I Think It’s An Attitude Problem

On November 4, Downtown Dog Rescue posted a story on its Facebook page about a man who came to the shelter to retrieve his lost dogs. He did not know the shelter charged a redemption fee, and only had enough money to get back one of the dogs. So DDR commented,

This is not s shelter problem or a pet problem, this is a poverty problem. From what we see, we think that a lack of money, lack of full time permanent employment is killing more shelter pets than any other factor. What do you think?

(Just FYI, it all ends happily. The man said he would come back the following week for dog #2, after payday, but money was found to redeem both dogs together.)

I am sure that poverty plays a role, perhaps a large role, in why people surrender their pets. If it’s a choice between feeding your kids and feeding your dog, any functional parent will choose the kids. When people lose their jobs, get evicted, or fall seriously ill and can barely afford treatment for themselves, never mind someone to care for the pet, animals end up in shelter because people lack money for other choices. (Which is why Fairy Dogparents is my favourite animal charity– their sole purpose is keeping people and pets together when money gets tight.)

But how big a role poverty plays, I don’t know. Now, I have no statistics or studies to back up what I’m about to say, so feel free to disagree. I think the reason many pets end up in shelter is the attitude of the owner. And that attitude can be summed up in four words:

“It’s just a dog.”


“It’s just a cat.”

For many people, it’s a decision of convenience. They want a smaller home, and the Great Dane just won’t fit. The cat had kittens– how did THAT happen? The dog needs a $2,000 operation. Yes, he’ll recover, but that will blow summer vacation, so let’s just put him to sleep.

People bring dogs and cats into their homes without understanding they are now, in fact, responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of living creature. It isn’t a toy you play with until you get bored, or something better comes along. I have been asked, multiple times, “But– you’d get rid of the dog/cats for the right man, wouldn’t you?” Through these people I have perfected my Laser Stare of Death. I can see it– reluctantly– for someone young, if Mr. or Ms Perfect has allergies beyond his or her control. But I really don’t get why anyone who loves animals would hook up with someone who doesn’t. It’s such a fundamental difference in character I see it as a red flag. (Maybe someone in a mixed marriage can set me straight.)

Other people, on the other hand, will do whatever they need to do for their furry friends. I know people at the dog park who have spent thousands on vet care. Some dogs made it, some didn’t. I think Blanche is still paying off Princess’s final visit to the vet, but she has no regrets. “I would never have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t tried,” she told me. Years ago, My Dearest Friend spent $3,000 she didn’t have on Blackie. “How could I tell my kids,” she asked, “that I put their dog to sleep for something that could be fixed?” So people do it, even when it’s hard. It’s a matter of attitude.

* * * * *

According to Petfinder, one of the top reasons people surrender their pets is because they’re moving (see full study here). In this bizarre city, about 90% of leases run July 1 – June 30. Every year, as people move, there is an explosion of animals brought to various city shelters. The SPCA estimates that their intake almost triples from 600 animals per month to almost 1,600 in July. This does not include the animals found abandoned in apartments. Sometime people honestly can’t find an apartment that allows pets; this is especially true for people of limited income with limited options, which supports Downtown Dog Rescue’s poverty assertion. But some people just don’t care, no matter how much money they have. They want the better building, or the urban setting on the 20th floor that isn’t conducive to dog-walking. And the dog is history.

I think a society can be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members, and treating a dog or cat like an object rather than a living creature is a sign of selfishness. Handing it over to a shelter, regardless of whether it will live or die, without a second thought, without researching other options, (or worse, abandoning it) is a terrible way to repay the love and trust that animal has put in you. I struggled forever with whether or not I was the best “dog parent” for Our Best Friend; I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that he would be better off with someone who fed him better and walked him more often. It took my vet to convince me that OBF, in her words, “would rather stay with his family.” She’s right. You’re not just caring physically for an animal– there’s an emotional bond as well. When I leave town, the dog stops eating. I don’t understand how people disregard that.

Three times in my life, I have been forced to give away cats (twice they weren’t really my cats– they just landed on me, and I couldn’t care for them). Each time, I made absolutely sure it went to a no-kill shelter. And all were adopted. But each time, the decision was agony and left me in tears. I cry to this day, thinking about them. So yes, I get it; issues of poverty or health or life stress will force many owners into a decision that is acutely painful. But the key is, it should be a difficult decision. It should not be something you do without a second thought. Because people like that shouldn’t own pets in the first place.

