My last blog focused on misconception, ideology and fear as it relates to dogs, dog rescue, and specifically pitbulls. In accordance with the theme of the blog, I am going to stick with misconception and ideology, but instead of human fear, I am going to take on its nearly as powerful antithesis – human pity and guilt.
While one spectrum of the country stands blinded with fear, guns drawn; another segment kneels, also blinded by an often lethal dose of human pity and guilt. Both are partly responsible for the millions of dogs euthanized or completely tortured inside of a perpetual revolving door shelter system. I wrote in my last blog that for a dog rescue to be successful, the rescuer needs to think about what they can do for that dog, not what the dog can do for them. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, including myself, this can also be an ideological challenge.
Far more than fear, pity is the emotion that I have had to overcome as I work to help dogs. I fully admit that I have myself been blinded by the stories, the faces, and cries of the endless masses of dogs in our shelter system. Some of the rescue work I have engaged in has been more to satisfy my human feelings of guilt instead of meaningful work towards a reasonable solution.
When we rescued our black lab cattle dog mix Hank, he had been a stray and although he had been at the shelter a couple of weeks you could still plainly see his ribs when he laid on his side. That is a pretty powerful and pitiful look for a 6 month old dog. My wife and I were going to take that dog out of that situation give him everything he ever wanted in life! Food, warm comfy beds, and ENDLESS amounts of love and affection. We did, and he showed us his appreciation by chewing up and destroying everything we own!
We lived in Aspen, Colorado at the time and we really wanted Hank to be that picturesque dog that hikes off leash and enjoys a cool swim in a mountain stream. However, most of our early attempts with Hank off-leash resulted in embarrassment, apologies, the use of our car, and a stiff drink for us once we got him safely back home.
The problem was that our own desires to fulfill Hank’s needs had nothing to do with Hank’s actual needs. No matter how strong my belief system or desire for Hank was, it did not change his behavior. At least that is what I thought. Our belief and pity actually was affecting Hank’s behavior very much, as was our lack of expectation, focused exercise, and training. We tried crating him, but his cries were just too much! We couldn’t take it. The more times we tried it, the more pitiful he became. In hindsight, this makes me chuckle. I had no idea how smart my black lab/border collie puppy really was. He was way smarter than he was pitiful that’s for sure. As I listened to his cries, all I could think about was the miserable life of starvation he had as a stray, him being captured and caged and how lonely he must now be locked up again alone in a crate.
In reality Hank couldn’t even remember those days as a stray and even if he could he certainly would not have seen the point of thinking about them again now. No, he had way too much work to do in the present moment of today. He was more than ready to learn, but since we were not really teaching him anything, he took it upon himself to learn on his own…about me and my wife, our strengths and weaknesses and the meaning behind our most subtle emotions. That is what dogs do and do well.
I had watched the “Dog Whisperer” but I also had read that he was cruel for using dominance theory to tame a wild dog. Hank had been through enough, I didn’t want to have to “dominate” him or put him on his back to show my superiority over him. I liked the things I read about Positive Reinforcement training as an alternative to dominance theory. We went with that and it worked. We found that Hank will do just about anything for a Pupperoni or a tennis ball. The key phrase here is “just about anything”. When he had to choose between a Pupperoni and chasing a squirrel, or the garbage truck, unfortunately, that choice too often left me standing like an idiot with a handful of meat sticks while he was biting the tires of a moving truck and disappearing over the horizon.
We pretty much decided that Hank would be an “on-leash” dog the rest of his life. I guess not so bad. We knew plenty of others that had dogs that stayed on leash and in fences. After all, we had a pretty decent sized yard, although, at the time, we couldn’t figure out why Hank never really used it for anything except digging holes to hide his most cherished possessions. We had rescued him from that shelter and given him everything. Why was he still so nervous and seemingly unhappy? As I write and reflect on the past eight or nine years with Hank and the miles we have logged hiking, mountain climbing, camping and exploring, I really can’t imagine how different Hank’s life would have been if we had stopped here. I can’t imagine mine either.
