What is Wrong With Public Education in America – Part II

I wrote my last blog about ideology and misconception and aimed my sites at the general public that is dramatically uninformed and ignorant about actual issues that our grossly underpaid and underappreciated professional educators face. I guess it is good that I buttered them up because for this blog, it is with some trepidation that I am going to turn the table and point the finger at the teachers themselves.

I previously wrote a blog criticizing the medical community for taking pretty much zero responsibility for their own societal wellness failures. I pointed out that in my field of electrical engineering I really don’t get the option of throwing my hands in the air and saying, “sure, that airplane system doesn’t work, but I tried. The task was just too hard and your airplane wiring was pretty screwed up to start with.” I actually think I tried that one a time or two and you can imagine about how well that went over with my customer. As laughable as that sounds coming from an avionics electrical engineer, that is pretty much the exact thing I see and hear from multitudes of teachers and professional educators all over social media and on the conference calls with schools that I find myself one desk over from while my wife coaches and patiently teaches.

I recently read a published letter entitled “Teachers aren’t the school problem.” It is written by a graduating high school senior that has a pretty strong but obviously fixed belief system and he describes why he would not go into the field of education. He goes on to state:

“I feel if a teacher presents the information in an effective way and thoroughly explains the information, they have done their jobs. It is now the student’s responsibility to receive the information. If a student still does not understand a concept, it is the student’s responsibility to set up an arrangement for further explanation. What is school without work? There should be an equal amount of effort.”

I guess I am not surprised to see that a teenager has such an ideological and simplistic view about the role of educators, but what surprised me is the amount of attention and accolades that this article has gotten from the teaching community. If you are a teacher and you believe that whether or not a student “receives the information” is completely outside of your job description, then you are certainly in the wrong field. I think we already have enough D’Marqus Jamal Forbes’s in education and enough limiting beliefs. I personally am pretty comfortable that young Mr. Forbes has chosen another line of work. It takes a lot more to be a successful teacher than a strong interest in the subject matter and a desire to help kids. You need to actually like kids too.

I can just imagine if I took that approach with my dogs. Hey, I delivered all of the information, but ultimately my dog just didn’t choose to receive the information. Not my fault, and after all, I really don’t like dogs that much anyway. Good thing there is a shelter nearby that will take him so that I can buy another dog and try again.

No one is successful 100% of the time at anything, but you will not be successful even 1% of the time if you start with an expectation of failure or apathy. This is just one of those great little nuances that make the journey of life interesting and difficult. If only we spent a little more time hammering this fundamental principle home to our kids instead of hammering home the ability to do long division by hand then I think we would have a very different crop of graduating students each year, and a different world in general.  Unfortunately, limiting beliefs with an expectation of failure and blame of others is a rampant problem in education and the world. Regrettably, I also find myself in this trap far too often.

How do we stay focused on what is best for the kids? If there is one term/question that has been drilled into my brain from listening to my wife work over the years this would be it.  I have said before that my wife is the best educator I have ever known or seen in action and I believe that her fundamental core belief system is what sets her apart. She is not the most polished public speaker, and she is not the most well read or highly educated University fact-filled, elitist. She is also not the most entertaining carnival act although I have heard her use her love of puns to regale more than a few stuffy rooms full of high school math and science teachers.

What my wife does have more naturally than anyone I have known, is an unwavering belief in the inherent potential of every single person that she has ever worked with from the neediest kindergartener to the crustiest, old school superintendent.  She has never met a bad kid, and never encountered a single child (or person for that matter) that isn’t worthy of at least her belief that they can change and learn. This is as solidly a part of her belief system as her belief that gravity will hold her to the earth when she steps out of bed and it is definitely no act she is putting on.  I know this feeling well because it is exactly the same feeling I have about every dog I have ever met or worked with in my life. Sorry humans, I am still trying to catch up to my wife’s level of enlightenment, but I am just not there yet. I have seen her put on an act to satisfy a job requirement and I have seen her teach/coach. The difference is strikingly obvious just like when I try to pull that dog and pony show stuff while training my dog Rufus.