Posted in animal rescue, cats, Dogs, life, pet ownership, pets, society | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

October Sucks

It has been the GLOOMIEST month.

Most days looked like this:

An ominous cloud hangs over the dog park...

An ominous cloud hangs over the dog park…

It’s rained. My lord, has it rained.

Our Best Friend is stinky and needs a bath. I booked the bathing room at the local pet store (they have a free, bring-your-own-stuff grooming room), but had to cancel because I was sick. So he’s still stinky.

Every time I went to the park, there was no one there I knew. Last time there was NO ONE THERE AT ALL.

Where IS everyone???

Where IS everyone???

The Kansas City Royals even lost the World Series.  I am bummed out about that.

I’m declaring a stop to all this nonsense. Things have to get better in November. I can’t stop it from getting colder, but it’s going to get better.

I need to clean the house, top to bottom. Then it will be less gloomy INSIDE.

So far I have one walking buddy who spends an hour with me and Our Best Friend every Monday. I need a few more of those. Any volunteers?



And the damn dog is getting a bath.

Yes, everything will be better in November. After my gum surgery on Wednesday.

For those of you celebrating, have a fun, safe Halloween!


Posted in Dogs, life, pet ownership | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Life Gets in the Way

Somehow or other I always procrastinate my monthly post until the very last week of the month. This month that was a very bad strategy. Last week was Rosh Hashanah; today and yesterday were spent making a snap decision to change my child’s school. While the decision had to be made quickly, the process was a long time coming. Over the last year, we grew increasingly unhappy with the school she was in; in the end they just couldn’t convince me that they would help my child achieve her potential, or protect her from playground bullies. The new school isn’t perfect– no school is– but it has smaller class size (only 14 kids vs. 22 in the last school), and the school’s pedagogical philosophy is much more in tune with my own. Still, it’s a very hard transition. For both of us.

So here it is, September 30, I’ve had three hours sleep in the last 24 hours, and I’m so tired I feel sick. 6:15 a.m. comes much earlier than I can handle.

Why, I want to know. Why do people– young and old– waste time on meanness and pettiness and spite? Why does an 11-year-old get run out of a school we chose with such care because kids have to form cliques that include some and exclude others? And the adults, who are supposed to protect the children, make excuses and rationalize the behaviour? It’s no wonder some people eschew the company of people for the companionship of dogs and cats.

But life is too short to hang on to anger and hostility. Forgiveness is critical to mental health and social healing. This Friday night is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when we ask God to forgive us for whatever we have done wrong in the past year, and pledge to improve our behaviour in the coming year. And it’s important to note that God only grants forgiveness for transgressions between man and God. If one has wronged another person, only the wronged party can grant forgiveness. But very few have the courage to apologize when they know they’ve hurt someone else.

So if I have committed any offense to any of my readers, I hope you will forgive me. Let me know what I did, so I don’t do it again. And we’re going to leave our anger and frustrations behind us, and remember the people at our previous school who did try to help, who were as heartsick as we when things didn’t work out. We might even go back for high school next year. If we haven’t left town for a new life.

This isn’t a typical Dog Park post. That’s what happens when you’re tired and frazzled and life gets in the way of the fun stuff. But this is what life is about too. Change and transition and hurt and forgiveness and hope. And love. For our families, our friends, our animal companions, our communities, and most of all for ourselves. We need to remember that we are deserving of love and respect, and that what is unhealthy and hurtful needs to be left behind. It’s a new year. It’s a fresh start. It’s time to move forward. And may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good life in the coming year.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Lorie Huston, DVM, whose death today shocked and saddened the pet-blogging world. I didn’t know Dr. Lorie, but many of my friends did, and I saw her name around the blogosphere everywhere. Kristine of Rescued Insanity remembers her as “kind, funny, and smart.” Mary of Tales From the Back Road calls her “engaging, smart, and helpful.” Mel from No Dog About It says she learned so much from her, that Lorie always listened to and cared about other people’s concerns. Now friends are scrambling to find homes for Lorie’s six rescue cats, and those who loved her are coping with the tragedy of her death. Our hearts go out to them. May Lorie’s generosity of spirit and compassion for all living things be an inspiration to others to bring more kindness into the world.

