The Responsible Decision

You can cry, ain’t no shame in it.
- Will Smith

Photo by Jf Brou on Unsplash

Photo by Jf Brou on Unsplash

I recently had  training session with Jake, the gorgeous, huge Malamute/Husky/Hybrid mix. Jake was very much a dog’s dog.  A beautiful boy who happened to have some slightly scary behaviors.  I was initially contacted by his new owners because of some dog-reactivity on walks, and general problems in the house.   He had a lot of money in his Piloting Piggy Bank.  There is indeed a contest to find out who is Pilot, but the cool thing is that we all want whomever is best to win.  How do you find out who is best?  By answering questions for your dog.  Each question you answer gets Piloting money from their piggy bank into yours.  Whoever has the most money wins.  

Can I jump on you?

No, Jake, you may not. ($0.25 added to your Piloting Piggy Bank or PPB).

Can I drag you on the leash?

No, Jake, you may not.  ($5.00 added my PPB).

Is this what you mean by “sit”?

Yes, Jake!  Nice job! ($.40 added to my PPB).

The more questions I answer for a dog (without resorting to pain and violence nor bribery), the more money I get in my bank.  Once I have more money in my PPB than the dog, I’m officially the Pilot!  The greater the buffer I have, the easier it is to answer a dog’s questions, so I never stop hoarding money in my bank.  Compared to my dog’s “bank accounts”, I’m rich.  So nowadays, answering their questions is easy.

Just like people, dogs have a certain amount of money in their PPBs.  Some have more than others.  For people, it’s easy to Pilot their dogs.  They accept the answer they’re given at face value…”because I said so” is good enough for them.  That’s fine and dandy.  Others dogs require a reason why.  Almost a conversation.  There is no good reason why they should accept an answer just because you gave it.  You chip away gradually at the balance in their PPB until you finally have more money than they do.

For example, my Sparta had about $1.25 in her PPB.  From the start she asked me questions, and very quickly I was able to get that money out of her bank account, making it pretty easy for me to be Pilot.  Any time I see she has any money in her account, I take it right out by answering her questions.  So think of money in the account as questions that haven’t been answered yet. She doesn’t have too many questions, and that’s fine.

My Orion, however, had a rather large bank account when I first had him…we’ll call it about $350.  I answered any and all questions he asked, and I quickly got the money out of his account and into mine.

Which dog is the “bad dog”?  Both.  Neither.  Dogs are incapable of being bad. They are asking questions.  They are trying to relate to the human world we have thrust them into.  It just happens to be easier for some dogs than for others, hence they have more money in their account.  It’s not a personal affront to you, and they aren’t trying to get back at you for anything.  It’s how they were built.

Unfortunately, Jake was having a terribly difficult time adjusting to living in a human world.  He had a lot of money in his Piloting Piggy Bank – perhaps $50,000.  Does that make him bad?  Of course not.  It just means that he is not going quietly into the night when he has a question.  He firmly believed he had better answers than just about anyone.  But the cool thing about dogs is that they’re usually willing to “discuss” these answers.  In other words, he’s willing to see if you have a better answer, but you damn well better have the better answer, or he’s sticking to his guns. (He was described to me as “stubborn”, but I believe that stubbornness is just determination in an opposite direction.)  So be it.  It’s my responsibility to keep answering Jake’s questions until I have all the money out of his Piloting Piggy Bank.

Now Jake lived with another dog, a beautiful female husky who had no money in her bank.  A sweet girl who Jake was madly in love with, and was quite willing to defend from any perceived threat; and he usually defended her with his teeth.  Snarling, growling & snapping, he was like a a mama bear defending her cub.

 

 

To top it all off, Jake, when presented with the concept of passing by another dog (or human!) on a walk, would typically determine that said entity was most definitely a threat. 

Needless to say, there was a lot to unpack there.  Also, did I mention Jake lived with two small children, roughly 8 and 10.  Thus the tragedy begins.

I worked with Jake’s owners on answering his questions.  How to spot any questions he may have on a walk, and how to answer them.  Jake saw most things as a potential threat, and decided it was better to shoot first and ask questions later.  It was up to me to help Jake have enough faith in me first, and then his owners, to trust our answers more than his own inferences.  A daunting task, but we did it.  By the end of our session, we had a lovey walk, worked on letting strangers into the house (thanks to a family friend to stopped by and was willing to be “bait” for a bit). Things looked great!

Until the text came a few weeks later.  Jake took it upon himself to answer a question that the 8-year old daughter had,

“Can I pet you while you’re eating, Jake?”.

Unfortunately, Jake gave her a negative, and used his teeth to give it to her.  Fortunately, nothing tragic happened, but he did indeed bite her.  Does that make Jake a bad dog?  Absolutely not.  See, Jake was treating the little girl with the same amount of respect he’d give to another dog.  Especially a dog who didn’t have a lot of money in their Piloting Piggy Bank.  Remember, Jake had a high bank account.  So when he was asked a question (“Can I pet  you now?”), he gave the answer as a dog sometimes will:  with teeth.

