Saturday, November 14, 2015

Garbage Out, Garbage In (or "Meet Lugh")

Celebration Pic for Lugh's 2-Month Anniversary
in His New Home
Lugh is my newest canine companion. I met him at Free Spirit Siberian Rescue (where I volunteer). He was so calm, sweet, and passive. His unique blue merle coloring and big brown eyes won me over quickly. When Loki first met him, I think it was brotherly love at first sight. So, December 19th, 2014, he came home to be part of the family.

He was really nervous in the new environment. All Loki wanted to do, of course, was play. Lugh was okay with that, up to a point. He wasn’t as fit as Loki, so I had to make sure he had plenty of down time.

On that first night, I also discovered that Lugh did one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen a dog do: He ate his poop. All of it if, I would let him. (And, no, I didn't.)

At first I thought it was probably because he was hungry, and I theorized that this was how he supplemented his meager diet while in his kennel in California (before he arrived at Free Spirit). Indeed, he was skin and bones when we met.

Then, when a friend of mine was watching the dogs while I was out, Lugh threw up on the floor. In a non-threatening manner, my friend went to stop him from lapping it back up. He told me that Lugh scurried to a corner and cowered. My theory had now changed. I suspected that he had learned to clean up after himself to avoid punishment in his last home.

After about a month, I thought I may have figured out why Lugh ended up at the shelter. Eating his own poop wasn’t the only issue he arrived with. He also ate paper. His (extremely) high energy can lead him to become destructive as an outlet. He escaped from a kennel. It’s likely his previous owners didn’t know what to do with him.

That’s the story I tell myself, anyway. In fact, I don’t know anything about his past. It’s all guesswork based on his behavior in an attempt to make sense of it. I am trying to understand him, and there is nothing wrong with that. And telling myself this fictitious story has been beneficial. By feeling like I had a sense of why Lugh was behaving as he did, my sense of empathy made it less likely that I would become upset and more likely that I could come up with a reasonable solution to the behavioral problems before me.

Working with him in this way would only be problematic if I didn't accept that "Lugh's story" was fictitious. If I believed that I had actually deduced for certain the particulars of his past, then we would have problems. Like a deluded charlatan, I would be making a diagnosis based on fantasy, and then prescribe a treatment that could potentially be dangerous. But I know that I don’t know Lugh's story before we met, and I know that I will never know it. That doesn't mean I can't help him. Rather, it means that in my quest to help him overcome his behavioral issues, I have to focus on what really matters: his behavior. So, as I have worked with Lugh, I have worked with the dog that actually lives in our house, not some creature of conjecture that never existed.

Unfortunately, in popular dog training circles, fantasy often trumps fact. We see this a lot in "Alpha" training (or "traditional" or "balanced" training). The one who goes through a door first is the pack leader. The one who eats first is the pack leader. The one who sits highest is the pack leader. It's all fantasy. Yet, charlatans prescribe treatments based off of it that often leads to abuse. For example, when dogs who are showing clear signs of anxiety they are often accused of trying to assert their “dominance.” The solution is generally a form of violence that really only serves to increase anxiety, which can lead to a higher chance of violence out of the dog. By accepting the fantasy as fact, damage ensues. 

While unfortunate, it is perhaps not surprising that dog trainers do this. After all we often do this with other humans as well, especially when it comes to issues near and dear to our hearts. Consider how the northerners seem to see southerners are racist pigs. Consider how non-fundamentalists seem to see fundamentalists as hate mongers. Consider how democrats seem to see all republicans as homophobes. In all theses cases, the assumption is that the narrative offers an infallible insight into why those others do what they do. If we allow existing narratives to define others--and therefore determine how we relate to them--then we are choosing to live in a way that embraces an egotistical fantasy, one in which we achieve supremacy by dismissing the reality of the other. By choosing to dismiss the humanity of another, we do a disservice to humanity itself; we become part of the problem, rather than the solution.

I don't want to continue the problem of fantasy-based destruction, so I try not to fall into that trap. When I come home and Lugh jumps up on me, I think of how faux-trainers say he’s trying to dominate me, trying to become the pack leader by asserting himself. Punishment is generally prescribed. Some would say I should knee him in the chest, and others might say squeeze his paws. I choose to ignore that insanity. Instead, I look at Lugh’s body language and see that he’s just trying to happily greet me. He is showing me affection, indeed love. To respond to his love with violence would truly be a tragedy.

So, I don’t know why Lugh eats his poop. I do know that I don’t want him to do so. Therefore, I give him a positive alternative. When he goes to the bathroom in the yard, I cheer him on. When he is done (before he gets a chance to lower his nose into the potential snack), I call him over to me. As he runs over, I “click” with a clicker (or say “yes!”) and give him a treat when he arrives. Now that he is away from the spot, I go clean it up.

By focusing on the dog that actually exists in front of me rather than some fantastic conjecture, I have been able to find a non-violent, loving way to modify his behavior. He chooses to run to me because it’s preferable; he would rather come to me for a treat than eat his poop. This has worked very well for him. (Except for that time in which he seemed to confuse “come” with “bring it” and dropped his poop at my feet. Ewwwww.) It has been a joy to watch him heal throughout the months he has been at my side. 

This isn't about dog training. This is about how we humans can deal with perpetuators of injustices in the world around us. As I stand for equality, freedom, and reason (especially in the spiritual/religious sphere), I have to remember that those who exclude or abuse others based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other criteria are doing so because, according to their stories, it's the right thing to do. I also have to recognize that I don't know what those stories are, and it would be a mistake for me to make fantastic substitutes up for them. My focus needs to be on identifying the errant behavior, explaining why it is wrong, and offering alternatives that are more beneficial for all those involved.

The question I pose to others out there who seek justice as well is this: Is this possible? Can we focus on behavioral issues rather than accepting preconceived narratives of others? Is it possible to harness love in a similar way to positive dog training in order to bring about positive change in human society as well? I certainly hope so.

Bonus Video: Loki and Lugh playing in the leaves a month ago.


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