Posted in children, Holidays, life, society | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments


Once upon a time, there was a Mommy who had three little girls: an Oldest, a Middle one, and the Youngest.



When the girls were little, they all loved dogs. They played with their uncle’s dog, Zach; they babysat their friend’s dog, Blackie. And when Blackie stayed with them, they would spend time at the dog park.

The girls loved the dog park. They played with Princess, the golden retriever, who would trot over the minute she spotted them. They petted Dante the Italian greyhound, and marvelled at his tiny agility. And there was Morris, who could jump higher than your head, and loved to romp with the girls.

But the Middle one was the one most in love with dogs. She was most overjoyed when Blackie came, and begged hardest for a dog of their own. Finally, when she was 8, the family started to foster dogs. First came Cookie, then Bernita, then the fiasco of Cocoa and Caramel. Just as the family was ready to give up on fostering, along came Our Best Friend, who joined the family forever. And they should have lived happily ever after.





But life never freezes in its moment of perfection. The girls’ mommy and daddy divorced. Princess and Dante both crossed the Rainbow Bridge, and Morris went to live in another city. Trips to the dog park became a rare occurrence, rather than a common outing. Eventually, the older two girls stopped wanting to go to the dog park altogether.

Their enthusiasm for dog ownership waned as well. The Middle Child, who for a number of years had begged for a second dog, decided that one was more than enough. Taking him out was a chore akin to cleaning the toilet– only worse, because in winter you have to put on your parka and boots. They still loved him, they called him “the softest” and “the lovi-est,” but they no longer wanted to have their own dogs one day. The Youngest became the only one who still couldn’t imagine life without a dog.

* * * * *

At the park last week, I saw a girl who looked about 11 years old. She walked among a group of dogs, patting each one, and when Our Best Friend trotted by, she patted him too. He stopped and wagged his tail, and she crouched down in front of him to scratch his ears. My heart ached a little, remembering my older girls at that age. and who are now too old and too cool for this any more. I hope the Youngest keeps that innocence a few more years.


Posted in children, dog parks, Dogs, pets | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Inappropriate Behaviour

Most of the time, I’m very proud of Our Best Friend. He’s come such a long way. When we first got him, he’d go nuts barking if he saw a dog blocks away. It was such an embarrassment. And if we tried to shut him up, he’d growl and snap at us. Now he can greet another dog with an appropriate sniff and tail wag, and only goes bonkers occasionally.

How good dogs behave at the park

How good dogs behave at the park

Our Best Friend does not play with other dogs. I joke that he has Asperger’s; he doesn’t get doggie social cues. When other dogs play-fight, he jumps around them, barking madly, like a canine recess monitor convinced that two kids are about to hurt each other real bad. Puppies annoy him; when they jump on him, or attempt to lick his face, he barks them off. He’s given a few dogs a bad fright, but he’s never hurt anyone. I can usually count on him to leave other dogs alone.  Most of the time, he just does a lot of sniffing, and sometimes he’ll play a short game of chase. But every so often, he takes a shine to another dog, and his behaviour can be… inappropriate.

Last time we went to the park, none of my friends were there. There was no standing about chatting; I just walked the oval path around the park, with Our Best Friend trotting along. And then he decided to make a friend.

There was a lovely brown short-haired pointer, playing in a group of dogs. OBF went over, sniffed him, and must have decided he liked the smell. Because then he proceeded to hump him. When other dogs try doing that to OBF, they get warned off pretty fast. For whatever reason, the pointer– who was clearly male, by the way– didn’t seem to care. He just stood there placidly, as if nothing was happening.

“OBF!” I yelled. “Stop that!”

He didn’t stop until I walked right up, at which point he jumped down and gave me a sideways, guilty look. I hustled him off. I didn’t know who the dog’s owner was, and no one said anything to me, so we just continued walking.

Now remember, the park’s an oval. So we walked around again… and once more, OBF went straight to the point(er).

“OBF!” I yelled. “Stop that!” And again, he didn’t stop until I was close enough to drag him off if necessary.

