Time to Say “Goodbye”

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

“Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry.”
― Dr. Seuss

All dogs can be rehabilitated.  I have never come across a dog that with the right mix of Piloting, Activity and Work, couldn’t be transformed into a dog who could properly bond with their human.

Unfortunately, sometimes the proper amount of Piloting is well-beyond what any human can reasonably be expected to give.  But that sure doesn’t stop them from giving.  At what point is it okay to say, “I can’t do this any more”?

Take, for instance, Sparta.  She is a wonderful dog, and I love her very much.  However, the amount of Piloting she requires is astronomical.  She is very dog aggressive, combined with a very fierce tendency to guard her “flock”.  Of course that doesn’t make her a bad dog….there is no such thing as a bad dog.  Unfortunately, though, that makes it very difficult for her to live in a human world without a monumental amount of Piloting.  I will never be able to be off-guard when taking her for a walk. I will never be able to have a friend of the family let themselves in our house.  Luckily, this is what I do for a living!  Piloting her is (relatively) easy for me because I have been doing this with dogs for over two decades.

But there is a promise between me and my family:  if I ever die, Sparta will be euthanized. Not because I don’t love her, but because I love her so much.  Nobody else in my house can safely walk her.  Nobody else in my house is as obsessed with Piloting her as me, and without a Pilot, Sparta is terrified.  Her terror then turns to aggression.  I answer every one  of her questions, no matter how many times she asks it, because I know that if she were to try to answer her own question (“Is this person a threat?”), the results would be disastrous, and would most likely involve severe injury to another dog or even a human.

Sparta is not a bad dog. She’s actually a great dog. Unfortunately, she is a horrible human.    No, she wasn’t abused, and nothing happened to make her this way.  It’s just who she is, and I love her for who she is.  The dog I have.  Not that dog think I should have.  

Huffington Post recently published an article by Trish McMillan Loehr about such issues, only in the reverse. A dog who had a horrible life, but was able to work into a family situation, quite well actually.     Lines that reverberated with me:

Ask any behaviorist what’s more important — nature or nurture — and they’ll answer “both.” Some dogs can be raised by the book, socialized to everything, and still become dangerously aggressive.

So please, pit bull lovers, stop saying “it’s all how they’re raised.” I know you mean well. But if you truly believe your words, no fight bust dog would ever be able to be adopted. And just look at the success of Michael Vick’s former fighting dogs.

 

If you truly believe “it’s all how they’re raised,” no stray shelter dog or abused dog would be safe to place in a home. I’ve worked with many animal victims of abuse — some have issues, it’s true — but many of them are just as resilient as Theodore.

 

Occasionally, an idyllic puppyhood still results in a dangerously aggressive adult dog. I’ve met those, too. And most dogs fall somewhere in between these extremes. Environment counts, but so do genes. Ultimately, all dogs are individuals, and that’s where we need to meet them.

“So just train it out of her”, some may say.  Training is different than Piloting.  Training involves a set of responses that are cued by a set of circumstances.  For example, when I say “sit”, Sparta sits.  The word triggers the action. Piloting involves questions.  You can’t always train questions.  Remember, you can’t train a dog, especially a naturally protective one, to accept every single other dog as part of their pack.  But what you can do is Pilot them, and answer their questions about this dog or that dog.  In other words, it isn’t all encompassing.  In human standards, it would be the same as my training you to trust all humans merely because they are human.  The thought is silly, and quite contrary to the interest of self-preservation.

Sparta was trained to hold random objects.  She was Piloted through her questions on how to do it.

Sparta was trained to hold random objects. She was Piloted through her questions on how to do it.

Usually, the more you Pilot a dog, the less you have to Pilot a dog.  Sparta and I have passed a great many dogs on our walks without incident because I have always answered her questions about them.  Sometimes it is literally just a tap on the leash with my ring finger (“No, we aren’t hunting that squirrel”) to “shutting the door” on her.  The very act of answering a question makes her more in tune with me.  She naturally starts to look at me, rather than that other dog she’s just spotted, to gauge my reaction.  I look bored, so she figures it’s not a big deal.  Again, sometimes that’s not enough of an answer for her, so I have to use more Piloting.