However, if that student/client shows my wife even a glimmer of a belief that they might also share her opinion about their own potential ability to learn and change, then they are off on a journey with her that seems a lot more like what I think teaching should be than the fixed instruction that I received for most of my educational career.  If however, she enters a room and finds “limiting beliefs” lingering like a cloud of smoke over all, then she instinctively locks on to that sense of pessimism like a cheetah locking on to the jugular of a gazelle. Usually, good things happen educationally as a result, regardless of what is being taught or my wife’s own personal expertise in the subject matter. I think the difference between an educator/coach and a subject matter expert is a distinction that not too many people in our country realize although I sure wish they could. It is kind of like the difference between a wellness coach and a medical doctor. We need them both, but they are just not the same job, regardless how many people believe they are, or how many people believe that one has extreme value over the other. In my opinion, human medical doctors and educational subject matter experts are sort of a dying breed with a limited future in our society. At least that is with respect to dealing with patients/kids.

With advancements in technology including things like Webmd and the unthinkable amount of “subject matter” that is at the fingertips of pretty much everyone today and everywhere we go, why do you really need to drive in a car, sit in a room and wait for someone to tell you what the bump on your leg is when you can probably just figure out what it is and what to do about by using the internet.  Sure today, there is some risk involved, but I have news for you, there is also some risk associated with believing your human doctor’s assessment and treatment plan. And besides, just because there is risk associated with that type of self-diagnosis today, I bet there won’t be in the future. A simple scanner will tell you exactly what that bump is with a great degree of accuracy right in your own home. Doctors can go where they belong, behind a door and working on science and making money, not trying to connect with an actual human being. Similarly, I am not sure I see the value of driving a bunch of kids to a building every day so that someone can tell them that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States. By the way, I should probably have known that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States by memory, right? I am sure I have been thoroughly educated and tested on this subject matter during my primary educational career, correct? Well, guess what, I didn’t remember, but it took me about 2.5 seconds to figure it out using only one of the three computers sitting in front of me right now.

If you are laughing at the number of spelling errors or grammar errors in my blogs, well you have absolutely no idea what my blog looks like before I run the computer spell check. You would probably think I was a third grader although I was pretty much a straight A student in Spelling and Grammar in school. At this point I am just waiting for spell check to get better, and to be honest, sometimes I am just lazy. Go ahead and give me bad grade and smirk.

How about the four semesters of Calculus I endured as the building block of my electrical engineering career? Today, I could not pass a single calculus test that I have ever taken including a high school calculus test. Maybe other engineers have very different jobs than I do but I sure don’t see how studying that subject to that degree was necessarily critical for the vast majority of us engineering undergrads. For whatever reason, education seems stuck in a world that does not have computers and technology. Instead we say that spending hours and hours learning mathematical computation is teaching fundamentals. To some extent I see the value but the balance between theoretical and practical is way off in all levels of our education system and I believe this is a huge setback to the advancement of civilization. What we have is a population of students that know very well that Albert Einstein was a physicist who was responsible for the theory of relativity. They can also complete a few simple math computations using E=mc2. But unfortunately, at the end of the day, neither the student or even the teacher in a lot of cases have much of an actual concept about what the theory of relativity really is, or how it affects our entire perspective of reality, let alone the mathematics behind it.

What we need to be doing instead is specializing more based on interests and talents instead of using a generic education system to figure out who is mentally strong enough to store the most amount of information that they have no interest in pursuing other than because they were told they have to get a good job. Enough of my rant about school curriculum that probably should have been a separate blog, back to the point of this blog.

Coaching, on the other hand, is teaching a person how to unlock their own internal, self-guided, interest-driven potential, and the unbelievable power associated with belief in oneself and belief in one another. Unfortunately, we haven’t even scratched the surface of what could be achieved through the relatively new field of educational coaching or the power of positive thinking. If we could combine that with mindfulness training and teaching kids how to first and foremost learn to approach life with a calm, confident and stable mind there would be no limit to what these kids could achieve. Although coaching as a field or segment of education is relatively new, plenty of teachers like my wife have been using these techniques for decades.  Only back then it was just called being a good teacher. An awful lot of teachers now seem to take a far simpler view of their job by believing that whether or not a student decides to come to class or decides to apply themselves is not a part of their job or a reflection of their skills as a teacher. Maybe it’s not, but it sure should be.

Some would say that what I am talking about is the difference between an elementary educator and a high school or college educator. I disagree. Just the techniques differ. When I was in college, I had two types of professor. Professor A had absolutely no attendance policy and his lectures were packed every day. Professor B had a big policy requiring attendance and that was outlined in the class syllabus and strenuously highlighted on the day one introductions. I could tell within the first half hour of professor B’s first lecture why there was an attendance policy that was attached to my grade. I usually then spent the second half hour calculating exactly how many of professor B’s classes I could skip before dropping a letter grade.  Then I would get a head start on tackling the intriguing assignment that I just got from Professor A’s class even though it was not due for a week.

We can have debates about teaching techniques all day. I can see and understand legitimate arguments for tough love, and increasing standards and I can also see argument for my wife’s preferred method of coaching and making connections and gaining trust and trying to light a spark of interest from within. I think it depends on the student and teacher more than anything and adopting a one size fits all approach is a mistake, just like with dogs. Regardless, kids are a lot like dogs.  If you know me, you know I actually believe this is a compliment.

With dogs, one of the training challenges but one of their crucial instinctual developments and useful skills in working situations is that they don’t respond well to acting. You can do every single action, command, and training technique by the book but you will NEVER be successful until you, yourself become an unwavering believer in your dog’s ability to carry out your expectations. I believe I can speak for my wife by saying that kids and adults that you are teaching/coaching are no different.

Our fundamental belief is far more powerful than the actions of any individual or information they know. There have been many books written about this fairly well proven phenomenon, the Bible being the one that comes to mind first from someone of my background. A good number of people sure do interpret this book’s message differently than I do. Not the first or last thing in life like that for me.

My wife and I both cringe every time one of our educator friends posts a “look what my dumbass student said or did” status update on social media. I have even seen photos of dumb test answers complete with belittling comments written in red ink along with a poor circled letter grade for both the student and all of their hundreds of friends to see, laugh at, and comment on. But it is certainly not the teachers fault right? A teacher can’t make someone want to learn, can they? The truth is the good ones do every day. It is as if a lot of teachers actually like to brag on social media about how bad they are at their job and how funny it is that their students don’t respect them. Is that something to brag or laugh about if your actual job is the exact opposite? They then usually follow this up with a rant about how screwed up the system is because it is going to force them to pass this dumb kid on to the next grade even though they didn’t manage to teach them a thing or motivate them at all in the past year.

I think I would drop dead if I ever saw or heard my wife say that it is not her job to  try to convince a kid to turn her homework in on time or achieve according to his potential. Likewise, I am pretty sure my wife would drop dead if she ever found me posting a “look at what a crazy, dumbass my dog is” status update photo. It won’t happen because that is not part of our belief system and also because we realize that what we are experiencing is much more a reflection of us than our own dogs or students.  Not because our dogs don’t do some crazy dumb stuff and not because my wife has never had a completely ridiculous kid or teacher to deal with.  It is just that we both happen to have enough experience to know what works and what is a complete setback and obstacle in a world that is going to provide enough obstacles to last a lifetime without the teacher piling on.

I admit, I have a hard time criticizing the public school teachers of America even though they do at times make it hard not to. This is primarily because they have the very easy argument of saying “oh yeah? well, I would like to see you do my job.” I guess to that I would say, I am already aware that I am not near bright enough, talented enough, compassionate enough, or dedicated enough to tackle that job and that is why I went into electrical engineering. I am afraid there are probably a few too many teachers that, like me, aren’t really cut out for the job either. A lot of people think that you deal with this problem by busting unions and firing teachers that don’t stack up and by pushing kids toward private school options.  I would argue that there are a few logistical and equitability problems with this approach and I think I covered that pretty well in my last blog.