How cute dogs play

How cute dogs play

In all the years we’ve been going to the park, I don’t think OBF’s displayed this behaviour half-a-dozen times, and certainly never more than once (maybe twice) with the same dog. Yet he went after this poor dog at least four or five times. That pointer must have been wearing steak spice cologne. Sadly, there was one person there I know but don’t care for, because in subtle ways she makes it clear that she has a low opinion of OBF. And there he was, confirming her opinion of him as a doofus.

Other than Lady Snotball, no one reacted. Not the dog, the owner never came forward. Thankfully, no one was getting hurt, but still…. I’m sure that’s not what the pointer came to the dog park for. That’s not why anyone goes to the dog park. Not why I go, anyway. Maybe OBF has been waiting for the right dog friend for years.

Obviously there are no pictures of this event. This is a G-rated blog (most of the time), and I think if I’d pulled out my phone and said, “Wait! I need a shot for my blog! Keep going, OBF!” that might have provoked a reaction from someone. Nothing like the owner behaving as inappropriately as the dog.

So tell me– what does your dog do to embarrass you?

I'm a good boy-- honest.

I’m a good boy– honest.

Posted in Dog behaviour, dog parks | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Bad Dog Mom– Bad!

Our Best Friend went to the vet two weeks ago.

“He’s gained 10 pounds since last year,” Dr. B. said sternly. “What happened?”

What happened, she asks.

Well, I was out of town 3 days/week all year… and it was just about the coldest winter ever… and we got no exercise at all… and  atPassoverIchangedhisfoodfromdietkibbleanddidn’tchangeback.

He doesn't look so bad here...

He doesn’t look so bad here…

“Why not?” she wanted to know.

Why not. Because I found a grain-free brand from Costco that was almost half the price of what I was feeding him. The ingredients read better. And because I’ve come under the influence of people who think my brand of kibble is not nutritionally sound (fine, they might think it’s dog poison), and I was hoping to give him a better diet.

Dr. B. was not amused. “There’s nothing wrong with the brand you were using. It’s better than letting him gain weight and possibly developing diabetes and other health issues. It’s going to be very difficult for him to lose this weight now as he gets older.”

Like I don’t know that.

I love Dr. B. I really do. She is a great vet, she doesn’t over-vaccinate, and she’s always encouraged me to keep my dog, in spite of the insanity and hardships. She even gave Momma Cat a free vet visit because she supported my fostering a feral family. But I really, really, didn’t want to put Our Best Friend back on his old food.

So I did what I always do when I have a dog-related question these days. I turned to the blogosphere.

After considerable discussion, I reduced OBF’s food to two cups a day, and committed to a 30-minute walk daily. It’s not enough for a dog of his energy level, but I don’t want to make promises I know I’m going to break. So far we’ve managed, although it’s getting hot and humid now, which means the walks are increasingly evening walks, as I don’t handle heat so well these days.

What? Me? Steal kibble? You got the wrong cat.

What? Me? Steal kibble? You got the wrong cat.

By the end of the summer, I’m hoping we’ll have come down a few pounds (and I do mean we). I want him to stay healthy and live a long life.

(We won’t mention the fact that the cat steals his kibble, which is ruining her diet, and that his teeth need better attention too. There’s only so many sins you can confess in one post and still keep your readers.)

Posted in cats, Dogs | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

A Visit

In the last year, I have been living my life in fragments. I have three, discrete, separate lives that almost never intersect, yet each part completely essential to my well-being.

Springtime in my adopted second home

Springtime in my adopted second home

Part one is my professional life. I have been pursuing a degree in counselling since September 2011, and over the course of three years built both a social circle and professional network in another city, 200 km from where I live. By going part-time over three years, I overlapped with both the class of 2013 and the class of 2014, so I graduate with twice as many friends and contacts. And in April, I completed my internship at a social service agency where I felt completely immersed as an integral part of the team. On my first day there, one of my co-workers/supervisors said, “I’m sure you’re going to do great. The only thing you have to worry about is not wanting to leave when it’s over.” Prophetic words– I miss being there like an ache in my bones.

The second part is my personal life, my friends and family. I have friendships that stretch back to grade school, some back in my hometown, some elsewhere in Canada, and some in Israel. Then there are relationships built over the course of the last 20 years, here in the city I’ve lived in since 1994 (but plan to leave soon), people who support me day-to-day, who saw me through pregnancies, child-rearing, divorce, and now my commuting lifestyle.