Around the peak of our frustration with Hank’s behavior, I observed some friends training their new dog who was to be a hunting dog. I couldn’t believe how strict the training was and the types of things they were trying to make her do. They used an electric collar and they made her sit motionless while they threw balls and fake ducks all until they released her by voice command. They were not overly successful and the dog seemed a bit stressed by the whole process. It was interesting for me to watch but we couldn’t stay long because Hank didn’t really do well around other dogs. My wife and I talked later about how lucky Hank was that he got adopted by us and not someone that would make him work and train like that.
We saw our friends a couple of weeks later and the epiphany hit me like a ton of bricks. They showed us how far they had gotten in the dog training but I was not impressed at all by the tricks that dog performed almost perfectly. What impressed me, was that this dog was the calmest, most confident and genuinely happy puppy I had ever seen; pretty much the opposite of Hank. Almost immediately, I could see the fault in my thinking. He was craving a calm and confident leader to show him the way, and instead we had been feeding him a steady diet of guilt, pity, and self-serving ideology.
I didn’t want to crate him, I didn’t want to dominate him, I didn’t want to discipline him, and I didn’t want to educate him. These things had nothing to do with what Hank wanted or needed. They had to do with what I thought I would have wanted if I were a him. If what I truly wanted was to rescue Hank and give him the life he deserved, I had to once again let go of “me” and use my critical thinking brain instead of my own pre-determined fixed ideology and guilt.
It took time, reading, and a lot of patience and help from a good sensible trainer, but Hank did become the perfect dog! He hikes off leash, “heels” perfectly, “comes” flawlessly, pauses and sits patiently for children that want to pet him and he even looks the other way when he sees one of those ever so tempting and twitchy squirrel. Unless that is, he looks at me first and I say, “Go get him Hank”. Then he has the time of his life chasing and treeing that squirrel! He understands full sentence English and even communicates with me in ways that surprise and amaze me everyday. He is just as comfortable and confident attending a crowded parade in downtown Denver as he is leading the way up a 14 thousand foot mountain peak. He helps me with training of our younger dog and he has helped immensely with strays and fosters over the years. He also still thinks he can, and should, kill a trash truck although he now can resist the urge to chase it down the street! He is that dog I always dreamed about although the path here was no-where near as easy as I thought. I guess I had always assumed that dog ownership was more of a passive endeavor. I thought that if I walk the dog and take care of the dog, the dog would pretty much just grow up perfectly smart. We know that is not true of people, I wonder why so many like myself years ago don’t get this with respect to dogs.
Although he doesn’t do it using pity and whining (as much), he is still smart enough to get me to do what he wants. He is just more direct with his communication. We have a mountain cabin in the woods and Hank generally prefers to stay outside when we are up there even when my wife and I are inside or when the weather is a little cold. He knows our property, and he has earned our trust and this freedom.
When I hear him woof once or twice at the door I know that means he wants something. I open the door and say “do you want to come inside?”. He then usually puts his tail straight down and takes his eye contact down and away for a moment. Then he looks back at me and wags his tail slightly. I then say “do you want your dinner?”. Sometimes this is the end of the conversation but sometimes he again looks down and away momentarily. Then I say, “do you want to go for a hike?”, and then he starts jumping up and down wagging his tail furiously and I am usually then strapping on my boots as he heads down to find his ball and wait for me by the trail! Sometimes I say, “Sorry Hank, we can’t go for a hike right now. We will go after dinner”. To that he slinks over to the end of the deck and plops down extra hard usually laying his head all the way down flat to let me know just how disappointed he is. I roll my eyes as I have to consciously let go of pity and replace it with pride about how smart my boy is. We then usually hurry dinner so that Hank can get his hike in before dark. Don’t think for a minute Hank does not still have my wife and me figured out. I laugh about how we use to have to spell out words like W-A-L-K or H-I-K-E. We don’t anymore. He understands the full sentence and knows if we are talking about the present or future by how we say the words and the energy we use. If we are talking about the past, he is generally confused.
You hear all the time that “you shouldn’t treat a dog like a person”. My experience and philosophy is pretty much the exact opposite. Sure they speak a different language (at first) and the lessons and methods that you use with them are quite different, but our expectation certainly shouldn’t be. You are not going to crate train your child but you are not going to tolerate a child that destroys things and that is disrespectful to others. I see households all the time where kids are relatively well behaved. Parents make sure they say please and thank you and make sure they respect adults and sit down calmly before eating. They don’t run or throw things inappropriately or scream at their parents. If they do the parents are all over them instantly! Then the family dog rips through the living room barking his head off and the owners don’t bat an eyelash or even seem to notice the ridiculous childish behavior. Or they say something like “awe what’s the matter boy, you want a treat?” I believe that if more dog owners had expectations of behavior and ongoing education closer to what they have for their own children, those dog shelter and euthanasia statistics would likely go down very quickly as would the number of chewed up shoes and dog bites.
