On showing grace to other dog owners

An early pit bull/boxer with his strange raccoon/koala friend. But I'm withholding judgment! And it's pretty cute. Source: ywgrossman.com

I have a natural tendency to be judgmental. It’s a terrible personality trait but one that I am well aware of.

After these months of casual research, I now somehow feel qualified to project my judgment onto other dog people.

For instance, there is a macho man who I often see walking around town with his pack of three huge, intact male pit bulls. My first instinct when I saw him was to cringe and to fear for the well-being of those dogs. The area in which he lived, the breed of dog, and the manner in which he carried himself all made me instantly anxious. I thought this for a while and mentioned this man and his ferocious-looking pack to my friend Liz (Bo’s mama). Liz is wise and gracious and she said, instead: “But he’s out walking them. And that’s more than most dog owners do.”

I was humbled and I realized this was true. At least these dogs are not chained to a tree somewhere. He seems very devoted to walking them around town. And even though this might be because they contribute to his manly, somewhat scary image, he’s just a man out walking his dogs.

And then there is the homeless man who begs on the downtown mall in my city. He keeps an American bulldog/pit mix on a big rope while he asks for money from passersby. I was anxious about the man and felt that it was irresponsible for him to keep a dog when it was evident that he wasn’t able to keep himself very well. But this dog always appears very healthy, alert, and calm–despite what must be a stressful life on the streets. He has a human with him, and so he’s happy.

And then there are the people who swear that Cesar Millan is the greatest dog trainer alive. Those people I also try not to judge.

Because at the end of the day, what’s the point? Casting stones never really helped anyone. We’re all just trying to do the best we can by our dogs.

“And all day long we talked about mercy…” — Joanna Newsom

A dog’s bill of rights

A majestic collie. Source: Flickr, user KerrieT

Anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, author of the new book Dog Sense, recently posted a thought-provoking “Bill of Rights for Dogs” on The Bark blog. I quite enjoyed reading it this afternoon.

Bradshaw joins the likes of Patricia McConnell, Temple Grandin, and Alexandra Horowitz, who are actively promoting their important research on the relatively new science of canine behavior and psychology.

Much of what we are learning about dogs is that they are far more intelligent and attuned to the human world than we previously thought. Many widely perpetuated myths about dogs are also being broken down, like the repeated assertion by people like Elizabeth Marshall Thomas that we should think of and treat our dogs as wolves.

Bradshaw has this to say on the topic:

Wolves, which have generally been portrayed as vicious animals, constantly striving for dominance over every other member of their own kind, have been held up as the only credible model for understanding the behavior of dogs. This supposition leads inevitably to the misconception that every dog is constantly trying to control its owner—unless its owner is relentless in keeping it in check. The conflation of dog and wolf behavior is still widely promoted in books and on television programs, but recent research on both dogs and wolves has shown not only that it is simply unfounded but also that dogs who do come into conflict with their owners are usually motivated by anxiety, not a surfeit of ambition. Since this fundamental misunderstanding has crept into almost every theory of dog behavior, it will be the first to be addressed in this book.

Like this debunking of the wolf construct, I presume that these canine Bill of Rights emphasize some of these key points from Bradshaw’s book. I found them interesting and encouraging. Here are a few of the points that I particularly liked:

2.          We assert the right to have our perceptions of the world taken into account, especially where our senses are superior to yours.

I think this is a fascinating assertion, especially for its wording. I often forget how much keener a dog’s sense of smell and sound are than mine. As an example of this, I was once walking Bo and we were working on heeling on the downtown mall. I had left a small liver treat in my closed left hand and had forgotten it was there. Bo, however, clearly had not. A few minutes later, he startled me by biting at my fingers. I recoiled and was about to reprimand him when I remembered that he was simply wondering what I was doing, constantly waving that camouflaged treat in front of his highly sensitive nose. “Is this for me?” I can only imagine him thinking. “You keep waving it in front of me while you walk. I assume it’s for me. That’s usually where the food comes from.”

This assertion helps me remember one of the primary things I’ve learned about dogs this year: If a dog does something “wrong,” it’s MY fault for not properly training or guiding him. Which leads me into the next point…

6.          Our language is rich and sophisticated. We assert the right to be comprehended, in the same way that we attempt to comprehend you.