Ithaca's most famous restaurant

Ithaca’s most famous restaurant

The third part– and this part is very new– is my online life. It started with this blog. Over the course of almost 4 years of blogging, I slowly built up a network of fellow pet bloggers, and these friendships have come to be more and more central to my life. In 2012, I went to Ithaca, New York, and met Pamela of Something Wagging. She was the first blogging friend I met in real life, and today she came and returned the favour with her husband Mike and Honey the golden retriever.

Because it was Shabbat, there are no pictures to share. We took the dogs for a walk and talked– about dogs, about religion, about politics, about houses and architecture. And we talked about the guiding principle of online friendship– acceptance and non-judgement. The blogging friends we have in common never argue cats vs. dogs, Democrat vs. Republican, deist vs. atheist. We are all those things, and we allow each other to be all those things. We talked about what unites us, not what divides us. What we share is the desire to see more kindness, more justice, more equity, more compassion in the world. I can’t even tell you what we differ on, because it is so irrelevant it’s never come up.

In so many ways, my on-line friends mirror my dog park friends. No one cares about how much money you have, what you do for a living, your race, religion, or country of origin. It boils down to, are you good to your dog and your fellow human beings? Are you a responsible member of the dog park / online world?

P1100807The dog park has one iron-clad rule–pick up the poop. Don’t leave it for others to deal with, or worse, step in. It’s kind of the same online, except there the rule is don’t fling it at other people. Unlike the dog park, though, it’s okay to share it, to ask for support, to get help dealing with the s**t in your life.

Pamela and I didn’t get to the dog park today. But the dog park, via this blog, got me to Pamela, and all my other blogging friends. I never dreamed, back in April 2009, that Our Best Friend would bring with him so many blessings. All I did was take in a stray dog. If we reap such benefits from kindness to animals, I can only imagine what blessings would come if people could be this kind to each other.

Posted in Blogging, friendship, society | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

I Promised You One Post Per Month

So here’s a gratuitous picture of my dog:


And one of a clumber spaniel:



Posted in Blogging, Dogs | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

The Evolution of Doghood

Scraps & Matilda

Scraps & Matilda

The Ex is allergic to cats. Violently. He once ended up in the ER (on Martha’s Vineyard, no less) from a reaction to his sister’s cats. I gave up my Charlie when we got serious; we had a cat for five weeks in Israel, which ended up at the Jerusalem SPCA. (Breathe easy, everyone, it’s a no-kill shelter, I made sure, and when I called to check on him, he’d been adopted.) And in 2008, the girls and I cried when we had to bring two lost kitties to a rescue because my garage wasn’t exactly a suitable foster environment.

“You can get a cat now,” he said, when the marriage ended. (He was trying to console me. Honest.)

I laughed. “Right. Our Best Friend would be WONDERFUL with cats. And I can barely afford his vet bills and food.”

Now here I am, two years post-break-up, with three cats.

When Momma and her kittens first arrived last June, we kept the basement door closed so Momma could nurse her babies in peace and security. I knew Our Best Friend wouldn’t eat them or anything, but he’s loud and rambunctious, and I thought he might present a mental health challenge for the felines.

We started bringing the kittens upstairs for short periods when they were about 10 weeks old. Polo was terrified, Draq less so. Around September we started to leave the basement door open again. The kittens were old enough to come up and down on their own, and had started meowing at the door. Momma stayed safely ensconced in the basement, and hid under the couch when OBF would come down with me.

Is this a tail I see before me, wagging toward my hand?

Is this a tail I see before me, wagging toward my paw?

Meanwhile, the kittens were getting braver. And Our Best Friend’s good nature shone through. The kittens batted his kibble across the floor and occasionally tried to eat it. They drank from his water bowl. And last week, while Our Best Friend slept curled up next to me on my bed, Draq walked across the pillow and tried to lick his ears. His ears twitched in his sleep, out of her reach. After a few attempts she gave up and curled up on me, right next to him.

