He was my mother’s best friend’s dog. Densie brought him home from Idaho as a puppy, he was purported to be a wolf hybrid, and judging from his looks and behavior, he probably was. She was an artist, a photographer, a chef, a fascinating woman who had been part of my life for as long as I could remember. When she brought Henry to me for training as a puppy, I had high hopes. He was a quick learner, even if he was overly reactive and a bit shy. Densie was an incredible woman, but she was not cut out to be a dog trainer, she quickly gave up on instilling any sort of expectations. They lived a few blocks from me in New York City, we visited often. Henry became increasingly difficult as he got older, as a young adult he became a serious resource guarder. I remember a dinner at her house, an assortment of literati and famous artists sitting on long benches at her kitchen table with Henry lying quietly underneath. Quietly, that is, until someone dropped their napkin and made the mistake of trying to pick it up. Henry erupted, snarling and lunging, hackles raised, more wild animal than urban canine. Miraculously, there was no major injury, Densie ushered Henry into another room for the remainder of the party, and it just became a topic of conversation. But I could see the writing on the wall, he was not a safe dog, and he had absolutely no manners, dragging Densie down the street, trying his hardest to pick up every bit of edible garbage he could find. Her friends, for the most part, feared him, everyone had a story about Henry. He would become another statistic, an untrained dog who could not be re-homed, a dog who would be euthanized because of a loving, well intentioned owner who was just a bad fit.
He lived for thirteen or fourteen years. He never felt any more kindly toward the world at large, he never had what the rest of us would call manners, and for his entire life he was the bane of every veterinarian who had to see him (he was ridiculously healthy, fortunately, so these visits were really just routine check ups and vaccines, and he was always brought into the office muzzled). But here’s the thing about Henry. Despite his foul attitude, he never actually bit anyone, mostly because as he got older, Denise got better and better at management. And as much as he did not care for the world at large, he doted on Densie. Toward the end of her life, after a car accident left her quite incapacitated, he was constantly at her side, her best friend, the one companion she could count on day or night. When friends (usually) jokingly said disparaging things about him, her eyes would fill with tears. He was a bad dog, but he was HER bad dog, and she loved him.
As a dog trainer, it is really easy for me to see, as an outsider, all the things that could be improved, all the warning signals of things that might go wrong later on down the line, but is that what I should be doing? Sometimes I do need to point out less than optimal habits and behaviors that a person has developed because changing those things will help them achieve the relationship they want with their dog, but if I find myself doing this as a default, if I find that I am looking at each team, each new client and seeing all the things that need to be fixed, it might get in the way of seeing all the good that is already there. If I impose myself too much, I miss really understanding who this person is, who this dog is, what their team is like. Some people are quiet, undemonstrative, reserved. Others are bubbly and loud and appear constantly outwardly happy. Likewise, some dogs exhibit joy in easy to understand ways, wiggling and wagging and smiling like crazy, whereas other dogs move calmly and quietly through life, with maybe a soft look or a gentle wave of the tail.
My job is not to impose, my job is to facilitate, to work with the good I see in the team before me and help mesh it into better, to identify ways to smooth out what that team finds rough, not to point out jagged bits that never bothered them.
How easy it is to find faults with dogs like Henry and owners like Densie, but to what end? How many people do we help when we tell them, no matter how gently, that they’re doing it all wrong?
I have met charming, intelligent, loving dog owners who did things, or accepted things from their dogs that I would never dream of as acceptable. When we visited Alaska, virtually every dog we met was roaming around off leash. It made me nervous, but honestly, it’s not my place to say, their culture is different from the urban area I come from, and their dogs do just fine. I cringe when I see people do things with their dogs when I ‘know better’. Seriously, that’s ridiculous. Obviously there’s a line here, somethings are abusive, stupid, or dangerous. Sometimes people do things that are abusive, stupid or dangerous because they don’t know better, and then it makes sense to find a tactful way to intervene. If we are honestly introspective, how often is the behavior or action in question truly a danger to dog or human? I don’t mean the ‘I once knew a dog who… and it ended really badly’, but truly terrible? My guess is not nearly as often as we self righteously like to think it is.
A friend once told me about her disappointment because she had seen a wonderful video of a dog doing amazing tricks, the dog and handler looked wonderful together, happy and engaged, a lovely and loving team. But when she had explored the handler’s facebook page more fully, she discovered that this person had used a prong collar on the dog, which made her abusive because we all know those things are bad. I was fascinated, because when she mentioned the prong collar, I assumed what I thought was the obvious takeaway, that this person, with their clearly lovely relationship with their dog, had used a tool that can be seen quite controversially, and done a wonderful job with her dog, and maybe we are wrong to judge tool use that is different from ours so quickly and harshly.
As dog trainers, I feel strongly that our job is to meet teams where they are, and use our expertise to help them forge the relationship they want as easily and seamlessly as possible.