DogSmart (excerpt)


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Chapter 1 – In a Mirror Dimly: How our Orientations Toward Dogs Influence Our Relationships with Them

Terri Shackley, Bruce Graham, and Elaine Cowan all get their rottweilers from the same breeder, a woman famous for breeding intelligent animals with excellent temperaments. Although all three owners tell the breeder they want a dog primarily for companionship, each of them define that word quite differently. Terri, a single social worker, wants an animal on which she could lavish attention evenings and weekends. Bruce, a medical technician who lives alone on the edge of an unsavory neighborhood, wants a self-sufficient dog for protection, and Elaine wants a pet to keep her latch-key kids company. By the time the dogs’ third birthdays roll around, Terri’s now obese pet, Kemper, suffers from one ailment after another and Bruce has given Turbo up to a rescue group after the dog menaced his four-year-old nephew. Of the three animals, only Elaine’s Barney seems destined to enjoy a long and happy life with his owner.

Three quite similar pups, three different owners, and three radically different outcomes. How did it happen? The answer to that question stems in part from the different ordinations that people maintain toward dogs in our society. In the more than ten years since I wrote The Weekend Dog, a book for working owners who wanted a solid relationship with a healthy, well-behaved animal, much has changed in the world of dog ownership. Every day another new training program, device, or drug adds to the already bewildering array of those promising to turn even the worst doggy demons into saints. New medical and surgical techniques rivaling those used in human medicine offer our canine best friends an increasingly good chance to enjoy a fifteen year lifespan, and a mind-boggling assortment of diets and exercise programs helps guarantee they’ll spend those years fit and trim.

Against this rosy background, many owners and dogs play out a much grimmer reality. Euthanasia still ranks as a primary cause of canine death, with owners citing behavioral problems as the primary reason for getting rid of their pets. More and more insurers nationwide add a surcharge or deny home owner’s insurance entirely to owners of pit bulls, rottweillers, Dobermans, German shepherd dogs, akitas, chows, and other breeds with reputations—deserved or not—for aggression. Obesity and other nutritional problems continue to plague more than a third of our pets, in spite of all those wonderful new exercise and dietary options designed to meet every dog’s needs. A study by Purdue veterinarians Gary Patronek and Larry Glickman estimates the mortality rate of dogs in the United States at 12.4%; that translates into an average canine lifespan of eight years rather than the biological norm of fifteen, in spite of some extraordinary advances in veterinary science and medicine.

How can this be?

To some extent, we can blame it on an embarrassment of riches for us and our canine companions. Various studies indicate that the average person can keep track of 5-7 different objects or concepts simultaneously. Given a minute to memorize a list of 20 names, most of us automatically focus our attention on 5-7 of these and ignore the rest. The same phenomenon befalls Terri, Bruce, and Elaine when they walk into a bookstore and see so many different books and videos on canine training and care, they don’t know where to begin. Our often hectic lifestyles further complicate this process. Like the person given one minute to memorize those twenty names, Bruce and Terri can only steal a few minutes from their lunch hours to leaf through all those books; Elaine tries to fit it between a business meeting and picking up one of the kids at school for a dental appointment. Is it any wonder so many people wind up trying to shoehorn themselves and their dogs into programs that don’t meet either their own or their dogs’ needs?

“Unless you can give me five extra hours in my day, I don’t see how I can ever own a well-trained dog,” Bruce sighs mournfully as he looks at old photos of himself with the dog he gave up.

“While you’re at it,” Terri adds, stuffing yet another pill down Kemper’s throat, “I could use a little extra cash in my checking account to pay for all this state-of-the-art medical treatment, too.”

Like Bruce and Terri, many owners blame their pets’ problems on a lack of time or money. However, while treating problems can take a great deal of time and cost a great deal of money, preventing problems requires relatively little of either.

“I’m a single mom with a limited budget and not a lot of spare time who wanted a dog as much as my kids did,” Elaine describes her not unusual situation. “I couldn’t afford not to know how a dog would fit into our lives before I got one.”

Elaine’s observation and subsequent success with Barney underscores one of the most commonly overlooked truths about pet ownership: The vast majority of problems people experience with their pets results from a lack of knowledge, not a lack of time, money, or love.

In the pages ahead we’re going to look at the four factors that form the cornerstones of every human-canine relationship:

  • The owner
  • The dog
  • The environment
  • The human-canine social structure

Then we’ll apply this knowledge to the selection the training, exercise, feeding, and medical program that will best fit an owner’s and animal’s specific needs. Throughout this process, I’ll ask you to stop and consider these different aspects of dog ownership as they specifically relate to you and your own household, too. If you do this, by the time you finish the book, you’ll know exactly how to establish your own solid human-canine foundation and select those programs that will best meet your own and your new dog’s needs.

