Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Scotland Dreaming

It was late in life that Errol Flynn occurred to me. Better late than never. And since he is immortal, though quite dead and out of reach, it doesn't much matter when you first realize, Oh, my god. He can stay forever the dimpled god of Robin Hood, and if you like, he may never mature into the dissipated man, lightly filmed with whiskey-smelling scum, who drags himself through The Master of Ballantrae. But as my seven-year-old son never read, as I did, of the actor's shocking self-abuse in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, he saw only a swashbuckler with a glinting sword, and he developed a desire right there to visit the rocky land that grows castles more readily than any other crop.

It is a good thing that the cinematic ghost of Errol Flynn haunts the same land of origin of the Errol Flynn of dogs, the border collie. And so a plan is being hatched in my house, one that will involve a transatlantic flight.

I am reading The Farmer's Dog by John Holmes, a British dog trainer who wrote this first practical manual on working sheepdogs in 1960. It is full of plainspoken gems--here's one I just read on p. 51, and you want to go find the author and pump his hand vigorously for it: "I have serious doubts about the intelligence of those people who teach dogs to walk along bumping up against their owners' left legs and gazing up into their faces like demented idiots. It certainly does not point to any intelligence in the dogs." Beyond the stupidity factor, I have always hated the sound of the word "obedience," which makes me try to imagine exactly what happens when ears are boxed, or the taste of soap on the tongue. (The latter I don't have to work too hard to call up, since I have experienced it, grace of my schoolteacher grandmother who was brought up squarely in the Age of Obedience, when children should be seen but not heard, and when to spare the rod was to spoil the child--which motto she actually inscribed on the old butter paddle she wielded against the unruly children in her midst, and then gave to one of these grandchildren as a keepsake.) The idea of pursuing Obedience as something fun or interesting seems to me, rather, good cause for embarking on a long course of psychotherapy. When militarism is personally attractive, this is a matter for professional help.

Besides, then you've got to contend with the notion of disobedience, which is even more frightening. I suspect that it's mainly people who have never taught either their dogs or their children what they want them to do who most often punish them for "willful disobedience." If you accept, as I now do (having tithed myself a member of the Church of Behaviorism), that the only behaviors that will recur are the ones that have yielded some reward for having been performed, then these punishments are being meted out to someone who couldn't really help doing what they did. How can this be right? So here's my latest sissy pantywaist idea: all punishment is a crime. A nonpunishable crime, then, alas. Well, I never said I couldn't at least contemplate the delights of revenge.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the word "collie" is uncertain, but that it probably derives from "coaly," as in black. And when I think of a coaly black sheepdog, I most often see him lying in front of a smoldering fire in a rough Welsh farm hut, while the night winds sweep the furze outside. But the sheep are safe. Because, as the OED says, collies are "a breed of sheepdogs remarkable for their sagacity."

Remarkable, oh yes. I suddenly remembered the other day how coaly Mercy, in the unforgivable absence of sheep to tend, would chase cars whenever she got the chance. But not every car. For she employed her higher maths to determine the speed of an approaching vehicle, and when she figured it was going too fast to successfully pen, she saved her energy and coolly let it pass. The next one might be appropriately paced, at which point she would launch herself at the proper angle of intercept.

Driving yesterday through the unpeopled wilds of the middle of Pennsylvania, looking at the old hills flash by in a series of endless green steps, I imagined that this was how Scotland might look, when I get there.


Anonymous said...

I'll admit I didn't know anything about you, as a blogger, when I first found my way here. I read one or two entries and commented a couple of times.

What intially struck me was how interesting your writing is. Today I looked at the 'About Me' section, and see you're an author. Well that makes perfect sense! You have a lovely and engaging writing style.

Compliments aside, I want to comment on the "obedience" thing.

As a long-time dog trainer (who actually trained dogs, not people), I was often puzzled by the frequent resistance to "obedience training" I encountered, over the years.

Forgive me for straying, but the concept of choosing an unruly, uncontrollable (by all but the most brutal physical means) and otherwise unpredictable dog over one that is readily controlled by the owner's verbal "commands" reminds me of one of my favourite reno. shows.

In "Selling Houses" the clearly knowledgeable host helps people sell their homes. He makes their homes beautiful & polished (and clean, no less), and time after time the infantile homeowners chide, "It's not really my taste."