Although I fully admit that I don’t have what it takes to be a teacher, I certainly wish I did. My Mom is another lifelong educator that is talented, dedicated, and patient beyond anything that I can comprehend in my life so far.  Although she is not a University degreed teacher, she has worked in schools and with kids for decades as a multi-handicap aide, a teacher’s aide and as an elementary librarian. I have watched her my entire life as she makes friends with and ultimately positively influences the lives of a multitude of kids with all sorts of challenging backgrounds. Like with my wife, I have never once heard an inherently negative comment from her about one of her student friends. I simply cannot imagine her saying, “hey, I read that book perfectly to those kids. It’s not my fault that their parents let them watch TV so much that they can’t sit still or focus on reading.” She could have made more money doing something else or by getting a degree, but true to her fundamental belief, she has preferred to stay focused on the kids, and her family, and on enjoying her work instead of chasing dollar signs and then resenting it. Although I have witnessed it my entire life, these are virtues I have yet to achieve. Her talents and ability to connect with and make a difference in a child’s life make me feel very proud even though she is far too humble to toot her own horn or publicize her success. Her lifetime work and even the subtle impact that she makes every day is a far greater accomplishment than any degree, job title, or paycheck that I have ever received, thats’ for sure.

I can only imagine how it must feel to get the kinds of letters and feedback that my wife and mom get from now adults that credit them for forever changing the course of their lives by doing nothing else but believing in them, and listening to them, and by being their genuine friend and mentor, even when no one else would. They don’t write letters thanking them for teaching fractions or the Dewey decimal system, although no doubt they did that too. Unfortunately these types of rewards and accolades don’t come along with engineering jobs very often. Or, in my experience, at all. The fact that I yearn for these rewards is probably the exact reason they are so elusive to me. It is not really about that for my wife and mom.

As professional educators continue to be marginalized by the community and media and as teachers get further and further fed up with the bureaucracy that surrounds them,  I would bet that fewer and fewer of these types of letters are getting written every year. That is a shame for sure. What you are left with is class full of students staring at a clock and wishing they were just about anywhere else but in that classroom and a teacher that feels just about the same. I use to get that feeling in my gut quite a bit during my educational career. Just writing this will probably cause me to have one of those; I skipped a class and missed a final types of dreams. I just hope I am not in my underwear. Regardless, I can tell you first hand that not a lot of learning goes on in this environment of mutual misery and general disinterest between student and teacher.

Teachers of America, I realize your job sucks and that you are underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated, but really, the next time you have had it with your job, your boss, the board, smartass disrespectful arrogant kids or other challenges, try spending just a minute refocusing on “What is best for the kids”. Isn’t that why you got into teaching? I know you didn’t think you were going to get rich. While you are thinking, maybe also consider what an unbelievable opportunity you have to make a positive difference in the course of another human being’s life. Maybe also think about how you can be a coach and friend instead of just a subject matter expert and drill sergeant. Trust me, opportunities like that don’t come along for most of us very often as we sit inside of grey cubicles, staring at computers screens, filling out TPS reports and pondering the possibility that this is all there really is to life. If you can’t make a difference within the school or administration you are in, find one where you can, or start your own revolution of change. Or, you can just do like I did and take the lazy road of being a corporate slug and griping about what is wrong with the world in a blog. It is really your choice but the future of the entire world is in your hands and the pliable targets of opportunity are all around you. Just don’t act or go through the motions. That is a waste of everyone’s precious and all too short time.

Want to Rescue a Dog? First Rescue Yourself From Guilt and Pity.

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.
Puppy Hank
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.

DSCF0464 (800x600)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.September 2011 Cabin 033 (640x539)

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.

KaneThe 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.IMG_0034 (800x533).

 

Instead of Banning Pitbulls, What if We Instead Banned Fear Based Ideology?

How I have gone this long writing a blog about “shedding light on common misconception” without hitting this topic is really a good question. There are few topics I feel more strongly about or that evoke more emotion than this one does for me. Dogs are truly the humans best friend and without a doubt mine. My two boys are Rufus and Hank.

Hank is the soulful mature black lab mix and Rufus is that handsome, white fellow. These guys are my pride and joy. They are also my friends, companions, protectors (whether I want it or not), my medicine, and even my spirit guides. They are also often a pain in my ass. Regardless, I can’t imagine life without them and they will be by my side till the day they die, or the day I die. That is my promise and devotion, no exceptions. For richer or poorer in sickness and in health, they are family, plain and simple. But that doesn’t mean they are human beings.

Rufus was having issues at the shelter primarily due to the shape of his head and a couple of fearful shelter employees. He had a warning tag on his cage and he was not eligible for adoption by adopters with kids or really anyone without proven experience handling an “aggressive dog”. In the couple of years I have known him, he has never once been aggressive with a human, he absolutely loves kids and he is all bark when it comes to dog aggression. He is extremely submissive overall and regularly attends a crowded doggie daycare where he peacefully mingles unleashed with about 25 other dogs. He has never once had an incident outside of that shelter. Once again, fear and ideology wrote its own behavioral evaluation of Rufus at the shelter.

Dogs and humans have lived together for hundreds of years and today more than ever canine’s are a part of an extremely large number of American households. Even if you do not have a dog yourself, chances are you know someone that does and chances are you do encounter them close to everyday.

Where I live in Denver, Colorado, there are over one million dogs living within our city limits. We have zero bears within our city limits except for a few in a display at the zoo. Strangely, if you walk up to the average person in Denver and ask them what they should do if they encounter a bear while camping, most will respond by saying, “that depends, is it a brown bear or a black bear?” and then they will go on to correctly describe what to do in either instance. However if you ask them what they should do if they encounter a Pitbull in an alley, a great majority have absolutely no clue what to do. They will respond jokingly in cliche by saying something stupid like “Pray!” or “run like hell!”

If you are looking for an explanation of why so many people get bitten by dogs in this country and specifically why so many people get bitten by certain types of dogs, the answer is fear and ignorance, not bad breeding or bad owners. This is also your answer to why, in the year 2012, cities like Denver, Colorado still have draconian, counterproductive, outdated, and flat out morally reprehensible breed bans that actually forbid certain types of dogs based on the way they look alone. Not based on bites, or statistics or even an individual dog’s behavior. No, breed bans are based on two things, our old friends ideology and fear. Or what I like to call them when used in situations like these – Racism. Breed bans and other ideologically and fear based laws are the cause of more misinformation, and ultimately dog-bites than any breed of dog or dead-beat owner. Remember Trayvon Martin in Florida? Well, the same thing is going on with Pitbulls in Denver and around the country. If the look of dog scares you, you can kill it. Or call the cops and they will kill it. That is the mentality that is created when breed bans are used to replace critical thinking.

In spite of just how many dogs we have in this country, the general population simply does not understand canine behavior or psychology in the least. For that matter, a good number don’t even know the simple basics about canine body language. The second troubling fact is that all too many of us do not want to understand canine behavior. Why? Well I believe once again, that people tend to prefer their own ideology over reality. Put more simply, I believe people live in their own world of belief with respect to dogs (and pretty much everything else). Dog are purchased and injected into a family for the purpose of filling a specific void or need. The void being filled is too often the void and need the family has, not the void and the need that the dog has. Unfortunately this is also the reason nearly 4 million shelter dogs are euthanized in the country EVERY SINGLE YEAR!

I can not call myself an expert on dog rescue and adoption, but I have spent just enough time volunteering at a local shelter that I can almost predict the outcome of an adoption before the proud new dog owners leave the building with their new pet. Everyone leaves the shelter happy with their new dog but not all are happy for the same reason and not all of the dogs remain in their new home for very long.

Some are happy because they now have company which will be great because they have been so lonely since their divorce. That dog will be coming back to the shelter.

Some could not wait to get their new dog home to show it the comfy bed they bought because of how pitiful the kennel bed was that she had been sleeping on for the last three months. That dog was going home to stay!

Some were happy because they would not have to hear their son say, “I want a dog, I want a dog!” ever again. That dog was coming back, and with about twenty new “issues”.

Some are happy because they will never again have to watch that two year old dog with the “danger sign” spin in circles like a top in a cage, day after day, month after month. That dogs is snoring at the foot of my bed right now.

