained courage.

Sugarfoot, (my first dog of that name, a smooth Collie/ German Sheperd Dog mix), put to flight a serial-killer who attempted to steal my housemate's van after raping, killing and setting fire to the house of an elderly neighbor in Los Angeles.  Sugarfoot chased him down the street, but I called her off before she closed with him.
What it has done is to form ideas like, walking on a metal plate in the sidewalk is not dangerous, and it doesn’t hurt.  A dog that is always handled gently, and has an owner who will always insert themselves between the dog and a new, scary stimulus, learns that mom or dad will always take control and drive "the scary thing" away.  The dog does indeed gain confidence.  It gains confidence that its owner will always be there when anything scary comes along, and so bad things won’t ever happen to it.

I call this raising a dog in a bubble.  People do it with kids too.  Animals, including human ones can easily fail to meet challenges if they have spent their lives never being challenged. 

I don't have a picture of Loca, a husky mix I got from the pound, but this dog looks very much like she did.  Loca once attacked a man who followed me as I was walking home from work one night.  He tried to grab me, but Loca sent him on his way.
Courage is fear governed.  Grit is pain mastered. The dog without fear is a fool.  It walks into danger, and is crushed.  The dog that knows what fear is, and can govern it, can lead peril a merry dance.  The dog that knows pain knows its own limits – and can bear pain with patience and strength, in measured proportion, thereby winning the day.

While it is well to shelter a dog from cruelty; it is unwise to shelter it too much form from hardship.  There is nothing so sweet as a victory hard-won.  To prevail over daunting odds, or to defeat a puissant adversary, is its own reward, and more cherished than plangent songs of praise.  A dog divided from such experience lives a grey life, a half-life, and is to me, an object of pity.

While a dog that has been raised in a bubble may inherit a fearless nature, it will not often be able to demonstrate it more than once.  It will not have caution, having never known a negative consequence, and its fearlessness will be cancelled out by recklessness.  Thus, a good dog may meet an untimely and unnecessary end.  Or it may be so traumatized by its first collision with reality that it becomes a useless craven.  Or, it may, if never faced with adversity, live its whole life as a feckless, foolish, shadow of what a dog can be.  That, to me, is a criminal waste.

I have had three of my dogs come to my aid – twice before I was even aware of my own danger.  They did so deliberately, without fuss or bluster, and saved me from serious harm.  Because they were the kind of dogs they were, they joined battle knowing the risk and emerged victorious and uninjured.  They were not without fear; there can be no true courage without fear.  But they went without hesitation to my defense.  They were good dogs.  And I will always be in their debt.

Sensei, a different kind of hero, alerted me to a faulty tire on an overloaded pick-up in which he and I were riding.  He hung his head over the side of the truck and barked furiously at the wheel.  This from a dog who rarely barked about anything. I shouted for the driver to decelerate, and before we came to a stop, the entire tread ripped free from a rear tire.  If we had not braked when we did, the truck would probably have left the road, and we could have all been injured or killed.

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