Thursday, February 10, 2011

On Doggie Discipline

In the matter of inter-species relations, it's important not to anthropomorphize (sp?) the other species. That's a standard tenet of science fiction, well known to me from my misspent childhood. But it also works in dealing with dogs. Dogs Are Not Humans, and treating them as if they were doesn't work well. This was the hardest thing I had to learn, in learning to become a good dog nanny. Dog needs are not human needs, and in learning to tend to their needs I had to overcome one of my own.

My own tendency, in what passes for pack behavior in humans, is somewhat contradictory. I can very happily serve, but I rebel at the thought of being ruled. In my life's long strange trip, this invariably led to problems. The notion of ruling in my own right is and has always been anathema to me – I will not do it. When it came to maintaining control of a pack of dogs, this created problems. I only gradually understood that, in a pack environment, many dogs actually want to be ruled. The extent of this varies with individuals, but it's so to one extent or another in every dog I've encountered. This is very strange to me and still occasionally leads to dissonance. Now I'm down to two dogs and can more easily deal with them as individuals, but I'm still sometimes required to rule – not just lead.

I have only one big discipline issue with Ghost and Little Bear, one I've mentioned before. It's a big factor in virtually every move I make outdoors. Individually, each dog may run or wander off, but he'll be back soon. Get them together, though, and they may or may not return. Since they're nearly always together, that's a problem. I really don't CARE if they impulsively chase after a rabbit – as long as they come straight back when they've had their fun. But they don't always, and it leads to problems. During last week's Great Cold Crisis, the boys chose an exquisitely bad time to run off and not come back. They clearly heard me call them back and very clearly ignored me. I had to deal with it, but there are three lessons from previous mistakes I always carefully avoid.

  • I must only punish them when it's very clear what they're being punished for.
  • Though I may be seething with anger, I must not act with anger or (real) violence. They must fear displeasing me but not actually fear ME.
  • I must not “invite” them to approach me and then punish them. Before I can punish them, I have to DRAG them into proximity. Coming when called must never result in punishment.

I don't punish the boys often – hardly ever, in fact – and the form of punishment is one I learned from Magnus. When he disciplined one of his packmates he knocked them down, forced them to submit, then hovered his (Jurassic) fangs over their throat as if to say, “I could tear your throat out right now and my life would be simpler if I did. But just because I'm feeling mellow, I'm gonna let you live this once.” This could be upsetting to watch – Landlady and T had to restrain me from intervening, the first few times – but it always worked and he never once hurt one of his packmates.

In learning to deal with the dogs, I gradually came to the conclusion that Magnus' way was the best way available. At first I resisted it, because I am not a dog. The answer only gradually made itself clear: “Be that as it may, Joel. They are.” So I do it Magnus' way, adding only one filigree. Since the only rule I want to absolutely enforce is “come when you're called,” I do the knock'em down/growl at their throat” thing, then I back off and call them to me. If they come, I praise them extravagantly and make clear the conflict is done and forgotten. Ghost knows this game perfectly, and can end the distasteful session without the slightest delay. This is funny, because under normal circumstances he's the least likely to immediately come when called. Little Bear hasn't quite learned the trick. Normally he runs to me when I call him but when he's out of control he acts like I don't exist, and after being punished for it the last thing in the world he wants is to come back within reach. “Hell, no. You'll kick my ass!” Which means I have to do it again. And again, until he gets it.

It's weird. LB often acts like one of those robotic products of obedience training. There are commands he obeys instantly – in fact, he's so conditioned to a couple of commands that he can't seem to perform the action until he gets the signal, even though it's clearly exactly what he wants to do. And he'll do it anyway, even when it's clearly the opposite of what he wants to do. Normally, that is. But with the wrong external influence – a nearby rabbit, for example – he behaves as if he's never been disciplined in his life and the very concept is inconceivable to him. Heavy sigh – since rabbits are apt to appear at any moment and without the slightest warning, this is … something we're still working on.

And there are subtleties involved, of course. Nothing is ever as black and white as “don't ever run off.” Like I said, I don't really mind them chasing rabbits, and there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it anyway. It's good exercise for them and it keeps the rabbits under control. Sometimes there are minor injuries, like torn claws. But it can't really hurt them as long as they come back afterward. That's the problem, because they don't always do that. I'm forced into a posture of discouraging them from running off, but rewarding them for coming back.

This was worse a while ago when they routinely ended up at D&L's house to play with their dogs. D&L hated this, and it was causing some friction. But if I came and got them right away, they got their run and then their play AND THEN THEY GOT A JEEP RIDE! HAT TRICK! WHAT'S NOT TO LOVE? Yeah, that was surely reinforcing bad behavior, but I was stuck for a solution until D suggested he immediately shove them into a bare kennel with a bucket of water and ignore them there, and then I would come only after an interval sufficient to make it a rescue, not a reward. That has worked pretty well in keeping such visits to a minimum.

Weekend before last they ran off after we walked to the Lair, and didn't come back. I thought, based on the direction they were running, that they had gone to D&L's. Turned out they circled around and ended up at S&L's, my weekender neighbors in the other direction. And she, sweet-hearted lady that she is, … fed them breakfast. With sausage.


We had to have a discussion about that, lest they run off together every single weekend to help L deal with that pesky sausage problem. When it's only Ghost – yeah, okay, that ship has sailed. He's their weekend dog and nothing I do will change that. But when they show up together, they're misbehaving. Please shoo them away, and Ghost will quickly remember that “The Wonderful Place” is for him alone.

So it's still an evolving situation. I am not by nature a “dog person,” but they do grow on you and they're wonderful company in my life alone here. They are also sometimes the bane of my existence. Prior to coming here I'd had no experience with raising and controlling dogs, and the most difficult lesson was that you really do have to control them – and that, for all that it sometimes leads to conflict, they really do want to be controlled. Mostly.

Now, if only I could control the rabbits.

1 comment:

MamaLiberty said...

I hear you... at one insane point in my life I had a kennel with 60 dogs, all ages and kinds. I raised AKC Black Labs and boarded other dogs and animals. It was a real zoo.

And one day my young sons decided to let out six runs of Lab puppies... just for the heck of it! Thank God for tattoos or we'd never have gotten the right dogs back where they belonged. Luckily they were all delighted to come back for FOOD!!

Wish I'd known Magnus then... All I had was a leash and the kennels, which helped a lot - with the dogs. The boys were something else. LOL