Without a doubt, the largest problem that we face in animal rescue and rehabilitation and adoption is HUMAN FEAR. I wish I had a dime for every time I heard or read something along the line of “be careful, you really never know how a dog is going to react”, or “even if you know a dog, they can turn on you for no reason.” BULL-SHIT!!! The reality is exactly the contrary. Dogs wear their emotions on their sleeves far more obviously than humans. At least to me. Tension, nervousness, anger, fear, anxiety, boredom, aggression, sadness, and excitement are all easily discernible by anyone with even basic understanding of canine expression and behavior.

I highly recommend that anyone that owns a dog or even anyone that lives around them pick up a book or research dog body language. Even if you hate dogs it might be worth your while to check into this. Like it or not dogs are everywhere in our society. I personally hate traffic lights, but like dogs, they are everywhere and it certainly doesn’t do me any good to refuse to learn about them or to  stay ignorant about how to read their signals.

There are definitely a lot of things that people have misconceptions about. One example is a wagging tail. Yes, a wagging tail can mean that a dog is really happy to see you. It can also mean a dog is about ready to chomp you. It all depends on how the tail is wagging and some other factors. So if you are reading this and your brain is saying “that sounds like way too confusing”, then I have a suggestion. Get a cat.

For me it is really not like that at all. How do I know when my wife is angry with me? Do I observe her eyebrow movements, lip arrangement, and posture? Sure I do, but I can also feel her energy like a lightning bolt. Trust me, you can feel a dog’s energy the same way if you are open to the wavelength. Not that dogs don’t send mixed signals, they do, but so do wives. With some time, patients and experience, you can learn to decode them…and dogs too!

One of our Denver area local news anchor ladies got her face bitten off by a big dog primarily because she was completely oblivious to his actually animated behavior. The dog got rescued on tape from a frozen lake and then a few hours after his near-death experience, they brought him into the news studio and decided to make some money off him. The clueless news anchor got on her knees and started baby-talking and getting right in this big boy’s frightened face. He started panting and acting very stressed. She kept up and then decided to lean in to give this adorable dog a kiss. He chomped her causing her to have hundreds of stitches and reconstructive surgery to her lips, chin, and her local news caliber nose. After she healed, she then decided to go on a national television news campaign to share the pictures of her bite wounds and to try to give herself more attention by getting the word out about how “even dogs that seem nice and wag their tail can turn and bite at any time for no reason so you never should trust them or lean in too close to them”. I don’t believe I have ever been more irritated with a television news person in my entire life. That is actually saying a lot. The fact is that I, along with probably about a thousand other people watching live that day were repeatedly saying, “she is going to get bit, she is going to get bit!” Surprise, surprise, she got bit. Another case of an unpredictable dog biting someone for no reason. Only if you are a vapid television news person I guess. The dog’s owner was actually fined, and the dog was sent into a mandatory quarantine at the municipal shelter; but since he never bit anyone before, and because he showed no signs of aggression in 10 days of isolation, and because he was not banned, they decided to let him off the hook for his “vicious” behavior. The news anchor seemed to want credit for not demanding that he be put down. What a hero! I don’t watch her or that station anymore. Rule number one: Adult dogs are not human babies.

Ok, so lets say you simply do not have the time or desire to research dog behavior and body language. Well, you are actually in luck too. If you follow a few common sense steps and realize a few basic realities your chances of getting bitten by any breed of dog are actually very small.

Rule number two: A dog is not going to attack something or someone that does not consider itself inferior to the dog. I know that this one is going to rub some people the wrong way and probably ruffle a few feathers, but I don’t really care. Think about this one for a minute. Now I am not suggesting you go right up to the next big dog you see and fearlessly get in its face. However, that is not because I believe my rule will break down, it is because I believe there is a good chance that your superiority complex will break down. That News anchor would also have been fine if she still ignored the dog’s body language but obeyed this rule. Baby talk is not a great way to show superiority, or to avoid facial reconstructive surgery when dealing with a stressed out and cornered Mastiff.

