Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Thoughts About Dogs

I went to one of the only two forums that I'm involved with this morning, The Border Collie Boards, and I perused a thread there about a person whose dog was freaking out at the vet's - he was there to get his nails trimmed.

Now, to be fair, it sounded like the person had not had the dog for all that long, but the dog's reaction was extreme.  It bit the owner when they attempted to muzzle him.  

There followed a lot of advice, a substantial amount of which involved peanut butter.  

I could not resist.  I had to say something.  To wit:
Well, I have a feeling a lot of you won't like this, but here goes anyway.

Whatever happened to "You have to put up with this because I say so."? 

 Sensei, Bonnie, Blaise & Zander.  Blaise & Sensei were my dogs.
I provide a roof, vet care, food, entertainment and everything else the dog needs.  The dog can bloody-well put up with having its nails clipped.

My dog doesn't like having her nails clipped.  She doesn't like the taste of Trifexis.  But in the one case I tell her to sit or lie down and be still, and get on with the job.  In the other I just open her mouth and put the pill down her throat. She will not bite me.  We don't have the kind of relationship that makes that an option.  (Not because she is afraid of me.  She isn't.  But she knows she has to obey me, and trusts that I will not ask anything of her that will bring her to harm.)

In the years I spent as a vet's assistant, groomer's bathe-and-brush person, obedience trainer and kennel-maid, I learned that for a dog to trust and obey you, you have to believe that you have the right to tell the dog what to do.  Dogs get this. 

In so many cases, a dog that was pitching a fit at the groomer's or the vet's could be completely turned around by taking the owner (with their anxiety, fear and unwillingness to be in charge) out of the room.  This would sufficiently calm the dog so that it could be treated/ worked on without undue fuss.  Often without resorting to strong-arm restraint or a muzzle.

Partly this was because anxiety (the owner's) is communicable, and partly because dogs understand that drama is useless with someone who is radiating calm self confidence. 

I used to cut my friends' dogs' nails and those of complete strangers' dogs at an annual dip & clip charity event.  I never once had to muzzle a dog.  I would hear so many people say, "Oh she would never let me do that!"  And, of course, it was because the dog could plainly see that the owner did not have the conviction that it was her right to do the dog's nails.

 Me and Blaise
Once I explained this to people, they often got it, and it significantly changed their relationship to their dogs.  Their bond of trust became stronger, and the dogs were often more obedient (and happier). 

Some people, of course, were never able to get it.  And their own lack of self-confidence caused them to suffer, and their relationship with their dog to suffer.

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.

 Sugarfoot, my current dog, and the second of her name, has not yet been called upon to defend me.  But I am she that if and when that time comes, she'll be up to the task.

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