Friends, not slaves (John Bradshaw)

August 15, 2012 § 4 Comments

“[…] dogs are expected to be much better controlled than they used to be. There has never been a shortage of experts telling owners how to take charge of their dogs. When I took on my second dog, a Labrador/Airedale terrier cross named Ivan, I was determined that he would be better behaved than Alexis. I decided I ought to find out something about training but was then shocked to discover the approach adopted by the trainers of the day, such as Barbara Woodhouse, who seemed to see the dog as something that needed to be dominated at all times. This simply didn’t make sense to me—the whole point of having dogs as pets was for them to become friends, not slaves.”
— From John Bradshaw, 2010,
Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behaviour Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.

John Bradshaw is writing about dog training in the 1980s. But this idea of our pet dogs needing to be dominated at all times, because they are lurking in the corners of our houses waiting for our weak moments just to jump in and dominate us, is still one of the ideas governing a lot of dog training today. Just look at the still popular Cesar Millan. Or take for example Jan Fennell, self-proclaimed dog listener, who insists (and I mean really insists) that we must absolutely be the pack leaders with our dogs. Otherwise they’ll take over. All her protocols are geared towards so-called pack leadership. Her technique is based on ‘communicating’ with our dogs according to wolf pack principles. No mentioning that dogs are not wolves, nor have been domesticated from wolves by humans. Also no mentioning that we humans are usually not all that good at communicating within an extremely complex communication system of another species. ‘Dog language’ consists of visual, vocal, olfactory and probably many other signals. Most of us are not skilled ethologists, and we struggle understanding our dog’s body language most of the time, let alone ‘speaking’ it ourselves.

Whether Jan Fennell promotes a scientifically outdated model of dog behaviour matters, because the old “dominance” model of dog behaviour more often than not goes together with using (physical) punishment methods in training. Fennell does not promote physical punishment at all, but her work still supports a misunderstood idea of dominance. That kind of thinking will have consequences in how we behave towards our pet dogs. If nothing else, it makes us misunderstand so much of what our dogs are actually signalling — to their owners, to other humans, and to other dogs — and what they are trying to tell us. After reading her books I felt brainwashed. You must do this. You absolutely must not do that. Never. Trying to be with, let alone train, my puppy became a constant test of my “dog leadership” skills. But I’m not a dog. This approach of basing dog training on dominance is a shame. In Fennell’s case it’s a shame because the starting point of her method—how to train dogs and communicate with them in such a way so that they want to be with us and work with us—is so important.

Oh, and by the way, Alexis, Bradshaw’s dog mentioned in the quote above, was a Labrador/Jack Russell cross, and, in the author’s own words, a roamer, interested in the opposite sex. Bradshaw dedicated his book to Alexis, a “Real Dog”. One that had more freedoms than most dogs have today in our often overly controlled world, increasingly fearful of all animals and characterised by a stronger and stronger urge to control all things “nature”.

Writing about this quote from John Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense reminded me of a dog I saw on North Stradbroke Island many years back. It was a little black Staffie x, mangy and with a jandal threaded through his collar. He looked so sad and you could feel it so strongly, the image still sticks with me today. Back then I made a memory sketch of him.

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When they have to go

August 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

The other day I had to get a plumber. The floats in my ancient copper header tanks in the roof gave up, and the overflow turned into a domestic waterfall. So here we were, the plumber and I, crouched in the narrow space under my roof, him exchanging ball cocks & fixing aluminium plates to the outside of the tanks, me handing him tools, and both of us chatting away about everything under the sun. My dog Tuhi was sitting in the hallway, wondering about our feet dangling from the trap door. When we were suddenly joined by her eager little face, after she had decided to join us and, somehow silently, clamber up the ladder, our conversation, naturally, turned to dogs.

“I had a dog once”, the plumber’s story of his little, loyal fox terrier x began. And it ended on how, when he died, the plumber was “really cut up about it, eh”. “To be honest”, he said, “I was more upset than now, that my grandmother is dying. And I really love my grandmother. There’s just something about dogs that somehow makes it different, worse in a way.”

After the plumber had left, I cried. About the dog I once had. Fin only died recently, less than 4 months ago. I still hurt with the shock of this still-there-but-just-not-there-any-more feeling after the death of a loved one. I’m still not used to Fin’s absence, and it still often just suddenly hits me and makes me cry. (I actually scribbled the draft for this post in the car in the supermarket car park, after one of those moments.)

Since Fin died, many people have shared their stories of how sad it is when a dog in our lives has to go. Or a cat. It still amazes me just how touched we are by the loss of our four-legged companions. The many different and deep ways of animal-human friendships.

When Fin was dying of cancer I was struggling. I was reading around, looking for comfort in the experience, and for how to help a sick and ageing dog. I stumbled over a blog post by Patricia McConnell (a most wonderful animal behaviourist and writer) about when her dog Lassie passed on. She was inspired by the famous story about Hemingway challenging his friends to write the shortest story possible. He won the challenge.

Hemingway had written: For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.

Since then, summarising one’s life in six words has become part of life writing and storytelling.

Patricia McConnell wrote six words for her dog Lassie, and she invited her readers to do the same for their dogs and share it on this blog post. When I was hand-feeding Fin and we were in our grace period of being able to say goodbye, the many responses really helped me. Fin was my first dog, and I was shocked with how intense the experience of losing her was. I think losing our pets hurts so much, is somehow ‘worse’, because they are so much part of our being — just there, with us, around us, without words, without logic — that when they go they leave behind the memories of all the other losses in our lives.

People are still replying to McConnell’s invitation today — more than two years after the post. Recently, I added my six words for Fin and my life with her to Patricia McConnell’s post “Six Words”. Response # 335 :) Somehow it feels good to be on this site with so many beautiful expressions of the love dogs left behind — for us to continue to give.

My six words for Fin and what she has brought into our lives:
Home. Friends. Walks. Fun. Shared forever.

I was going to add a photo of Fin in here. But then I remembered this drawing I made of her. A quick gesture drawing, done in maybe half a minute. In the evening of one of our last days together. She had had a good dog day. Snoozing in the sun, a day full of the pleasures of plodding at her favourite beach, being able to eat.

When I look at that drawing now, I can still feel her in my hands. My beautiful, beautiful kelpie. I hope I never lose that.

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More stories about losing a dog and about how dogs touch our lives

A couple of weeks after I wrote this, I read this fine post about men and their dogs on Michael Baugh’s blog, about how the way men love their dogs might be different from the way women love their dogs.

A powerful piece of writing by Neil Gaiman about losing his first ever dog, Cabal, is here.

And then there is of course Fiona Apple’s Handwritten Letter About Her Dying Dog.

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