Someone's been displaced

Someone’s been displaced

If you had told me five years ago that our neurotic, reactive dog would go nose-to-nose with a kitten, tail wagging gently, I would not have believed it. If you told me they could drink from his bowl and sleep on his bed with impunity, I would have laughed. But for Our Best Friend, the kittens have become two more lambs in his flock. It’s routine now for Draq to brush against his leg as she walks by. For a dog who hates to be touched by other dogs, this is nothing short of a miracle to me.

And Momma Cat? Well, I got up at 2:30 a.m. a few weeks ago, and found Momma and both kittens curled up on the dog bed. I don’t know where Our Best Friend was sleeping, but wherever it was he was unconcerned about defending his territory. Momma now comes to the top of the stairs every morning to remind me about breakfast. Sometimes she gets bold and ventures into the living room or kitchen. If Our Best Friend ends up between her and the basement stairs, she will sidle past as far away as possible, spitting once in his direction before haring downstairs and vanishing under the guest room bed.

Momma and Draq hangin' in the living room

Momma and Draq hangin’ in the living room

I suspect the day will come when I will find everyone piled up asleep in a heap. Even Momma might come around fully one day. After all, if Our Best Friend could go from nutjob to gentleman, there must be hope for her too.


Posted in cats, Dog behaviour, Dogs, pet ownership, pets | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Learning Helplessness

A few weeks ago at the park, I met a dog named JJ, an adorable mutt with floppy ears and a lean, boxer-ish body. I noticed he was a bit rambunctious, and always being called on it by his owner, but he seemed pretty happy and goofy to me. The next time I saw JJ, I realized his “owner” was actually his trainer. His owner was a middle-aged woman, who explained that JJ had been “wonderful” for the first year and a half, then went “a little bonkers.” The trainer was there to help re-socialize him. As I went after my own dog, I heard her say something about learning how to deal with JJ’s behaviour, and the trainer reply, “That’s why I gave you the control.”

Clicker training,” I thought, and turned to see. I’ve always wanted to try clicker training with Our Best Friend, but haven’t gotten to that point yet. Then I realized; he said “control,” not “clicker.” I looked back at JJ, and there it was. Above the chest harness, high up on his neck: a shock collar.

* * * * *

In the late 1960s, Dr. Martin Selgiman, later to become president of the American Psychological Association, was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. In a behavioural experiment with dogs who were exposed to electric shocks, Seligman made an unexpected discovery. Dogs who could terminate the shocks by use of a lever would attempt to escape shocks in later parts of the experiment. Dogs who could not escape the shocks in the first part of the experiment made no attempt to escape the shocks in later parts of the experiment, even though escape was possible. They would merely lie down and whimper rather than attempt escape by jumping over a low partition. Having learned that they had no control over the pain in one situation, the dogs believed they had no control in any situation. Seligman called this response “learned helplessness.”

Since then, learned helplessness has been correlated to pessimism and depression in humans. Those dogs were pretty depressed, too. (In an interesting side note, today these experiments would most likely not pass an ethics committee and would not be authorized. Back then, there were no ethics committees. Psychology was the Wild West.)

* * * * *

Our yard is not fenced, and I was very used to Blackie, who is extremely well-trained, has a docile nature and no prey drive. I could let Blackie out in the morning, she would trot off to do her business, then return to the back porch. If I got distracted (or fell back asleep), she would curl up on the porch and wait for me to come back. We couldn’t do that with Our Best Friend– he ran after every squirrel he saw. One time he took off through the back yard of the neighbour behind us. After 20 minutes of frantic searching, we found him back on our block, just standing a few doors away from our house, looking puzzled and not sure how to find home. We have only taken him out back on a leash ever since.

Given this behaviour, and the nuisance factor of bundling up in winter for a two-minute pee, an electric fence seemed like an excellent idea, but the cost was out of our reach. Instead, I considered a shock collar. But there was something about the idea of shocking my dog that I couldn’t stomach. I don’t know why the collar bothered me more than the idea of a underground electric fence; it was probably just the personal nature of actually administering the shock myself. I kept thinking of Seligman’s experiments and learned helplessness. I didn’t have the heart to press that button.

