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Dancing with Dogs: The Necessary Art of Leading

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Dancing With Dogs and The Necessary Art Of Leading.
by Jude Acosta

A while back the director of an animal control agency of a major city had received a call from a television station asking about a little girl who had been bitten and if they could do a story on dangerous dogs. As they collected some information, they discovered that the dog responsible for the attack was a smaller Cocker Spaniel mix and not the Rottweiler, Pit Bull, German Sheperd they expected or wanted. They effectively hung up the phone because the story didn't have any ratings potential.

What do we expect from dogs? We certainly seem to want them, even need them around. In New York City, there are 8 million people and almost 3 million dogs. We have trained them to be warriors. They fought alongside us from the time the Roman Legions used the Mastiff. We have bred them to love us and seek our laps for comfort, to hunt with us, dig for rats, chase down foxes, and protect our herds from wolves.

We leave our babies in their vigilant care, work with them to sniff out drugs in airports, soothe the elderly in nursing homes, and pull our rescue sleds. They are our best friends, our guardians, our playmates, and our healers.

Yet, we abuse them, vivisect them for experiments, or foolishly treat them as if they were stuffed dolls. We expect them to be as perfect as they are in Disney films, but they're just dogs. They're as messy, fidgety, needy, loud, and persistent as they are loving. And each one is an individual with its own genetic legacy, its own temperament and its own particular preferences.

I am walking my two 85-pound mixes, both rescues, down the street. Both are on lead, in heel position, one to the right, one to the left. Out of nowhere a beautiful chocolate Lab, easily 100 pounds of muscle and kinetic energy, comes lumbering out of his human's front yard. His tail is wagging, but when you know the language of dogs, you know instantly it is not play time. His chest is thrust forward, his eyes glaring and fixed on us.

I am caught off-guard and startled. I move to corral my dogs and get them across the street quickly without getting hit by a car. A woman, on the phone, comes after him, Oh, come here, boy, come, come. He doesn't listen to her. Why am I not surprised? My dogs react aggressively. They were as scared by his approach as I was. They bark, whine, try to lunge. I have them firmly, but every muscle in my arms, back, and shoulders is straining.

Frustrated, angry, we run across the street. The Lab is still and satisfied now, but my dogs are barking and agitated. Adrenaline still courses through my body. "Some dog you got there!" she yells across the street. Her dog charged us, her dog was off lead on a busy street, and she was angry that my dogs reacted.

I have only within the last several years had the joy and responsibility of living and working with dogs, but I am amazed at what I did not know and continually surprised by what other dog owners still do not know. Her dog didn't do anything wrong. He's just a dog and he was marking his protectorate. She let him off lead in an unfenced yard when his obedience to her was questionable.

Dogs are dogs. True, they are not wolves and do not have the knowledge to survive in the wild that wolves and coyotes do. But while they may be domesticated, they are still dogs. Their instincts are strong and, depending on the breed, may be more or less inclined to run after squirrels, be wary of children and strangers, or take aggressive stances against other dogs. When I first got involved with dogs and was truly ignorant, I thought all dogs liked all dogs. Lassie did. And that-along with the reputation of Golden Retrievers-was all I knew. When one of the dogs showed signs of dog aggression, one woman commented to me, "Figures you'd get the ONE dog that doesn't like other dogs." After spending a long time wondering what I was doing wrong, I discovered how misinformed she was. While many dogs are more tolerant of other dogs, many are not, unless they are socialized from infancy.

Some breeds were unfortunately singled out for warfare and protection. Chow-Chows were bred to guard the imperial family and later, were bred (God forgive us) for food. Only through radical intervention was the breed saved. Mastiffs, American and English Pit Bull Terriers and Bulldogs were bred for fighting. Bulldogs were so aggressive in Roman times, the emperor decreed that they were to be kept off the streets. Malamutes are naturally suspicious of strange dogs and will tend towards a dominant position. Akitas are highly territorial and devoted to only one master. But even the most timid breeds can take aggressive stances to protect their territories and their packs. Two delightfully social Papillons I know have decidedly varied tastes in other dogs and make their predilections quite clear.

That beautiful chocolate Lab was only doing what dogs are supposed to do. Even Labrador Retrievers have the instinct to stake out their territory, investigate intruders, and let the newcomers know who's boss. People think that Labs and Golden Retrievers are harmless. That is a mistake. In one survey, Retrievers were listed as the number one biter. In another survey, it was Cocker Spaniels.

Dogs are dogs. They don't fail us. We fail them. We fail in our expectations, which are largely unrealistic. We fail in our inconsistency and neglect, leaving them alone for hours and hours at a time, when they are highly social creatures. We fail by forgetting to train them, leaving them off lead, then getting angry when they don't come to us on command.

When people let their dogs off lead in a public place, I sometimes wonder out loud, Do you love your dog? They inevitably answer, Oh, but he's friendly. And then I have to say, But did you know whether my dog was friendly?