Dream Dog Want List

Make a list of those qualities you envision in your perfect dog. Include categories such as breed, sex, age, temperament, and color. If you think a mixed breed could meet your needs, include qualities such the animal’s adult size and its coat quality, too.

If you plan to get an older dog, don’t forget to note any preferences about sexual status. Neutering both males and females before sexual maturity confers sufficient health and behavioral benefits, I strongly recommend prospective owners get the complete medical and behavioral histories of any intact (unneutered) animals which capture their fancy before making a final decision. Those who desire to breed their new dogs should include complete medical and behavioral histories of the dream dog’s parents on the want list, too.

Dream Program Want List

List the four basic programs that will exert the greatest influence over your relationship with your dog—Training, Exercise, Feeding, Medical—and any characteristics you consider “must haves” in each category.

For example, under “Training” Terri notes her strong dislike of the use of corporal punishment, and a desire for a program she can accomplish at home. Make your lists as specific and detailed as possible because the more you know about what you want, the easier it will be to find an animal and programs to meet those needs.

The Dog in the Mirror

Most people typically assume one of three orientations toward dogs which see:

  • dogs as people. (The Anthropomorphic Orientation)
  • dogs as objects. (The Chattel Orientation)
  • dogs as limited partners. (The Integrated Orientation)

Traditionally scientists accused anyone who related any animal behavior to any similar behavior in humans of anthropomorphism, which they viewed as the scientific equivalent of a mortal sin. A typical stereotype in the companion animal arena depicted a middle-aged, overweight, frizzy-haired woman babbling babytalk to an aging, overweight, frizzy poodle. Although such people do exist, most of us can and do treat our pets anthropomorphically from time to time. In fact, a 1995 survey of pet owners conducted by the American Animal Hospital Association revealed that 61% of the dog owners surveyed consider their pets “children.” Moreover, it seems safe to say that all dog owners treat their animals this way from time to time, depending on the dog’s behavior.

“No way!” Bruce vigorously protests. “I like dogs that act like dogs and that’s how I treat them. You’ll never see me with a dog wearing a sweater!”

That may be true, but let’s ask Bruce why he didn’t have Turbo neutered at six months as both the breeder and his veterinarian recommended.

“Well, geez, I can see neutering a female so she doesn’t have pups. But what kind of a life would that be for a male? It would ruin him.”

It comes as no surprise that most dog owners lack a clear idea of what constitutes anthropomorphic behavior , however, because many in the scientific community can’t agree on it, either. But thanks to a decade of human-animal bond and ethology (animal behavior) studies, our view of anthropomorphism has changed dramatically. Historically, most scientists publicly (if not necessarily privately) supported the definition of animals as nonthinking, nonfeeling machines proposed by René Descartes in the seventeenth century. This view didn’t rest on any scientific data, but rather represented these early scientists’ attempts to keep the Church from interfering with science or, more specifically, the scientists themselves. Scientists who dared attribute human qualities to animals quickly earned their colleagues’ wrath for the simple reason that doing so could cost them all their jobs, if not their lives.

Given this dual censure by the Church and the scientific community, we can appreciate how the ban against anthropomorphism became so firmly entrenched. Now, however, an increasing number of studies in the field of animal consciousness by reputable scientists slowly, but surely undermines this view. At the same time, human-animal bond studies daily add to the list of physical and psychological effects animals can produce in humans, and vice versa. In the 1980s, research proved that the presence of a dog could lower human blood pressure and increase the survival rate of some heart attack victims. Now new studies almost daily demonstrate how pets can positively effect a wide spectrum of human conditions from cholesterol and triglyceride levels to the development of social skills, and concern for others of all species.

As the line between what it means to be human and animal becomes fuzzier and fuzzier, so does the definition of anthropomorphism. More and more scientists insist that there’s nothing wrong with using human terms to explain animal behaviors that resemble human ones. Nonetheless, problems can and do arise when humans project their own beliefs on animals without any regard to the source of those beliefs.

Let’s consider what happens to Terri Shackley and her dog, Kemper.

“Ouch, that really hurt!” Terri yelps in surprise and pain when she slams the door on her finger. When Terri accidentally slams the door on Kemper’s paw and he howls, she believes he experiences the identical feelings.

