In the cold, predawn darkness, I could barely make out the form of my four-month-old Siberian Husky pup, Tikaani, as he tugged against the ten-foot line that was secured to a nylon climbing belt fastened around my waist. With a low center of gravity built for easily pulling a heavy sled across frozen terrain and a nearly black coat, I was only aware of his presence because of the persistent jolts to my lower spine and the accompanying wheezing and hacking that occurred each time Tikanni threw his weight against his choke collar in an attempt to make me walk faster. It was only day three of his training, but the sporadic forward thrusting that was typical of young pups of his breed and the high pitched labored breathing caused by the collar that was nearly choking him had already subsided a great deal. I knew from experience raising sled dogs in Alaska that just a few more 5 mile hikes with the same rigging would curtail Tikaani’s instinctual, but reckless desire to charge down the trail at breakneck speed and teach him instead, to adopt the controlled, mile consuming gait that would be necessary for the urban sledding I had planned for him. Even though it was still dark, I closed my eyes and imagined Tikaani pulling my mountain bike up a steep mountain trail or along a sunny country road like some aberration of my childhood as a junior Musher in Alaska. I felt the familiar sting of the cold morning air as it blew past my cheeks as I swayed to the rhythm of Tikaani and I moving as a team. At that moment, I smiled. Everything was good and as it should be. Not just because my hope of urban sledding with my pup would soon be realized, but also because life, the Master Teacher was guiding his training. Tikaani was rapidly learning from the feedback he was receiving from being anchored to me by a ten-foot line and a choke collar while I was taking an observatory back seat. Through his self-discovery, he was adjusting his pace and his power, all on his own, and in a few short months, the choke collar would be replaced by a harness, our walk by a run, and me, by a bike or a sled. Life indeed was the Master Teacher, and I wasn’t the least bit worried about letting him instruct Tikaani the way he knew best.
I’m not sure exactly when, or why it happened, but many dog owners have lost their trust in the ability of the Master Teacher (life) to teach their dogs without harming or killing them. Instead, these owners now control every aspect of their dog’s existence and take great care never to allow them to suffer the consequences of their actions. Worried stiff, they fail to realize their efforts are depriving their dogs of the essential feedback necessary for not only their dog’s survival but for it to establish a safe and harmonious coexistence with humans. Recently, after sharing my story of Tikaani with a few of my clients and friends, I was met with a look of horror from all of them. “Weren’t you afraid he would choke himself to death?” they all asked. “No,” I replied, and before they could ask why I went on to explain that all mammals were given the ability to flexibly deal with changes in their circumstances by developing solutions to any problems their new condition creates. Every time Tikaani strained too hard against his choke collar with me in tow, the collar squeezed the powerful muscles of his neck sufficiently enough to make his breathing difficult. When Tikaani’s oxygen debt climbed beyond his ability to tolerate it, which was way below any level that would have caused harm to his trachea, he instinctively dialed back his pace and his effort to drag me until the collar loosened amply enough to allow his breathing to return to normal. In less than a week, Tikaani developed a solution to a change in his ability to breath every time he dragged me too hard and too fast by simply slowing his pace until it coincided with my ability to keep up with him. Lesson learned, breathing back to normal, no damaged trachea, and all accomplished with only supervised and controlled exploration and cause and effect.
Our lack of trust in our dog’s ability to learn some things on their own through controlled and supervised exploration and cause and effect (even if the result is discomfort or pain), has severely crippled their learning potential. After all, no lesson is more enlightening and permanent than those that are self-taught, especially, if those lessons do cause discomfort and pain to the student. As a consequence, the majority of today’s dogs are ill-equipped to deal with anything the least bit uncomfortable or even remotely painful in their environment. Typical external stressors such as weather events, loud human-made noises, separation from owners, encounters with unfamiliar humans or dogs, traveling in vehicles, trips to the vet, and obedience training, are causing a significant number of dogs to suffer from the harmful and debilitating effect of pathological stress. This is because, when the adult canine brain is unable to interpret a signal, or it has not learned how to safely respond to it (the result of insufficient learning) the default mechanism is fear and avoidance until the brain learns otherwise. If this wasn’t bad enough, when the avoidance option becomes unavailable, such as the case when dogs are leashed, these fearful dogs learn through their self-discovery that causing pain and discomfort to unfamiliar humans and dogs that are improperly deemed as threats, will make them go away!