Sparta is a dog, and her reactions to other dogs and other humans (read: non-pack) is well within normal and healthy for a typical canid.  Just as all humans don’t exhibit the same amount of sociability, neither do dogs.  The difference between humans and dogs in this instance is that humans are living in a human world, one that we understand.  We know that the man coming to our door isn’t going to kill us… he’s merely delivering the mail.

Not every dog lives with someone who is willing Pilot them so readily.  Most dogs haven’t been abused or taught to react this way.  There was no trigger for them to start asking so many questions, with such dangerous results if they answer the questions themselves.  So at what point is it okay to say “goodbye”?  That’s the question I started off with.

When is it okay to put a healthy dog down due to the level of questions being asked, and the intensity with which they answer their own questions?  I firmly believe the humans come first.  The concept of euthanizing an otherwise healthy dog is always tragic, but sometimes necessary.  Rehoming is not always an option.  That’s like handing over a lit stick of dynomite to someone without warning them what happens when the fuse runs out.  That isn’t solving the problem, it’s shifting responsibility.  The dog typically still ends up asking a question that isn’t answered, and it ends badly.  Sometimes the end result involves a child.

Yes, it feels good to save these types of dogs, be can’t, and shouldn’t, save them all.  There aren’t enough facilities for the “low-key” dogs.  The ones whose toughest questions are “Can I play with that?” or “Can we go for a walk?”.  These dogs are being put down.  If these dogs can’t find a home, why would someone take such a risk as to try to rehome a dog who is known to be aggressive?  Again, that is merely shifting responsibility.  The problem is that we want to save them all. The result is we can’t.  It’s like trying to shove ten pounds of gold in a five pound bag.  There just isn’t room.

Some people will get judgemental about this post.  Saying that you never give up on a animal.  That they never gave up on their animal. Ah…if only everyone could be in the same situation they are, able to never give up on their animals.  But we all aren’t.  Sometimes there are young children in the house.  Sometimes someone becomes ill or infirm.  Sometimes that beautiful, adorable puppy grows up and has severe guarding issues. Sometimes thing just can’t safely work out.  Again, this isn’t about giving up.  This is about knowing when it’s time to say a necessary “goodbye”.

This post is to a dear friend, “M”, who today will be saying goodbye.  She is a true Pilot, and a wonderful human being.  Please share your support for the difficult, painful decision she has had to make today.  Thank you, M, for your dedication to your dog. Just because the ending isn’t how you expected it to be doesn’t mean you didn’t see it through to to the end.

My girl Sparta.  I will love you forever.  I love you enough to never leave you without a Pilot.

My girl Sparta. I will love you forever. I love you enough to never leave you without a Pilot.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

The Complete, Unabridged Set of Dog Rules

The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

“Is it okay that my dog is on the couch?”

“Can we play tug with a rope toy? Or is that wrong?”

“We’re using puppy pads.  Is that bad?”

Questions like these from my clients make me crazy.  No, not because they are asking me questions, but because somehow they got it in their head that there are hard and fast rules to “dogging”.  They get a dog, and the first thing they want to know is what the rules are.  All. The. Rules.

winterBecause obviously, if something isn’t complicated and supremely structured, it doesn’t work.  The more rules, the better you’re doing, right?  After all, t’s been working for the DMV.

We must be cautious.

We must be cautious.

So obviously, rules suck.  Unless you’re a dog owner, and then you want the rules.  All the rules.  Well, you want ‘em?  You got ‘em.

Before I tell you the rules, let’s review the steps to working with a dog, in any capacity.  Whether stopping the barking, teaching them to sit, or maybe something a little more intricate.

Everything starts with these steps:

1) Control Yourself. 

Controlling yourself means you are calm (even if only on the outside).  You are using confident body language (stand up straight!).  You are not yelling, or even talking.  In other words, you are NOT Corky Romano.

Don’t be a Corky.

2) Control the Situation.

Meaning if you can’t stuff 10 pounds of dirt in a 5 pound bag, why are you trying to stuff 15?  Stop, take a look at the current situation.  For example, if someone is at the door, but your dog is there barking, jumping, and, well, being Corky Romano, do you have control of the situation?  No!  Then don’t add any stimulation (such as opening the door) until you have control. Answer your dog’s question about the door, and then move forward when you have control. Reboot if necessary.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Okay, now that you know the playing field (controlling yourself and controlling the situation), now for the rules.

