Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Inner Wolf

We got Big Nose as a rescue.  He came fully trained, was what even North Yorkshire farmers call a gentleman.  When he was the only pooch in the house, I’d take him for walks off lead down the village street, he was that reliable.

But he’s got issues. 

What, me?  Issues?
Sorry, Big Nose, it’s true.  There’s a price for having a gentleman dog.  When we got him, he didn’t know how to play with humans and really doesn’t like it much now, although dogs are fun fun fun in his eyes, which is why we got the Doodle.  There’s all sorts of rules about when and where he can be in the house, none of them known to us, so we just followed his lead. 

If we raise our voice to the Doodle, if we do a sideways arm movement in a human conversation, or God help us, have an argument amongst ourselves, then Big Nose hits the ground, plasters himself against a wall, can only be soothed if we let him out of whatever space he’s in at the moment.  Six years in a house with only positive based dog handling methods, he still waits to be beaten. 

Big Nose
His worst issue is food.  Although he came to us as a practiced beggar in the sitting room, he leaves the house when we eat and often goes for 2 days himself without eating.  We figured there must be some signal we didn’t know that told him it was okay to eat, so we tried everything we could think of, even speaking to him in Irish, since he came from Ireland.  Nothing worked. 

When he does eat, we can’t watch.  We can’t even be in the same room.  After the Doodle arrived, we started feeding Big Nose outside so he’d stand a chance at getting fed, which actually made him more comfortable.  But we can’t be in the kitchen, lest we peek out the window at him.

The Doodle
The Doodle, on the other hand, came to us as a puppy.  She’s what North Yorkshire farmers would call a dominant, an alpha, a wolf sitting in your kitchen ready to rip out your throat.  Actually, she’s an intelligent and confidant dog who’s never been smacked and seldom yelled at, (the latter mostly because of Big Nose – if you’ve ever had a Doodle, you know your favourite phrase soon becomes For The Love Of God NOOOOOOOO).

Training a smart dog is full of rewards.  Doodle is a genius at spotting a pattern, reading my body language, figuring out puzzles, so it doesn’t take her long to know what I’m trying to communicate.  She views me as her best resource and wants to please me. 

As a problem solver, she also figures out things I don’t want her to, like how to open doors and gates, how to get over or through barriers, how to pick pockets or get dirty toys out of the sink.  But she’s no more trying for world dominance than is a child who’s proud of learning a new, albeit inconvenient skill.

Get that dog under control!
Because she’s a new (and very large) puppy, I’ve been inundated with all sorts of advice, some when I’m in the middle of training her, given by people who don’t know my name, let alone anything about my dog.  Most of their advice is based on aversive conditioning (i.e. let’s do something bad to the doggie so it’ll act more like a human).  The impression I get, especially in my home village is that Doodle should be a completed product, even though she’s not had her first heat (an event I’m storing up Valium to survive).

A few days ago, I was frantically knitting the last of the Christmas projects while the Butler was out of the house.  The Tesco guy came with our Christmas delivery.  Doodle has learned that knitting is verboten, so I stashed what I was doing under a cushion, didn’t bother zipping up the yarn bag, shut the living room door on her and Big Nose so we didn’t have to worry about open doors and gates, then went to meet the Tesco guy.

When I came back, there was wall to wall yarn over the floor and furniture, a smiling Doodle wanting me to come in and play.  ‘Out!’ I yell and point to the door.  Oh, more fun, in her eyes, so out the door she goes with her poodle-sass trot.  I command her to WAIT and close the door.

Nothing like fox dung.
Big Nose is pressed against the sofa, head down, whites of his eyes showing.  Well fuck me, I’ve done it again.  I get down on my knees, speak in a play voice, try to calm him but he stays very still when I touch him, not engaged, submitting, not relating.  I let him out past the smiling Doodle who hopes it’s time to come back in to play knitting.  It takes about half an hour for Big Nose to forgive me.

As to the Doodle, it would’ve been easier to smack her, screaming obscenities so she’d become incontinent the next time she saw a skein of yarn.  But what happened was my fault.  We had company, which is as delightful as gravy to a Doodle, and I’d left her in a room with something apparently lots of fun to me – unguarded yarn.  What else was a Doodle to do?

More pertinent, that ‘easier’ method is why Big Nose has a stunted emotional life.  This lovely, docile, affectionate dog will never enjoy the full companionship of his humans because someone wanted to kill the wolf in him.  That’s not research-based training; that’s tapping into archetypal fears. 

On the job.
For twenty-five years, we’ve known that the dominance based training comes from bad science.  We teach our children to be nice to the doggie, then as adults, discuss how hard is hard enough to hit our dogs.  When we’re not hitting them, we’re scaring, dominating, confusing, maligning and transferring our own motivations onto them.  

I question even 'humane' aversion tactics which call for a loud noise whenever the dog does something we don't want it to do.  Why startle the bejeezus out of a dog when going 'Uh-huh' or a quick intake of breath or a 'Tsk' gets the same message across?  Let me suggest, if there's a wolf in the kitchen, it's inside ourselves, not our dog. 

If there’s a new dog in your house this Christmas, educate yourself on the proper research into the reason for dog behaviour, such as John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs.  Learn about relationship based training here.  Get to a positive reward based obedience class or better yet, some one-on-one training for you and your puppy.

Mostly, love your dog.
Here I come!

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