This unnatural, overprotective desire we have to ensure our dog’s acquisition of knowledge never experiences any emotional or physical discomfort has not only created a higher number of unlearned and aggressive dogs, it has also created an unhealthy and imbalanced state of mind that leaves us too paralyzed to take necessary action to ensure a safe and happy coexistence with our canine companions. For instance, a few years ago, I had a visit by a woman with an uncontrollable and aggressive German Shepherd. During the interview portion of our training lesson, I learned that she and her husband never ate dinner at home because the dog constantly harassed them. Family and friends never visited because they feared for their lives. All of the furniture in their house, except for a sofa, bed, and television (all obtained from a Goodwill thrift store) had been placed in storage to protect it from the dog. Any attempts to walk the dog were made hours past the couple’s regular bedtime to lessen the chances of encountering strangers with or without dogs. Unfortunately, that plan backfired because the people and dogs they wanted to avoid were out walking late at night because they too were wanting to avoid other people and dogs like hers! As a result, walks ended altogether. Lastly, plans to sell their home and purchase a new one were put on hold because they were unable to afford the repairs needed to fix the damage the dog had done to their current home.
Control, a valuable commodity that was missing in that household, had to be gained to save a fast sinking relationship between the owner and her dog. So, on went, the same type of collar that had been instrumental in regulating Tikaani’s speed and power, and attached to it was a four-foot leash held firmly in my hands. Like Tikaani, the large dog threw his weight against the collar and like Tikaani, he quickly experienced a drastic reduction in his ability to breath. However, unlike Tikaani, this dog had had its way with everyone and everything for months. It had used its unabated power to exert complete control over its pack (owners) and take over their home and their lives, and it wasn’t about to give up any of that control to me anytime soon. Over and over again the dog thrashed and bucked and flung its entire weight against the collar, but I held steady while closely monitoring his efforts to ensure his safety was never compromised. After what seemed an eternity, but was, only a few minutes, the dog solved its new problem with its breathing by ceasing its fight with the collar, the leash, and me. Afterward, when I looked into the dog’s eyes, I saw no fear or what we humans would call resentment. Instead, I saw only calmness. The dog had merely adapted to a change in its circumstances by adjusting its behavior while on a leash, and it was time to move on. Lesson learned, breathing back to normal, no damaged trachea, and like it was with Tikaani, all accomplished with only supervised and controlled exploration and cause and effect.
Sound like a happy ending? It wasn’t, and that’s the point of the story. After gaining the first ounce of control over the dog ever, I handed the leash to his owner and instructed her, with pride, to take her newly behaved dog on a walk, and that’s precisely what she did, right to her car. The next day she called me, sobbing, and told me she could not do that to her dog. When I asked her why she was crying, she replied, “I don’t want to continue to live like this.” When I asked her what she was going to do, she answered, “I guess, nothing.” In an instant, the owner became a martyr while the dog continued its uncontested reign. Ironically, in a twist of fate, the owner that couldn’t bear to have her dog experience the pain or discomfort that was necessary to establish a safe and happy relationship with it, was mauled by the dog a few months later and a court order subsequently euthanized the dog.
Twenty years ago, a story like this woman and her German Shepherd would have shocked me. It no longer does. Her story is just one of the hundreds I could write. We have become weak dog owners. We don’t want to make our dogs suffer enough to control them. Even if what is required to establish control is very mild, we would rather not go there. The same goes for us. In our own lives, we don’t want to suffer at any level. The problem is, suffering is unavoidable. It’s part of the Master Teacher’s plan. Suffering creates problems. Problems generate the need for solutions. Solutions create learning. Learning helps us avoid the suffering from which it was borne. Proper training places our dogs in a position to learn from this model. Through controlled and supervised exploration, our dogs experience cause and effect while developing solutions to the problems we present to them. This is good because hard fast learning and reliability are only achieved through some level of suffering. Otherwise, why bother? Such is life for our dogs and us, or least it should be and could be if we still trusted the Master Teacher.
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