Rules of the Road - Tricia Breen

Today I was on the roads at prime time. It was a Monday morning, always a tough time for those who had relaxing or crazy weekends, trying to get back into their weekday flow. Teens were trying to get themselves to school on time, parents were trying to get their younger kids to school, adults were trying to get to work on time. As I came to a 4-way stop, pretty much at the same time as the other 3 drivers, it all worked very well. Everyone waited to figure out who should go first, and it flowed well. I realized how well this system works, for the most part. There are so many people out in these huge death machines, and horrible things happen, cars probably being the greatest contributor to deaths (just guessing). But, in general, it works pretty well on a daily basis.

I live in a community with police sitting on corners with their radar guns, or sitting around the corner to follow you with beautiful flashing red colors if you go through a stop sign. Does it play a part in the reason I come to a full stop on a quiet Sunday morning when no other cars are around? Does it play a part in the reason I slow down on a road with a particularly high police presence? Of course it does. I don't want a ticket, I don't want my insurance rates to go up.

The biggest thing, though, I think, is the really consistent requirements, the habit we fall into when driving. We can sometimes get from point A to point B without even remembering the trip. It is because we repeat, repeat, until it becomes our default. If we were told that we could go through stop signs on Sunday mornings, or between the hours of midnight and 4 AM, or something, our muscle memory might fail us when we are driving at 5 PM on a Friday.

It is clear cut, it is black and white, it is consistent in its requirements, and there is a threat of consequences if you don't comply with the rules of the game. These are certainly principles that can be applied to our dogs. If we are consistent with our dogs, they tend to fall into the routine that is designed. We set our dogs up for confusion and failure all the time. It is inevitable and natural. It doesn't have too much fallout with some dogs, those that are confident, secure, mellow, all the things that so many of our dogs are not. For most, we have to fight against the tendency to confuse them, allow them to do something on one day, then get angry with them when they attempt it again. I think most of us retain an image of Lassie, going with us wherever we go, never really needing a leash, able to problem solve on her own. It is a wonderful ideal, but Timmy and family also lived on a farm. Sometimes when I am walking around Berkeley and I see these dogs that don't have leashes, that wait outside of Peet's, that can walk down busy streets and never veer from the sidewalk, I am in a state of admiration. But those dogs are uncommon nowadays, due to so many factors, (backyard suburban life being one of the many). It takes thought and work to help them be good dogs, but it is also fun and supremely rewarding.

I heard a story  yesterday, about an angry guy who was in line to buy an electric collar to be completely unfair and cruel to his little dog who was not housetrained. When I hear these kinds of things,  I somewhat understand the pendulum swing that has gone so far to one direction in much of the dog world. When people reject words like leadership nowadays, I assume they are hoping to eradicate this anti-social, inhumane type of behavior toward dogs. But when people who love their dog, want the best for their dog, are told that they can't say no to their dog, it tends to tie their hands, and ends up restricting their dog's life. The pendulum is ever trying to find the right spot, but we all need to sift through everything we hear with a critical ear. Leadership is not a bad thing. We all line up at election booths, at a cost of billions, to designate them. Yes, some are unworthy.

Last week I saw a client who had hired a local trainer to help them with their very aggressive, very fearful dog. This is a guy that has wonderful reviews on his yelp page. They said that one of his pointers was to rub the dog's nose in her pee when she peed inside. I must say, I was dumbstruck to hear that a professional trainer is still giving out such advice. Fortunately, their radar went up, and they will not be seeing him again. Another client was told by their instructor never to play tug with their dog. While I do think that there are dogs one should not engage with tug, this dog was the perfect candidate for such a game. He loved it, he gave up the tug on request, he is a very active adolescent that needs more interaction with his people. I recently heard a trainer say that she didn't want to walk in to her dog's space when he was trying to eat the chickens in the coop, as that was too punitive. Have you seen the social interactions of dogs? Are they so fragile that hearing our disapproval is going to break them? Is the relationship so weak that it will be ruined? If my relationship with my dog is that fragile, there is so much more wrong with the whole picture, that I need to start over completely, probably not live with dogs.

We are constantly fighting the mythology, trying to help people who are sifting through so much contradictory information. I think if we are trustworthy, deserving of our dogs' trust, we have set the foundation for everything else to follow. The guy in the store yesterday likely has no relationship with his dog, will most certainly do some psychic damage to his little dog, and we can all hope that he re-homes the dog sooner rather than later. If he had been really clear about having his dog stop at every stop sign, he wouldn't be where he is now. He clearly had way too many expectations, way too little structure. And now, sadly, the dog will pay the price.

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