In this situation, the connection Terri makes between her own response and her dog’s strikes most of us as reasonable even if some scientists might condemn it as anthropomorphic. However, let’s take a look at what happens next.

“Those pills the doctor gave me for my hand made me feel a lot better, so I’m going to give you one of them, too,” Terri tells Kemper as she hunts through the medicine chest for the container of prescription painkiller. “Then we’ll go pick up the pizza.” Although dogs and humans can take some of the same medications, Terri’s belief that what works safely for her automatically also will benefit her pet backfires. Instead of making Kemper more comfortable, the drug causes him to vomit explosively, and Terri winds up rushing him to the emergency clinic instead of the pizza parlor.

Another example of how Terri’s anthropomorphic views can create problems occurs when Kemper’s limp persists three days after the door-slamming incident.

“I know you’re just limping to make me feel guilty about hurting you,” Terri chides the dog.

This particular anthropomorphic evaluation of Kemper’s behavior may or may not hold true. Because dogs, like people, respond to conditioning, if Terri babied Kemper and gave him special treats whenever he limped—yelped, looked at her a certain way, sighed, trembled during his veterinary examination—the dog quickly would learn to exhibit those behaviors whenever he wanted attention. Kemper’s response would be further reinforced if Terri used this technique to get a little sympathy herself. If so, then Terri’s belief that her dog limps merely to get her attention makes sense.

However suppose that, even though Terri sustained only a minor injury when she slammed the door on herself, she broke several bones in Kemper’s paw when she did the same thing to him. Under those circumstances, Terri’s anthropomorphic view will cause her pet to suffer needlessly and possibly end up with a truly serious problem.

“Great!” groans Terri. “How can I tell whether my views reflect good or bad anthropomorphism?”

The answer to that brings us back to knowledge. Some ethologists use the term “empathy” or “accurate empathy” to describe the intimate awareness of an animal’s behavior necessary to legitimately equate it to that of a human under similar circumstances. In order to know whether what we attribute to an animal represents an accurate evaluation of its true state or a projection of our own beliefs, we need to know everything we can about that species and that individual. If Terri knows little or nothing about dogs in general, rottweilers in particular, and especially Kemper, she doesn’t treat him like a person out of love. She treats him like a person out of ignorance.

The dog itself also can serve as the best indicator of the quality of any anthropomorphic views imposed upon it. Owners who share empathic relationships with their dogs also share stable relationships with them. Although this alone doesn’t necessarily guarantee either a healthy or a well-behaved dog, it does guarantee that the dog will act in a way that the owner finds acceptable.

Consider obese animal-owner combinations, for instance. If Terri accepts her own extra pounds, she would need a very compelling reason not to accept Kemper’s. As a veterinarian who encountered this situation both in medical and behavioral practice, I can report that even the idea that the situation poses a threat to the dog’s life often won’t induce these owners to change their beliefs. In terms of the human-canine bond , the dog’s condition validates the owner’s: Those who correct their animal’s bad habits often rightfully fear that they’ll lose the validation for their own. Naturally, however, the ideal, most trouble-free relationship pairs an owner whose anthropomorphic responses toward dogs arise from knowledge with an animal whose breed and temperament enable it to meet those human expectations.

Anthropomorphic Analysis

Note how many of those items on your dream dog and program lists carry a strong positive or negative emotional charge. Study these carefully and determine which ones result from your knowledge of dogs. Label these “KA” for “knowledge-based anthropomorphism.” Place an “EA” for “emotion-based anthropomorphism” beside those which arise from feelings based on your own human experience.

If Terri believes female dogs make better pets because she read up on this subject and discussed it with those who own or breed the kinds of dogs she likes, then she would put a “KA” beside this preference. However, if she wants a female because she finds it easier to get along with the women than the men she works with, that same entry would rate an “EA.”

Please bear in mind that this isn’t a test with right and wrong answers. Think of it as a do-it-yourself self-evaluation to help you develop a clear understanding of how you relate to dogs, and the advantages and disadvantages of that orientation for any existing or future relationship with any pet you may own.

Dogs as Objects

Most dog lovers find the idea of treating animals as objects or chattel totally unacceptable because they equate this with inhumane treatment and abuse. However, much abuse actually results from anthropomorphism because these people project their own anger and frustration about their own human inadequacies on their animals. Those who treat dogs as chattel, on the other hand, display little, if any, emotion toward the animal.