As it turns out, many dogs are not friendly. One woman who owned an Akita described what it was like to walk her dog in Brooklyn Heights. There was this French couple who refused to put their poodle on a leash. I used to beg them, argue with them, threaten them. It didn't matter. They felt their dog should be "free." Well, it was certainly free when it ran up to my dog, surprising her, and then wound up in her jaws. I was able to get her out, thankfully, but that poor dog should never have been put in that position.

Worse were the glares and recriminations she received as if her dog (or she) had done something wrong. What did they expect from a female Akita?

I have never met a dog (or even heard of one) that liked everyone (dog or human). Dogs, like some humans, communicate in very direct ways. They will not write memos or excuse themselves gracefully. They let their antipathy be known in no uncertain terms.

Unfortunately, when they give us clues and warnings, many humans slap them or stop them. They growl, lower their ears, bare their teeth, snarl, stick their tail between their legs. Only when they feel there are no other options, they bite. By not allowing them to growl, we have given them only one option. They go from 0 to 60 in no time at all.

What makes a good dog? A good human. A long-term, loving relationship in which the human is comfortable, kind, and consistent with his or her authority and can put that together with the responsibility it entails. In populated areas where there are other dogs, children, and cars, that responsibility means walking them on a lead.
I decided to get a dog a few years ago, after a really awful heartbreak, figuring I could use the companionship and the diversion. When I told my colleagues, friends and family members I was going to get a dog, I was surprised at how unenthusiastic they were.

Even the most animal-loving responded tentatively: Are you sure you wanna do that? They're a lot of work, you know. At the time, I still had two cats and I can recall one friend with a wicked wit who said to me, You really don't want to get married again, do you? Maybe, maybe not. But the truth underlying her comment didn't make itself clear to me until months later. She knew something about dogs I didn't-that I was going to fall in love and that it wouldn't matter one iota how much work, how much time, or how many personal demands caring for them involved. If it meant getting up at 2 in the morning, no problem. Take out ticks, fine. Clip nails, wipe up stinky messes-it's all part of the deal.

As any dog owner knows, these are children that never grow up. They never learn to speak with words, clean up after themselves, or take their medicine when they have to. They never look both ways before they cross the street and have no concept of the damage a three-ton truck doing 50 m.p.h. can wreak on their little bodies. They stay dogs-little children-forever. They need, indeed crave our guidance and structure as much as we value them for the love and protection they give us. Letting our dogs off lead in public is no less than a betrayal of the trust they have placed in us.

I was about to say that we wouldn't let our toddlers run into traffic, when I recalled one incident not too long ago. I was walking both dogs when a woman and her little girl were coming down the street. Suddenly the child starting running towards us and the woman was saying, sing-song, Say hi to the doggie.

I grabbed both dogs and high-tailed it out of there faster than we could kick up dust. We so badly want to think the whole world is safe that we seem to be compelled to act as if it were. If that child had managed to reach my dogs, the normally more docile one, who is afraid of children, would have snarled at her. If she had reached towards his face and he had left even a mark on her, he would have been held accountable and forced to pay the price with his life. But who, indeed, would have been accountable?

Dogs have given me the education of a lifetime by forcing my accountability for everything I do. I'm responsible for their safety. What I didn't know is that to care for them properly I'd have to learn to understand and speak a new language-to communicate with them through repetition and an awareness of the vagaries of the spoken word and the importance of body posture or gesturing I didn't have before. I never knew how many ways I used the word "come," for instance. Or how many meanings there were for "down." I had to rethink everything and speak with a conscious awareness of how those words would be interpreted so that "come" only meant one thing and couldn't be used for "come in," "come on," "let's go," "get up," or the million other possibilities.

I remember the first time Angie, my black Lab/Malamute/Chow mix, "got it." When I rescued her from a home in which she had been kept in the basement, much of the day alone, she had almost no training whatsoever. She was also terribly sick and uncomfortable with chronic colitis. We embarked on a journey together that had me terrified at the start and has me tearful with gratitude today. With help from a homeopath, she is well. And with help from a handler, she is a delight-calm (except with strange dogs), gentle, protective. But when I got her, she wouldn't listen to anyone or anything. We had to start from scratch.

We practiced every day starting with a 30-foot lead in the back yard. I'd say "come" and she'd poke her nose deeper into a leaf pile. A quick tug on the leash and she would look at me, then go back to tracking new scents. It took more repetition than I care to admit, more kibbles than I can count, and more love and patience than anyone else had ever imagined I would have. But, one day, standing in our fenced yard, no lead, I was talking on the phone as Angie poked around looking for traces of the neighborhood cat. I said, (loudly, I guess) Oh, COME ON! into the phone when, suddenly, I felt a big hairy head nudge my leg and big brown eyes looking up for praise.

A dog is a dog is a dog is a dog. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

J. Acosta
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Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico. She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)

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