THE DOG IN OUR WORLD
The key to a successful relationship with any living being, whether animal or human, is interest. The more curious you are to learn as much as possible about your dog, the greater the potential for a deep bond to develop between you, because after interest comes respect, commitment, and love.
To help create this bond, it is important to begin by examining the relationship between dogs and humans. In this chapter I will take a look at the issue of how people and their dogs find one another. Then we will look at a typical crisis in a dog-human relationship. I'll offer some general information about how dogs' experiences of the world differ from ours, and I will make some introductory comments about training. You will find this chapter especially helpful if you already have a dog. If you are thinking about getting a puppy, this chapter will provide some important guidance, and you will find additional information in Chapter 15.
There are many different ways that dogs end up with people. Some people grow up with dogs; others acquire them only when they are older. Although I was passionate about animals from early childhood, I was not allowed to have a dog until my freshman year in high school. My mother limited my choice to a toy or miniature poodle, partly
because they don't shed and partly because she liked the image of sophistication that the breed projected. Although I was disappointed not to have other options, I got a frisky little poodle I named Kisty (Kisty was short for Conquistador), and we became good friends.
A friend who lived nearby also had a poodle, and once we realized that it took all of our baby-sitting money just to pay for grooming, we saved our money, bought a pair of clippers, and learned to groom the dogs ourselves. We started attending training classes and showing our dogs in obedience competitions. Soon we were caring for other people's dogs while they were away. Before long we were also being asked to groom dogs, so my career with animals actually began while I was still a teenager. By the time I was in my twenties I had already made the commitment to helping animals in need. My house became a haven for them, I had horses in the backyard, and I was busy training, showing, and breeding Irish setters, a breed I had long admired.
My animal family is still very large by conventional standards. At this writing, Hearthside Animal Center, in Cornish, New Hampshire, contains a dog pack of assorted breeds that numbers nearly thirty, plus nine cats, two cockatiels, six ferrets, a rabbit, and a guinea pig. There are four Arabian and seven miniature horses as well as chickens, turkeys, and doves out in the barn. Most of these animals have been rescued, and I am fortunate to have George, who has worked for me for four years, primarily doing repairs, maintaining the grounds, running errands, and assisting with animal care. In addition to her, I have volunteers who believe in my work and who come and help with their care and training.
Rescuing a dog is one thing. Choosing one is another. And then there are those dogs who make the choice themselves. Red, a client's dog whose timing was impeccable, was one such dog.
I first met Red when an elderly man named Charlie brought her to training classes. Charlie was a gentle giant who always wore a fedora, a flannel shirt, and red suspenders. His hands were enormous and had been used hard and well over the course of his life; he had a warm, compassionate disposition and a charming sense of humor.
Charlie was born into a family of culture and wealth, but he was adventurous and loved being outdoors, so he went out west when he was a young man to work on different ranches. Now he was too old for that life and had come back into genteel society where the furniture was polished and clocks with brass pendulums ticked out the long minutes of each day.
Charlie was finding life pretty dull when Red just walked into his yard one day and made herself at home. It was as if she knew that Charlie was looking for a spunky dog like her to liven things up. It was news to him, but he soon saw that she had a serious relationship in mind, and she fit his temperament well. They became inseparable.
Red had a strange build and the straightest legs I had ever seen on an Irish setter, which gave her a strange walk, as if she were on stilts. Extra clumps of hair grew like an old rug on her shoulders and hips. She looked like she was wearing chaps; maybe that was why Charlie found her so appealing. Red also had a crazy way of sitting, sort of askew on her haunches. She would hold that position, and when she was intent on something, she would put one leg out straight in front of her, as if she was pointing.
Red had a bit of the devil in her, which Charlie adored. He would correct her, but he'd shake his head and smile instead of getting angry when she ignored him. One time he took me aside after class and said, "So, April, do you think Red's ever gonna be a nice old lady?" It got to be a joke between us over the years, as our mutual appreciation of Red's unique personality drew us into a close friendship. I always replied, "Charlie, Red will be an old lady, but she's never going to be a nice old lady!" He seemed to find this reassuring.
I was right about Red; she had real integrity, and you just had to respect her for it. Incorrigible to the last, she left her awkward body at the ripe old age of fifteen. Charlie went downhill fast and died not long after. It was as though he had lost some of his zest for life, or perhaps he lost his reason for getting out of bed in the morning.
Not long before he died, Charlie gave me a picture of Red. In the photo she is sitting in a rocker on his front porch, looking right at the camera, with his old fedora perched on the top of her bony head, and her long, silky ears hanging down. She looks as though she is saying, "What a life, huh?"
Red chose Charlie, or maybe you could say they recognized that they needed each other. But there is no question that she filled his final years with friendship and style.
There are many wonderful stories about dogs who have turned up at special times in people's lives, either as friends when friendship was needed or as powerful opportunities for growth and learning. Frequent and inspiring as these stories are, they are not the norm. It is more typical for people to choose their pets than the other way around, and it is important to remember that this can be a life-or-death question for the dog.
According to a 1994 American Humane Society survey, as many as 60 percent of the 8 to 12 million dogs entering shelters that year were put down, usually because the dog had become uncontrollable due to human ignorance or neglect. This amounts to an average of over six million dogs a year! I know of one European dog breeder who refuses to sell his animals to Americans because he says we are a throwaway culture. My many years of experience with rescue work have led me to draw the same sad conclusion: we live in a disposable society. When there are problems in the relationship, it has become more expedient for many people to say, "The dog no longer works for me; I'll just get a new one."
The number of dogs who are mentally unstable or physically unfit to be companions is small, however, compared to the number whose lives are held cheap. Our culture allows the indiscriminate breeding of millions of dogs. Those who don't make the grade, or who dont have homes because there are simply not enough people to adopt them, are killed. Even greater numbers die because of human ignorance: of the millions of dogs put down in the United States yearly, more are killed because of behavior problems than for any other reason. In one 1985 study, 10 percent had been euthanized for biting, 23 percent for aggression, 17 percent for house-soiling, 15 percent for barking, 15 percent for chewing, 7 percent for fearfulness, and 5 percent for digging. (These percentages include dogs who exhibited more than one undesirable behavior.) Tragically, most of these deaths could have been avoided through a combination of inspiration, education, and some kind of system that deals with the issue of accountability.
It saddens me when I hear of the loss of so much potential.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Beyond Obedience by April Frost and Rondi Lightmark. . Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.