It's not your taste, huh? So you prefer filthy, broken-down, cheap, dated, and unsofisticated? Is that really something to be proud of?

That is kind of how I view people who say they don't "agree with" obedience training. (Not you...but the people I'm thinking of.) Maybe it's their ignorance. Maybe it's their fear of failure; admitting (if only to themselves) they don't know how to properly train a dog. Either way, they're exhibiting classic signs of either projection or transference, because ethical dog training is nothing but fun, fun, fun. I'm sorry if they imagine it some other way. But their imaginations don't make it so. (Of course malevolent people can make any activity a soul-crushing chore.)

But it's the description from the book, of the heeling dog looking up at its owner, that really got me.

Several years ago, I had a run-in with a moderately competent dog trainer (in my view). (Not great, but not bad, either.) His Schutzhund GSD was kept caged in a wooden pen on his property. (It was allowed to bark the entire time I was there.)

Since I would naturally have my dog heeling in a situation where I was meeting someone new, I was a bit flabbergasted by this man's unsolicited comment. Clearly making a power move, as if to say 'I'm a better dog trainer than you are', he stated, "I expect a dog to keep its head up, looking at me, the entire time it's heeling."

Startled by this unexpected hostility, I'm surprised I had the wherewithal to reply this way:

"I don't compete in any dog sports. Truth be known, I don't agree with animal competitions. But the kind of heeling you're describing has no use outside a flat, obstacle-free show ring.

In the real world, if a dog is not looking where it's going, it will trip over the first curb it comes to."

Strict obedience is fine for the show ring. But it does not mimic the real world, or real-world distractions & obstacles. And there's no better proof of this fact than all the obedience show dogs who are out of their owners' control outside the ring. (Oh, I don't the GSD bouncing around its isolation pen, barking incessantly?)

A well-behaved dog is, primarily, a well-practiced dog.

I remember counselling one woman, who said she'd never be able to walk her dog "downtown" because she wouldn't be able to control him. I reminded her that all dogs need to learn how to heel reliably, and they only learn this through practice.

I told her that her dog would likely fail the first time she tried to have it heel in a more crowded area. It did. She was nervous, but she tried. I explained that he'd likely be better then next time, but would still have a ways to go. I promised that after several uneventful trips through crowded areas, her dog would eventually calm down and ignore the distractions. He did.

How do people expect their dogs to heel reliably past delicious squirrels or playful pooches, if they never teach them how to behave in those situations...AND...give them the chance to practice?

Practice makes perfect.

And I have to say that my total verbal control over my dog is (almost) always noticed. I'm not showing off or anything. It's just how I operate. I don't teach tricks. Everything I teach my dogs is something I need them to do in their everyday lives.

I can stop my dog dead in her tracks with one word. Other words can have her back up, lie on her side, or up on all fours, or even two legs. Another word has her change direction or hand me a paw, for inspection. I abhor leashes and through training, I never actually use one, even if it's there, for legal reasons.

"A leash is for the law, not for control," I'm known to say. I feel sorry for all the dogs I see being choked by their owners, and yelled at, and having their freedom restricted because their owners have failed to properly train them. It's such a shame. And so needless.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for a fascinating comment. I have grown up, myself, from an adolescent who used to be believe that I wanted a "natural" dog, by which I thought I meant an "untrained" one (I was probably reacting to what looked to me like undue militarism in the only "trained" dogs I was ever aware of seeing: show dogs). I suspect that the trainer with the barking dog in your example didn't actually *know* how to train a quiet. I think (but am not sure) it's too hard to do with traditional force-based methods. That's why the Sheltie belonging to one of the most successful traditional trainers here in my neck of the woods has been surgically debarked. Talk about criminal. . . . I can't make any real claims to having trained Nelly to any very high degree, but I admit to a small-minded pride whenever we walk by a class, given in the local de facto dog park, by the fellow I simply call The Nazi. (A friend once saw him instructing a woman in how to kick her dog.) Predictably, several dogs from the class break and run over to Nelly, who is likewise off-leash. She's got a darn good Off in the presence of other dogs, I have to say, simply because from the beginning I conditioned her to the appearance of any dog by giving her a treat. Now I only have to say "Off" for her to turn to me with alacrity. (No, this doesn't work with rabbits, sorry.) And then I heel her away, while the cries of "Rover, come! Come!!" echo away. I make sure I give her a treat, too. The Nazi says dogs must work for praise only. Too bad most of them just won't.

marjorie said...

(Oops! It's me, Marjorie, not anonymous. I'm sleepy, I guess.)

Oh, your example is just awful. Any ol' fool can call himself a dog trainer. That's something that should change, although the certification process would be frought with all kinds of inequities (such as having "jerk & yell" trainers write the exam).

I think each person should train his/her dog in the ways that matter most to that dog owner. Don't get me wrong. Classes that help people learn the basics are terrific. Every dog should (reliably) know sit, come, and heel, at the very least. But if you don't need your dog to do certain tasks or, more correctly, you know you're just not interested in practicing a littany of commands every day, then you should accept that, and make sure at least the basics are covered.

What I find disappointing is the competitive nature of so many people. As I said, I think people should teach their dogs what's important to them, rather than adhering to some external dictate. I don't (or at least try not to) "judge" people based on what they haven't trained their dogs to do. As long as the dog is friendly and under the owner's verbal control, that's all that's important to me.

The other day, the road that leads to a local dog park was closed. I was unsuccessful in finding an alternate entrance, so I drove over to the main entrance of the conservation area...where dogs must be on-leash. Knowing I'd invariably find some dog owners illegally running their dogs off-leash, I planned to ask them if they knew of another route to the off-leash area.

One gentleman was kind enough to lead me there, "We're going in that direction, if you want to follow along."

Well, the conversation eventually made its way to training and responsible dog ownership. I told some story about my two dogs (at the time) being the only ones in a huge group of dogs who could reliably sit/stay, and how surprising that was to me, at the time. That's when the man inexplicably stopped, asked his dog for a sit, then used a hand gesture which I presume was meant to direct the dog into a down. It didn't. "Good sit," the man grudgingly praised.

Do you see what I mean? The guy was actually trying to make his dog sit (and possibly down) just to show off how "well" he'd trained it, as per my story. I find those situations so creepy. It just goes to show that so many people have dogs in the hopes of boosting their own egos.

Sometimes, they come out of nowhere. I was at an off-leash park one day, minding my own business, when out of the blue, a man came up to me and, with a glint in his eye, said, "Watch this." He called his dog over and said, "Find (Martha)." With glee, barely able to contain himself, he pointed as the dog tore off (in a classic "send out") to a group of trees in the distance.

Baffled, the only thing that came to mind had nothing to do with the dog's send out, but to question why this man's wife was over there, rather than with him. When my husband and I are at off-leash parks together, we're usually holding hands. At the very least, we're within feet of each other. But then it occurred to me that the man was just trying to show off his dog's send out. 'What the...?' I thought. (Imagine me calling someone over, then taking my dog through the paces of the dozens of commands she knows. ...Pathetic.)

Like you, I have trained my dog to behave in the way I expect of her. For instance, I have yet to ask my dog to drop some other dog's ball in a public setting, where witnesses didn't gasp in apparent amazement. "Out." (Dog instantly drops ball.) What's so difficult about that? But if you saw the majority of dog owners, it's clear a reliable "out" is rather elusive to them. (I consider that command one of the most basic.)

But we practice. It's all well and good to teach a dog a particular command, but if you don't practice it, especially through distraction, it'll never be reliable. When you need your dog to comply most, she'll probably fail. And that's the antithesis of what training is all about.

It's fabulous that you can DEMONSTRATE what good training can do, in front of "the Nazi" and his pupils. (I wish I could be there to witness it!) Usually, in situations similar to that, I'm invariably asked, "How did you get your dog trained so well?" That's my golden opportunity to spread the word of responsible and ethical dog ownership.

As far as the Sch. trainer is concerned, my take on him is that he is totally focused on just those behaviours that are required in competition. Anyone who keeps his dogs locked up in pens most of the time, at least in my opinion, doesn't really like dogs, anyway.

I don't know that gentleman well enough to say if he falls into this category, but I will say that I'm always highly skeptical of ANY man who calls himself a dog trainer. Far too many of them are in it for what it does for their egos. ...Not that some women aren't like that too. I just find that too many men think training is about intimidation, then use their dogs as some kind of status symbol.