* * * * *

My Dearest Friend has a friend named Leslie, who owns a large Rhodesian Ridgeback. For some reason I don’t remember, this dog became reactive to chocolate labs. Yes, chocolate labs. She would go nuts if one crossed her path. Apparently Leslie tried everything, until she finally resorted to a shock collar.  That, MDF told me, solved the problem. As MDF uses a pinch collar on Duke, I kept my opinions to myself.

Then one October morning in 2011, I got up bleary-eyed to let Our Best Friend out to pee. I intended to go straight back to bed, so I decided to let him out in front on the extenda-leash while I hid in the house. When I opened the door, the first thing he saw was a squirrel. Dashing into the street in pursuit of the stupid rodent, he pulled the leash right out of my hand, yanking me forward, and smashing my face into the wall beside the door.

I screamed. My nose was dripping blood all over the stairs.  The kids fell out of bed, the Ex came running. He went after the dog, brought him back inside, and we put him in “stay” on his bed. Our Best Friend had shame and guilt written all over his face, the Ex was livid, and I was scared out of my wits. It was stupid dumb luck that he hadn’t been hit by a car, and I wasn’t seriously injured (my nose wasn’t broken, but it was badly bruised and sore for several weeks).

“Leslie is right,” I thought. “I am getting a goddamn shock collar. And I’m going to write a post called ‘In Praise of Shock Collars.’ And too damn bad if people don’t like it.”

The post is in my drafts folder. The collar was never bought.

* * * * *

My Middle Child slept through the first six weeks of her life. Then she woke up. And she continued to wake up every 45 minutes all night long until she was 16 months old. As you can imagine, it was quite exhausting. I was chasing a toddler and nursing a baby all night long. “Ferberize her,” Everyone said. (That capital E is not a typo.)”Ferberizing” comes from Dr. Richard Ferber, author of Cure Your Child’s Sleep Problems. Dr. Ferber believes that babies who wake frequently have not learned to self-soothe; if you let them “cry it out” for increasingly longer periods each night, within 2-4 week, baby will be sleeping on her own through the night.

The first night she cried for two solid hours. Then she started sleeping longer periods. But she still woke up at 2:00 a.m. and screamed relentlessly until I went in. I gave up after 5 days. That’s when I realized I wasn’t teaching her to “soothe” herself. I was teaching her, “It’s dark, there is no one here, and no one comes when I call.” Even if she had eventually slept through the night, she wouldn’t have learned to self-soothe. She would have learned she was helpless. And that she couldn’t count on me in times of distress.

* * * * *

So back to JJ.

I don’t know what made JJ go “a little bonkers,” but I don’t believe that a shock collar is the answer to off-kilter social skills. It’s like swatting a fly with an elephant gun.

I don’t know what methods Leslie tried before resorting to a shock collar. Maybe she needed the problem solved fast, before her dog badly injured another dog. After all, you can’t live in a chocolate-lab-free-zone.

And maybe I’m a soft-hearted fool. Maybe my dog would be less in danger of injury or even death if he was too terrified of pain to chase squirrels. Or maybe a few good shocks would bring back that fear aggression that five years of of love and patience have all but eradicated. I don’t know.

I just feel in my gut that hurting animals is not the way to train them, any more than letting babies cry for hours on end teaches them to self-soothe. The Middle Child is now 14 and waking her has become the challenge. It has taken five years, but Our Best Friend’s anxiety and fears are lightyears from where they were in March of 2009. Instinct– and I stress that it’s instinct, not knowledge, not education, not experience– tells me that shocking my dog would have made things worse, not better. He responds to love, not fear tactics.

Babies and dogs can’t tell you what they’re thinking. You can’t know what a dog is thinking when that shock goes through his body, any more than Dr. Ferber really knows what’s going through an infant’s head in the dark of night. I don’t believe a baby is thinking, “I’m a spoiled brat, and I’m going to cry until I get my own way!” or “No one’s there? Guess I’ll go back to sleep.” I know a dog isn’t thinking, “Gosh, I deserved that. I won’t leave the yard anymore.” Instead, they learn that no one is there when you need them, that pain comes when you react to fear, or worse, when you’re only trying to have fun. 

We aren’t teaching obedience. We are teaching helplessness. We’ve known since 1967 that this a bad thing to do. Why haven’t we learned the lesson?

Posted in children, Dog behaviour, Dog training, Dogs, pet ownership | Tagged | 15 Comments