Sunday, August 22, 2010

Excerpt from A Dog Walker's Tale

Sometimes a Golden is just a Golden

I first met Sam when he was about nine months old. Sam’s people worked all day so I was engaged to provide him with a mid-day walk. Being an adolescent Golden Retriever, Sam was brimming with energy and enthusiasm and not surprisingly, pulled on the leash. Like most dogs, he responded to my consistent reminders that the fun, that is the walking, stopped anytime he didn’t follow my rules. So, if he pulled or crossed in front of me or crossed behind me or leaped around like a lunatic, the fun stopped. He came to understand that the joy of walking continued when he stayed on my left side and used the six feet of leash allotted to him sensibly. Because of this I can state with certainty that Sam was not intractable nor retarded nor untrainable.

Still, Sam’s people felt he was out of control and consulted a dog trainer. Every place probably has a “dog whisperer” or two. The fancy dog trainer Sam’s people choose was busy cultivating a big name for himself locally. He was even on the news. Sam’s people agreed to let this expert use Sam as an example in an exclusive infomercial. The camera grimly displayed Sam’s carnage. A gutter broken loose from the garage lay crumbled on the lawn while the dog guru’s voice explained that the unruly Sam had ripped it down and gave it a good shake. A frayed area rug: wild Sam chewed it to ribbons. Dents on a wood cabinet leg: crazed Sam gnawed it into sawdust.

Sam’s people appeared on the screen looking stiff and pale. “We love Sam but he is so hard to manage,” they said. “We just don’t know what to do.”

Fear not! The super dog trainer was there to save them. Sam jumps on guests? No problem. Sam is possessive of his toys? We’ll fix that. Sam doesn’t always come when he’s called? Piece of cake. The master dog trainer had all the answers.

Now, at this point I’m asking myself, how would I handle these minor snafus in a young dog’s development into a well mannered companion? For instance, he jumps on guests? Have the guests help you train. Use the guest as the reward. As long as the dog sits calmly, he gets attention from the guest. He jumps, the guest ignores him. Sounded sound to me. Alas, poor Sam. It became clear that I, a humble dog walker, could not compete with a would-be famous dog trainer.

You see, the expert dog trainer had a superior method. Fit Sam in a special collar that has a box attached to it that allows a volt, or many volts, of electricity to be zapped into Sam. A couple of prongs protrude from the box so that the zap can be directed directly into Sam’s skin. The collar is buckled tightly so that the prongs dig into Sam’s throat. This allows for a fuller spectrum of discomfort to be meted to the offending Sam. The unit comes with a handy remote control so the user can shock the dog from afar and near. And conveniently, this highly credentialed dog trainer can sell you one on the spot.

Thus Sam was rigged up and ready to be shocked into good behavior. So, Sam jumps on that guest? ZAP. Time it right and before you know it, Sam will dread every person that enters the house. He’ll run and hide under the bed. But at least he will have stopped jumping on guests.

It is a testament to Sam’s character that he did not become an angry and violent animal after this “training”.

Fast forward a few years. Sam’s people have a baby. I walk Sam twice a week.

The babysitter remarks, “isn’t Sam a handful?”

“A handful?” I reply. “ No. I find him well behaved and delightful.”

Babysitter tells me Sam is “dominant”.

“Why do you say that?” I ask.

“Oh, well, Sam’s daddy told me that Sam is dominant. “

I had never noted dominant behavior in Sam. He never tried to take over leadership when he was with me. He was always content to let me be boss. He was never particularly assertive toward other dogs we met while walking. So I asked, “how is Sam being dominant?”

“Well,” Babysitter says. “Baby is crawling now and Sam gets in the way. He wants to join in with the baby and it makes my job harder.”

Gosh, I did not know that dominant is just another word for wanting to be part of the action.

The Sam episode has taught me many things. One is that some folks actually believe that a Golden Retriever should have all your rules mastered when he is still a puppy. And there are “professional trainers” who prey upon that erroneous belief for their own gain. Another thing I learned is that some people think an adult Golden should quietly mind his own business and not attempt to insert himself into the domestic affairs surrounding him. That is shocking.

I wonder what the hot shot dog trainer might recommend for dealing with Sam’s “dominance” with the baby. Put the collar on and shock Sam whenever he gets within three feet of the child? Shock Sam if he attempts to play or cuddle with the youngster? The potential for misuse with this shock system is staggering. How about if the kid reaches up to touch Sam and sticks his precious little finger near the shock point? And just at that moment Dad decides to “correct” Sam with a zap? Timing is everything- in dog training and in life.

Such aversion therapy may be a good method to get a dog to stop chasing cars but to shock a dog when he is doing what a family dog is supposed to do seems downright delusional. Sam remains a sweet and gentle dog. But for some dogs such aversion begets vengeance. Is that why so many gentle family dogs “suddenly” bite someone in the house and end up in a shelter?

Some days when I arrive to walk Sam he is wearing that shock collar. I remove it and hang it on the hook where the leash is kept. Then we walk without drama or difficulty. Sam is a lovely Golden Retriever in the prime of life. His tail is in almost constant joyful motion. Sam seeks out mail carriers because many of them carry dog treats. When we are done with our walk Sam sits and waits while I return the leash to the hook inside the closet door. I slip him a treat and say good-bye. When I return for our next scheduled walk, Sam will be ready to go. Nothing shocking here.

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