Just because you use “timeout” or a crate to train your young ones, doesn’t mean that they can not learn and grow as their maturity results in additional freedom. Hank is an adult dog now. He does not have boot-camp anymore and he does not use or need a crate unless he wants to. He does still love any sort of formal training exercise he can do along side his younger brother. Hank has earned and gained freedoms as he has proven that he is capable of handling them, just like he would if he were my human son.
In addition to my own struggle with dog adoption and guilt, I have also seen first hand, the amazingly crippling effect that pity can have on animals living inside of an animal shelter. I worked as a volunteer at a “no-kill” animal shelter near my home. During my time there I saw plainly and sometimes painfully how good hearted people full of pity and guilt can be just as detrimental to the life of a difficult stray dog as a fearful cop with a gun.
The dog in the picture is named Kane. My wife and I fostered Kane and helped to find him a home although it was a very tough job. Kane lived in the shelter for several years where he developed (or experienced) severe depression, fear, and paranoia. He developed a weight problem and had to have surgery on both of his back legs due to his weight combined with a lack of physical activity leading to muscular atrophy and deteriorating joints, all at the ripe old age of 6.
Although during all his years at the shelter he never received any of the real physical or psychological rehabilitation that he desperately needed, about any regular shelter volunteer could quickly tell you that his favorite treat was peanut butter. They were also quick to point out how his picture is painted on the side of the shelter’s prized mobile adoption truck. He had become the shelter mascot of sorts. Meanwhile Kane sat day after day in that cage, body and mind breaking down right in front of his somewhat oblivious “saviors” and with really no one doing anything productive to help Kane find a home. For at least a few, I think Kane already was “home”.
We took him to our house as a foster and after several months and after he got a few pounds off and after he recovered from his second ligament replacement surgery, we began to see progress. Once again, my instinct and human brain told me to pamper this guy as much as possible. Of course it didn’t work. We soon found that after years of shelter life (and because he is a dog) he needed and desperately wanted “boot-camp” too. We found he actually could only sleep in a crate where he liked to lay his head against the side of the cage so that his face skin pushed through. It comforted him. He did well with regular structured exercise and VERY formal training and VERY limited overall freedom of choice. Generally speaking he wanted, and desperately needed for us to tell him what to do and how to do it. Showering him with affection, kisses, choices, and peanut butter made him retreat quickly into the less confident state I became very familiar with from the shelter.
My one goal in addition to finding him a home was to get him to play. Any sign of a toy or even me and Hank playing with a ball usually caused him to retreat to his crate and slump down. One day he trotted out and picked up a tennis ball in his mouth and wagged his tail. We proceeded to play a short and awkward round of fetch! Sounds weird I know but this was the very first truly “happy” thing I had seen him do in all the months I knew him. Shortly after, on his own, he also started occasionally engaging Hank in some play dog wrestling! Slowly but surely, he was on his way out! Small steps but I almost cried as I wrote emails to the shelter volunteers that I knew cared so much about him. They were strangely not impressed as they reminded me that he is “not playful” but that he does always “smile” when he gets his daily peanut butter. The also wanted to know if he still missed his “wife”. Kane initially came to the shelter with another dog and the correct but controversial decision was made to separate them in order to increase their chance for adoption. Kane did not remember his wife, but he could definitely feel the present pity of the shelter workers and this is the exact type of issue we were trying to help Kane overcome. Those that cared the most for Kane were also the ones sealing his fate inside that shelter. It was my goal to help Kane break from that into a world of confidence, and into a forever home.
Shortly after, I found a couple that met him, liked him, and also fit his narrow adoption profile. Kane was playful and energetic during the meeting and the couple decided that they wanted to adopt him! I was so proud of him, but to my surprise the shelter was less than thrilled and they quickly and flatly rejected the family’s application because they put a check-mark next to “watchdog” on the application as one of the reasons they wanted him. This for a dog that had lived in unthinkable conditions at that shelter for years! I could see that the shackles holding the beloved Kane were stronger than I had thought. The shelter believed that they were adequately caring for him and giving him love and peanut butter and making him happy, saving him from certain euthanasia or another bad dog owner like the one that abandoned him years ago. They were actually just satisfying their own needs, not his in the least.