Consider the case of Bruce Graham who went to a first-rate breeder and paid top dollar for a rottweiler after he read an article that listed the breed among those most likely to deter burglars and other criminals. He went about the purchase of a dog with the same cool detachment that characterized the replacement of the furnace in his newly gentrified home mere blocks from a high crime area. Based on the article, Bruce chose the biggest male in the litter, then named the dog Turbo five days later when a co-worker asked him the dog’s name, and he said the first thing that came to mind rather than admit he’d never given it a thought. Turbo received all his vaccinations on schedule, attended and did well in obedience class, and ate the highest quality food. However, even though Bruce gave his dog the best of everything that money could buy, he treated the dog like an animated piece of furniture.

“That’s terrible!” exclaims Terri, voicing a sentiment shared by many dog lovers who consider such an attitude callous and inhumane.

Nonetheless, even the best owners succumb to this orientation occasionally. When a high fever of unknown origin puts Terri’s mother in the hospital, Terri doesn’t even think about her pet until her mother’s condition stabilizes two days later. Other owners tell tales of coming home with a splitting headache after a grueling day at work only to encounter a letter from the Internal Revenue Service. They can barely remember if they fed the dog at all, let alone what they fed it when.

Do situations occur when the chattel-orientation could benefit both owner and dog? Many dog lovers would rush to insist that no circumstances could ever warrant such a response. However, let’s ask that same question using slightly different terminology: Can you imagine a situation in which it would benefit your dog if you viewed it objectively?

“Oh, absolutely,” Bruce volunteers immediately. “Once when I was visiting my sister, her dog got hit by a car. She totally freaked out and that so frightened the dog, he wouldn’t hold still, and all that movement made his injuries even worse. I finally had to send her into the house so I could calm the dog down and get him to the vet’s.”

But what about Bruce’s orientation toward his own dog? How did he feel when it caused him to give his pet up?

“I know now that the way I related to Turbo did contribute to his problems, but I think it was definitely to his advantage that I could view the situation objectively when he snapped at my nephew. Otherwise I might have enrolled him in some training program I wasn’t committed to because I felt guilty. Worse, I might have given in to my sister’s demands that I him put down,” Bruce frankly admits. “But because I could put my emotions on hold, I could give him up to people who can give him what he needs and find him a good home.”

Bruce’s story points out an interesting paradox about human orientations toward animals. When the going really gets rough, sometimes the greater the owner’s emotional involvement, the less beneficial support they can give the animal just when it needs it the most. Consequently, and as we saw with the anthropomorphic orientation, the success of the chattel orientation depends on the owner’s knowledge. When faced with an injured animal, Bruce’s medical knowledge enabled him to respond with cool objectivity and save the animal’s life. However, when he routinely assumed that orientation toward Turbo, his ignorance of the human-canine bond and its effects precipitated a relationship-shattering disaster for himself and his pet.

Once again we see that an orientation which may superficially appear black or white in reality offers owners a wide range options—provided they posses the knowledge to recognize and use these properly.

Chattel Check

Take another look at your description of the ideal dog, and its training and other programs. This time put a “KC” next to those qualities you believe represent a chattel orientation based on knowledge, and an “EC” next to those that reflect a desire to distance yourself from that particular aspect of pet ownership.

For example, if you put “don’t care” after the breed entry because you’ve spent a great deal of time around dogs and find many breeds and mixes acceptable, put “KC” after that response. However, if you don’t care what breed you get because you’re only getting a dog because the kids want one, put an “EC” beside that “don’t care.”

“Isn’t an ’emotional chattel’ view an oxymoron?” Bruce wants to know.

In way, yes, but it also springs from a feeling that no need exists to learn more about this particular subject.

Again, bear in mind that no right or wrong answers exist. Given that more than 50 million dogs populate this country’s households, it seems safe to say there’s a dog to meet just about any perspective owner’s needs—provided that person possesses a clear idea of those needs.

The Integrated Human-Canine Partnership

When I first began writing about human-canine relationships, I referred to the third human orientation toward dogs as the “bonded orientation” and both naively and romantically presented this as the way to relate to a dog. I’ve since renamed it the integrated orientation for several reasons. First, referring to an orientation as “bonded” implies that those who relate to animals in any other way don’t form bonds with them. However if any kind of a relationship exists, some kind of bond exists. Consequently, all relationships are bonded ones to one degree or another and some bonds may be more stable and beneficial than others.