Rule number three and probably the most important rule of all: Be calm, confident and present minded. Let me be clear, this is not advice on how to avoid getting bitten by a dog, this is how to be in every situation with a dog. My dogs are pretty easy going when it comes to me. Not much makes them mad at me. They love me and just about anything I do or say makes them wag their tails and dance in place or jump up and down. They even like me when I am disciplining them; as long as I am calm and present minded when I do it. Irritated Jeremy that talks and mumbles to himself about  yesterday’s or tomorrow’s work problems; they hate that guy! Hank can’t even be in the same room with that guy and sometimes, the sound of the dog door slapping Hank in the butt as he heads out back is my only notice of the dark place my mind had gone. I think this is the most important rule because it works equally well with dogs as it does every situation ever encountered in the history of the human race!

Dogs are our expectation mirror. Rule number four. Have high expectations of good behavior when dealing with a canine. Again, I am not saying that you should be stupid. I am more saying that if you see a strange stray dog that “looks like a Pitbull” you will be far better off if you expect that that Pitbull looking dog is like 99.9% of other Pitbull dogs, and all dogs. Put simply, a dog’s very, very, strong, natural tendency is to want to be friends with a calm, confident and present minded human being. As long as you are what they are looking for, they will behave as you expect. It is that simple and it is not that simple at the same time. Not that you should approach strange dogs without caution or ignore obvious signs, just don’t assume the worse or assume that the extremely small percentage of dogs that are highlighted on the evening news represent the reality of the one in front of you. Either way, they will fulfill your expectation so keep your expectation as high as the reality of the situation allows.

Pit Bulls are not allowed in the city of Denver or in nearby cities such as Commerce City, Colorado. Recently a “banned” pitbull chocolate lab mix was spotted roaming a neighborhood in Commerce City. The dog’s name was Chloe and here is her picture. Four officers surrounded this dog and cornered it into the garage of the home she had been illegally staying temporarily, while her owners were on vacation. As the frightened dog retreated into a corner, instead of closing the garage door, she was instead electrocuted with a taser designed for a 200 lb human. When tased she darted and was caught by another officer with a catch pole. Yet another officer then proceeded to unload 5 rounds from his gun, 4 into the lassoed dog and one into a nearby parked vehicle. Neighbors stood in disbelief with cameras rolling. It is permissible to shoot and kill a vicious dog in Commerce City and Denver, Colorado and all you need in order to determine if the dog is vicious is to figure out if it looks like it might be a banned dog such as Pitbull. The police and city are defending this officer saying he had no choice dealing with this vicious dog. Here is the video footage if you care to subject yourself to it.

Chloe has no history of aggression and her last moments of life were spent in fright and agony. In case anyone wants to help here is a link to the “Justice for Chloe” Facebook Site. My mix breed Rufus looks an awful like Chloe and the looks we get by some people when we walk around town sure are strange. It is interesting and telling at the same time. People cross the street when we are coming and still others seem to question why he is even in the city, or alive. I feel their reaction and judgement and so does Rufus. He isn’t Pitbull, but these bans still have an impact on us almost every single day. I shutter to think about what might happen if he gets loose and someone gets scarred.

The beautiful guy in the picture below is also probably now dead. He was roaming our neighborhood a few years ago and I came across him semi-attacking another larger dog on a leash with a lady outside of a nearby coffee shop. The lady was “protecting” herself and her dog by beating him with a purse. Then a guy came out of the coffee shop to help by kicking him and screaming at him. Their intervention was obviously just pissing him off more so I sprinted across the street and grabbed the dog by the collar and physically drug him away from the scene and to safety. Their dog was fine. Like most of these “bully breeds” the interaction was more show than actual bite and no blood was even shed. He never even came close to biting me and he settled down almost instantly, while I did a little deep breathing as I held on to his tagless, tattered, collar . I barely even heard the half dozen coffee shops patrons that were still shouting and cursing but now at me and about my vicious Pitbull and how I better get my dog out of the city or they would call the cops and he would be put down. I mumbled that “he was not my dog” as I lead him down the street towards my house. I don’t think they heard me and I didn’t care.  They were the least of my concerns. I had a new friend and he needed my help. We didn’t have Rufus yet, but I couldn’t wait to bring him home to meet Hank! Like me, Hank loves tough dogs and also like me, he is not exactly afraid of them. I carefully, and correctly introduced the boys, and I as I knew they would, they became instant friends. He turned out to be a great dog. At least for me and Hank.

I had a little problem though. That coffee shop is right down the street and if animal control spots a Pitbull in Denver, they are pretty much dead and I am paying a fine. I called a couple of rescues and did some research online, hung a few signs and begged a few annoyed friends that live outside of the city. The Pitbull rescues all wanted to know if he was “good with other dogs”. I always answered that “he gets along with my dog Hank.” Although, none of them had room for him, they all urged me, “please do not turn him into the Denver authorities or be seen with him in the city.” I simply could not believe that this is where I live and to be honest, I feel the same way today. I feel like a Jewish sympathizer in Nazi Germany in WWII. The officials and a good number of people in my city truly believe that the solution is to round up and exterminate an entire breed of canine. I simply can not understand how I am the same species as someone that thinks and feels that way in their heart. They are Hitler to me. I am as embarrassed as I am sickened and saddened about my hometown. Rule number five: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

The best I could come up with for our stow away that we had come to call “Todd”, was to smuggle him out of Denver to the Boulder Animal Shelter. That was the only place that had space and that could legally take him. I was thoroughly quizzed by the intake workers at the shelter and they explained to me that their placement requirement were by far tougher for Pitbulls because of the legal ramifications. They also explained that if I turned him over, I could not be informed of his fate and that this was not a “no-kill” shelter. They explained the policy for how they would try to find his owner. I knew no one was looking for Todd though. I already put his mug on Craig’s List, Pet-Finder and numerous signs around town. I had checked for a microchip and called all of the shelters to see if there were missing reports. I had left pictures and descriptions as well although for Denver I decided to not send them a picture. They said that the shelter was crowded and that Pitbulls were very hard to adopt and that in order for him to be eligible for adoption, he would have to pass a very stringent dog aggression test. They asked me if he had any issues with other dogs when he was with me. I smiled and said “he gets along with my dog Hank!” as a lump grew in my throat. I didn’t mention the coffee shop, or the dogs Todd lunged and snapped at in the parking lot when the frightened dog owners got scared and nervous  just looking at him. I left a donation of $200 dollars and I begged them to do anything they could to help him.

I took Todd in the front door of the Boulder Animal Shelter, but I am relatively certain he went out the back. I wish I had been brave enough to take responsibility for that dog myself. He was a good boy and he deserved better. I thought about how dog-aggressive Hank once was when we initially rescued him as a stray. I hope Todd got his chance but to  honest the deck was not exactly stacked in his favor the way it was for my Black Lab mix Hank.  I messed up that day and I regret it. I could and should have done more and writing this has brought that same lump back to my throat.

So I guess it should be obvious where I stand although I often feel like I am living in an alternate universe when it comes to my beliefs and understanding about certain issues like this one. I would love nothing more than to devote my entire life’s work to canine rescue, rehabilitation and public education. Maybe someday I will, but as of today, I still haven’t figured out how to make the numbers work out and I don’t think my wife is as thrilled about that “van down by the river housing proposal” that I suggested a blog or two back.

Regardless, make no mistake, the size and shape of a dog’s head does not make it bite, but human fear based ideology and expectation will, almost every time. Breed bans are wrong, plain and simple. They create a dangerous situation and the generated fear spreads across the small minded towns that embody them faster than a wild fire.

Please, if you are in any position to support or oppose a breed ban, or if you find yourself in a situation with an unknown dog that looks like a Pit Bull, don’t get frightened and don’t buy into the ideology of those that choose a life of fear! Just try to remember a few simple rules and use your own, calm, confident, and present mind to do a little critical thinking before reacting reflexively.

If you are looking for a new dog please consider adopting from a shelter, and when you are there please try to think about what you can do for that dog, not about what that dog can do for you. If you do, your life may change forever because of a that dog. Mine certainly has.