The best books I’ve read about dogs have been ones that emphasize new research on canine communication and behavior. I enjoyed every minute of the books by McConnell, Grandin, and Horowitz, and I look forward to reading more from these three eloquent and respected scientists. I learned so much about the basic ways that dogs communicate with each other and with humans and I feel like this new knowledge has dramatically improved the way that I interact with dogs.

Having acquired this knowledge only makes me wish more dog owners had read these books. I cringe when I see people shouting at dogs for something the dog did an hour ago. I heard a shaken shelter volunteer complain about a shepherd mix named Shakespeare who had attacked another dog that she was walking past him. Half an hour later, she walked by the run where Shakespeare was kept and stood there and yelled at him for what he did. “Bad dog! You’re a very BAD dog, Shakespeare!” The poor dog cowered, totally confused as to why this human was verbally attacking him out of the blue. I feel sorry for the dogs whose people get frustrated because the dog can’t understand their babbling, confusing commands (“Here boy, hey, Max, come here, Max, no, over here, Max, sit. Max! Stay. Why aren’t you paying attention to me? Max, bad dog…”) My heart sinks when I hear people talking about jerking their dogs around or wrestling them to the floor to “show them who’s boss” and establish “pack leader dominance.” It makes me want to carry around copies of The Other End of the Leash and Inside of a Dog to give to every dog owner I meet on the street.

9.          We are individuals, each dog with its own personality. We therefore assert the right to be judged on our own merits, and not according to the reputation of breed or type.

The distinct personalities of dogs are one of the features that make them so deeply appealing to me. Like people, no two dogs are exactly alike. Yet we forget this from time to time. I even admit that I’m prone to stereotyping dogs based on their breeds. Volunteering at the SPCA has taught me a lot about this particular point. For example, I’ve worked with some extremely gentle pit bulls and some fearful, snappish hounds. I’ve met beagles who are unusually attentive to people (instead of SMELLS, smells, OMG, smells!). Every dog is different. They all have their quirks.

Understanding this helps wean me off my specific breed biases. I loved our Aussie Emma, but that doesn’t mean that I will love all Australian shepherds. I’ve met some Aussies that are nightmarish. The reason my husband wants a German shepherd is because he fell in love with a wonderful one in Ireland named Reuben. Reuben was an exceptional dog, but that doesn’t mean that all GSDs are going to be exactly like him. They may share some fundamental GSD traits, but their personalities will be very different.

I like to think that there’s a dog out there for me, whether a puppy who hasn’t been born yet or a young dog who is being regrettably shuffled from place to place. I hope I will do him or her justice, respecting these rights of dogkind. Clearly, I can’t wait.

Pup links!

Matching your outfit to your dog? Awesome. Source: Miss Moss

Dog-related links that interested me on the Web this week…

All Exercise Is Equal, But Is Some More Equal than Others? Patricia McConnell, who has quickly become one of my favorites in the dog book world, reflects on the different types of exercise that we provide for our dogs and how some expeditions are more beneficial than others. Worth a look! (The Other End of the Leash)

In Defense of (Some) Breeders. As an SPCA volunteer and a part-time purebred aficionado, I have a lot of inner turmoil. There are plenty of dogs in the world; we don’t really need to breed more–and yet, I admit that I want a purebred Aussie puppy. I feel guilty about this. But this thoughtful and carefully expressed article allayed some of my anxieties. If you’re caught in this dilemma, I recommend this essay. (Pawcurious Vet Blog)

Goodnight, Sweet Blue. A sad post about a fostered pit bull who had to be euthanized; thoughtful and moving. (Love and a Six-Foot Leash)

Neighborhood Watch. Our wedding photographer’s handsome lab Orvis keeps an eye on the neighborhood. (And Unlimited)

AKC Welcomes Three New Breeds. Meet the American English coonhound, the Finnish lapphund, and the Cesky terrier! (Ohmidog)

Balls Are Overrated. Indeed! Cheeky ad campaign to urge people to neuter their dogs. (Under the Blanket)

It Literally Sucks. It’s the simple things in life, corgi. It’s the simple things. (Pawesome)

Sparks. We’re going to take portrait photos like this one day. You betcha. (Awkward Family Pet Photos)

Trick Video Reveals Happy Dog. This dog blew my mind. And its trainer, whoever he or she may be! This makes me really happy and really impressed. (The Bark Blog)