Second, you may count me among those trainers and veterinarians who at one time naively believed we could create a solid bond between an owner and an animal simply by making or keeping that animal well-behaved and healthy. That illusion lasted until surveys of owners indicated that we experts had it backwards: The presence of a solid bond between owner and pet leads owners to seek help when problems arise, not vice versa. While improving an animal’s health and behavior may enhance a relationship, it can’t create a bond if one doesn’t exist. Even more confounding, a solid and stable bond can actually cause owners to accept even the worst behavior or medical problems in their pets. Put another way, love can make us as blind to our dogs’ faults as it does to those of the people we love.

I opted to use the term “integrated” to describe the third human orientation because people who adopt this as their primary orientation integrate an awareness of their own and their dogs’ limits into the relationship. Although all owners place limits on their relationships with their dogs, those who use this orientation acknowledge that such limits exist, and consciously set those that best meet their own and their dogs’ needs. Unlike the anthropomorphic and chattel orientations, those who adopt this approach seek to define the boundaries of the relationship rather these increase or decrease their emotional involvement with the animal.

What kinds of limits do the dog owners who use this approach impose? Most of these fall into one of four broad categories:

  • Financial
  • Time
  • Emotional
  • Physical

As with the anthropomorphic and chattel orientations, the integrated orientation possesses the potential to either undermine or enhance a given relationship. And once again knowledge of ourselves, our dogs, and the orientation plays a critical role in the outcome.

To see how this work, let’s see what happens to Terri and Kemper when she unwittingly establishes a limit that runs counter to her reality.

“I don’t care how much it costs to find the cause,” Terri insists, dismissing her veterinarian’s efforts to discuss the costs involved when Kemper experiences periodic bouts of diarrhea. “The sky’s the limit when it comes to my dog’s health.”

Three weeks later when Terri receives the final results of an extensive battery of tests along with the bill for these services, the shock just about sends her into orbit herself.

“There goes my vacation!” she wails.

Terri made her sky’s-the-limit decision based on two anthropomorphic beliefs:

  • She would want everything done for herself in a similar situation.
  • Cost is no object because her employer provides excellent medical insurance coverage.

A third, even more rarely acknowledged belief also comes into play:

  • Even though Terri thought she wanted state-of-the-art medical treatment for her dog, she didn’t realize that her veterinarian had access to many of the same highly sophisticated and expensive options available in human medicine.

I can still recall the shock of clients touring the medical practice where I worked when they discovered we used gas to anesthetize the majority of our patients because that option offered greater safety and shorter recovery time when compared to the use of injectable anesthetics. Imagine how much more shocked they would have felt had I told them we used one particularly safe anesthetic gas rarely used in human hospitals at the time because it was too expensive!

Like my clients, Terri simply didn’t realize just how high the veterinary sky could be when she set it as her limit. When her veterinarian tried to tell her about the over 120 known causes of canine diarrhea and that the tests for some of the rarer ones would cost a small fortune, Terri refused to listen. Nor did she want to hear that keeping a record of what Kemper ate for a few weeks might prove that her habit of feeding him scraps from her own plate, rather than any disease, was causing the problem. However, when all the tests come back negative along with that huge bill, Terri wished she hadn’t given in to her emotions when she established her limits.

Now let’s revisit Bruce and Turbo to see how a desire not to become emotionally involved with an animal also can affect our limits, too.

“I breed my dogs to perform a wide range of functions,” the breeder boasts as Bruce writes out the check for his new pup. “All my breeding stock have championships in obedience and agility, and they routinely visit local nursing homes and hospitals.” “That’s nice,” Bruce replies politely. “How much bigger will this pup get?”

This brief exchange offers telling evidence that the breeder and Bruce possess very different ideas regarding the limits of this dog and any relationship with it. The breeder’s boast clearly defines Turbo as a dog possessing both great intelligence and a strong sense of function. For the pet owner, this should translate, “If you don’t give this dog something to do with all that potential, he’ll find something himself.” Meanwhile, Bruce sees the pup almost strictly in terms of his ability to scare off criminals. He trains Turbo to the point he can trust the dog not to destroy the house in his absence, and he provides the rottweiler with quality food and medical care. However, he does all this to protect his investment—in both his home and the dog—and not because he cares about the animal.

In both of these situations, a lack of knowledge assaults the owners on four fronts:

  • They don’t clearly understand their own orientations toward dogs.
  • They don’t recognize the limits they place on their relationship with the dog.
  • They don’t recognize their dog’s limits.
  • They don’t recognize how their own and their dog’s limits combine to form the matrix that holds the relationship together.

To keep this from happening to you and your dog, let’s examine the human limits that exert the greatest influence in the human-canine relationship.

Buy DogSmart at
Amazon.com
Dogwise