After some negotiations, the shelter reluctantly agreed to let this couple “trial” adopt Kane and I was filled with Joy! My joy was soon replaced though as I got calls and emails in the ensuing days from his adopters telling me that Kane was, “Not at all like he was when they met him with me, and since it was only a trial they were not sure it would work out”. I frantically pounded out emails telling them all about the crate and about “boot-camp” and how well he had done when I just told him what to do! Their response was something along the line of, “After all he has been through, we could never crate him”, and “all we tried to do was give him a kiss and he growled and snapped at us”. My heart sank as I shot out another desperate email or two to what felt like an ideological brick wall. They were good people and they needed Kane just as much as he needed them if they could only realize it. I still am not sure if they worked it out although I think about him all the time and I hope the best. I just wish I could take them all myself or somehow figure out how to crack the thick skull of a human being. So much tougher and thicker than a dogs!
I don’t believe in dominance theory and I don’t believe in positive reinforcement theory either. With that said, I can tell you that I use tools that I have learned about from both theories every day. I believe in using my own brain and critical thinking skills to come up with the best solution to a given problem independent of the “me” portion of my brain or any ideology or theory that might be my or someone else’s natural inclination. I would be very skeptical of any dog trainer that says they only believe in this theory or that theory for every situation and every dog.
Sure, if I take a ride out to the golden retriever puppy farm and get the pick of the litter, I may choose a very different initial training style than I would choose for an adult rottweiler mix that has been living on his own for a while and developed a propensity to kill small animals on sight. Regardless of many people’s deep ideological beliefs, there are methods to humanely deal with severely ingrained behavior issues like this in a canine. There are ways to get difficult dogs into reasonable homes without supper human effort and only using methods that are very reasonable to a dog even if they would not be to a human.
The problem is that too often the types of people that open and run “no-kill” shelters, are also of the personality type that would never allow what they consider “cruel” training methods such as dominance or electric collars. In other words, for some, pity and guilt win out over logic and reason exactly the same way fear does for others. So instead, dogs are “rescued” from certain death so that they can rot for years in a torturous cage behind concrete walls. At least no one will be cruel to them.? Meanwhile on the other side of town, just how many easily adoptable dogs with zero issues get euthanized down at the municipal shelter while the private “no-kill” shelter is full of difficult to adopt dogs that are becoming behaviorally more psychotic and medically more expensive every day? Either way, our human brain is going to attempt to trick us with guilt and pity. The judgement and peer pressure of other ideologically based humans is also taking a significant toll on the overall problem.
Although early on we made a lot of bad and even dangerous mistakes, my wife and I have taught Hank a lot and he has taken well to our training regarding appropriate behavioral response in a human world. Hank and numerous other dogs like Kane, in turn, have taught us about living life in the present moment and about the power of belief, expectation, pity, guilt, fear and ideology.
If as a nation, we choose the calm, present mind that the dogs teach us about over the guilty, fearful mind that other humans teach us about, we are far better off, both in helping dogs and in every other aspect of living our lives. As long as we stay focused on the present moment and the actual needs of dogs, things will work out. As a nation, things are not working out very well for dogs right now..or people. We need to change that. Dogs mean too much to our present day society, the history of our nation, and to me personally, to let this be the legacy of my generation. We can do better and if we do, the dogs will in turn help us humans, just like they have for centuries.
Yes, it is true that dogs are not human beings and treating them like one or seeing them like one is not helpful. On the other hand, a dog is not exactly a hamster either. If people truly want to meet the needs of a dog, they need to be conscious of and have expectations of the dogs true potential, capabilities and natural instincts.
Writing this has been a good reminder of how special Hank is to me and how I should not take him for granted or waste what time we have left together. Saying or writing that “I rescued” Hank” is about as far from the truth as anything I can think of. I hope other people in this world have the opportunity, privilege and joy in life of having and knowing a dog like Hank.
There are literally millions of Hanks waiting for their chance to rescue someone too. Give them that chance..