Now let’s talk about whose fault this was.

Was it Jake’s fault?  No.  Absolutely not.  Jake was being a dog. Some dogs just make better humans than others.  That dopey but sweet Lab across the street who wanders over to your yard sometimes for ear scratches and a biscuit?  He’s a great human.  Lassie?  She was a pretty good human.  Even Sandy from “Annie” was a actually pretty good human, too. Almost like they are all half dog/half human.

 

Jake, however, totally sucked at being human.  Which is understandable, as he’s a dog. So definitely not Jake’s fault.

What about the little girl?  After all, her parents admitted that they had told her not to pet him while he was eating.  Was it her fault?

Again, no.  Children are called children because even they haven’t quite figured out how to adult.  Simply showing affection to a dog doesn’t make her wrong nor bad.  She had never abused him nor treated him with disrespect.  She wasn’t far out of line wanting to give love to her dog; she just made a poor choice in judgement (hence the term, “kid”). That’s pretty much the definition of childhood.  Poor choices made with an honest and true heart.  So not her fault.

What about the parents?  Nope.  The dog had never shown any indication of food reactivity.  They had made sure their children treated the dog with respect.

So here we are, almost through all the actors in this play, and we still haven’t found out to whom we should place the fault for this bite.

Because it’s nobody’s fault.  Sometimes something bad happens, and it’s just flat-out nobody’s fault.  And that’s okay.  Something bad happened, that’s all. Blame and fault are ridiculous concepts anyway, and something that a dog has no concept of (just another reason why we don’t deserve dogs).  Here, let’s let Will Smith explain it to you, as he does an amazing job of it here.

But there’s still a problem.  It’s nobody’s fault that the bite happened, but now what?  Fault and responsibility are two completely different things.  The parents now had to take responsibility for what had happened.  Given the choice, they chose to keep their children safe, as the learning curve on working with food reactivity can be pretty steep, as you can read about here  and here.  That meant they had to let go of Jake.

Now, I know that there will be the Teeming Millions out there who will vilify the parents for giving up Jake.  But as I’ve pointed out, it’s nobody’s fault this happened.  And the parents have a responsibility to their children to keep them safe from harm.  Children are unpredictable.  And Jake is not a great human, willing to overlook this unpredictability.  Not his fault.  Shake it as much as you want, but oil and vinegar will never properly mix.  Jake and children will never properly mix.  And it’s nobody’s fault. 

Jake’s owners tried to contact rescues to take him, but to no avail.  They were mocked and berated for wanting to rehome him.  Let’s put this into perspective though.  Yes, there are plenty of cruel, callous owners out there who have the Dog of the Year, almost like some twisted Chinese Zodiac of dogs:

-2013 was the year of the black Lab,until we got sick of him and sent him to the pound;

-2014 was the year of the Goldendoodle, until he peed on the carpet;

-2015 was the year of the Cavachon, but he had separation anxiety.

And so on.  But this wasn’t the case.  This is about a family whose children aren’t in a safe situation, through nobody’s fault.  It’s so easy to place the blame squarely on someone else’s shoulders, but there’s no blame to be had here.  The mindset of something not being your fault, and therefore not your responsibility, needs to end.  Rather than feeling empathy for the terrible situation this family was placed in, they were ridiculed and harassed.  It is so easy to sit back and judge a person rehoming a dog, but it’s imperative that we ask ourselves why they would choose to do so.  This wasn’t an easy fix for this family; this was choosing the lesser of two evils, and their first duty is to their children.

Further, it stymies the mission of shelters to judge such cases.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and if a family is harassed and harangued for wanting to return a dog because it didn’t work out (after a very valiant effort) or if the situation is dangerous, why on earth would a family with children want to take the chance of adopting a dog through a shelter?

I will never state that dogs are disposable.  They are not.  However, sometimes it doesn’t work.  It’s nobody’s fault.  Nobody needs to be blamed.  But we all need to take responsibility rather than placing it upon the most convenient shoulders.  We need to take responsibility that not every dog can be saved.  That not every situation is good.  In the righteous journey towards Saving Every Dog, we’ve forgotten that we’ve destroyed quite a few wonderful human beings. Children in the house who aren’t safe around the new dog?  Well, that’s a sacrifice we’re all willing to make because it’s not our sacrifice being made.  We still get the Happily Ever After ending of placing yet another rescue into a home, regardless of the suitability of that home.  Never mind that through nobody’s fault, the dog is actually a danger, once a dog is adopted, there it shall remain, and damn the human casualties.

It’s time to understand the difference between fault and responsibility.

So next time you’re ready to blame someone for their actions, ask yourself: are you willing to take responsibility?

What are your thoughts on Jake’s situation?  Let me know in the comments below.

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

Keep calm and pilot on

 

 

Total Recall

“I’ll be back.”  – Schwarzenegger  

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

The other day, a client and I both decided to do some work with our dog-reactive dogs.  We were in the Metroparks walking a lovely path, both our dogs on leashes.  Across the field I suddenly saw a black lab running towards us.  I shouted out to the owner (who was standing idly by with noting less than a bovine look on his face) that our dogs weren’t friendly.  He commenced trying to call his dog back, to no avail.  She charged us (obviously only wanting to play).  She headed straight towards Sparta, who was in no mood for her form of play.

via GIPHY

Fortunately, I was able to control Sparta, and Pilot  her through her questions. Not how I wanted to start my morning, though.  Eventually I had enough control of the situation that I could Pilot the errant dog enough to pick of their leash, and calmly walk both Sparta and the Lab over to the Lab’s owner.  I brusquely handed him his dog’s leash, stating firmly that that was the part one holds.

As the owner of a dog-reactive dog, I have no patience for for the ill-trained beasts running mindlessly around the Metroparks… and their dogs are not much better.  Ultimately, it’s my responsibility to control my dog.  However, if Sparta is on a leash, walking nicely with me, and we are suddenly charged by a dog, even a friendly dog, who is off-leash…there isn’t much to be done.  I Pilot as best I can in that situation, as described here.  Damage control is more like it.

Now, back to the Lab who charged us.  Her name was Abbie.  I know this because her owner was incessantly calling it to no avail.  Obviously there was quite a bit of recall issues going on.  The dog had no idea what the “come” command meant.  Abbie knew  that she was the Pilot, not the human, and therefore “come” was merely a suggestion.  Which was promptly ignored. It was pretty much a “Stop or I’ll Say ‘Stop’ Again” situation from the human.

So what should have been done in this situation?  Prep work.  One doesn’t just let a dog off leash without working towards total recall first.  How to do it?

Start in a very boring, low-key situation.  The dog park is not the place to start working on the come command.  Your house works best, beginning with the dog a few feet from you. Squat down, and while patting your hand against your leg the entire time, simply repeat the word “come” over and over, in your normal voice.  Yes, this is a command, but barking “come” at your dog will have the opposite effect desired.  Utilize Touch, Talk, Treat (calm petting, gentle praise and a treat) when your dog arrives to you. The object is to look non-threatening when you call your dog, so save the strong, dominant body language for other uses.

If your dog doesn’t come to you, stop calling them, silently stand up and walk towards them, take them gently by the collar and tug, tug, tug them back to where you had initially called them, repeating the word come, come, come the entire time you are tugging them.  (NOTE:  tugging is essential.  Do not drag your dog.)  Practice over and over, gradually adding distance between you and the dog.

To work on recall outside, start with an enclosed area:  your backyard, if possible.  Repeat the steps above, but remember, we’ve not added more stimuli.  There are birds, squirrels, noises… you may lose your dog’s focus and they may not come at all.  Instead of getting angry, shouting or yelling, instead calmly stalk your dog.  Silently walk directly towards them.  They will dart in another direction.  Simply change your course and continue to stalk them from location to location.  This takes time and patience, but what you are doing is setting up the stage for future confrontations such as these.  Your dog’s question is: Can I ignore your request?  The answer is “no”.  You must follow through with this answer.

Eventually you will be able to catch your dog.  Resist the urge to punish: it is the worst thing you can do at this point.  Simply tug your dog back to where you first called them, and offer Touch Talk Treat.

An easy way to help with this is to attach a long, cotton rope (like a clothesline) to their collar.  At the other end, tie a huge knot.  Let your dog wander around, dragging the rope with the knot behind them.  When you call them, and they don’t come, you have an easy way to catch them: simply step on the rope (the knot will catch at your foot) and reel them in like a fish, repeating the word “come”.  Touch Talk Treat when they arrive. Once they get good at recall, gradually start cutting the rope into smaller and smaller pieces, until it’s no longer there.  That way your dog will never realize that suddenly they are no longer attached to it.

This is an important command; maybe even a life or death command.  Practice, practice, practice.

I still work on this command with Sparta and Orion.  I will work on it until the day they are no longer mobile.  Both have wonderful recall, but…

I will never let Sparta off leash.  She is a lovely, well-behaved, obedient girl, but she is still a dog; one who has dog reactivity.  She is not a machine.  She was bred to protect, and protect she does.  She isn’t perfect, and the one time she decides to ignore my command could end with tragedy.  So why do I do all this practice and prep work?  Because I’m not a machine either. I’m not perfect.  I may slip up, drop the leash, or fall down.  She may find a hole in our fence that never existed before.  I work on it because I love her and want her safe.  That’s what it means to be Pilot.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio