Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pinch Me

Last night the local NBC affiliate, channel 10 news, attempted to do what television news is poorly suited to do. That is, to try to encapsulate an important subject in a piece lasting a couple of minutes. The subject was the use of prong collars, focusing it's vitriol on Rhode Island based dog trainer Jeff Gelman. I've referenced a well known quote by Eleanor Roosevelt before in this blog and I'll do it again, "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." The piece focused on an individual, vilifying him in the process. Did he have it coming? Maybe; this is an outspoken person with a Saturday morning AM talk show, a podcast, perhaps there's even a sandwich named after him but when it all shakes out it really doesn't matter. The impact of the story will be short term and while the message board, CLICK HERE, was lively with discussion afterwards (I chimed in as well) most everyone who's seen it has or soon will forget it as our attentions will turn to other things. That's too bad. Not because I would've indulged in some schadenfreude watching this trainer thrust into the spotlight for public ridicule or for that matter watching my friend Katenna provide some insight into effective alternatives. What disappointed me was the missed opportunity to focus on the debate. There's more than one trainer in our little state using pinch, choke and e-collars. For the record, I used to be one of them so it's not my first impulse to wag my finger at Jeff Gelman. What I do find maddening is the steadfast adherence to old ideas that no longer hold up to scientific scrutiny. I think trainers in the not too distant future will look back on traditional training methods the same way we look at phrenology and spontaneous generation, with a collective "Huh?". For all the horn blowing any of us do, there will be a time when we won't be here anymore and only the ideas will survive. Katenna stayed on point never talking about Jeff but instead on methodology, again, on the IDEA.

Lively debate is good, discourse is good, ("Fire Bad" - Frankenstein,...sorry, couldn't resist) particularly if we learn something along the way. In contrast, trotting out one guy to be the poster child for pinch collars is silly but I suppose that coliseum mentality lies just beneath our skins. It reminds of the George Carlin bit where he pulls up to a car accident and asks the police to drag the body closer to the car so his wife can get a better look. If that's why you tuned in, and thought to yourself, "Holy cow, that guy's a jerk" then you're missing the point. Not that Turn to 10 didn't do their part to take your eyes off the shell with the marble under it.

Traditional training is fading, I've done my little part to help that along and would encourage my peers in the training world still employing those methods to do the same. It's a scary prospect, if you've got a family, a mortgage, bills to pay and a successful business model predicated on aging ideas it can be downright terrifying but it's the smart move because it's where the training world is headed, undeniably, like a slow moving juggernaut. It's also evolving as emerging ideas and peer reviewed research adds to the knowledge base. 

Finally, since we're on the subject of pinch collars. If you've moved on to No-pull harnesses or head halters and have some old choke chains and pinch collars lying around, please consider donating them to FoF-RI. Katenna, in her "spare time" transforms them into beautiful bracelets and key chains then sells them, (See them at Dog In Harmony) all proceeds going to Friends of Fido Rhode Island, a grass-roots group of Rhode Island dog lovers who are volunteering to improve the lives of outdoor dogs in Rhode Island. Hey, that's an idea.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

An Ode to Bo

Several weeks ago I got a call from my son's art teacher. She'd adopted a 4 year old Wheaten terrier from the Warren Animal Shelter and needed some help. While all had started well enough he'd given her two superficial bites when she'd tried to get him out of her car and now she wasn't sure she could trust him. I told her to keep a leash on him at all times, the only exceptions were when he was alone in the house or at night when they were sleeping. It's significantly safer to handle a dog who resorts to aggression to address conflict. Dogs on leash are less likely to have aggressive outbursts at all, particularly once they know you can handle them without getting close enough to their teeth that they can deliver a bite. Grab a collar and there's a high probability of a bite, grab a leash and the probability is relatively low. Nothing punitive, as I tell my dog owners, the message is, I'm not going to hurt you but you're not going to hurt me either. Things improved immediately and we scheduled a series of lessons that involved both her son and boyfriend. The first two lessons went nicely and everyone was getting to know each. By any measure, Bo had made a successful transition to life with his new family. Fear had given way to confidence and it is at this critical juncture where, in my opinion, things can either settle into a good routine, or things can go horribly wrong. When confidence gives way to letting your guard down, to assuming your dog is  "cured", mistakes are made. Behavior can be modified by multiple means but for new, more desirable behaviors to be sustained, a certain amount of hyper-vigilance in required. It's not for everybody and while I'm careful to advise dog owners that behavior modification is like exercise, keep it up and things should go well, stop and things will deteriorate, lapses in judgement are still made, myself included.

Shortly after our second session I got a message that Bo had aggravated his ACL and was limping, we'd have to get the all clear from the vet before resuming training. There was the possibility of surgery, so his next lesson was "wait and see". A couple of weeks went by and I received the good news that it was nothing serious and we could resume working with him. The next lesson was scheduled, then, the worst most rattling thing you can hear from a dog owner you're working with, an e-mail from Bo's Mom that he had attacked her son. There were red flags throughout the message, "...he was sitting with a bone at my feet..." , "My son was sitting on the floor near him..." It would be extremely easy assign blame, to dump this squarely on the shoulders of Bo's new family. "Shouldn't they have known better?" Or on me, "Didn't you warn them about this sort of thing?" So let's get this out of the way quickly since this isn't about either of these things. Bo's new family were kind, compassionate people. Though it was a kind of resource guarding that had led to his initial aggressive overtures, they hadn't seen that behavior from him in several weeks, and even his initial overtures were mild by comparison, her son had been hurt badly.

We had addressed resource guarding and while Bo was on the floor as opposed to furniture, they were comfortable enough to let him have his bone out of a crate. A mistake to be sure and something Bo's entire family ached over both literally (the attending police officer who took Bo from the home described the living room as looking like a crime scene) and figuratively. The attack started from a distance of roughly eight feet as the owner's son recognized some emerging resentment with respect to his proximity to Bo and had begun to back away. The gesture was too little too late to stave off Bo's response however. He bridged the gap and delivered several bites before the son grabbed him and threw him into the next room. He returned for more but was stopped by Mom, who managed to separate him from her son.

There are more details to be sure and I haven't pressed for any of them. It's important to note here that the son is an able bodied 20 year old, but what if he hadn't been? What if he were only 20 months old? What if he were 12 years old and alone in the house? Was this the first time Bo had done this? He was four years old. He was turned in by a family in Warren who reported no aggression from him. With the benefit of hindsight, I simply don't believe that's true. In four years it's not reasonable or plausible to think this was the first time he'd guarded a resource with such ferocity. It makes far more sense to assume he had. Why hadn't it been reported? Why would a dog owner be so irresponsible as to risk putting someone in harms way? To let someone fall in love with this dog unaware of what it's capable of? The gravity of what could have happened makes this roll of the dice so reckless that it rattled my otherwise libertarian sensibilities. Amidst talk of Bo's future, I wondered with his Mom if there was a legal course here. 

Coming to the realization that a dog is dangerous is painful beyond measure. It's a horrible truth that not everyone has the resources to address properly. As I write this entry I can't help but think again of Katenna and Dave (See "I Am Spartacus") or my own attempts to ferret out this proclivity for aggression in temperament tests.

In light of the ferocity of the attack, we agreed that as painful as this episode had been, there was more pain in store for everyone involved. Bo was taken to the Warwick Shelter the night of the attack where he was held for observation pending euthanasia. I visited with him, sitting on the floor outside his kennel feeding him bits of string cheese with the door between us. He was calm, no signs of resentment, he stayed as close to the kennel door as he could manage, at one point stretchin his for-paw through the kennel door towards me eliciting some physical contact. I'm not sentimental nor do I indulge in the fanciful notion that he knew what was coming, I'm certain in fact that he did not. In a way that was more upsetting to me than for me to think he could appreciate the gravity of his actions, again, I'm sure he did not. Tears followed and I left knowing I would not see Bo again, not for a lesson, not at the park or out for a walk.

I've written that the shelter keeps me grounded, it does, so much so that Sunday that I wondered if this was even for me anymore. Is anyone listening? Are we learning anything as a culture of dog owners? About responsible breeding, about puppy mills, pet stores and hobby breeders, about the responsibility of dog ownership? There's been time to think about these questions, I do think we're learning but not fast enough. Bo's owner knew what had to be done and made the most difficult of decisions a new dog owner can expect to have to make. This past Friday Bo drew his last breath. To the pretenders out there who "guarantee" they can rehabilitate these dogs with shock collars and the like, you know who you are, I hold you with the utmost contempt. You lack the depth, the intelligence, the integrity and the fortitude to ever hope of making good on such claims. To the pet stores, puppy mills and hobby breeders, please stop. Who can profit from misery without losing themselves in this Faustian bargain? To Bo's family, in particular his adoptive Mom who mustered the courage to take him on one more walk before the end, who had the strength of character to let him go peacefully,  you are in my thoughts and my heart is broken with yours.