I use a mix of negative and positive.  The same way you do throughout your life.  I asked my husband it was raining outside  He said “no”.  That’s a negative  My daughter asked if she could go to a friends house. I said “yes”.  That’s a positive.  Think of it as a game of “hot or cold”. We call this Piloting your dog.

Rules of When to Use Negatives

1) When you don’t like what your dog is doing.  Yes, seriously…it’s that easy.  Ask yourself if you like the behavior your dog is giving (barking, jumping, or just laying against the fridge that you are trying to open), and if you don’t like it, give them a negative.  Remember your dog isn’t bad.  Dogs are incapable of being bad.  They are perfect… for a dog.  They just happen to suck at being human.

And guess what?  You probably don’t make a very good dog.

So let’s jettison the whole “Good/Bad” thing…and the gun.  You’re answering questions for your dog, not deciding if the questions make your dog “good” or “bad”.

2) When your dog is “yo-bitching” you.  Now there’s an interesting term:  ”yo-bitching“.  What does that mean?  It’s when a dog slaps you with their paw.  Or jumps on you.  Or pushes you out of the way.  It’s the human equivalent of saying, “Yo, Bitch, gimme a cookie.” Or “Yo, Bitch, that’s my chair”.  Vulgar?  Absolutely.  Acceptable?  Never.  You wouldn’t accept a human addressing you like that, so don’t accept that from a dog.  Dog’s are perfectly capable of using polite, “May-I-Please” body language.  Start to demand and expect it at all times.

On to the positives!

1) The come command/recall.  Positive, people.  Give your dog a good reason to come when you call.

2) When you are asking your dog to be human.  Think about what one dog will tell another dog.  Things like, “Go away”, or “Let’s play” or even “That’s mine”.  But dogs don’t teach each other English (“Sit”, for example). They don’t housebreak each other.  So if one dog can’t teach it to another dog, and you’re asking your dog to be a little bit human, you must use positives.

3) Calm.  This is the most important, most overlook opportunity for positives.  I want calm to be a like a lottery ticket:  You have to play to win (you’re probably not going to win), but unless you have a ticket, you definitely aren’t going to win.  That ticket is calm.  The more your dog has the “calm ticket” the more likely he is to win.  So if he’s calm, give him a gentle positive.  Anything from chilling out on the floor, to trying his best to be calm at the vet.  Reward the effort.  Progress, not perfection.

So there you have it.  That’s all the rules.  When to give positive and when to give negative.  Everything you ever needed to know about how to work with your dog.

But I didn’t address your questions from earlier?

“Is it okay that my dog is on the couch?”

“Can we play tug with a rope toy? Or is that wrong?”

“We’re using puppy pads.  Is that bad?”

Yes, I did!  About the couch, think about the negatives.  Do you like what your dog is doing on the couch?  No?  Then give him a negative.  Don’t care that he’s on the couch?  Well, then, neither do I, as long as he isn’t “yo bitching” you.

Playing tug with a rope toy?  Cool!  I love a good, rough game of tug.  My husband doesn’t.  I encourage it.  My husband negates it.  Remember, ask yourself if you like the behavior, and if the answer is “yes”, go for it.  If the answer is “no”, then negate it.  Just make sure that you have your limits adhered to.  My Sparta is allowed to really go at it with me when we wrestle…until she isn’t  When I feel things have escalated too much, I simply give her a negative, and she stops.

Puppy pads?  If it works for you, it works for me.

In short, nobody should be telling you how to enjoy your dog.  My dogs are allowed to beg from the table, as I frequently give them a small amount of table scraps.  But once I’m done with them, they are given a negative, and they know to stop begging and stay away from me while I eat.

My dogs, like yours, are only here for my enjoyment.  They make life easier, and so much sunnier!  Don’t let a book full of rules tell you how you should be enjoying their company.  Make sure you are indeed enjoying your dog, and not merely tolerating their behavior.  If you don’t like their behavior (say, getting up on the couch), it’s up to you to answer your dog’s question (“Can I sleep up here?”), and set your own rules of how to enjoy your dog.  The rules will differ from house to house, but the enjoyment will be constant.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to snuggle in bed with my dogs while I share my snack of cheese and crackers with them. I’m tired from all that rope-tug I played with Sparta.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio