It started this morning when someone visiting a neighbor asked me about Murphy's prong collar. "Aren't those mean?" "Nope, only if you don't do any training and are a heavy-handed lunk." "You should use a headcollar." "He hates them, so no." "But they're so much more humane." "Um, not to the dogs who hate them." "He must really hate that collar." "He doesn't really feel anything about it. He has no reason to. " "Well, if he hates headcollars he HAS to hate that. Why don't you consider switching?" " Because I care far more about how my dog feels than I do about the latest fads and the opinions of strangers." People make me tired. The snark was going to happen eventually. I don't care for headcollars (Suzanne Clothier does a great job of summing up all the 'whys' here: The Problem With Head Halters), but I learned long ago to be flexible when it comes to living beings. There are no such things as always and never. All animals are different. I feel the same way about training methods. Just because a specific method can train a chicken to perform a simple behavior in a controlled environment, doesn't mean it's appropriate as the exclusive method to train all animals to do all things. I learned that, big time, about 20 years ago when I was working with greyhounds almost exclusively.
The first class I ever took was with my first greyhound, Garth. I had been reading tons of stuff on +R (you have to write it that way so people think you're all educated in the secret ways of positive reinforcement) and the use of clicker training, it's effect on the limbic system, etc. and was all indoctrinated and ready. I was ready to install the software into my dog via this "infallible" method. I took a few psych classes while in college too, and we studied behaviorism (and the various theories) at length. But even so, it still didn't occur to me to question why a training method would employ such a narrow aspect of one type of behavior theory, and employ it exclusively for a broad (read:unlimited) spectrum of animals and behaviors in essentially every situation, and call it science. The things I had read about dog training this way were very compelling, and furthermore disparaged all other methods for one reason or another. Besides, everybody who was anybody was doing it this way, and the only reason it wouldn't work like magic is if you screwed up. Nothing could go wrong there. Nope. (That was sarcasm, btw)
Then I went to class. The instructor was an awesome human being who I've been in touch with on and off ever since. Class one was without our dogs, and we had the chance to try two different teaching methods on each other. The first was clicker training in its purest form: Shaping. We were to train each other via this method, and see how we felt about being both the trainer and trainee. It was pretty eye-opening to be the trainee. I experienced an unbelievable level of frustration (as did several others, some actually giving up) trying to guess what I was supposed to be doing, and only sort-of 'learned' what I was supposed to. The second method we tried was lure-reward. It was quick, positive, and all the trainees were successful. Eye-opening, and the timing couldn't have been better. Trying to train most greyhounds via 'shaping' exclusively would be...interesting. They don't throw a lot of behaviors at you (most throw none) and all of mine would just stare at me until they were bored and then go lay down. They can be a challenging dog to engage and KEEP engaged (but individuality is always a factor). In the end I found that some combination of lure-reward to teach the beginnings of behaviors and clicker training to refine them worked best for my hounds, with some pressure-release-reward for leash work. It depends on the individual animal, and that's the most important lesson I ever learned: The animal in front of you is far more important than adherence to any theory/tool/etc. In the end, it's clarity and your personal sense of fairness above all that matters (compassion, kindness, an understanding of the individual animal's needs/feelings, responsibility in management) that matters far more. To the dog in the front-connect harness that has to jog with his shoulders immobilized and his arm-pits being rubbed raw, that tool is not humane. To the dog damaging his spine throwing himself around and lunging into a body harness or a flat collar, those tools are not humane. To the dog who's being driven crazy by the thing on his face, who's owner misreads his resigned expression as calm and happy, that tool is not humane. (These articles are helpful: Why are Choke or Chafe My Only Options, Not So Gentle Leader?). I know people who have done horrid things to their dogs without ever touching a prong collar, so it seems silly and petty to me to get so worked up about something so irrelevant. When you get obsessed with the tiny, irrelevant stuff, you tend to lose sight of the big picture. Almost any tool has a place. It's a personal philosophy of putting the dog first that is the highest priority for me, and being mindful and educated in the proper use of ANY tool (which isn't the same thing as reading the propaganda) before using it on my dog. Period.
But then there was Fee. Fee was, hands down, the most dangerous, aggressive and unpredictable dog I ever owned. To me, he was living, breathing (and flying and shrieking) proof that the 'nature' part of the 'nature vs. nurture' argument was very relevant indeed. Fee was the nickname for my greyhound, Kiefer (Anselm Kiefer, actually), and to his friends he was The Mighty Fee. It is exceptionally unusual to have a greyhound like Fee, but the rescue knew his litter would be, well...special. Each of the litter mates were place in experienced homes. Fee was not the worst of them (even so, there is a photo of him on page 93 in the book Dog to Do Communication by Jamie Shaw, in the chapter about aggressive dogs. Seriously). He was the one dog I ever had or worked with that wore a head collar successfully. Given his resistance to just about everything, it was a shocker. Even so, it was what it was and I went with it. He was really wonderful on leash and was very easy and cooperative in training, but having the ability to control his head was of paramount importance. I usually walked him in a basket muzzle to be on the safe side, but it was important to me that he was walked and had the chance to see a lot of new things. Interestingly enough, he had no issues with other greyhounds (Well, usually. He did start trouble with Garth on one very memorable and horrifying occasion. Fifteen hundred dollars worth of vet bills in less than 30 seconds. A new record). I took him to Delaware for the annual Greyhounds Reach the Beach event, and he was a perfect angel. But in every other way his behavior broke all the rules (and a couple of bones. He could hurt himself on himself). One of the biggest challenges was how damned fast he was. I had roomates when Fee was young. Being a dog-person, I was very much in the habit of never leaving food around. Having always had big dogs, that included the kitchen counter. My roomates didn't really think of such things so Fee learned to counter surf. It was a habit he never broke, even after years of never finding food on the counter. He would also snatch food from the unwary. He knew better than to try with my daughter or me, but my half-sister was lifting a burrito to take a bite and suddenly found her hand empty. Fee had it snarfed it down so fast there was no getting it away from him (also, the consequence of trying might be the loss of a few fingers). Fee spent time in his crate when nobody was home and when folks were eating from that point on. He actually really loved his crate. And I loved Fee. In spite of himself, he was a Momma's boy who slept on my head because he just couldn't snuggle close enough.
My roommates had the occasional visitor ( I say occasional, but one visitor actually stayed for several months, living in a blue school bus in my driveway) and I always gave them the rundown on the dogs, especially Fee. I was a boarding kennel at the time too, so the usual policy was pretty much 'don't mess with the dogs'. At the time, I allowed dogs on my furniture, so folks were briefed on how to get them off the furniture safely should they need to. It amounted to pointing at the floor and saying "off", and insisting. The dogs were pretty great about it and jumped down without argument. One of the visitors (a city girl) thought she would do it her way, and she grabbed Fee (of all the dogs, ugh) by the scruff with the idea of pulling him to the floor. He gave her a warning-snap (an EXTREME example of self-control for this particular dog...phew!) and the visitor freaked out. She started yelling "He bit me! I'm filing a report!" (He didn't. She had a red blotch where he smacked her. If this particular dog had really wanted to bite her, we would have been calling an ambulance), so I thought I should help her along. She asked for the phone number to animal control, and I gave it to her. She called, and the line was busy. Of course it was. She was calling my number. I tried really hard not to laugh, but I was only somewhat successful. It was kind of poetic. When she figured it out she looked really bummed that she wouldn't be creating any real drama that day. To be fair, I wasn't actually animal control, merely the answering service for them. I did the triage. If there was a genuine emergency, I would call my friends who actually WERE animal control. If it was a neighbor dispute between two rich flatlanders who were using animal control to harass each other (it happened a lot, unfortunately) then I could just make my friends aware of it when I saw them. Most of the relevant calls involved dogs in need of rescue or at large. Such was the nature of animal control in Huntington.
Eventually, my friends grew tired of the BS and quit animal control. My phone was much quieter, and I was grateful. Then, one day, a knock at my door. I opened the inner door, and through the screen I saw a small man wearing a cowboy hat with a gun on his hip. I thought "Does this guy think it's Halloween?" He identified himself as the new animal control 'officer' (his word) and said he was making the rounds and "making his presence known" to local dog owners. Hmm. I said "So, you're new." "How do you know?" "because I used to answer the phone for animal control. Also, folks don't usually live on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere because they appreciate impromptu visits". "You have a lot of dogs in there. Are they all registered?" "I'm a boarding kennel. Hey, did you talk to Olga (the town clerk) before making your rounds?" "Why would I do that?" "It seems she could answer a lot of questions for you. Save you some steps." "Can I come in and see the dogs?" "Not with that gun, you can't." "Ain't nobody's gonna get this gun off me!" "Then you won't be coming in my house." "But I'm a law enforcement officer..." "No, you're not. And even if you were, it wouldn't give you free access. Have a nice day." My first intro to the new animal control officer. I wondered how many people had met him.
I had coffee at the local store the next morning (it's what people did). The topic of conversation was the new animal control 'officer'. He been dubbed Deputy Dawg. I had a feeling nobody would take him seriously, and I was right. We passed the time for awhile, drinking coffee and swapping stories. Deputy Dawg, it seemed, had had a very unfullfilling couple of days. I wondered how he would deal with the rich flatlanders. I chuckled a bit to myself when I thought about it.
And that's how a train of thought really gets rolling. It starts with a comment, and ends with too much time on one's hands and long-forgotten memories about things that weren't really that important. I lost Fee a few years ago to cancer. Losing him changed the way I do a lot of things, and inspired my research into canine-feeding. I loved that dog, so much. He was holy terror, covered in scars of his own creation, but he loved with his whole heart in the way that dogs seem to do. He even let my daughter paint his toenails pink. Well, when he was asleep. I never did have to call an ambulance for anyone on his account, and he taught me a lot. That's the key. I could have handled him a number of ways: I could have given up on him and taken him back to the kennel, I could have had him put down because he was challenging, or I could have "managed" him into an isolated and lonely existence. I didn't. In fact, I've never done any of those things. Instead, I thought I could try something new, learn something, and accept him for exactly who and what he was, and expand my thinking to encompass what Fee needed to lead a long (though not long enough), happy and fulfilling life. I liked that idea better.