Your Dog is Watching you
by Jim Heath
HERE'S THE TEXT of a book that sums up all the tricks and methods you can use to get your dog under better control. It uses everything known about dog psychology and comes straight from one of the world's top dog-trainers and dog psychologists. You get there step by step, as a story unfolds about a writer (me) who knew nothing about dogs, got into a lot of trouble with his dog, and was finally saved by a chance call to a dog psychologist.
The book is still in print and you can get a copy from Amazon and other places, if you want one. It is also here on Kindle, if you want to read it that way, and as a free epub file here. The text below is slightly shorter for the web, but nothing important has been left out. I hope it helps you to solve your dog problems, but please note that you aren't allowed to re-publish any of this text without written permission. That includes using it in websites.© 2005 by Jim Heath. All rights reserved.
by a German Shepherd
My thanks to
We got a pup from a breeder ($250), who gave us a sheet of instructions. An owner’s manual for Jack Russells. This dog had been my idea. I set up a cardboard box in the washroom for him to sleep in. I took him to the vet for his inoculations. I cleaned up his messes (which impressed Mary).
Yet I hadn’t much clue about what was happening, how the dog was seeing things, and what near-fatal flaws I was allowing to build up in the energetic creature. (Matters that were not mentioned in the owner’s manual.) So I played mock tug-of-war games with him, when he weighed no more than a grapefruit. I let him win and enjoyed his postures of triumph, as he ran off with the toy. He jumped onto any furniture he liked and lounged there. He ran through the doors ahead of us. He was fondly fed before we sat down to eat.
None of this seemed like giving away any control. The dog was fun. Look, he likes me! The way he runs up to greet me! He jumps up, paws my knees, wags like anything. What a good dog! He grew, he got all his injections exactly on schedule, he thrived and seemed cheerful. Mary and the boys—we now had three—all considered the dog was mine. He was.
If there was any blight on Max’s puppy days, it was his behaviour on walks. He’d run away. He did it a couple of times—just scatted into the bush. Later some stranger would phone asking if we owned a Fox Terrier (they usually got the breed wrong) named Max (reading his brass tag). I’d pick him up in the car, bearing rewards for the caller: chocolate or wine. Once he ended up at a primary school. I found him secured with yellow string, packed around with schoolgirls feeding him treats from their lunches.
So I started walking him on a leash. This was less fun. He yanked me ahead, or dragged behind like a creature that might have suckers on its feet. He also barked, lunged, snapped each time we passed another dog, no matter what size. I thought this was funny. This miniature creature (still a puppy) willing to take on anything. But Mary scowled and kept pressuring me. “Get that dog trained. Put a bit of discipline into him.”
Right. Once a week, for an hour, our trainee group met in a eucalyptus-shaded park, under a woman dog-trainer who may have been experiencing personal problems. She seemed jumpy and short with us. And her attention drifted, as we did things like walk the dogs in a big circle, half gagging them with choke chains. In the advanced sessions, we practiced calling our dogs. Some dogs came, some didn’t. We taught them the core command SIT. But in all this boring bustle, we received no word about dog psychology or what the benefit of the training was.
I came away with a certificate. I still have it. It says “This is to certify that Jim Heath and Max have completed a six week dog training course.”
This training had zero effect. Max still yanked, barked, lunged at other dogs. So I compensated with masking behaviour of my own. On walks, I pretended to be concerned about Max’s behaviour and told him off when we passed another dog and owner. This was to satisfy Mary that I was finally showing the right attitude.
Things improved a little more when I got an extendable leash. It was a Christmas present from my son Daniel. It let Max freely wander in a 5m circuit and he didn’t constantly yank or drag. Because he had an illusion of freedom as the leash reeled out, and it automatically took in the slack as he came back.
This was where we were with Max when he got attacked by a German Shepherd. It changed everything. It finally led me to see what dogs are all about.
Max was pulling on his leash. He’d had a bath and dried out, so his hair stuck out in crazy directions. Straining his little legs, pulling against the leash, made his leg hairs stand out even more, like feathers, especially his strong back legs. He looked like a terrier with turkey legs.
Mary flowed along beside me in a white sunhat and blouse, and billowy red pants. She was dressed for the heat. Tough Australian bushes on the left and right looked withered and overheated.
The path we were on had been a railway line. The rails had been taken up in some bygone age and the railbed passed into use as a country thoroughfare—for walkers, their dogs, sometimes horse-riders. Its status had been environmentally raised to “Heritage Trail” at some stage. This hard dirt railbed curved down a bushland slope, in places slicing through low basalt outcrops. Flies that hadn’t been killed by heatstroke spun around us, in little fizzing zaps.
Max was on his extendable leash. He moved briskly, clinking his tags, as if the ground might be hot on his paws. In the distance, a German Shepherd came around a bend. Max never noticed, but I felt a chill, even in the heat. What was that ominous animal doing out by itself?
“I’ve seen that dog,” Mary said.
The German Shepherd picked up something and ran back the other way, around the bend. Out of sight. Then a woman rounded the bend. I thought I was having heat hallucinations. She was dressed like Mary: white hat and blouse, red pants. The dark-grey German Shepherd now followed behind her. I shortened Max’s leash. “Why don’t these people use leashes?”
Mary just stared at the woman. And watched her strange mirror-image throw a stick ahead—to keep her monster amused, I guessed. The great creature leapt ahead and pounced on the stick, pausing for a second to eyeball us and Max. We were still pretty far away.
The woman’s dog seemed partly under control. “I’ve seen her too,” Mary said. “Seen her around.”
As the woman and dog got closer, we could make out that her clothes were different from Mary’s, but about the same colour. Some of the weirdness went away. Lulling us.
They got close.
Car accidents happen so fast you can’t think. (I happen to know.) So do some dog attacks. I dragged Max to the side of the track, away from the German Shepherd. The dogs went by quietly, eyeing each other, but nothing else. (I now know that I missed all the dog signals.)
In ten seconds, the German Shepherd was way behind us and the peril had passed. I kept glancing back with hot annoyance. But the great animal then wheeled and ran straight for Max. The dogs stood nose to nose. Max’s hair (or feathers) stood out, and he started snapping and jumping and twanging his tight leash, like a berserk turkey.
The German Shepherd struck from the side. My little dog was picked up and shaken, the way Max did to lizards. I lost focus. Time slowed. The German Shepherd’s owner came running in weird slow motion and I was aware she’d grabbed her dog by its collar. Max stood in a bent way, as if his spine might have broken.
Mary yelled at the woman: “Who are you!?” She stepped up close and invaded the woman’s private space. White hat to white hat. The woman yielded her name and address. Then strangely bristled and declared: “Your dog growled at mine. He started it!”
Our little dog, on a leash, had growled at her roaming beast! I wasn’t sure if he had, but so what? That didn’t justify biting holes in my dog. Blood drops now fell from Max’s side, like a slow-dripping tap.
I tried to pick up my broken dog to carry him home (not far). But that hurt him. So we walked like a slow arthritic pair, Max hunched and now shaking. The hair on his right side was wet, matted, and red.
He survived. The vet injected Amoxil (antibiotic) and Dexason (to deal with shock). No vital organs had been punctured by fangs.
I left with a plastic container of blue Amoxil pills. Which I crushed for the next five days and slipped into Max’s favourite Lamb, Rice and Vegetable dog food. Crushing the pills, I also wanted to crush that woman. So I phoned the Ranger. It was his job to enforce dog rules! I poured damning details into his ear. I suggested that this negligent dog owner could be made into a salutary example: fine her the maximum $10,000.
The Ranger mildly said he’d go and see the woman. Which he did in a few days. But he didn’t impose the $10,000 fine. Or any fine. Because she’d told him my dog had “growled” at hers. The Ranger then asked me to put my complaint in writing. Which I did. With plenty of vivid detail. I waited a week, then phoned him again. What was he going to do? Now that he had the whole story in writing? “I’ll keep in on file, and if there are other complaints about that dog, I’ll consider…” Hell. Was that all?
The search for a weapon
I couldn’t expect help from outside forces. I had to stop future dog attacks myself. How? With what weapon or device?
I slapped my forehead: pepper spray! Of course. No dog could stand that!
I bought a pepper-spray keyring, about the size of my thumb. (“Made in U.S.A. Keep out of reach of children.”) The instructions said: 1. Rotate trigger to right 2. Aim at face of attacker 3. Press down firmly—use short bursts 4. Leave area and seek help.
That point saying to “leave area” is right, if you fog up the whole place and need to inhale—as I later found out. Then more web-research made me worry. The keyring size maybe wasn’t big enough for dogs. You have to match the pepper spray to the menace. Then I read about a size and concentration that would even repel bears: Guard Alaska Bear Spray is the No.1 Bear Spray WorldWide
I didn’t order bear spray from America, tempting as it was. Instead I found a local supplier of military-grade pepper spray. The shop owner spoke on the phone in a loud whisper and told me he sold pepper spray in big tins, as well as night-vision goggles, audio devices, handcuffs, rescue tools, and tactical lights. His shop was open by appointment only. I found myself parking in front of a shop that had no sign except the simple street number. The windows were tinted dark, like a Mafia limo. The owner turned out to be large, genial, dark-skinned and so racially mixed that he’s probably a prototype of Future Man.
Inside the front door, spread everywhere on the floor, were invoices (I saw some from Telstra). A man sat on the floor, focussed on all this paper. He never looked up, like a Nazi boot slave. I assumed he was the bookkeeper. I walked through all this, using little clearings in the papers as stepping-stones. I bought the pepper spray, a 45gm knock-out size. Then started browsing around the other stuff. The owner guided me, his curly black hair like antennae radiating security ideas. I was shown many torches, one polished metal beauty that punched out a beam like a death ray. I admired police boots with pockets in the sides, plastic riot helmets with the same dark tint as the shop’s windows, electronic scanners and metal detectors, and batons that looked like they’d work well on German Shepherds. If I’d spent $1000, I could have walked out looking like Darth Vader’s bodyguard.
Anyhow, I had pepper spray, wonder weapon. The same mixture I’d seen police on TV spraying at rioters and innocent bystanders. And I already knew it worked on bears (at least a stronger brew did). My can was the size of those cardboard tubes inside of toilet rolls. The instructions said, in a kind of choke: “remove cap aim nozzle at the attacker and spray contents.” No punctuation. Blast them with the whole contents! No compromises or short bursts.
But no dogs attacked us. There was customary uproar on the Heritage Trail, as I dragged Max past dogs on leashes, and a few close calls when owners grabbed their loose dogs by the collar.
But then two things happened.
We were walking near the bottom end of the Heritage Trail—Mary, our three sons, and Max. We were spread out in single file, a safari. A large grey creature came from nowhere. It fixed Max with wolfish eyes and came forward in a confident, low-head approach, like a slow-moving torpedo. It looked like the same German Shepherd that had attacked Max before. My son Alex, an athletic PhD at the head of the safari, kicked at the dog. “His leash broke!” declared some woman in the distance, as my son’s leg passed through empty air, like a missed golf swing. Mary jumped into the German Shepherd’s way, but it dodged. I was at the back, with Max. And I was ready. I aimed the pepper spray and pressed the button. Fog came out, like you see in low-budget vampire films. Simultaneously, my son Chuck lost his footing and fell down a dirt embankment.
The German Shepherd froze. He looked doubtful. The pepper spray, the ruckus, the shouts of his owner (which were continuing), must have suggested this was a bad environment. He turned and trotted back to his owner, as if nothing unusual had happened.
Meanwhile, the fog from $35 worth of pepper spray was making our whole safari cough. Not to mention little Max, whose eyes were blinking.
Well, it had worked. I felt heroic.
But I was now out of pepper spray. And goddess Nemesis began to plan another dog attack before I could re-arm. Before I explain about this new, instructive attack, I need to say something about the Darlington Oval and its many dogs. The Oval is a wide flat grassy area, roughly oval, the shape of a filled-in asteroid impact. Village sporting events are held here. And once a year, the tents and stalls of the Darlington Arts Festival rise. If you stand on the grassy Oval, you can watch the sun rise over tennis courts to the East, and set over the concrete waves of a skate-board area. The Oval attracts dog owners who want to offer their dogs a varied social experience. Most dogs are let off their leashes and they all tear around or loiter, depending on their character, energy, age. I’d always assumed the dogs were breeds that would come when called, and wouldn’t leave the Oval to look for rabbits or adventure. It seemed plain to me that this gathering of obedient and semi-obedient dogs would never suit Max—scrappy and wilful as he was.
Three days after pepper-spraying the German Shepherd and everyone else, I was walking with Mary and Max, skirting the dog-populated Oval, out of their way. I could see a mass rally of dogs there. Then a dog shot in our direction…a Husky. I reeled in Max’s leash. Dog attacks happen as fast as car accidents, as I’ve said. The Husky was on us, and I kicked at him, his wide flank, while I spun Max in a small orbit around me—a snapping dog on a nylon cord. I kept kicking, sometimes connecting. But it felt useless, like kicking a truck. No effect could be seen on the large dog, whose attention fixed on spinning Max.
Meanwhile, Mary’s attention fixed on the Husky. She sank her fingers into dense fur on his neck and yanked. “Get OFF!” she yelled.
The crowd at the Oval froze. Someone was mistreating a dog! A man ran wildly towards us, the Husky’s owner, I had to guess. Then I recognised him: a civil servant, once a neighbour. I’d been to his house for barbeques. Here I was kicking his dog as hard as I could, with Mary attacking like a wildcat, hauling out patches of fur.
The man looked furious but abashed. “Sorry!” he said with a snarl. He dragged off his giant pet.
As we continued around the outer Oval—the winners!— we saw dog owners shaking their heads. The Husky’s owner checked his dog for damage and a group gathered to offer sympathy, I supposed, judging from their postures. I had to find something better than pepper spray! I don’t know how I reached that conclusion, but it was strong. Back home, sunk into my thinking chair, I brainstormed. Why hadn’t anyone worked this out? All these modern contraptions we have, it must be possible to adapt something? It came to me: a cattle prod! Lightweight, useful in all weather (a prod for all seasons), including windy days when pepper spray would just blow away. Probably cheap to use too, because only batteries would be needed—I supposed.
I phoned a farming supply company.
“Yeah, we sell those,” a toneless voice said. “25cm and 75cm.”
“Would they chase away an attacking dog? My little dog sometimes gets attacked.”
“I guess so. I don’t know about the legality of carrying them around the streets. Can’t advise you.”
“I’ll come and have a look!”
Which I did. None of the staff came forward. They let me browse, while they carried on slowly stacking shelves, like farmhands on low wages. In one area, a group was idly discussing something or other. So I had a good look around the sprawling place: thick farm shoes, rain coats, electric pumps, sheep-dip fluid, wire, post-hole diggers, on and on. But no cattle prods. So I interrupted a man who was stacking a shelf. If I’d known it, my madness and folly were peaking. Sometimes we need to work through these periods.
He led me to their prods. Stacked low down, in long obscure cardboard boxes. “I’ll show you,” he said, grinning for some reason. The prod looked like a Death Ray: hornet-yellow plastic, with a stock like a shotgun and a yellow plastic barrel that ended in what looked like the green fangs of a giant insect—evil green plastic prongs, with a brass electrode sticking out of each one.
“How does it work?” I asked, hiding mad hopes behind a technical tone. I had a lurking worry they wouldn’t sell it to me, if I didn’t have a farm, or a license, or something.
He inserted four AA batteries into a slot in the stock. “When you want to use it, pull the trigger once like this, then it’s charged,” he said, still grinning.
He touched the prongs to a metal shelf. Sparks shot out, with a nasty crackle. I moved back.
“It’s pretty harsh,” he went on, now suddenly a salesman, with a serious and sincere expression. He could see I wanted it. “On our farm, I had someone touch me with one by accident…rough.”
“It would work on big dogs?”
“Can’t guarantee that.. but these are for cattle.”
“It would work!” I blurted. “Cows are bigger than dogs!”
But might it kill dogs? I had to wonder. But dismissed it. On the way home, I had no misgivings. (Julius Caesar said that wishful thinking is one of mankind’s most notable traits.)
“Look at this,” I told Mary, holding it out like a gun. “For chasing away dogs!”
She stared up from her computer and took it in. Which didn’t take long. “I’m not going on walks with you, if you carry that! You can’t carry around that thing! It’s an offensive weapon!”
“It’s not! It’s defensive.” But I began to sense another way of looking at this Death Ray with the evil prongs.
“How much did it cost?” she asked, glaring at the prod.
“Take it back! You’ll get arrested!”
“I’ll think about it,” I said. (Young men, note that phrase.)
Thus began many days of discussion, or chess moves. Mary opened by inviting Lawrence to dinner. A Vietnam vet and retired radio-communications expert from the West Australian police. Maybe I’d take his advice, she suggested. I suspected a setup, but had respect for Lawrence. And he’d see it all my way.
I might mention that part of my respect was for Lawrence’s fearless reflexes. I’d once seen a sensational demonstration: Max flying for freedom towards our open gate, and Lawrence’s grab, clamping a hand around Max’s mouth, stopping him, and holding him that way. White-haired, retired Lawrence, doing something like that!
Lawrence showed up with a bottle of wine, in an old-fashioned paper bag, wrinkled with character, like his own face. We talked about this and that. The wine went down.
Then I started my presentation. I took the prod out of a hiding place and held it up, like a puzzle. The yellow stock was sticking out of an old tubular cardboard cylinder that I had. I wanted to make a point: “What if I walked down the Heritage Trail carrying this? Any problems?” I mimed walking along with it, holding it like some harmless—if strange—object.
Lawrence thought that was OK. It could be a metal detector, he suggested.
“Or a present for the kids! It might be anything,” I wheedled. I was gesturing like a lawyer to the jury, leading them through logical and emotional steps to a conclusion.
Mary frowned, shifted her posture, looked like she wanted to interrupt.
Then I pulled off the cardboard tube and revealed the prod barrel, except for the green prongs at the end. Those were covered with a plastic bag. “And what about carrying this around? Still OK?”
“Yeah, it might be a metal detector,” Lawrence ventured. “Or a cattle prod.” (Mary must have told him!)
“But what’s the problem, with the bag on it?” I went on. “Any problem?”
“It looks suspicious,” Lawrence said.
I took off the bag.
“Oh, no! No way!” he said.
“I can carry a defensive device, can’t I?”
No, there’s an Offensive Weapons Act, I was told. It limited the items that can be carried around the street. You could carry things, if there was some ordinary use for having them. Like a tennis racquet or a golf club, even if they could be used—instantly—as a weapon too.
This seemed ridiculous to me. But Lawrence insisted and was definite.
“Why not carry a walking stick?” he said. His wrinkles and white hair took on a sensitive, persuasive radiance. “Because you’ve got a reason for carrying that, except as a weapon. Then if you whacked a dog with it, well OK. You just had it along. No problem.”
I couldn’t believe all this. I’d only planned to electric-jolt an attacking dog with a warning shock, not actually harm it (well, as far as I knew). Yet that wasn’t OK. But it was OK to slug it with a heavy stick and maybe break its head.
The talk moved to other things, and they must have thought they’d convinced me. The next morning, Mary asked: “Are you taking the prod back?”
“I’m still thinking about it,” I told her. I said I wanted to get a wider range of opinions. I’d write a letter to our suburban paper, The Hills Gazette, and see what opinions came in.
Which is what I did. Here’s my factual and objective letter:
I got a phone call from a man who sounded like he had a cold. He had a Jack Russell too and it had been attacked twice. Had I used the prod yet? Well, no, I hadn’t, I had to tell him. He said the prod seemed a good idea. He wanted to know how much it cost and where I got it.
The phone rang only once more: a real-estate agent told me about his boyhood dog-repelling technique. When he was delivering newspapers, he’d chase away dogs by stooping down and pretending to pick up a rock. Something in their wiring made the dogs run.
The next week’s Hill’s Gazette carried a letter from J. Johnson:
Repetition was getting to me. Maybe I should give in and try a simple stick? In our woodshed, occasional home for snakes, I carefully rummaged and found a ‘spear’ that had been made by my son Chuck. It was tall as a shepherd’s staff, crooked, knobbly and heavy. It might be possible to view it as a walking stick (thinking of the Offensive Weapon’s Act).
Mary and I went on experimental walks, but with her carrying the spear (or walking stick, depending on your point of view). “It’s less threatening to people if they see a woman carrying this,” she explained or insisted.
No dogs attacked. But I wasn’t happy with a stick. I felt sure I’d overlooked something. Mankind had overlooked something. There had to be some lightweight anti-dog device. A sculptor who lives in a cubical house, high up on poles, told me to try an air horn. “They’re loud,” he told me over tea, his shaved head packed with novel ideas. “It’s a little pressurised tin with a horn on top. Yachtsmen use them on boats to blast warnings over the water. It would scare any dog.”
I bought one of the air-horns from a boat shop. An aerosol tin about the size of standard fly spray, with a cheerful red plastic horn on top. It looked like a party toy. All I needed was a paper hat.
I tried a short blast at Max, who stood in front of me, watching me fiddle with the thing. Neighbours must have heard it. It’s hard to describe the sound. Imagine a giant troll that blasts out a fart.
Max jumped up and wanted to attack it! It didn’t scare him at all.
The next thing that happened was the last thing before I got on the right track. But it’s another example of how jumpy or crazed I’d become, so I’ll hang my head and tell you.
Max and I were walking along in the bush again. This time I was armed with both the spear-like stick and pepper spray. To the right and left were varieties of dried-out and inflammable Australian trees and shrubs. Ahead wound a dusty bush track. Little sign of life. Nothing stirred, except my imagination, which was working like Don Quixote’s. I was as anxious as people who always check under their bed. In the blur of a dog attack, how would I strike? I might have only time for one swing of the stick. I kept thinking how to use it, with images of Samurai sword fights. Maybe whack the dog’s back leg, low down, where the leg might be weak? The dog would stop, if I broke its leg, right? I kept picturing this, more and more vividly.
I emerged from the bush trail. Then proceeded warily down a hot but peaceful suburban lane. My brain projected non-stop pictures of attacks and different whack angles with the stick. I was hardly on the planet, much less on the nothing-happening street where I was actually walking with a panting, hot, half-pooped Jack Russell.
Ahead, a red car pulled into a driveway. A tall man and a short woman got out of the car and were greeted by two large Chow-Chows—jumping up and wagging. I had passed this house before, and these two mild-looking dogs would bark half-heartedly from behind a fence. But this time they were loose. They spied Max and headed our way, up a slope from the house. The man shouted but the dogs didn’t change course.
Oh, nightmare. Chow-Chow attack! The two dogs whirled around Max, sniffing, then snarling. I yanked him back. Here were two large dogs illegally on the public road, out of control, attacking my wonderful controlled pet! So I did what I’d been thinking about for the last half hour: I hit one of the Chow-Chows on the rear leg with the spear. But my aim was high. I hit the dog’s meaty thigh, and not hard.
The dog took no notice. But its owner sure did. He arrived, puffing from his little run up the slope. “Don’t hit my dog!” he said, with a kind of unsure tone, as if not used to scenes on public streets. He grabbed his dog. The small woman reached the scene too, on short brisk legs, and she grabbed their other dog.
“Then keep them off the street!” I ranted.
“Don’t hit my dog!” he repeated. “Never hit my dog.” I noted at close range how tall he was. But it was like being threatened by someone who didn’t like the role. It was as if he felt he should be threatening me, but wasn’t sure how to do it. “What if I hit you with that stick?” he made a slight move toward me, while the small woman looked on with round eyes. Not her scene at all, this ruckus!
I was outraged and, of course, right. So I didn’t budge. “You want a $10,000 fine? I’ll have the Ranger on you!”
He looked as if he was picturing what petty-cash account he might take $10,000 out of. (He looked well-off.) “Don’t hit my dog with a stick!” was all he could say. “How would you like to be hit with that stick?”
This was getting rhetorical. And he wasn’t making any moves. He seemed to be showing the woman how in control he was, protecting their pets.
I glared, then went on down the road, yanking Max along—who kept dragging and looking back, hoping for more of a fight, probably. Bless his stout heart.
At home, brooding on it, I knew the devil had been in me. I felt low and corrupted. Maybe we should find a new home for Max? Did we need all this hassle? That’s how low I’d sunk.
Tips from a dog psychologist
In the Slough of Despond, something glimmered. I started digging for a note I’d written myself—a note about a dog psychologist. I’d only written it down to be polite to a friend of Mary’s, who had listened to some of my dog-attack stories. This dog psychologist had helped her dog, she had claimed. Now, weeks later, with all hopes fallen, the single remaining thing I had left to try suddenly became urgent. I phoned the dog shrink as soon as I found the note.
“Jacquie Humphrey speaking.”
“Are you a dog psychologist?”
“Yes, and I also have a background in human psychology… both come into my work with dogs.”
“But you mainly work with dogs?” (Human psychology too? This sounded odd.)
“What’s the problem?” She seemed rushed.
I summarised my problem, my many problems, beginning with the German Shepherd attack.
“I’m not surprised,” she told me. “When you walk a dog on a leash, and it meets another dog, you tend to tighten the leash. This raises your dog’s shoulders and makes it look more aggressive to the other dog. It also means he can’t converse with his body and that puts him under threat, which results in aggression. Dogs read each other’s body language. It’s their main form of communication. Raised shoulders alone can start a fight…but I haven’t got much time here.”
“When can I call back?
“In six weeks! I’m off on a holiday.”
Just when I’d seen some help, it was withdrawing. “OK,” I said. “But maybe there’s someone else I could see in the meantime? This is getting urgent.”
“I’m probably the best one to help.. exactly the right one, listening to you! I wouldn’t just pick a trainer out of the phone book, but that’s a long story. What you could do is to read some background about dog behaviour. You don’t seem to know anything about what’s going on. There are books. You could get them from the library.”
Books! She was talking to the Book Fiend. “I could read some books, yes,” I said.
“Look up these authors: John Fisher and Bruce Fogle. Anything by them is OK. Then you can branch out from there, if you want to.
“Great! Thanks…” writing it down.
“But there are things that aren’t in those books—how to handle all kinds of dog-dog interactions. I’ve been training and reforming dogs, not to say their owners, for 33 years. Phone me in six weeks. We can have a chat then, and you’ll have read some of the dog behaviour background you need.”
She was still willing to talk, so I kept going. “I carry around pepper spray,” I added. “But if it’s windy, that wouldn’t work. People tell me to carry a big stick. I’ve already had trouble because of that.”
I thought I heard a sigh. “If you can, for the time being, just avoid dogs that look like trouble. If you can distract your dog, take it down some side path, or even turn around and go back. Then if the other dog isn’t getting aggressive signals from yours, it will probably take no notice.”
“But their dogs are supposed to be under control. My dog always is!”
Pause. “Your dog may be on a leash, but he’s not under control. If he was, you wouldn’t have had this problem. And if their dog attacks yours, yes, you have a legal case. You could sue them and make them pay. But that’s not the point, is it? You want to prevent all this.”
“Walking a dog along a place like the Heritage Trail is stressful for them. The path is fairly narrow, and they keep meeting dogs head-on. Even if the dogs are on leads, they’re being forced past each other in an unnatural way. There’s a whole dog etiquette. Two strange dogs would never head straight for each other, with direct eye contact. That’s a very aggressive signal. A challenge.
“I had no idea.”
“Most dog owners don’t,” she said.
I thanked her. For the first time I was armed with something more than pepper spray, a spear and aggression. I had some insight.
That afternoon, Mary and I were able to apply this insight twice. I explained the dog psychology theory to her, while Max pulled on his leash and we mounted the steep road from our house.
“That has to be a good idea,” she said. She had often pushed me to get Max ‘better trained’. But I’d been sour about that because of that dog class where I’d taken him as a puppy.
Now we were leaving the road (a fork of Fate), and Max dragged us onto a bush trail. Where we saw two grinning young girls with two very large dogs—and both dogs were loose. The dogs saw us, their ears pointed and they gazed piercingly at Max (an aggressive sign, right?)
Mary and I spun 180 degrees. Back the way we’d come! The two big dogs were still looking, but that’s all they did. We dodged onto another path and they were out of sight. Solved! Our first experiment with dog theory had worked.
Our next (accidental) dog experiment came minutes later. Around a corner ran a hairy shirtless man, flanked by two German Shepherds, both of them loose. I yanked Max off the trail, into concealing undergrowth. We were now likely to be attacked by high-venom snakes, not dogs.
Mary guarded our retreat. She stood with her raised spear, at the place where I’d scooted into the foliage with Max. The man jogged right by, glancing at Mary’s spear, followed by one padding German Shepherd. But the other large dog seemed curious, stopped, and peered in our direction. I could see him through a bunch of branches and leaves. The dog made a decision and moved towards us, veering around Mary (who said “STOP!”), then advanced towards Max. The German Shepherd was moving closer in a calculating way, radiating terrible confidence. But I was ready. I shot a blast of pepper spray. Out of sight, the jogger was yelling at his dog to come back. And do you know what? The dog glanced at me, sniffed the air, cocked his ears, looked confused, then just turned and ran back!
I heard a comradely shout from the jogger: “That one isn’t fully trained!”
OK, our moves weren’t perfect, but we’d handled things better. We didn’t keep going on up the trail and force Max nose-to-nose with both German Shepherds. And when one dog followed us, it didn’t come at a full run. Probably because it wasn’t quite sure what it would meet in the shrubbery. Its attitude was more: one-step-at-a-time and let’s-see-what-we’ve got here.
“I’m going to hit the books,” I told Mary. “There’s more to be learned!”
What you need to know about wolves
It never occurred to me that Max was sizing us up and working out what to do. Even Max’s dog-training class never touched that dog reality. I get annoyed when I recall the ‘training’. Even the ‘come’ call was taught in a way that showed no insight into dogs: we each faced our dog and clapped! Some dogs came, for some reason, many others sensibly (from a dog’s point of view) ignored us.
The library books were telling me that dogs are a type of wolf. A few dogs are bigger than wolves, while some are smaller than a wolf’s head. Dogs can be found in shuffled shapes and colours sensationally different from wolves. But all dogs share certain attitudes found in juvenile wolves.
It all started when ancient wolves came into close contact with primitive people, the books insisted, and that started an unconscious unnatural selection process that went on for thousands of years. In the last couple of centuries, this got much more systematic. In short, people bred wolves into dogs.
This can be hard to believe. But gaze at wolves, and you start to notice a lot of things that remind you of your own dog.
Male wolves cock their legs and pee on trees to mark their territory. They want to broadcast their scent, get the macho message out on the air currents. So they pee as high up as they can—onto large rocks, trees, shrubs.
Females leave scent-messages too, but mostly squat to pee. Now and then a high-ranking female makes sure she’s getting her message across by cocking her leg like a male. Alluring scents swim in a female’s pee when she comes on season, and it affects males as if their genitals were being stroked.
Wolves also leave messages from little pheromone (smell) injector-glands around their anus and in their foot pads. They perfume their turds and scratch more perfume into the ground, adding a kind of exclamation mark. It’s why your dog takes such a revolting interest in sniffing every deposit of shit. If all that weren’t enough, there’s also a scent-marking gland on the tail. Wherever the tail touches, it leaves a dab of scent.
Wolves that stray into another pack’s territory read these messages as KEEP OUT. Wolves are inflexible about territory. Picture a Walt Disney wolf with yellow fangs and red eyes— that’s what they’re like when their territory is invaded. Each pack scent-marks its hunting ground. Which can be big…a hundred square kilometres, maybe several hundred. Another pack, or lone wolf, treats this scented boundary like an electric fence and will go a long way around, no matter how inconvenient. Wolf packs have been seen chasing prey across the boundary of another pack, then abandoning it. The prey escapes like a fugitive to another country, but usually falls into the teeth of the wolves there.
Subtle smell variations can be detected by wolves, brooded on, compared, read like a book, then acted on. And it turns wolves into lethal hunters. A sniff at a scent left by any animal tells a wolf what kind of animal it is and what direction it was heading. Think about that. A wolf suddenly intersects a faint scent. The scent trail goes to the right and left. Which way was the animal going? The wolf sniffs along the trail in one direction for a few metres (it doesn’t matter which direction). If the scent is getting weaker, the wolf knows it’s going the wrong way.
The sensitivity of this is almost beyond comprehension. Let me dwell on it. The wolf picks up the scent of a deer, say. Imagine that the deer that left the scent was moving along at an easy pace of 12km/hr. So it took the deer three seconds to cover 10m (in case you tolerate calculations like this). Which means the older end of that 10m section of trail is only three seconds older than the newer end. So a wolf can compare old smells and tell which one has aged by three seconds!
You may have already heard enough about wolves peeing, but I need to say one more thing to keep things straight for later: peeing can also count as a sign of submission. Wolf cubs seem to get that idea when their mum noses them over and licks them to stimulate them to pee. Sounds strange, but she does that. The cub gets imprinted with the forceful idea that being turned over and made to pee is something that a dominant wolf may require it to do. An adult wolf might not roll right over to signal submission to another wolf. Instead it may crouch low, as if it’s about to roll over, then squirt out a little pee from the crouching posture.
I told you I had been reading stuff.
Everyone knows that wolves howl. But it’s not only lone wolves with a full-moon backdrop. The whole pack may eerily howl before a hunt. The vocal effort collects the pack and raises their spirits, maybe. (Why hasn’t this been adopted as a management tool for executives?) Our modern dogs howl too, if they’re feeling isolated. It seems to happen to dogs that are very attached to their human pack and can’t stand to be left alone while the pack is out hunting—as they imagine it.
One excited author said that wolves howling “may be the most expressive sound they make.” Maybe. But I wonder if wolves scratch their backs by rolling over and rubbing around and moaning in a frustrated way, like Max does. Now those are expressive sounds.
Wolves also bark like dogs, but it’s of course deep. They don’t bark often—nothing like dogs. When a wolf barks, the experts tell us it’s “calling for backup” (how anyone knows that, I can’t say).
Now here’s a fact that may blight your image of wolves: they sometimes whine. Wolf cubs do that, as you might grant, if they’re hungry, parted from companionable brothers and sisters, or just can’t find mum. Grown-up wolves may whine if they’re attacked by hornets or a tree falls on their tail. But if they do, mother wolf doesn’t come running—which she always does when her cubs whine. So adult whining brings no consolation and it doesn’t happen much. (Unlike adult dogs I’ve seen, whose owners instantly respond to whining—and so whining pays off and is used often.)
If there’s not much whining among adult wolves in a pack, there’s plenty of growling. A wolf growls to warn it’s had enough and is going to attack if some offending wolf doesn’t back off. Wolves growl warnings, because they’d rather not fight. Violence is rare in a pack. Wolf watchers stress that wolves ‘know’ that if they fight hard and get hurt, the pack loses hunting strength. (Dogs have this insight too, but most of us owners don’t know that about dogs, or how to use it.)
When a wolf growls at another, for whatever irritable reason, other signals radiate out too. If the wolf’s ears are flattened and its lips pulled back horizontally in what looks like a submissive grin, the message is: “I’m scared and I’ll defend myself.” If the ears are forward, the hairs are raised on the back of its neck and along its back (the hackles) and also the corners of the mouth pushed forward while the lips are pulled back vertically, the message is: “I’ll attack if you don’t back down.”
Wolves know all that at a glance. The same applies to our dogs, sizing up other dogs. Dog trainers insist that we should learn how to do this too, for our own dog’s sake. These trainers are expecting a lot. What they suggest is possible but it takes too long to learn, we are busy and don’t want to be full-time dog experts. And we prefer some pleasant illusions about our pets. One of my grumbles about some dog books: they’re too hard on dog owners (if you aren’t perfect, you’re a failure!) and seem to forget why normal people have dogs in the first place.
Wolves prefer meat. If they can’t get meat, they’ll eat fruit, berries, turnips, carrots, rotten meal—anything they can scrounge.
When the pack kills a grass-eater like a reindeer, they eat the whole animal. They wolf it down. That includes “digested and undigested stomach contents” (you may want to hurry past some of this information). If there are no reindeer or large animals to bring down, their meat-lust turns to rabbits, squirrels, beavers, dead birds, fish that wash up, even mice. Which must be a sight: a wolf chasing a mouse.
Warning: never come between a wolf and its beaver or rabbit or raspberries, even if you’re a high-ranking pack member. A wolf that finds food will fight to keep it.
When the pack hunts, the females usually join in. And when mother wolf gets back to her cubs, they jump up and try to lick at her lips. Kissing? Signs of affection? Uh…no. They’re hoping this will get mum to throw up. Which she often then does. The cubs greedily lap up the partly digested food—their mushed baby food. Now for some hard news: your dog does the same thing when you come home, leaping up to “greet” you, trying to lick your face. So if you want to make your dog really, really happy, then throw up!
Wolves on a hunt can travel for days. They keep up a uniform pace—not too fast, not too slow—stopping now and then for a breather. Even after days of this, eating nothing, they’re tenacious enough to bring down a fast-moving deer, bison, moose, elk, caribou. And they need big kills so the whole pack can eat. Which takes a lot of meat. A hungry wolf can eat 20kg of meat a day. That means 200kg a day to feed an average pack. All they leave is hair and a few bones.
Wolves have the teeth for this. Their ‘canine’ teeth (fangs) can be 6cm from root to tip, about the length of your thumb. No dog has canines anything like that. But dogs and wolves both have 42 teeth total, in the same arrangement. The lower molars and upper premolars shear the meat. The chisel-shaped incisors in front are for nipping.
If you search for “bite” “force” “wolves” on the web, you find claims that wolves bite three times as hard as dogs. Tracing these bite-force claims back to sources, runs you in a circle—like a wolf chasing its tail. One medical journal claimed the wolf has a bite strength of 1500 pounds per square inch (psi) and that domestic dogs ‘only’ have 200 to 450psi. Elsewhere I read that pit bulls can bite at 1500 to 3800psi, while humans can only bite steak with a meagre 150psi. But then you might be bewildered to read that a rat can peak at 7000psi, and some sharks rise that Bite Championship to 44,000psi.
Hold on. Psi is pressure—clamping force, divided by the area of tooth in contact with the food or prey. A rat with sharp teeth and a strong jaw may get to 7000psi. A rat with blunt old teeth might only manage 500psi. The one with sharp teeth is practically biting with needles.
Anyway, what’s clear to anyone who’s watched their dog crunch a bone is that even small dogs can bite hard.
You may wonder: how was any of this information going to stop Max from getting attacked again on the Heritage Trail? Good question. I was searching for the golden key in books, like Faust did.
Now comes the most important bit. Wolves are pack animals. They communicate mostly by gesture—body language. So does your dog. One far-travelled Naturalist said he’d “…never seen animals that have so many characteristics that can be felt. No wonder early people chose wolves as companions.”
Wolves usually live in packs of less than 10. The biggest pack ever reported was 36 wolves—in Alaska. Packs have a social structure so strict it would have flabbergasted Marx: a large pack has an elite, a middle bourgeoisie, and lower proletarian class. The elite includes the ‘alpha’ male and female, a teeming middle class, and a lower class that sweeps up outcasts and youngsters. Yet all these are usually family— indeed the offspring of the alpha male and female.
And this strict hierarchy isn’t held together by aggression. Not at all. It’s cemented by apparently sincere deference. There are frequent displays of submission to the alpha male. The whole pack steps aside, for example, to let the Alpha One pass right through. At the same time they wear expressions of wolf-awe. They do everything but curtsy. The atmosphere is one of true loyalty to a King.
Even so, there are quarrels. But they’re soon sorted out and no grudges are carried. The alpha male is tolerant and easy-going with subordinates. He walks tall and gazes calmly at others, and his bearing says, “I make the decisions. There’s nothing to discuss.”
Most disputes break out lower in the ranks. Sometimes just below the top: the two wolves next in line to alpha—rank two and rank three in the pack—may fight for Rank Two position. But those quarrels are quickly over (frightening as they can be to watch) and rarely damage either wolf.
As with human packs, height signals rank. A wolf puts its paws on the shoulders of another one to get one-up. A move to dominate. This can be the hidden message when your dog jumps up to “greet” you: to get one-up, to dominate (instead of licking, in order to encourage you to throw up.)
And here’s a wolf fact to note with great attention: wolves travel in a single file and in their rank order. Alpha first, everyone in order after that. Exactly like a whole line of dogs at heel! Now if wolf instincts persist in our dogs, why do some dogs pull on the leash and refuse to stay at heel? Hint: they don’t consider their owner is the leader. How could that be?
Sniffing the DNA in wolves and dogs
Once two roads diverged, and I took one that said: “This way to a PhD in Bioinformatics.” I drove down it for a year, then veered off, explaining in writing to my PhD supervisor that “Out of nowhere it seemed to me I was on the wrong track with this PhD research. It was like getting hit by a flying bucket. I guess it was because I’d done what I originally wanted to do—find out what’s going on in this field. Now with those pale green Faustian flames burning lower and lower, I could see beyond them and wonder: do I really want to do this?”
But I’d learned something about molecular biology and its uses in evolutionary studies. So if the next couple of pages seem technical or tedious, just skip ahead. Summary: molecular biology shows that dogs descended from wolves, not from other candidates like coyotes or jackals.
Long sequences of dog DNA are similar—even identical— to the sequences in grey wolves. The match is striking in the islands of independent DNA found in the cell’s power houses, the mitochondria. This DNA is inherited straight from the dog’s mother. The rest of the DNA, in the chromosomes, is a combination of DNA from both mother and father. (Dogs and wolves have 38 pairs of chromosomes. You and I have 23 pairs.) The mitochondrial DNA makes it plain that dogs didn’t evolve from jackals and coyotes—possible candidates, because either of those can breed with dogs and bear fertile pups. But coyote and jackal mitochondrial DNA is definitely not the same that dogs carry. This result is conclusive, like scratching a gold coin and finding it’s only lead inside.
If dogs didn’t evolve from coyotes and jackals, what did they evolve from? Dr. Peter Savolainen, at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, worked doggedly to find out. He collected hairs from 654 dogs from around the world, extracted DNA and compared it with DNA in wolf populations. Lo, there it was: dogs did evolve from wolves. The mitochondrial DNA was very close, and the rest fit too. He was able to calculate that the ‘birthday’ for dogs was 40,000 years ago. That’s if all dogs evolved from a single pair of wolves.
But if dogs descended from three different wolf pairs, and those three populations interbred, then birthday for dogs was around 15,000 years ago, instead of 40,000. Dr. Savolainen thinks 15,000 years is more likely, and it also matches bone dates collected by Archaeologists: the oldest bones in the collection of dog skeletons and remains goes back 14,000 years but no further.
These laborious studies also hint at where dogs evolved: most likely from India or nearby. Other researchers had wondered if American dogs might have been domesticated by American Indians from native American wolves. No, as it turned out. And the research team excluded dogs that might have descended from ones brought by ship from Europe: they used only DNA from very old dog remains (pre-Columbian).
Those old samples pointed again to India. India!! Then how did dogs get to America? Most likely over the Bering Strait Land Bridge: 55 miles of water that separates Siberia and Alaska, but it wasn’t always water. It was land, on and off, between 40,000 and 13,000 years ago. Dogs, or dogs and people, could have just walked in.
Let us accept that our dogs are modified wolves (I’ll get to what ways dogs are different in the next section). Dogs are also distantly related to other meat eaters, like cats, foxes, raccoons, weasels, hyenas, civets and mongooses, bears. But you have to go back a long way to find common ancestors between dogs and bears, for example (20 million years). In ancient days, wolves were everywhere, and numerous. They were in North America from Alaska and the Arctic in Canada to Mexico. They were all through Europe and Asia, south to the Mediterranean, the Arab Peninsula and in India and China. They lived in every kind of place, except tropical forests and arid deserts. Then a few crafty wolves adopted humans, and now there are about 50 million dogs in the US alone, while the global wolf population has dropped to a mere 150,000. So which wolves had the best survival idea?
Down the centuries, humans speared, arrowed and then shot wolves almost to extinction. For some reason, wolves had an aura of evil and menace. They were considered killers. (Not so: they rarely attack people. They more often get nervous and run away, or stick around out of simple curiosity.) But medieval folk linked wolves with the devil. Their trembling imaginations bred werewolves as well. Children grew up fearing wolves. Consider Little Red Riding Hood.
In this wolf-to-dog descent, there might seem a flaw. How could wolf descendants turn into everything from 10-ounce Yorkshire Terriers to 200-pound St Bernards in just 10,000 years? Is that enough time? You may be used to those charts in encyclopaedias and school books that show the descent of animals from early types—charts usually dimensioned in millions of years. Just 10,000 years from wolves to Chihauhaus? Yet it’s true. Not only true, but easy, with people choosing what sort of wolf companion they preferred, and shunning or killing those they didn’t.
We are getting there.
Dogs don’t behave exactly like wolves (which is good), but everything a dog does instinctively a wolf also does. A dog behaves like a wolf with certain things ‘turned up’ and certain things ‘turned down.’ It’s plain that most dogs also look different from wolves. How did all this happen?
One story is that cavemen took a liking to wolves, saw their potential as guard dogs and hunting dogs, and set about taming them. That’s not likely. Too hard, scientists insist: you’d need a project spanning generations of wolves and need to know what you’re doing. Humans only started breeding dogs for deliberate purposes in the last century or so. Dogs were picked out for a particular trait, generation after generation. Which usually took several generations of people who managed to stick to the same project. How could cavemen have guessed the payoff from domesticating wild wolves, known what traits to breed for, and followed the script for generations?
A Russian biologist set out to test that wolf-taming theory by trying to breed tame foxes. It sure wasn’t easy. Dmitry K. Belyaev at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk spent 26 years breeding a tame variety of silver fox. He applied a single rule for selecting offspring for further breeding: how tameable a fox was. Dr. Begalev died before he succeeded. The untamed foxes were winning. But Dr. Lyudmila Trut persisted with the experiment. She eventually managed to breed some tame ones. It had required selecting mild-behaving foxes from 45,000 of them over 40 years. Lyudmila at last had 100 fully tame foxes. But that’s not all: these tame foxes came with other genetic differences, like floppy ears and white-tipped tails. So if you select and breed for one thing, you may get by-products you didn’t expect.
Back to the cavemen: they would have to have done something similar to those patient Russians in order to tame wolves, if they did it deliberately. Very improbable. What’s more likely is that certain wolves selected the cavemen. It makes sense. Here were these grumpy but trainable apelike creatures with campfires and garbage heaps, and they lived in packs. Wolves must have looked on with a dawning sense of good luck. And a few wolves with chance genetics may have had the right attitude to drop right in and exploit the situation. They’d then prosper and pass on those useful human-manipulating genes to their offspring. Soon there’d be wolf-dogs that wanted to hang around people and acted in ways that avoided getting rocks or spears hurled at them.
From the litters of these half-tame, camp-following wolves, cave people may have adopted some cute cubs and then found the cubs could be trained—smart animals that learned fast. Trained wolf-dogs. So useful to hunter-gatherers. A few friendly, hang-around wolves would act as sentinels. If anything moved out there in the night—a stranger, a bear— the sentinels would bark. And wolves that barked the soonest or loudest may have been treasured. Any slight genetic talent for barking may have been rewarded by feeding that wolf more, or simply not chasing it away. Then imagine a half-friendly wolf that tagged along for a hunt—normal pack behaviour for wolves. It would have helped to flush out and isolate a gazelle or moose. Would that wolf get special treatment? Yes.
I read about all this, then washed Max in the laundry sink. Then dried him with a hair dryer. That makes his hair stand out, when it starts to dry, and gives his back legs a pantaloon look. Dogs, you’ve come a long way.
Wolves—I read on—used to be the most widespread land animal. Which meant there was plenty of opportunity for man-wolf interaction, good or bad, and there’d be plenty of wolves with a spread of traits that might make them popular with cave dwellers. (Coyotes and jackals don’t have the wolf’s flexibility or social skills. So even a rare tame one wouldn’t fit well into the human pack.)
To wolfish eyes, the human pack looked choice. Wolves have a similar social organisation. Wolves live in couples and the pack (family) cooperates when they hunt. Duties are divided: one wolf picks out the prey’s track, another cuts it off, another goes for the throat. If the pack chases a whole herd of prey, one wolf’s job is to isolate a single victim. And when the feast starts, the wolf leader feeds first. When he’s finished, the rest of the pack eats. (Note that last point. It matters when it comes to your own dog’s meals.)
In short, wolves understood human pack structure and agreed with the set-up.
The story now blurs. Human clans wandered and took their wolf-friends with them. Clans mingled, traded, fought. Wolf-dogs began to breed with other wolf-dogs from different clans. Time passed. The pet wolves grew less like wild wolves, and more adjusted or even addicted to living with their human pack-mates. The breeds that were closest to the northern wolves became the modern German Shepherds, Huskies, Malamutes. The great wolves of central Europe probably evolved into modern hounds and water dogs. Smaller wolves were chosen for hunting rabbits and changed slowly into Terriers and Spaniels. (I told you that things blurred.)
Here’s one factoid that isn’t vague: farmers today don’t tolerate disagreeable dogs. Farmers probably never did. If a farm dog acts up too much, it’s liable to get shot. When a litter of puppies is born, there’s no hesitation drowning any that the farmer simply doesn’t like the looks of.
We might imagine that cavemen were equally narrowminded. It’s likely that the friendliest wolves were kept and bred. Which meant those wolves that were slow to mature and kept some of their cub-like innocence and adaptability. Something like that must have happened, because dogs behave a lot like immature wolves. An advantage in dealing with people, because immature wolves aren’t overspecialised and have “a high degree of behavioural plasticity” (language you find in certain dog books). I don’t want to withhold rare words, so here’s another one: neoteny. Strictly it means “The persistence of larval or fetal features in the adult form of an animal.” The dog scientists stretch this to include those plastic and immature wolves that cavemen probably liked a lot.
Today’s dogs sure have super-sensitive ability to pick up human cues. That’s vital in understanding dogs. All I want to say now is that wolves with this ability could have selected themselves as companions by showing up at the cave. Even monkeys wouldn’t have done nearly as well as wolves: in an experiment at Harvard (reported in the publication Science), chimpanzees noticed where a person was looking (at a box, for example) but didn’t take the hint that the box was the one holding hidden food. But dogs get the picture immediately.
And there’s something else. Humans are always on the lookout for anything that looks like loyalty or betrayal. Those things matter most for a group of animals (humans) whose survival is threatened as much by back-stabbing as by wild beasts. Our ability to imagine motives in others is part of what makes us human. We do it compulsively. We even extend this to imagine evil or friendly intentions of weather, volcanoes, traffic lights, and our crashing PCs. So our ancestors were ready to see certain behaviours in wolves as extravagant love and fidelity. And that’s a clue why our dogs don’t need to be more than their simple selves to beguile us.
Max is signalling that he wants a walk.
Something was missing. The Descent of Dogs lacked spark. Looking at Max now, all I have to do is clear my throat and he wakes up and gazes at me. He’s right there. If I say anything to him, like “who’s the dog with the hairy legs?” he almost smiles. His tail wags. Did I mention that I love him?
Dog scientists, you missed something. Cavemen may have loved some of these creatures too and kept them for that reason.
Anyway, let me continue with the clinical material. Remember, this all started when I was trying to protect my dog against more attacks. I began to probe into this: how much wolf is left in our dogs?
Pack behaviour is the same, or close. Except we’re the pack. Dogs, like wolves, are sharp at working out what’s going on and expected of them in the pack—then doing it. They read our body language, like wolves read the body language of other wolves. But instead of noting every flick of an ear or angle of a tail, our dogs note when we glance at a clock, or look dreamy, or pick up the car keys. Which means that even incompetent dog trainers (like me) make themselves understood to their dog.
And any dog still has a wolf’s social shock-absorber: shout at your dog and it cringes. Not because it’s sorry for what it did (chewed your wallet), but as a wolf-pack reflex. Wolves know that cringing drains another wolf’s aggression. If a ranking wolf growls at you, you cringe right away—even if you have no idea what the trouble is. It works.
Like wolves, our dogs are territorial. They defend our houses and yards. A poodle on the lawn can chase off a German Shepherd, if the German Shepherd knows he shouldn’t be there.
What’s different these days (from wolf packs) is that dogs share public places where they’re walked. Each dog then thinks it’s trespassing (because of all the old pee-smells around the place). So no dog usually gets the impression it has a right to defend the territory. Most act more submissive than usual. Their posture says: “I got dragged here! No way I’m going to challenge your right to be here.”
But certain dogs still start fights in these public places. It can happen if a dog isn’t well socialised, especially if it didn’t have much company when it was young and learned about these common territories. Maladjusted dogs may start pee-marking the boundaries of the park—and then defend it.
Some dogs have a sense of smell as subtle as a wolf’s. I kept reading that a dog’s smell is a “million times better” than ours. Which I guessed meant they can detect airborne molecules in concentrations that are one-millionth of what we can detect. Most dogs can pick up smells better than expensive odour-measuring instruments. Hence, sniffer dogs at airports.
Dogs have an extraordinary membrane in their noses. Their olfactory membrane, intricately folded, adds up to an area greater than the dog’s body! You could theoretically unfold it and wrap the dog in it. This membrane gives them magic powers in following scents. It’s also why dogs need long noses—lots of membrane to fold in.
Dogs with squashed faces (like Pugs) have reduced smell powers. But their olfactory membranes are still gigantic compared to ours (which would only cover about half a postage stamp).
But the size of the olfactory membrane isn’t a dog’s only advantage: their membrane also has 100 times more sensory cells per square centimetre than our human membrane has. A huge membrane, a hundred times as powerful per square centimetre.
There is more. When a dog sniffs something enthralling, its nose gets wet. That captures odour molecules floating in the air and brings them into contact with their nasal membrane. You’ve probably also seen your dog lick a branch or pile of leaves, then sniff carefully. Max does this. It may be to bring out the smell, on the wet-nose principle. (My guess. I haven’t read that anywhere…It’s easy to see why dog theory is so extensive. Everyone wants to add a bit.)
Before I started studying these dog facts and getting overexcited, I was stunned by the way Max sniffed things. He’d ‘read’ a little bush like he was reading some magazine. He’d sniff a twig, seem to understand something, sniff another twig, get some other message, come back to the original twig for comparison, and who knows what he was thinking? This could go on for several minutes, as he extracted the smell info from the bush. I’ve also seen him start this process, get to a certain twig, and start wagging his tail like mad.
Like you, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a dog. There were times when I got a whiff of it: when Daniel walked through the house after dosing himself with deodorant (Black Knight Turbo). I could follow his trail, just by sniffing.
The books say that each person smells different to a dog. Well, I can do that too. I could pick out my wife by smell, simply by sniffing the top of her lovely head. Which I sometimes do anyway, treating myself to that friendly aroma.
Dogs even cherish smells that revolt us. They’ll roll on rotting carcasses in order to “boost their body odour.” No convincing explanation why they do it has come through my ardent reading. But modern dogs then end up washed energetically with Peach Shampoo (in the case of Max).
A dog’s sense of taste is rudimentary. Dogs only have one-sixth as many taste buds as we do. Of course it’s hard to know what they ‘taste’ with these, but one author says it’s probably something like: pleasant, unpleasant, indifferent.
Taste buds for indifferent? How could they matter? Even if something makes the ‘indifferent’ buds tingle, the point is the dog still eats something if it smells tasty. They have smell preferences in food, as your dog must have made plain to you. Some dogs develop ravenous tastes for human foods and refuse the stuff you buy them in cans, or dried dog biscuits. Two of Max’s cravings: peanut butter and Brussels sprouts.
By the way, a warning: dogs like chocolate but it can kill them. Let me say that louder: chocolate can kill your dog. The fatal chemical is theobromine. Symptoms loom within one to four hours: vomiting, increased thirst, weakness, difficulty with balance, hyper-excitability, muscle spasms, seizures, coma. Then sometimes death from abnormal heart rhythm.
Here are potentially lethal doses for a 20 kg dog: 85 gm unsweetened cocoa, 140 gm baking chocolate, 200 gm semisweet chocolate, 550 gm milk chocolate.
But chocolate-flavoured dog treats are no problem. You won’t poison your dog, or even upset its digestion.
Dogs have large external ears, controlled by seventeen muscles that swivel and point these sound receivers. They can pick up squeaks as high as 46,000 vibrations per second (compared to our cut-off of 20,000). A fact used in dog whistles—the dog can plainly hear something that we can’t.
Dogs can shut off their inner ear, which lets them filter out some of the background din (that TV) and concentrate on certain noises (that footstep outside). They can hear sounds at 400m that we can barely hear at 90m.
So their hearing is better than ours, but not so much better that we can’t even imagine it—which is the case with smell.
Allow me to add this: Max can discriminate the sound of one car engine from another. When one of our four family cars arrives, there’s no reaction from Max. Any other car causes him to act up and bark.
When you compare a dog’s hearing with other creatures, dogs don’t stand out. Here’s the hearing range, in Hertz, for:
A dog’s teeth have the layout of a wolf’s, as already mentioned. Large canine teeth (fangs) for stabbing and holding prey, smaller incisors for nibbling meat off bones, not to mention for biting fleas and grooming, and molars and premolars for shearing meat and also for grinding roots and other vegetarian fare (like Brussels sprouts).
With these versatile teeth, even a small dog can hurt a human. Some couriers refuse to come in our front gate if they see little Max at a window. I’ve had them phone me from out there: “Those little dogs bite hard!”
If you’re walking your dog and you suddenly start running, your dog joins the chase, probably barking or growling—even if there’s nothing to chase. Wolves do this too, in a pack. A deep instinct. Very important to understand this, if a dog ever chases you (more later).
Imaginative people wonder what the world looks like through the eyes of their pets. Like neuroscientist Alison Harman, who wondered why her Pug watched TV. Most breeds ignore TV. But her Pug was so absorbed with it that when an animal crossed the screen, the Pug ran to the back of the set to see if the animal might be coming out there.
Alison studied the retinas of dogs that had died. And found something no one had noticed: most dogs had a ‘visual streak’—a high density line of vision cells across the retina— but Pugs didn’t. This was surprising. Because every vet and biologist ‘knew’ that all dogs have the same kind of eyes. But Alison discovered that Pugs and a few other types have an ‘area centralis’, a high density of vision cells arranged in a tight cluster, just like humans have.
Which means some breeds of dog see the world completely differently from the rest. Dogs with a visual streak see a panoramic view, all in fairly good focus. (We only see the middle bit clearly. Same with Pugs.)
This explains why some dogs chase things and others don’t. When a rabbit or cyclist shoots across the view of a dog that has a long visual streak, it sees the whole movement. And may find it irresistible. But a Pug with an area centralis only sees the rabbit when it flashes through its central vision. Then it’s gone. So it doesn’t chase it. “Chase what?” might be the feeling.
Here’s how to know what version of retina your dog has: short-nosed dogs have an area centralis, long-nosed dogs have a visual streak. Consider a Pug and an Afghan. Afghans with their long noses are born to chase. Meanwhile the pugs watch TV, and scrutinise their owner’s face for every nuance, which they can see much more exactly than any Afghan.
By the way, dogs don’t see in black and white. (A myth.) They can’t see red very well, but apart from that, they aren’t colour-blind. And all dogs see better in the dark than we do.
Suzanne Howlett, friend of Mary and owner of a shaggy mongrel, handed me a book called Dogs by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. It might have been called “Dogs and Owners”—it was all photos, more than a hundred posed shots of dogs and their owners. The love-bond between any weird breed of dog and any sort of owner radiates from almost every photo.
There’s a Hungarian Sheepdog that looks like a gigantic beige mop, its face invisible in overhanging fur, its large affectionate paws on the shoulders of a small dark-haired man dressed in a beige cashmere pullover the same shade as the dog. Made for each other, you’d think. A near impossible freak chance, one in a billion? Not at all. Turn to the dark-coated Dutch Shepherd, noble dog out of a King Arthur saga, sitting dignified and gazing at his elegant young owner, Sophia Anastassiades, who’s dressed for an evening out in a dark coat that seems colour-matched with the dog. Both her hands rest lovingly on the dog’s chest, as she gazes back at the dog in a way that could melt a man. Or see the girl about five years old, wrapped around her long-haired Dachshund, hugging it with both her arms and her legs, her face simple delight, with the dog looking less delighted but more like it’s another chore it’s willing to perform. Indeed, lots of the photos show their owners hugging their dogs. (Which dogs don’t understand the way we do.)
The book might be a zoom lens in orbit, picking earth locations at random, and discovering strange-looking dogs and their owners, but all paired off happily, despite the oddity or unlikelihood. Some hidden force creates a dog-owner bond.
But it probably wasn’t that way with dogs and cavemen. Ancient cave paintings don’t show cave-folk hugging their dogs. The dogs are always working: herding and hunting. In rare cases, history or myth does mention a dog as a pet. Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, returns home after a decade of adventures and misfortunes. His wife and sons don’t recognise him, but his old broken-down dog does:
Abandoned there, and half
destroyed by flies,
Some dogs must have been kept as pets in 800BC, Homer’s time.
In our own time, not many dogs still work. They’re almost all pets, in their tens of millions, and that brings trouble: it’s turned into a life that’s crazily unnatural for dogs. How did hunting dogs turn into pets? It may have happened like this…
People started managing flocks about 10,000 years ago, and their dogs helped defend the flocks against predators (no evidence given, and I’m just passing this on.) From the beginning, dogs must have served as guards. They were low members of their human pack, and with their keen hearing, barked off intruders. (In the days of Pharaohs, dead dogs guarded dead masters: dogs were buried with their masters, to frighten off malicious spirits.)
Dogs must have been hunting companions, almost from the start. Any dog is a natural pack hunter, ready to work with other dogs (or humans) to find prey and kill it. Dogs can track game like no human hunter.
By the start of the Bronze age (4500 BC) dogs had separated into five body types: mastiff-like (guard dogs, and for pulling loads), wolf-like (guard dogs), greyhound-like, pointer-type (hunting hounds) and sheepdogs.
War dogs were recruited in ancient civilisations in Assyria, Babylon and Egypt. Also in the middle ages in Western countries. We still use dogs for military tasks: sometimes as messengers, guard dogs and to ‘detect’ mines.
Draught dogs were used a lot in Europe before the engine age. And in the arctic they still haul loads and people. Dogs were always competent pest exterminators. Consider Max. Mary cleaned out a shelf of rags, and mice kept running out, zigzagging, almost too fast to follow. Six mice shot out and Max killed them all. Made it look easy.
Those five early types of dog—mastiff, wolf-like, greyhound-like, pointer-type and sheepdogs—were products of ‘unconscious selection.’ People kept the most useful or the best-looking dogs and let those breed, without any thought about changing the species. That’s the theory. They did it without realising.
But at some point, people started breeding dogs for a purpose. They set out to modify breeds according to some standard. They’d noticed that “like bred like.” But there were surprises and some puppies reverted to earlier types (as Mendel also noted later, staring with raised eyebrows at his rows of pea plants). By and by, stable breeds of dogs emerged. Lots of them.
So here we have five dog types, proliferating by unconscious or conscious selective breeding, branching out with the natural genetic mutation that happens all the time—creating thousands of new breeds, most of them lost down the centuries. Today there are about 400 breeds recognised by kennel clubs. There are probably 800 distinct breeds worldwide. That includes specimens ranging from a 90 kg St. Bernard to a 0.25 kg Yorkshire Terrier, from a stand-tall Irish Wolfhound to a ground-hugging Dachshund, from a Malamute with a luxurious coat to a totally bald Shollo, from the dash of a Greyhound to the shamble of a Basset Hound.
Could all these breeds survive now, if they had to manage for themselves? Not often! A Chihuahua in Alaska? A St. Bernard in the Sahara? A Basset Hound trying to live on wild hares? All these breeds are protected by us, not to say pampered. What it means is that extreme and weird breeds have been able to survive.
When dogs become protected pets, they don’t need wolf-colour camouflage, so any colours are OK: black, white, red, piebald (black and white), skewbald (brown and white). These patterns and colours aren’t entirely new, because wolf hair already has black, white and red pigments. Selective breeding subdues or boosts one or more pigments. True wolf colours are seen only in a few breeds, mainly the German Shepherd, Husky and Malamute.
Some breeds have a short jaw compared with their brain case—like the mastiff group, and it’s extreme in the Pekingese and Pug. In Bulldogs, the jaw is so short that there isn’t room for the teeth to line up in a single row. Bulldogs were bred for baiting bulls and bears, a ‘sport’ popular for centuries in England (then made illegal in 1835). The idea was the dog grabbed the bull by the nose and hung on. Conveniently, the bulldog also has a receding nose so it can still breathe while it’s stuck on. Even more conveniently, the dog comes with an undershot jaw. Once it grabs the bull’s snout, the dog’s own weight locks the jaw closed. The torment of the bull could go on for hours. This thrashing around trying to shake the dog off was thought to make the bull’s meat tender before it was butchered. There were laws that prohibited butchering bulls that hadn’t been tenderised this way.
It must have taken persistence to breed such a dog.
Despite the circus or freak-show of modern dogs, if all those dogs were allowed to breed randomly and not under anyone’s control, a wild-type dog would soon emerge. And the quirky Poodles and shambling Basset Hounds would be no more. All would merge back into the proto-dog of old. Don’t believe it? You only have to look at stray-dog populations around the world. These mutts look similar, no matter where you find them: a short coat, reddish-brown hair, a body like a skinny Retriever and with semi-erect ears. My boyhood dog was like that! A wonderful bright tolerant mutt.
Continuing with the revelations about where our present dogs come from, I’d better say a little about the unintended results of selective breeding. Breeding for one thing (like herding instinct) sometimes has side effects. You get the thing you want, but maybe something else too. Border Collies were bred for their herding talents, but they turned out to have white collars and white tips on their tails. Genetics is like that. (Remember the Russians and their tame Arctic Foxes.)
But less-agreeable traits can also spring up during breeding. The last 100 years of near-manic dog breeding has produced some very inbred animals. Look at it this way: the chance of two random humans having different genes at any given chromosome position is about 71 percent. This means that if a baby’s mother or father has passed on a bad gene, there’s a 71 percent chance the baby has a different gene there from the other parent and that different gene may be a good one that can take over all the work (like the advantage of having two kidneys or eyes). Now in crossbred dogs, the gene difference drops to 57 percent, and in purebred dogs it goes down to 22 percent. In some rare breeds it’s only four percent. In other words, for the rare breeds, almost all the dogs have any bad gene that’s been bred in! So when there’s a bad trait, it tends to stay as long as the breeding is kept within the same group.
And there are signs of trouble. Genetic diseases show up in many breeds. There are epileptic Poodles, Scottish Terriers that suddenly go rigid (“Scottie cramp”), and congestive heart failure in Boxers.
Breeders of show dogs have been blamed for promoting bad genes. After a stud dog wins a blue ribbon, he may father hundreds of litters. His good and bad genes swamp the breed. The danger is acute in breeds that were once almost extinct, but have been bred back by careful nurturing from small populations. This happened to several breeds that now show strange genetic ailments: Irish Wolfhounds, flat-coated Retrievers, Portuguese Water Dogs, and the Shar-Peis.
Show dogs that carry their heads and tails erect please the judges. But those traits also mark a dominant dog, which often comes with aggression. Some breeders don’t live with their dogs and they don’t care about bred-in aggression—as long as they get that perfect coat or perfect bearing.
Geneticists point out that selecting for looks doesn’t mean they can’t also select for good health or reasonable manners at the same time. But the breeders need to start from a large founding population and make sure that they keep churning the founders’ gene pool into all later generations.
But whatever the dog-show people do, we’ll always have some mutts. They’re a reservoir of genetic diversity. They tend to be healthy and also good dogs to own. They are the basic dog that evolved around humans, adapted to us, learned to charm us, exploit us, help us. In a way, mutts are what dogs are about.
How many wolves there are and where to find them
I’ve said that those wolves that teamed up with humans long ago had a better idea than the wild wolves that stayed wild. It pays to mooch off people rather than struggling in the wild. (The world population of wolves is down to about 150,000, compared with 50 million dogs in the US alone.) Yet wolves are still the most widespread wild land mammal. They are everywhere from North America to Europe to Asia, and roam from semi-desert to tundra to subtropical forest.
Here are some estimates:
Canada. 52,000 wolves. They aren’t protected. But there are hunting limits that vary in different parts. The hunting season also varies. Canada is one of the world’s largest exporters of wolf furs.
United States. No total figures found, but Alaska has a population of about 6000 wolves. They aren’t protected and the hunting season runs from August until April. There are limits that vary from region to region. In the lower 48 states, wolves are classified either as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ and can’t be hunted. Minnesota has about 2000 wolves, and there are also wolves in Northern Michigan and Wisconsin. In the other states, wolves are at risk of extinction. Wolves are making a comeback in the Northern Rockies. Wolves from Canada repopulated Glacier National Park in Montana in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Wolves were also brought back into Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s, and are spreading to other parts of the north-western United States.
Romania. 2000 wolves. Not protected and are still hunted and trapped, because they sometimes kill livestock.
Poland. 850 wolves. Considered a big game animal and hunted from August to March.
Northern Greece. A few hundred. Not protected and often shot if they attack livestock.
Italy. 250 wolves. Protected, but some are illegally killed.
France. “Very few” wolves. For a long time, France was free of wolves. But some have come in from Italy.
Spain. 1000 wolves. Protected, but killed illegally. People who kill them are rarely prosecuted.
Norway and Sweden. “Very few” wolves. Common before 1900. Now fully protected but are nevertheless shot if they’re caught killing livestock. A lot of people are afraid of them.
Germany. “Very few.” Protected, but if a wolf is considered dangerous, it may be killed.
Former Soviet Union. 90,000 wolves. Hunted and trapped for their fur. Most of the large populations are in remote mountainous parts.
India. 1000 wolves. Protected but still hunted illegally. May also be killed if they are considered to be threatening someone’s property. They are often poached in the National Parks.
Mongolia. 10,000 wolves. Considered pests and not protected. But Mongolia has a low human population density, so the wolf population is pretty stable.
China. No data. There are some packs in the north. China’s remaining wolf population is threatened by habitat loss, trapping, hunting and poisoning by humans.
These writings drove the poor
knight out of his wits;
—Don Quixote, by Cervantes
Was I getting anywhere? Or being driven mad by reading? Max went on yanking his leash, going berserk and wanting to kill most of the dogs we spotted. But we kept off the Heritage Trail and away from loose killer dogs. And I still carried pepper spray.
None of the stuff in the books explained clear ways to ease my situation. I put my head between my hands and reviewed things.
Dogs, like wolves, have a rigid social order. Each pack has a top dog, a couple of challengers, a bunch of easy-going dogs that are happy with their position and one or two creeping underdogs. Each dog commands a personal space, but may not be able to use it if some higher-ranking dog decides to plop down there. And no one violates the top dog’s space.
The top dog leads the pack, keeps it together, protects it by getting aggressive if there’s any threat, decides when to start a hunt, defends the den. The pack hunts together, eats together (top dog first, then down the ranks in order), and they sleep together. This pack co-ordination has made dogs successful in the wild and also as human companions.
That gave me a sharper idea what Max was up to. But no better idea how to stop him from getting attacked. The only practical advice had come from Jacquie on the phone. I peered again into pack theory. There had to be more about what to do.
Like that business about top dog. A certain suspicion grew. When the top dog moves through the pack, the others move aside. Not from fear, but respect. When the top dog is resting, the others don’t disturb him. When the top dog and another dog both approach a narrow passage, the top dog goes first. Same as with human protocol. Rank has privileges.
This must also apply to dogs in a house. I should be able to work out who was top dog. I expected and hoped it was me.
Flipping pages, I browsed for top-dog tests. It can be subtle, because the top dog isn’t aggressive. The top dog has a commanding influence, but doesn’t snarl much. No need. It’s true that a top dog will get aggressive if some other dog tries to challenge its position. That described Max when he didn’t get his way—like trying to get him off certain chairs he liked. In dog packs, these matters are “usually done with a conspicuous display, not a fight.”
I grew uneasy to note that a lot of rank positions are fixed when the dogs are young, by play. Maybe Max had already been programmed as pack leader, as a puppy? In that breeder’s kennel? Puppies play games like tug-of-war, and the winner gets some status points. But Max was still playing tug-of-war with us as a puppy. So maybe his personality hadn’t gelled too early?
A dog’s body language signals its rank. A lower-rank dog shows deference by coming toward the leader with its head low and avoiding eye contact. Uh-oh. Max never did that. A dominant dog often puts its head on the neck of the lower-ranking dog. Well, I don’t do that with Max, and Max is too short to try it on me. Inconclusive. A variation is to put a paw on the lower-ranking dog’s shoulder. Hey, I do that! I put my paw on Max’s shoulder all the time. So I am leader. Maybe.
The less dominant dog will look (even to us) exactly like a loser, a hangdog. It hunches its shoulders, droops its head, lets its ears flop down, averts its eyes, and probably sits. (No, that’s not Max at all.) Even more abject low-rankers roll right over with their tail between their legs, ears drawn back. Peeing in this posture is the final humiliating “I’m a loser” signal. Again, not Max.
So who is leader here?
Living in the human pack
We take a puppy from the litter when it’s between eight and twelve weeks. It finds itself in a house with people. What does it make of that?
Well, no problem: the puppy can see that we’re its pack. We dish out the food and seem to guarantee the pack’s security. Which means that one of those two-legged dogs must be leader. The puppy begins to test its rank by playing with them. It runs around and sometimes nips, like it used to nip its littermates, or even its mother. It may start tug-of-war games with slippers or toys. (In its old pack, if it nipped another puppy too hard, it would be informed by a yelp and maybe a refusal to play any more. If it tried nipping its mum, she’d nip back in a measured way.) The puppy tries to join the people-dogs in their private spaces—like that sofa where they watch TV.
Even when a puppy works out its niche in the family, it keeps testing. Sexual maturity comes between 6 and 12 months. But a dog’s ‘emotional maturity’—this is serious—isn’t fixed until a year after that (exactly like wolves). A dog with a dominant attitude, especially a male, usually keeps testing its position in the human pack right up until emotional maturity. The dog may challenge you or anyone in the family. The dog may first test what it reckons is a weak pack member. It may nip a child that grabs its tail. It may ignore a command by the child’s mother, but obey the command when the father pipes up— because of his more growly jungle voice. Even after emotional maturity, the dog’s position in the pack isn’t always fixed.
We help to settle our dogs into their ranks, usually without realising it. Meanwhile they learn—most of them—that humans are great leaders. (Men and women make equally good leaders.) It’s why dogs gather around a person they’ve never met.
As part of the dog’s rank, it will have taken—or been given—a personal space. Maybe a dog basket or a chair that no one throws it off.
It matters what your dog decides about its rank. Because if it’s higher than yours, it won’t obey you! And you won’t be able to control it on walks, to mention one drawback.
Here are some tests to check what position your dog has (and how we used to handle Max):
With a weight of Yes answers, like mine, your dog takes it to mean that:
All the rights of the top dog! And Max didn't struggle to get them. We granted them without realising it. If you give a dog this high rank, you have to live with it when the dog also shoulders its other top-dog responsibilities:
Now this was getting somewhere. Maybe it was why Jacquie, dog psychologist, wanted me to read these books. This seemed to be the nub. No wonder Max was such a handful.
But it also starts to mix your feelings, because some top-dog behaviour is exactly why we have dogs in the first place! We like them to show affection. We like them to show spirit. Even be a little naughty. All part of the fun. So I was somewhat thrown by this information. A lot of what we liked about Max was the way a top dog acted, but this also meant we couldn’t control him on walks. So we’d be risking another attack by some big dog.
Anyway, reading on and wondering, several books did say that we’re flattered by affection the dog shows. Right. Who wants to live with a hostile dog?
I stopped to weigh the information about dogs that ate first. If that was such a big deal for dogs, it sure didn’t matter to me if we fed Max last. No trouble with that one—it wouldn’t affect anything that I liked about the dog. I understood why when Max ate early, he also begged from the table. But when we tried feeding him later, he didn’t beg. Because when we ate first, we were acting like top dogs and his instincts told him he’d have to wait for pickings. But when he was fed first, his top-dog instincts told him he was also entitled to any other food he wanted.
I read other tips about spotting a dominant dog. It gets subtle—matters like ‘passive dominance’. Some dogs aren’t aggressive if you tell them what to do. Instead they get hyperactive and act like fools. (Max did this sometimes.) They get everyone’s attention but mock anyone’s attempt at control. This is different to telling an openly dominant dog to get off your bed, and it growls at you. If your dog instead acts playful, you may not realise it’s dominant. If you drag it off the bed, maybe it playfully throws itself on its back and tries to wrap its legs around your arms. Then does laps around the room and jumps back on the bed. A comic dog that makes you smile. But it’s done what an aggressive dog does: said NO.
Demoting your dog
There are many ways to demote your dog. Some are easy. What did I have to lose trying them on Max? Or at least one or two, to see what happened? Would the dog behave better, without losing any charm?
I started by making sure Max didn’t go through the doors first. I briefed Mary and the boys. The hard part was remembering to do it. Max didn’t seem to mind, and we came up with a command: “wait a minute!” It was hard to tell if this made him any less dominant. But he was obeying something.
I kept blinking at the demotion techniques that I’d collected from all over:
Whew. As if that wasn’t crushing enough to read, some dog books had photos and stories about the trainer and his super-dogs, all under exact control. If your dog isn’t perfect like this, you’re a loser!
But the less intense and maybe more practical books say that just by making an effort on a few of these demotion tactics, you can alter your dog’s point of view.
They go on to say that the top-dog isn’t too hard to dethrone, if you granted your dog this position without realising it. But if you’ve got a dog with inherited top-dog genes, it’s tougher. Whatever your dog is like, it’s easier to curb dominance in the home (den) first. If the dog accepts that, you gain some rank and the other training is easier. But you can’t just ‘train’ a dog by teaching it to sit or heel. That’s only teaching it a trick. What you want is having the right to tell the dog to do things, and that he’ll do them, no matter what the distractions. And that depends on your rank.
I tried doing a little bit about this, as I’ve mentioned. We made Max go out the doors behind us. And we fed him last. He didn’t complain. But he still yanked his leash and acted crazy on walks, wanting to take on any animal.
To be literal, Jacquie had said to read the books. She hadn’t said to do anything rash. Maybe she had something up her sleeve?
This research and agitation started because that German Shepherd attacked Max. We now walked only along suburban streets, eucalyptus-lined avenues, with houses that had fences. People could be seen pruning shrubs, watering, daydreaming. Dogs sometimes barked behind the fences. Max barked and leaped. But it was mere noise, on both sides of the fence.
So did I still have a problem? You bet! I imagined fangs behind every gum tree. Anyway, all it would take would be for some owner to be careless and leave an open gate. Another hazard was people who walked their dogs without leashes. I’d seen a few on these leafy lanes, but kept away. (And I still carried pepper spray.) Max’s wound had healed. Not my wounded spirit.
I kept researching the foundations of dog aggression. It was said to be a ‘reflex defence’—Nature’s warning. This defence reflex turns into a determined attack when all options close and there’s no other choice.
Here are two other defence reflexes used by dogs: roll over (surrender) or freeze into a dog statue. The statue is rarer. But it’s what people are advised to do if a dog threatens you— don’t run, don’t threaten back, don’t stare at the dog, don’t signal anything. Freeze. Even bad-tempered junkyard dogs won’t bite you.
Breeds vary in their defence reflex. Rottweilers, Jack Russells, and Japanese Akitas usually show “active defence reflexes” (which I took to mean they’re likely to bite). But Golden Retrievers and Shelties have passive defence reflexes (roll over and give up).
A few sorts of aggression aren’t defence reflexes. Dogs can get aggressive if they’re diseased. Brain tumours, distemper, rabies—ruinous diseases. Dogs also get touchy because of changes in their hormones. That snappy bitch in season.
Some aggressive dogs don’t fit the major categories and they instead show idiopathic aggression. It means “no known cause.” Also called rage syndrome, but that’s not exactly an explanation either. Dogs attack their owners or charming guests, apparently unprovoked. They go wild and bite at everyone.
Tidy-minded people who write dog glossaries define aggression as the first hostile act between two dogs. If the victim dog immediately gets aggressive too, that’s called ‘defence’—unless it starts to win. Dogs of course aren’t influenced by dictionary terms. But owners do see things this way and blame the other dog, usually. (Remember?.. “He growled at my dog!”)
We all understand the body language of a dog that’s getting very aggressive. It comes forward slowly and deliberately, with a stiff-legged walk and tall posture, ears erect. The hairs on its back and neck are raised. (Yours too, probably.) Its stare is unflinching. The aggressive dog may also lift its leg and pee.
If the creature growls, snarls or curls its upper lip, no one could be confused about what that means. But people may be confused about the tail. The aggressive tail may be either horizontal or upright (and wagging doesn’t always mean friendly).
But there’s aggression that’s not like any other: predatory aggression. Your dog could be attacked if it simply runs away or looks like prey. A predatory attack strikes with no warning. The attacker doesn’t usually snarl or growl. He’s suddenly a quiet hunter…until the prey is dead, then the dog may snarl to tell the rest of his pack to back off. (Terriers sometimes growl as they shake their victims to death. Max does this with big lizards.)
I’ve already bragged about Max and those six mice (rag pile, mice zigzagging out). Terriers were bred to kill rats, and they also tunnel after badgers, rabbits, foxes. They used to be tested in rat-killing contests. A Terrier would be put in a walled enclosure, outside a pub or farm. Rats were then thrown into this arena. One Bull Terrier called Jacko killed 1000 rats in 100 minutes (not all at once—this was his season score). One rat every six seconds, while supplies lasted.
This ‘sport’ showed off a dog’s chase and kill instinct. Jacko wasn’t hungry and didn’t eat any of the rats. They just looked like prey and they ran. Which is why you don’t want your dog to look like prey to some other dog. For example, by dragging your dog away on the leash. That can turn the attacking dog into a version of wolf…low crouch, silent stalk, violent acceleration, kill.
Predatory aggression explains some dog attacks on people. Like one I read about: a pair of dogs ran out of a wood and scared two 11-year-old boys. The boys ran. One boy fell over and the dogs ignored him. They chased the running boy and savaged him.
People with aggressive dogs
By now I’d read about 200 times that dogs are sociable and good at sorting out disputes between themselves. Simple dog gestures are enough—posture, raised ears, grimaces. So how did I bring up a dog that wanted to attack every other dog? Lifting that question to higher abstraction: why do other people’s dogs, on leashes or off, sometimes get aggressive?
Authorities claim it’s early socialisation. If a dog never gets to play with strange dogs in the quivering formative months after it’s left the litter, it may never be confident about meeting strange dogs. Right, that applied to Max. He frolicked with no other dogs after we paid for him and took him with us on that chilly day, a puppy with his head sticking out of a towel, to keep him warm. Almost every dog he saw from then on was from the end of his leash.
Reflecting on that, I began to notice he would get used to dogs that we often met on walks. But he always flared up with new dogs. Max’s first-impression flare-ups probably meant: “I’m not easy with that dog. I want it to leave.” But I’d get upset by Max’s sour temper. Maybe shout at him, and yank him back to teach him manners. Dog theorists say that this can turn a dog’s merely aggressive show into full-blast aggression. “Master is excited and worried! Kill, kill!”
A few repetitions of that and you transform a wary dog, who’s only mildly intolerant of other dogs, into a fighter.
Or picture these people with their cute puppy. They walk it in a park—their first public walk with it. The puppy is on a leash, because they don’t know what to expect and think it could run away. But wait! Here comes a large, confident dog, running up to have a look at the puppy. The owners panic. Puppy could get hurt! They don’t pick up the friendly signals coming from both dogs. So they yank their puppy back. Which puts the puppy in a bind. It can’t act submissive (natural Option 1) and it can’t run away (natural Option 2). It’s down to one thing: raise his hackles and growl or bark. It does this while it’s dragged off in retreat, ears folded back. The other dog probably loses interest and goes off to find some dog that’s more fun to play with.
The owners can see that their puppy is nervous after this event. That seems evident, even blind as they are about their puppy’s body language. So they try to calm the puppy. They stroke it and produce tranquillising tones they use on their children when they have nightmares. But the puppy now thinks it’s being praised. He’s shown some doggy aggression and the noble leaders pet him and make agreeable sounds. Also, the other dog ran away. Oh, the power! If this happens a couple of times, then it’s a habit—for the owners and the puppy.
Could this have happened to Max? It sounded familiar.
But if the puppy had instead been able to deal with the other park dogs in stages, following ancient rituals, the puppy would have found nothing to be alarmed about. It would have been fun playing with each new dog (even big ones). Each ignorant and gauche move by the puppy would have been rebuffed gracefully or gone unrewarded. The puppy’s juvenile tendencies would have been curbed.
And the puppy would have similarly intense growing-up to do as an adolescent. A male dog’s adolescence starts as early as nine months, or as late as two years. The dog gets hyper-competitive with other pack males (similar to the rotten time for human male adolescents). The pack sorts him out. Older males put the adolescent in his place and he settles into a more easy-going competition. Something that the pack can live with.
But with a human leader (also known as the dog’s owner), things are less likely to work out well. The owner may not curb the adolescent with skill. He may yell “NO!” Also hit his dog. And the dog gets scared. In a natural dog pack, this is rare. Hierarchy is founded on respect, not terror. Fear fluctuates in a pack, depending on the situation, but without red-lining the terror dials. Much less staying at a red line. But in a human pack, the young male dog may submit totally, scared to death, yet still want to stay around. The owner has wrecked normal communication with the dog. Even Stalin’s dog probably wasn’t treated that badly. (Though Stalin did have neighbourhood dogs shot at once if they disturbed his innocent sleep.)
I read all this while brooding and theorising, trying to make sense of Max. It meant that when Max had advanced into adolescence, I’d never clearly noticed. So I can’t say if he became an unusual problem then, or if I overdid any repression. I didn’t hit him, but may have threatened him. I have the feeling, thinking back, that he wasn’t fazed by my control measures.
But to continue my research summary: some of the worst-adjusted dogs are owned by people who get advice from ill-informed friends (who may not even have a dog). Disobedience and every defensive growl from a dog—already a nervous wreck from over-assertive training—must be met by clobbering the dog harder. Including hitting it with a stick.
People who’re sure their dog is a stubborn fighter are probably wrong. The dog may be somewhat unsociable (not a harmful thing) and dominant to other dogs. Or just frightened. If you ask one of these owners if their dog has hurt another dog, they usually say no. Equally, their dog hasn’t been hurt by another dog. If there’s damage, it’s usually to the owners when they tried to break up a ‘fight’. Mary got bitten by Max that way. (Bleeding hand, family doctor coming in off-hours, tetanus jab.)
“A smaller dog may be attacked and killed by a larger dog if its movements or sounds are mistaken for prey” and “The reason their dog is likely to come off worst is that most owners grab their own dog first and put them into a vulnerable position.”
Yes indeed. Observations like these were getting all-too-familiar. And they distorted my memory of the German Shepherd attack on Max. I couldn’t recall the scene clearly, even right after it happened. Now false details were being patched in from books, whether they happened or not.
Now picture—as I did, reading on, reading, reading—that you’re walking your dog across a territory that some on-coming dog believes is his. Your dog looks at the other dog’s posture, its dreadful assurance, and concludes: “I’m trespassing! Master, let me drop my head! I don’t want to fight this land claim!” But your dog’s posture is distorted by the leash. So he can’t do anything but act up. Then you punish him for that and your dog now knows that when he sees another dog, he’s going to get punished. His one hope is to chase other dogs away. So he acts as aggressive as he can.
This is so common you could almost say that dogs don’t cause fights, people do. Each reflex of the owner makes things worse. When another dog comes close and looks threatening, we shout at it. That startles both dogs, and they shift into ready-for-anything power-postures. These postures are a quick fuse for the next stage: the dogs show their teeth, maybe box with their front feet. Which truly panics the owners. They yell, almost trying to blow away the threat with noise. They grab their own dog, and start kicking, maybe hitting both dogs with anything—walking sticks, newspapers, umbrellas, rucksacks.
And there’s another thing. If your dog is on a leash, or just near you, it may decide to protect you. Another reason that fights break out.
And one more reason is listed for fights: Factor X, the irrational. A dog that’s normally friendly may simply dislike a strange dog. For no reason—at least none that even a dog expert can detect.
It embarrasses good citizens if their pleasant dog attacks other dogs. Max used to embarrass Mary. Not that Max actually attacked other dogs...he couldn’t, on his leash. (This was during our Heritage Trail days.) I thought it was funny. Spirited creature! So small, so fierce!
As I said earlier, conflict grew about this. Mary talked of refusing to walk with me and Max any more. We compromised. I said I’d try to be concerned. I yelled at Max, yanking his leash. Which made no difference, except it made the passing people seem happier. Also made them feel superior—their dog was (usually) better behaved. Mary was satisfied. I was acting normal, even if it was just acting. Our standing in society stopped falling.
People who walk with their dogs off the leash can face a hard day: their dog attacks an innocent, mild dog that did nothing. (As far as the people around can note.) Apologies flow to the indignant owner of the victim dog. “He’s never done that before! Sorry!” Sounding sorry does help. It works so well that the ‘bad dog’ owner keeps saying SORRY as the ‘incidents’ go on.
The bad-dog owner thinks the first attack must have been unfortunate luck or a canine personality clash. But as attacks multiply and the payouts for the victims’ vet bills increase, the owner grows cautious. He starts walking his dog on a leash. He tries to avoid other dogs that aren’t on leashes, dodging out of their sight. Which agitates his leashed dog. It barks, knowing for sure that something’s up. The owner sighs, thinks it over, and walks the dog at a quieter time of day. In the end, the tormented owner joins the night-time dog-walkers association. None of these stricken people want to meet any other dog. Walking their dog is now a long pain. Late at night, glimpsing only rare and screwed-up dogs, there’s no hope for their dog to learn anything. Not only that, their dog gets less exercise. He never gets a full-blast run. Meanwhile the owner worries a lot and is usually pooped.
The dog is now so isolated, it starts to act up at home— barking and howling. Which hassles the neighbours. And if the dog occasionally escapes, it attacks all dogs, large and small, male and female, near home or far away. If it gets beaten in some fights, that may curb its aggression a little. But not enough. A lot of these dogs end in rescue shelters, or euthanised by vets.
The downcast dog owner never understands that it was all because of his own lack of confidence. It wouldn’t have come to this if he’d found out early that his dog was very unlikely to fight if it was given the freedom to avoid another dog.
I was bloated with dog theory. I had chewed and swallowed much written advice, which sometimes tasted like advice Jacquie had offered. Try to keep between your dog and another dog that may be hostile. But if you have to do this by pulling your dog’s leash (rather than your dog obeying a command), no good. Also your tense nerve-strings will twang your dog’s keen senses. He pricks his ears and raises his hackles—signs that he’s taking control.
I felt like clutching my head. Could I master this? Keep my body relaxed, not pull on the leash, but talk to my well-trained dog in a firm tone (what well-trained dog?) Take control before Max tried to, or before he got scared by the other dog. Get him to follow behind me. That puts him in his place, if he tends to be dominant or wants to protect me. And if he’s nervous, it protects him. And don’t tell him he’s a good dog if he plainly isn’t. Don’t yank his collar or shout at him, because he’ll consider me a pack member who’s helping out with the growling. Try to walk along as if nothing is happening. With luck and practice, he’ll learn to ignore other dogs. If I can’t do this while he’s moving, then get him behind me and make him lie down. Try not to let him see the other dog, and definitely not stare at it. If all goes well, go on with my walk. Then tell him he’s a good dog.
For some reason this seemed like the Charlie Chaplin skit about the bartender who couldn’t master the cocktail shaker. Everything about the bartender shook and trembled, all his limbs, his head, his torso, while the cocktail shaker remained fixed in space.
One sun ray came through the book-fog: if dog owners don’t notice the subtle body language of their dogs, their dogs sure notice their owner’s body language and what that’s signalling. This began to seem the key to everything. Dogs watch us closely.
Your dog notices that you and the approaching person have both stiffened. He concludes there’s a fight brewing. So he growls. Then the other dog growls. And the humans stiffen more and start yanking leashes and maybe growling “NO!” Two packs at war! But if a little dog approaches, you may be relaxed. So your dog is too. The approaching little dog sees no problem and all goes OK. Dogs are always aware of this hidden chat between the humans.
More advice surged from the texts. If your dog is on a leash but a threatening dog comes along that isn’t on a leash, then leave the area by “backing slowly away,” while keeping between the two dogs. Most dogs that attack other dogs “aren’t aggressive towards people.” Some dogs approach another dog, investigate and wait for a reaction. But others may attack without warning, from behind cover. (Good for the nerves, these texts.)
If you block your dog from the other dog’s view, it may “defuse the encounter.” If the threatening dog keeps coming, try telling it to “stay” or “sit”. But never shout. Never turn around or run away (plainly a bad idea, even I could see that). Equally, don’t move forward or let your dog rush forward and don’t kick at the other dog—things that are likely to make the other dog more aggressive. (Exactly the things that people do! If dogs have defence reflexes, so have we.)
I was advised again and again to be aware of each dog’s body language and facial expression. So I could take “preventive action.” I felt low. I was a failure as a dog owner. Could I ever get observant and quick enough?
At last I hit advice that I already knew: change from a short leash to an extending leash. That made me feel better. Did that, thanks to my son Daniel, who gave me an extendable leash for Christmas. As one book said, the dog had more scope, a wider circle to explore, with the leash reeling out and back automatically. So the dog yanked less.
A trick I learned later—invented by me—was to jiggle the leash when Max got to the limit and he started pulling. The jiggling rattled his front legs and made him unsteady. So he gave up pulling. As long as he had something definite to pull against, a constant strain on the leash, it made him feel like pulling more. But he wasn’t programmed for jiggling and it stopped him.
Do nothing. Let aggressive dogs sort things out themselves. Do nothing, even if they look ready to kill. Because first there’s a noisy but low-risk dog ritual. They’ll either agree to play or they’ll probably just ignore each other! I tried that. It always worked. I picked mild dogs, mind you, that we sometimes found loose on our new suburban-lane walks. The flare-ups were brief, as the books promised. Three seconds of snarls and raised hair. Then a cautious, stiff-legged sniffing, and some careful peeing and more sniffing. Then peeing on top of the other dog’s pee. Then it was all over. They either wanted to play, or the loose dog just walked away.
It’s hard to get used to: that two dogs squaring up will only make a lot of noise. It goes back to wolf-packs, where wolves mock-fight for status, but don’t hurt each other. It’s hard to believe that fact when your Poodle (say) is upside down under a German Shepherd. Your Poodle is totally submissive, which protects it as thoroughly as a force field. But if you whack the German Shepherd with something, your Poodle may get bitten. You too.
If dogs are seriously fighting (rare), then separating them is formidable. There’s a recommended way, but it takes two people—and both need to know what they’re doing. And have gun-fighter’s reflexes. Each gunfighter needs to grab one dog by the ankles (hock joints) of its back legs, lift its back end off the ground, wait for the dog to stop biting the other one, then pull the dog backwards (hindquarters still lifted). Don’t pull if the dog is clamped to the other with a bite, because this can rip deep tissue.
It isn’t smart to grab the dog’s head or shoulders, unless you can get right behind the dog and you’re strong enough to control its head. (As mentioned, Mary got bitten by Max, pulling him away from another dog.)
It may make you sigh. What are the odds there are two people on the spot who could both handle all that?
Another idea is to throw a blanket over the heads of both dogs. This stops the fight and gives time for one or both dogs “to be removed.” That may work at picnics, but how many people carry blankets on dog walks?
Another suggestion: distract the dogs by throwing a noisy object at them, or making a loud sound near their heads. This acoustic method also needs you to keep saying “No!” or “Stop!” Which contradicts other expert advice not to make a ruckus and encourage a pack spat. Anyway, what noisy object is recommended? No author is specific. A rape alarm? (I did try a boat horn, but remember—Max tried to attack it.)
One dog writer, sun sign in Aquarius, said to pour water on fighting dogs. True, some walkers carry a bottle of drinking water, but that amount of fluid wouldn’t stop a German Shepherd.
It’s said that hosing down dogs almost always works. But this is getting too far-fetched.
A suggestion that may have merit (but I haven’t tried) is to spray ‘bitter apple’ at fighting dogs. A harmless, foul-tasting solution said to be available from some vets and pet shops. But you can’t just spray the dogs and expect that to solve things. The idea is that the spray distracts them. Then you use that moment to communicate with them with a “firm but friendly” command of “sit!” Maybe dogs disgusted by bitter apple fumes will agree to sit. (If you try this and have problems, don’t complain to me.)
Practically everyone liked the idea of castration (not during a fight, of course). My former vet Uriah had gone on about it: “If your dog isn’t going to use his balls, why should he have them?” The Shire gives a 67% dog-license discount for neutered males. My neighbour, who once worked for a vet, suggested I was having all this trouble because my dog was an “entire male”. The books say that castration can reduce fighting in male dogs. The operation changes the odour of the dog (and so changes the other dog’s reactions to it). And the testosterone plummets and lowers the dog’s general fizz. But if fights have been breaking out because your dog is frightened or protective, castration won’t have an effect. A few books claimed that castration reduced a male dog’s competitiveness a great deal, if done before three years of age. Others quoted research that castration reduced inter-male aggression in 50-60% of cases, for dogs of all ages. I didn’t care for any of that. It was too easy to imagine the operation.
Jacquie was due back. I emailed her: Max had suffered no dog attacks, I told her, but I needed more vitamins on the topic. Something was missing in the books.
She invited me to her house—describing a remote place on a dirt road. I got there: a white, fairly large, low-profile Spanish-looking house. I didn’t see any cars. And no dogs barked (she must have dogs, right?) The atmosphere, in the mild blue weather, resembled some oasis where a traveller might find dates and sweet water.
I pushed a doorbell button. It seemed connected to dogs, because I heard no bell but barking started somewhere inside.
Then the door swung open and an energetic presence greeted me. “Jim!” She took my hand, firmly. Very firmly. “Come in!”
I could have been boarding a Qantas flight. She looked like a seasoned stewardess, with close-cropped hair, an energetic and winning manner, and a wiry build, as if she might pump iron.
To the left, three dogs were barricaded in a passageway, with a kind of movable indoor fence. “Down!” she told them.
They instantly shut up.
“I’ll let them have a look at you,” she told me. “As soon as they know you’re here on friendly terms, I’ll let them out.” The dogs looked like synchronised ballerinas, their heads swivelling at the same time. This seemed unusual.
“Where would you like to sit?” Jacquie asked. “Here?” pointing to the sitting room, with a U-shaped settee. “Or the table?” A long dark table, next to an open-plan kitchen.
I preferred the table. Useful for spreading papers and stuff out, and more business-like. I’d brought a clipboard and a tape recorder.
She let the dogs out. They sniffed me, comprehensively. “OK, enough!” she told them. “Chilli, bed!” “Muffy, Punch… down!” They instantly obeyed.
But if the dogs sat down, I couldn’t. Because the chairs around the table didn’t have seats. Just holes, where your bottom would plunge in and you’d get stuck. “My cats,” she said, grabbing two chair seats from a stack against the wall. “The cats get on the chairs. I can’t stop them.” (Well, she’s a dog trainer.)
“Coffee? Tea?” she asked.
“If you’re having one, I’d be glad to have a coffee,” I told her.
She clicked on the kettle in the kitchen, and I became aware of odd but human-sounding noises from off-stage. Like someone was banging randomly on something metallic. I didn’t say anything. If it was an animal doing it, it was a strange one.
The chairs looked like antiques, with elaborately carved wood backs (not entirely comfortable, but the padded seats made up for it.) The dark chairs matched the dark wood table. But the inside of the house was painted white, had arches and a couple of small bookshelves. It was tasteful and spacious, with passages leading off in several directions. It was also clean, and didn’t smell of dogs—for some reason.
Behind me sat Chilli on her raised dog bed. I couldn’t tell what breed she was. Medium size, chocolate coloured, floppy ears. She stayed on the bed, as if glued.
I put my clipboard on the table. I had questions written on it, old-hand interviewer that I am. I also showed the recorder. “All right to tape this?” I asked.
“Sure, go ahead!” she said, passing me a coffee. “Here you go!” She sat down opposite. A large white cup, with a curled lip, a bit antique-looking.
“Good of you to help,” I told her. (She was doing this free, so far.)
“It’s great to have someone who listens. I can’t tell you how hard it can be at dog-training classes.” Her intelligent face was set in close-cropped hair. She might have been a navigator for Captain Kirk.
“What do you do now?” I asked.
“I give one-off dog training, usually hard cases. And I teach motorbike riding techniques.”
Bang, from offstage. I stared in that direction.
“My Dad,” she explained. “He’s working on the gutters… Anyway, things have changed a lot with the way people own dogs. I’ve been doing this for thirty-three years. People just don’t have the time any more to attend six classes. And most don’t have the discipline to carry on with the homework, so to speak. And they wonder why they have dog problems! Lots of irresistible puppies end in dog homes, or even put down by vets—just because people don’t know how to train them, or even know what a dog is, in a way. But let’s get back to your problems. Did you read some of those books?”
I summarised for her. I carried on about wolf theory, packs, even DNA.
“Wait a minute!” she stopped me. “Did you find things that helped to prevent dog attacks?”
“I’m not sure. It’s like that guy who sprinkled salt outside his house to stop lion attacks, and someone pointed out there weren’t any lions around anyway. So he replied: yeah, it works!”
Something deep in the house fell with a clatter, and I heard what might have been cursing. Jacquie looked in that direction, briefly worried or interested.
I went on: “Let me tell you more about the German Shepherd attack on my dog. Maybe you can tie it in with those books and let me know what I should have picked up?” I added much detail, no doubt distorted by reading. “What might I have done wrong there?”
“I wasn’t there, so it’s hard to be sure,” she said. “You probably weren’t noticing the things that mattered—if you had been, the attack probably wouldn’t have happened. But if you’re asking me for my best guess, I’d say that you were tugging your dog along on a leash, forcing it into an unnatural posture, and in fact dragging him along like bait in shark-infested waters. Maybe the German Shepherd looked back and saw this irresistible morsel. Or saw a defiant looking dog with raised shoulders, which seemed to be saying, ‘The next time you come down this path, I’ll kick you in the nuts!’
“One way or the other, it was just too much and the German Shepherd decided to attack. Your dog was still trying to look at the other dog, which is itself a challenge to that dog, and also getting dragged along like a bit of game or that fake rabbit they use at Greyhound races. It’s all it takes to trigger an attack. It’s wired in the dog’s brain: ‘something is moving away, I’ll chase it!’ Or ‘I didn’t really like that dog. I’ll go back and beat it up.’ You see?” She talked fast.
“The German Shepherd’s owner, throwing the sticks, had the right idea. But the motivator she used wasn’t strong enough. She at least had some inkling of keeping the dog’s attention. It seems to me you had no idea at all what was happening.”
“What should I have done?” I asked. “What you told me on the phone—get the hell out of there, when I saw that dog coming?”
I could see a look in her eye, like: well, this is a long story.
“That’s one thing you could do,” she went on. “But do you want to fly off into the bush every time you see a dog coming? I don’t think so. You’d end up beating your way through the bush! While all the other dogs walked down the Heritage Trail. You need to be able to tell which dogs are problems—there wouldn’t be many—and which are OK. And don’t forget: it causes problems with any dogs, no matter how good-tempered, to be dragged or coaxed past an unknown dog (even a known dog) along a narrow path like that. It’s unnatural for the dogs. I never take my dogs along that trail, trained as they are, because it makes them nervous wrecks. Why put them through all that?
“But if you do walk them there,” she went on. “Then you not only have to be able to size up the dogs coming toward you, but know what to do if there’s a problem dog and you can’t dodge away in time. If you have a well-trained dog, you can get through most situations.
“Let me give you an example,” she said, settling back. “I was walking down a track with my cattle dog, and he’s not friendly with other dogs. A man came toward me with a Rottweiler. His dog wasn’t on a leash, but I put my cattle dog on one. The Rottweiler’s eye contact was intense, staring at my dog. There’s a difference in stares. There’s one that’s like, ‘Who are you? Do I know you?’ And there’s a stare that says ‘This is my territory.’ I could see it was the second type: aggression and dominance.
“The difference between this situation and yours with the German Shepherd was that I knew what was happening and had exact control of my dog. I told him: SIT. Then I asked the man, a young guy with a swagger, ‘Is your dog friendly?’ But he wouldn’t answer. His attitude was: ‘I’ve got a big dog with big balls.’ Some people with big dogs are like that.
“So I got a bit firmer: ‘Would you mind putting him on a leash, because my dog isn’t friendly.’ But he wouldn’t, and he didn’t answer. He just kept coming closer. I had positioned myself between my dog and the Rottweiler. My intention was to be leader of my pack, and keep the Rottweiler’s attention on me. My body language message was: ‘I’m the leader. You watch me, not this dog behind me. I’m not threatening you, but I’m not tolerating any nonsense.’
“The Rottweiler came fairly close. He wanted to have a look at my dog, but he wasn’t prepared to go past me. I stayed still. The Rottweiler went by. He was looking for a way to come around, but I kept between.”
“So It worked. But there was no doubt in my mind that if the Rottweiler had got to my dog, there’d be a fight. Because my dog’s basic attitude was that he was top brick of the chimney. He would have been giving off a signal like, ‘Who are you to come down here?’ And the Rottweiler was loose, so he could exhibit whatever signals he wanted to. Like: ‘Who do you think you’re going to push around?’
She told this making slow gestures, but talking rapidly, the way an airline hostess might explain some urgent procedure.
I asked what the Rottweiler’s owner did.
“I think he hoped something was going to happen. His dog was four times the size of mine. So in this guy’s little brain, he knew his dog’s weight would outdo mine. Only a young guy, probably early 20s.
I asked what if the dogs had been by themselves, what would have happened?
“If the owners hadn’t been around and the dogs had met, probably nothing. Most likely they would have stayed at a distance. Because they wouldn’t have known who was going to come off best. But we’d come along this narrow track and we had to get past and it was putting the dogs in a situation they wouldn’t put themselves in.
I asked her what the two dogs would have done if they had been out by themselves and had decided to check each other out. (I had a good idea from the books, but wanted to hear it from her, with any extra wrinkles she’d add.)
“They’d initially rush at one another, which is natural behaviour. Dust flying around, lots of scurrying, but no noise. The scurrying is to try to get the body posture side-on, because what they actually want to do is sniff bums and genitals, to get their IDs sorted out. They’re trying to avoid eye contact. They’d like to rush together, without anyone getting upset. Their little dance around, to smell-check their IDs. What sex are you? Are you in season?—if it’s a bitch.
“And the intensity builds while this goes on. So they’ve got to get rid of the stress. Dogs aren’t like people. We can hold it in, but they have to let it out. So they’re all hyped, they’re in each other’s space, so the next thing to do is go pee. That gets them away from one another. Generally they then go check out each other’s pee. Even if it’s not their territory, they mark or urinate. The higher they can pee up a tree, the higher their status is. It gets quite funny when you have a Jack Russell trying to show a Great Dane it can cock higher. Even a bitch will try to get her bum higher up the tree to have a pee. Then they swap where they went for their pee. Each dog goes where the other dog went and tries to pee that bit higher. But they’re doing their thing, which they can’t do on leashes. Take away that freedom, and they can’t disburse that energy by running out and having pees and investigating each other’s pee. On leashes they can’t do that. That’s part of the conflict.
“If there is a bunch of dogs, like in a park, all these combinations go on, the same way. They’ll pick out dogs they want to associate with, and usually avoid the ones they don’t. Oh, he’s a bit of a weed, I can’t be bothered! Or he’ll go, wow! We can have a bit of fun here. Shall we have a chase or play?
“We do something similar when we get on a train full of strangers and try to sort out who we want to sit next to.
Her dogs glanced up now and then, as if to see if this talk was ever going to end and something more fun might happen.
I told her I was captured by dog theory, but had doubts about dog training—that training class with Max that had yielded nothing. Then blurted one of my fixed ideas: “A lot of people out walking dogs aren’t going to have trained dogs, or be willing to train theirs. So there must be something I could carry, we could all carry, to scare off menacing dogs!”
“Have you still got a problem?” she asked. I said no, apparently not. But I kept off the Heritage Trail now.
“Maybe that’s the solution?”
But I was looking for a general solution. There had to be one. “I can’t believe there’s no simple solution! Something that anyone could do, without having to know much about dogs or needing to have a well-trained dog. A general solution.”
Pause. The unsolved Unified Theory of Dog Repulsion. Offstage, the banging went on, but I was used to it.
“If I can sort this out with Max, I’ll write a book about it,” I predicted or threatened. “No one seems to know this stuff. No one I’ve talked to has a clue about pulling the leash and forcing the dog into an aggressive posture. None of it.”
She agreed that there was grave ignorance out there.
Our talk went on for an hour and a half. It wandered over many dog-hassles and fixes. She had to leave, but I wanted to hear more, more, more. I was soaking up practical things, as well as being entertained. So she invited me to come back in a week.
Which I did. I’ve grouped what she said during both meetings into categories, a kind of FAQ. With some of my original comments or questions still sticking up, like flowers or weeds.
Why do dogs attack?
There are four reasons for attacks: territorial, sexual dominance, other dominance, and fear aggression. Or you’ll get the odd mad dog that’s sick in the head. That’s rare. A dog that’s fear-aggressive will attack because it’s been attacked before. Or not correctly socialised. So it doesn’t know how to communicate, it feels threatened, and so fights. A dog approaches and it’s trying to say, “go away.”
Some stray dog approaches when you’re walking your dog — what can happen?
A lot’s going to depend on the breed. If the dog’s loose and it’s a habitual loose dog, with freedom to run around when it chooses, generally it’s a well-socialised dog. He’s dealt with other people’s dogs. Chances are, he isn’t going to do anything aggressive. He’ll go through all the body language, because they all do that.
He’ll come up to your dog to find out “Who are you, and what are you all about, where have you been, what do you know?” That’s what dogs do. And they’ll want to sniff. So if your dog is on a leash, and it’s a well-behaved dog, then just drop the leash. The dogs can interact without a problem. But of course if your dog will run off, then dropping the leash isn’t a good idea.
JIM: I’ve got a long leash and can let it out.
But you’ve still got tension in it. If I have a long leash on a young dog, I bring it back to a short leash. Then make the dog stay next to me on a loose leash. A very quick give and take, bring the dog back, then ease off. So it’s only a split second that I’m interfering with the body language. That way my dog can express whatever he wants. If he feels the dog is a threat, he can lower his body posture and say “Look, I’m really a friendly guy.” Or if he’s assertive and thinks he’s got one over on the other dog, he can say, “Listen here, mate, you come over here and I’ll give you what-for.” And the other dog might go, “I don’t really want trouble. I’ll pee on this tree and go away.”
JIM: So this well-socialised dog comes along, and depending on my attitude — if I’m all tense — then that communicates to my dog and he’ll be uptight. And I’ll also be yanking on the leash and putting him in the wrong posture. And the other dog is more likely to take an aggressive view. That right?
The other dog is interpreting signals from your dog. Raised shoulders, raised head, and eye contact are generally a challenge. Your dog might prefer not to do that, but because the tension is on the leash, you’ve raised the shoulders. He knows he’s giving that signal, but he can’t stop it.
JIM: what about me staring at the other dog too?
You have to think that this dog isn’t a one-off escape. True, there are dogs that aren’t social and on an odd occasion the gate gets left open. Always the risk of that. But if you know the neighbour never keeps the dog at home, it’s always on the street, you can bet that dog isn’t going to pick a fight. Because he’s met everyone and been all around the neighbourhood and met all the local boys and girls.
You sometimes go down a street and you’ll see a dog in the corner of a front fence, and you’ll think this is really an aggressive dog. And then you see the gate’s open and think, my God! But as soon as the dog gets to the gate it stops barking, because the gate’s open and it’s got no protection. All the aggression goes away. It doesn’t come out the gate because it’s vulnerable. So there are some dogs that exhibit like that, maybe even doing a wide arc outside, saying “I’m in control.” But really not that dominant in its personality.
JIM: say I’ve got my dog on a leash and the oncoming dog isn't on one. The dogs go through their introduction. The other dog would tend to go off and pee?
They both would. You could put your dog on a long line instead of a retractable leash. I recommend something like cotton clothes line. Then just let go. If you step on the line, it will stop the dog. (If you use nylon, it tends to whip under your boot and keep going.) You need one say 30m long. Just let the dog drag it along. It won’t get caught around anything. It will slide around the trees. But it gives your dog total freedom. But you can stomp on the end, if the dog’s going to disappear over the horizon. Don’t let him get too far away, so you can still stomp on it. So that way you aren’t interacting, you’re not pulling up, because the leash is on the ground. But you can stop his advance, let him go, stop him.
If your dog is on a leash, that tends to get caught around the other dog. Then it’s round you and a bush.
JIM: OK, if your dog can’t go off and pee where it wants to, what then?
As long as your leash is loose and you’re not interacting with their dancing, it’s OK. People can calm themselves by talking out loud. It’s a good idea to control your subconscious by instructing it verbally, out loud. So I would probably be saying to the other dog: “And who are you? Where do you come from? Don’t you have an owner out with you?” I’m acting as if this is someone I might know and I’m concerned about. That feeling is coming through your body and sends a visual signal to your dog. It’s such a better message than a posture that says: “OH, hell! I wonder what’s going to happen next here? I’ve never seen that dog before!” Because our subconscious takes over and we give out these signals.
Your dog also hears your voice, and you’re also sounding like this dog is one that’s OK, for some reason. Your dog has another look and thinks: “Do I know you too?”
If the other dog is social, it’s going to be another cue to you. Because the dog’s going to break eye contact with your dog and look at you and maybe wag. “Oh yeah. I like you too!” And then go back to your dog. If your talk doesn’t break the dog’s eye contact with your dog, it might give you a signal what that dog is about. But if the dog signals to you: “Oh right, who are you?” then you’re going to relax. And you’ll think: “Friendly dog, thank God for that.” Problem gone.
JIM: if the dogs are fairly friendly but not quite sure, a bit tense, and if the incoming dog goes off to pee, I guess you should allow your dog that’s on the leash to do that too?
No. I’d just amble along my way, trying to encourage my dog to come with me without pulling it. You don’t want to stay there forever.
JIM: there’s a lot of complexity with this simple case of one dog coming along by itself.
The other dog is free to express himself. Your dog on a tight leash isn’t. But if you can control the dog verbally, the leash can hang loose.. His shoulders, posture, can be natural. He can express himself.
If your dog can learn two things: don’t pull on the leash, and come when called, your problems are basically over. If you come around a corner — oh, here’s a big dog! It’s going to be hard for you to let your dog off the leash and hope you’re doing the right thing. Better if you can say “with me” but the leash stays loose.
JIM: this is asking quite a lot of millions of dog owners.
They’ve got to want to. You’ve come here because your dog got attacked. I would feel dreadful if my dog attacked someone else’s. But some of those people don’t seem to care.
Two aggressive dogs jumped a wall and came at us. Was this territorial?
JIM: I was walking Max along a road. A German Shepherd and a big mixed-breed dog jumped a low wall around their property and rushed up to us. All the dogs were bristling. (Their owner happened to be home, and ran out and saved us.)
You’ve got two dogs coming, so a pack is forming. When you’ve got more than one dog, you’ve got a pack. In a house like that, it’s even more important for the owner to be the leader. The fact that the dogs left the territory would imply that the owner isn't the leader. I’d almost put the two dogs into the category of a hunting pack.
JIM: our reaction wasn’t very good. We would have had heavy trouble if the owner hadn’t been there. The two big dogs were growling and showing teeth, so was Max. I was trying to drag him back. I didn’t know anything at that stage.
Not a nice situation.
Controlling aggressive dogs with food treats.
I was called into a case when a dog was trying to attack a man next door, a neighbour. It was getting out of hand. It was obvious the dog would eventually go over the fence. I told the man with the dog: first you’ve got to make friends with your neighbour, who now has a big thing against your dog. Then have your dog on a leash, so it can’t jump the fence. I then told the neighbour: don’t look at the dog, chuck a bit of cheese over the fence and go away. Dogs like cheese and normally don’t get it. (Dry dog biscuits can be a bit boring, if that’s what they happen to get fed.) The idea of the cheese is that the dog perceives when you appear, there are tasty morsels around. As soon as you come out, the dog is going to start to look around. Once it’s doing that, you wait by the fence, say the dog’s name, and chuck the cheese over. And now the dog is by the fence looking at you and thinking, “Here’s the bloke with the cheese.” And before long, you’re hand-feeding the dog.
JIM: Max loves cheese. At the moment, I can’t get him away from another dog without dragging him. Maybe cheese would work?
Add a few words to it. So you could say to Max: “Watch me!” Then give him cheese. So in the house, in quiet situations, you get the dog to make eye contact with you. Say the same word each time, to get him focused. Because if he’s intent on another dog on a walk, you might have problems getting the cheese noticed. You need a word that he associates with cheese.
JIM: He gets so wrapped up in the situation, it’s hard to imagine even cheese breaking into it.
Train him by holding the cheese or treat up high. Sooner or later he’s going to look at you to see what’s going on. When you see the eye contact, say “Watch me!” And give him the treat. And repeat it. Gradually the dog learns that “watch me” means he has to make eye contact to get the treat.
Calling your dog
You need a cue word with a high motivation. Rather than say, COME HERE. If there’s a problem, use the cue word.
JIM: People shout their dog’s name in a rough voice. I hear that all the time and it doesn’t work!
It makes the dog think you’re growling.
My dog Chilli is young and goes everywhere at 150 km/hr. If I yelled at her: CHILLI! COME HERE! She’d stop for a second, but think: “Oh, I’m in trouble. I’m not coming back.” Instead I always use a very playful, “Hey, WOW! How about we COME back here?” I don’t use the word COME to call her for a bath or for worming, or to tell her off. The COME word means: hey wow, this is good!
Most of this needs to be started at home, in a non-distracted environment. I remember a lady with a Jack Russell, who was having similar problems to yours. The dog, if she let it go, was just gone. I couldn’t get her to understand how to train it, so I ended up taking her dog out with mine. The only way the dog would learn was to take it out and treat it like a dog, and not like a little person. It worked. And it was all play and go, and teaching her dog some cue words. It was working its little socks off. It never nicked off, because it was all just too exciting.
I put a long line on that little dog. It wasn’t my dog and I’d hate to lose it if I made a mistake. I went down to the oval at a certain time when there’re pigeons. I used to let the dog go flat strap, chasing these pigeons. Then I’d call it. Its name was Tasha. I use to say “Tash-sha!” in a merry tone. Because that call always meant we were about to do something ever-so-exciting. She’d come back at 100 km/hr.
Once I got that working, I took the owner with me. And showed her everything — pay attention to tone of voice, pay attention to timing. Every time the dog started to go off somewhere, we’d stop it by calling it. I never stop working when I’m teaching a dog, because I’m the leader. But this woman had actually been waiting for her dog, which was thinking, “Oh, I’ll be along in a minute. I’ll just carry on sniffing.”
But even this training may not work if the dog gets really over-the-top — like a dog that likes to chase roos [kangaroos]. You might as well shut up and go away. I had a dog like that once, and I was always alert for a warning signal, early enough so she’d still listen to my commands. If she started to airscent, then I knew there was a roo around. And I could see her muscles go tense. I’d say to her: “With me!” That’s how much I watch dogs.
What about some tips on leash walking?
It doesn’t matter what you do on a leash, if you’re not perceived to be the leader in your own dog’s eyes. You aren’t going to avoid fights. Simple as that. You can’t go out and say: well, my dog’s not really trained but I want to avoid fights. You can’t! If you have no control over your dog, you can’t do anything about anything.
You’ve got to become the leader. The dog has to learn when he’s on a leash and you give him the quick snap signal, a quick pull on his leash, he doesn’t take it up again. It’s got to be hard enough so that the dog thinks, “Oh, OK, you mean it.” Particularly if you’ve allowed the dog to keep tension on the leash.
Walking dogs on leashes is hard because it allows the dog some control over you. It stops for a pee and you run out of leash, so you wait for it to finish. But dogs don’t need to pee all the time! It’s a territorial marking thing, so unless my dogs are off leash, they aren’t allowed to pee. It’s hard for you to keep up the dog’s impression that you’re the leader and “we won’t be stopping for a pee” if a dog’s on a leash. So you have to set yourself a pee-quota. Like: the first kilometre from home, the dog doesn’t pee. Because it’s already peed in the garden before you left! If it needed a pee, if would have. For the first kilometre, “I’m not stopping! No peeing!” All the time the idea is to walk with a slack leash, whether it’s short or 5m long. You’re the leader. You’re setting the pace.
Then you get to a place where there’s a rock that all the dogs pee on. So you give the dog permission: do you want to pee here? Or whatever word you use, considering there may be people there.
After that, you should set yourself targets. Like: I’m going to go 25 lamp posts down the road. And vary it on different walks. Next time it may be five. Get so you always tell your dog where it can pee.
A woman I know has the problem that as soon as she gets the leash out, the dog goes ballistic. If it was my dog, it wouldn’t go anywhere until it stopped that. My attitude is, “Oh, you don’t want to put the leash on? OK I’ll hang the leash up and do something else. Oh dear, we’ve run out of time, you won’t get a walk today.” The dog will soon work it out. It’s making the dog think. (People don’t let their dogs think enough.) Meanwhile, here’s this woman struggling to get the leash on, then the dog drags her out the door and drags her out the gate and up the street. But she wants the dog to walk on a loose leash! But the dog is taking her. She’s never taken the dog for a walk.
But when I told her, you can’t do that — you’ve got to go back to the beginning. You don’t go until the dog sits quietly to have the leash on. You can’t correct the dog pulling out there, if you can’t stop it from leaping all over the place when you put the leash on. She told me: “Oh, I haven’t got all day!”
When I train a dog and it starts to pull on the leash, what’s the reward for the dog? It’s to go forward. And how do you make it a negative? Answer: you stop. So the dog stands there.
It comes back to you putting the patience in, which is where people tend to fail. So I just stand there. What I’m waiting for is the dog to lighten the leash and just look around at me for a moment. That’s when I highlight to the dog what I want. I say the same cue word each time the dog has lessened its tension on the leash. After a few times, the dog will actually come back to me.
How do you train a dog?
I’ve written newspaper and magazine articles about controlling dogs in public places. People read them, tell me it sounds good, but don’t want to put the time in. It’s all too hard in people’s lives. They have too much on their plate. I ran dog training classes for 15 years. Years ago I used to have a book full of people on the waiting list. Now it’s hard to fill a class. They don’t have the time to commit. And you can’t train a dog in a day. People say, “My dog needs to come for lessons.” No, it’s the owner who comes for lessons! Almost every phone call, unless they’ve done training before, their opening line is: “Oh, I’ve been given your number because my dog needs to learn to be obedient.” No, you need to learn to train your dog to be obedient. They have this picture they’re going to come once a week to you and the dog will learn all these things. But it’s what they do when they go home — repeating it again and again and again, until the dog understands.
It’s not just going once a week for six weeks, between netball and tennis. They have to get there once a week — in itself a task. But then when they realise they’ve got to do it daily in order to educate their dog, it gets too hard.
Dog training should begin at eight weeks and end when the dog dies.
But I don’t spend hours at a stretch when I train my own dogs. Five minutes here and there. If I was outside with Chilli when she was little and I was putting washing on the line, I’d call her over and say “Hey baby, sit for me.” And I’d put three socks on the line, and say, “That’s a very clever dog!” It didn’t interfere with my job. And it got a message to the dog.
That’s really how people need to look at it. Take the opportunity as it occurs and turn it into something.
How many people in the house watch TV? Everyone. Who really wants to watch the adverts? That’s two minutes dog training. Why not do a sit-stay then? You don’t even have to leave your chair. I teach my dogs: drop, stay. What a good dog!
But people don’t know any of this. I watched a young lass yesterday coming up this road here with two dogs that were dragging her off her feet. She walks them every day. And I think: this is madness! But she doesn’t know any different. By the time she gets to the point of despair and comes to a trainer, it’s going to be hard work. Because it’s now a well-established habit. Or it’s going to go the other way, where it’s too upsetting and she doesn’t bother to walk the dogs any more. Then they bark all day or learn to jump the fence, or more trouble comes, and they end in the pound.
Dogs that jump up on your visitors
One lady asked me how to stop her dog jumping all over visitors. The dogs are loose when she lets people in — she doesn’t really want to be holding onto them.
But look at my dog bed there. See that leash tied to it? I always have it there. If my dog is going to be a pain, I say: “On your bed!” And on goes the leash.
But some people try to order their dog away, try to make it sit somewhere and be good. Even if that works for a while, the visitor might say: “Oh, is mummy being hard on you?” This makes the whole business unpleasant, because you’ve got to order the dog back. So the dog gets confused. It’s responding to the visitors being friendly and wanting to come up and say hello. And you’re saying NO. But doing it my way, using the leash on the bed, I don’t have to be rude to visitors. I don’t have to tell them, “You’re teaching my dog to be disobedient.” I just tie the dog to the bed.
Problems with dog training classes
JIM: In the group class I did with Max (when he was a puppy), it was all walking the dogs around in a circle and weaving in and out. Nothing much happened. The only thing he remembered from all that is if he wants something, he’ll sit! Nothing was mentioned about connecting his training with his behaviour around the house.
Generally that’s what happens. In a class, you see a few people concentrate on every word. You know they’re going to go home and work on it. But the others are thinking: I just wish she’d get on and train the dog!
I find you have to give people an early success somewhere, in order to get them to understand. But you can’t just fix a problem, like a dog that pulls on its leash, because it all comes back to how the dog perceives its level in the pack. In the UK, they train a lot the way I do here. But in Australia they’re still doing it in mostly the old regimented dog-club way — drill work. You bore the dog senseless, you bore the owner senseless. You’re marching across some big green park area, and the dog thinks “there’s a tree!” But the next minute you’re going back the other way. The dog spots another tree, and thinks, “When are we ever going to get to one of these damn trees? All we’re doing is walking up and down.”
Sometimes the dog stops playing up in these classes because it gets stupefied with boredom. Or the owner does a bit of reading and starts to put a little bit together on their own and things start to work.
But usually, because of the pace we live, real dog training now has to be done as you live. You might need guidance, by going somewhere and having a private lesson to get some understanding of what to work with. Or have a trainer come to your home. I now think that people have to be ready to pay more for a trainer, one-on-one. Get a trainer into their home and say: this is how you’re living with your dog, and here are some things that are wrong. Here’s what to do.
And people should stop this business of their dog living outside. You have a dog, you are the pack and you’re putting that dog out in solitary confinement. You’re not going to have the rapport with your dog. You want to enjoy the dog. Like these three dogs I have here. They aren’t pestering you, upsetting you, or pinching the biscuits, right?
I’ve tried telling people with single dogs: you build rapport by living with your dog. It doesn’t have to sleep in bed with you. But it needs to live with you, because that’s what a pack does. They say: “I don’t want dog hairs in the house!” Why have a dog then? I vacuum every day, because I live with a pack of dogs. It’s part of my life.
Training dogs — or children
JIM: when we get guests, we have to shut Max away in the laundry room. Otherwise he shows off and charges up and down.
He’s attention-seeking. No different from children really. Say you go to talk to a parent. At the moment before you began talking, the child wasn’t interested in talking to the parent. But the moment you sit down to have a conversation, it’s “Mummy!” If the mother steels herself and doesn’t respond, the child learns not to do that. But mothers find that really hard.
One couple approached me and asked: “Do you train kids?” They knew I was a dog trainer, but they asked anyhow.
I said, “Well, what’s your problem?
“We’ve got to go down southwest on trips, and every time the kids fight and squabble. Such miserable trips.”
I said, “Do they like lollies?”
They said, “What kid doesn’t?”
I told them to buy a bag of lollies, their favourite. Then open the bag and put it on the dashboard. And tell the kids, “If you behave, you get the lollies when we get there. Otherwise you don’t!” And every time they do something naughty, take one lolly and throw it out the window.
Another example, I went shopping with another woman. She had a horrible four-year old who wouldn’t shut up. I had a word with the mother: “Could we just try something with him?” She listened and said OK.
I then approached the boy and asked him what he’d most like to buy. He mentioned a certain kind of lolly. So we went to that section. I said: now you show Auntie Jacquie what pack of lollies you’d like. Then I told him, “Right, if we get around the whole shop and you don’t make a sound, you’ll get those lollies. But not otherwise.”
We went around about four aisles, and he made a noise. I said: “Don’t you want those lollies?” He then shut up and we got around the whole shop quietly.
So you reward the behaviour you want, not punish what you don't want. That works with everything.
You can train a dog to a whistle. Blow the whistle and give the dog a treat. Then if you’re out in the bush, all you have to do is use the whistle.
Or use a clicker, like the English trainers. This is a clicker. [She showed me a small, lightweight metal thing that made a loud metallic click when she pushed it and released it.] The first thing you have to do is condition the dog to the sound. Give them a tiny treat each time. So for a while, you click and treat, click and treat. People say, “You’re bribing the dog!” But you’re not. Because the dog is going for the click, not the food. If the click doesn’t go off, the food isn’t going to follow.
I use that to shape behaviour. For example, dogs are notoriously noisy. You can’t keep saying, “Be quiet!” They have no idea what it means. I trained that one [pointing] when she was a puppy. She was screaming the place down. I couldn’t talk on the phone. So I started: the moment she drew breath, click, treat. Bit by bit, she held longer pauses. She worked out that being quiet caused it to click. Then she got a treat. At first she was going noise, noise. Then stop for a rest. Then she got a click. I could see her trying to put it together, wondering.. what did I do then, to get a click? How can I make it click again? She’d lose focus because she couldn’t work it out. She’d start singing again, she’d draw breath, click, treat. Then she started to think, “It’s when I’m quiet.” So she holds her quiet a bit longer. So the fact that she’s being quiet, you click again, treat. Then counting to myself to lengthen the period of quiet before the click.
People phone me and ask, “How do I get the dog to stop barking? I tell it to shut up but it doesn’t.” I ask them: how do they know that “shut up” means to stop barking?
You have to pinpoint the quiet time to say that’s what you want.
Even with training a dog not to pull on a leash, the old method is to put a choke chain on. As soon as it pulls, you yank hard and say HEEL! That’s negative. You’re punishing the dog for something it doesn’t understand it’s not meant to do. It’s like saying, I’ll teach you how to play Waltzing Matilda on the piano by rapping you on the knuckles when you hit the wrong keys!
Demoting a leader
Any situation you want to control, dog attacks or pulling on the leash, you have got to be the leader. That isn’t going to happen by doing a formula in a situation. As I said, if the dog doesn’t see you in normal life as the leader, nothing else is going to fit.
For example, when dogs get up on furniture, it raises their status. You’re at the top of the pack, so you should have the higher resting place.
JIM: how DO you keep them off the furniture?
You can put the cushions up on end. You can crate-train dogs. If I’m not there to supervise, they don’t get the opportunity to do it behind my back. They go in the crate. Or you can build a pen for them, somewhere they can be where they can’t keep doing sneakies.
If you’re telling them not to get on the furniture when you’re there, what you’re telling them is: don’t get on the furniture when I’m here, but it’s OK when I’m not.
JIM: I had that with my childhood dog. He was good when we were in the room, but when we came back we’d see him jumping off his favourite arm chair, the one he wasn’t supposed to be on.
He didn’t think he was wrong to get on there. He just knew that when you were there, he wasn’t allowed there. You have to make it so it can’t happen. I had one case of a Dalmatian where it was hopeless. We ended up banging a bunch of nails into a plywood sheet, the heads up, not the sharp points, and put that on the settee. You have to keep doing something like that for a few weeks, and the dog gets the idea that it never gets up there. It breaks the habit. The dog had to find somewhere else comfortable. Once it found that spot, it was quite happy to be there. Sometimes you can put a balloon under a pillow and it goes bang and scares them. (But don’t do that with a timid dog.)
People come in from work and the dog rushes up and greets them and they pat the dog. The dog goes: “Pat me, I’m here! I’m important, give me attention!” And you go: “Oh, what a wonderful dog!” But I walk in and say nothing. I avoid eye contact with them for at least five minutes. For one thing, I ride a motorbike to work, so I have to get out of my helmet and all the gear. Then put it all away. By the time I’ve done that, they’re all sitting patiently going: “Is it our turn yet?” Then I say, “Chilli, come here! Have you been good today? Good. Sit, Chilli.” Because I’m only going to interact on my terms. Just little things like that. I had one lady say, “I don’t think that’s acceptable. My dog will think I don’t love her.” A dog is not a human being! It’s a dog!
There’re a lot of people out there with specific problems, and they want to just fix that. A dog pulling on a leash. Or my dog won’t come. They don’t want to change anything else. You can’t be in control in that situation if you aren’t in the others.
You’ll notice, once you start changing all these little issues, which to the dog is lowering its status at home, that it improves when you’re out on a walk.
JIM: that’s right, because I sense change, even making sure I go through doors before Max.
You’re controlling the situation, not him. It’s your door, not his door. And you’re not the doorman!
They are a pack animal, and you have to know their code. If people want to train their dog they usually pick up some book, “How to Teach Your Dog to Sit.” I’ve got a bookcase of those books — because people will come here with something they’ve read. The same reason I always watch Harry’s Practice, because people will phone up and say, “I saw this on the TV the other day.” But they’ve misinterpreted the situation or they’re applying a technique not suited to their dog.
Stopping a dog fight
JIM: Say you’ve got a dog on a leash, a strange dog comes up, they do a sniff but things don’t go well. They start fighting. One bit of advice I’ve read is to turn your back and let them do it.
It depends on what the attack is like. If you’re on your own, what can you do about it? Not a lot. If you try and pull your dog away, when dogs bite, the teeth go in if they mean business, they make a puncture. The moment you start pulling the dog, you cause deep tissue damage. It rips.
Hitting and kicking either dog just makes them think it’s the offending dog that’s causing the problem, so they fight harder. A lot is going to depend on the kinds of dogs that are fighting. If you get a Staffie or a Bull Terrier, they’re not going to let go. Generally a German Shepherd will grab hold, shake, let go. Not good, because they can break an animal’s neck, if they’re small enough.
I owned a Shepherd years ago that wasn’t friendly to dogs or people, but he was well trained. A rescue dog. I was walking down a road and a Silky Terrier came out and had a go. Some little dogs notoriously think they’re big dogs. But my dog was beautifully trained. HEEL! He never took the slack up on the leash ever. He walked by on the leash under full control, but the little dog shot out and tried to grab him by the front leg. My dog reached down and had it in his mouth. I just said, “Leave it!” And he let go. But he’d punctured its lung in that one grab. What could I do? My dog was well behaved. On a loose leash. But this little dog thought: “This is a prime target. He’s on a leash. I’m safe and I can have a go.”
I’m entitled to walk my dog and it is under control. Their dog’s loose on the street and their problem. So I’ve encountered it as an aggressor. As much as my dog was trained, it was a stressed situation. A Silky Terrier is trying to grab your Shepherd by the leg, there’s only so much you can do! If I tried to kick the terrier, I may have broken a rib or leg. Which wouldn’t have been much different from my dog biting it. And the chances are it would have made it more aggressive towards my dog. Even as a trainer with a controlled dog, I can’t control the situation if the other dog isn't under control.
That gives you both sides of the story. People have to control their dogs, whether they’re friendly or aggressive.
JIM: say that both owners are there, but one owner or the other can’t control their dog, and there’s a dog fight. What are they going to do? Let go of the leads?
If I was going to protect my dog, I’m going to let go of my dog, because I’m going to deal with the other dog. I assume the person isn’t going to listen to me because they’re yelling and freaked. It all comes back to the level of control you have on your own dog. Mine do as they’re told. If I pull the attacker off, I’ve got enough control of my own. My choice would be to hold the attacking dog by the back legs, if I could, and get its bum higher than its head. It just depends on your own confidence. If you get the dog’s back legs above his head, he doesn’t feel right, he lets go. When he lets go, that’s when you pull him back. You keep pulling backwards until you’re far enough away. But you’ve got to know you can stop your dog. Because it then perceives you’re helping it. So it now can get stuck in! And this is where it’s hard if you’ve got one person who can do something, but you can’t control your dog.
If you can calm both people down, you can say: “Here’s what you’ve got to do. Get your dog’s back legs off the ground, and don’t pull until I tell you.” Very difficult to deal with that situation.
If I go in to defend my dog, I know the chances are I’m going to get bitten. But that wouldn’t stop me. And I wouldn’t let go of the dog if it turned around and bit me. Chances are if I get its legs off the ground, it can’t get around to bite me. But it depends on the size and weight of the dog. But I don’t suggest that average dog owners put themselves at risk like this.
What if your dog pesters you to throw a ball?
JIM: Every time I wash a few dishes, Max runs up and drops his ball at my feet. He wants me to kick it. A nuisance, but I do it. Should I?
I would tend the take the ball away. Because he’s controlling you. The ball should be yours, not his. If a dog went up to a leader and wanted to play, and started to nip at him, if the leader wasn’t in the mood to play. WOOOOF! Get out of my face! And they’d go away.
I have a lady I work with who has a Collie. She plays ball with it in the house and it won’t stop. “Oh yeah, but that’s the dog’s treat.” And that’s the only thing she really hasn’t changed, and it’s breaking down the training process. The dog is still in control.
It doesn’t mean you can’t play ball when you’re washing up. But put the ball away and start when you want to. And I’d start off by saying to your dog, “sit”. If it doesn’t, I’d put the ball down and keep on washing up for a bit. Always end the ball game when it’s at its height. Not when he’s tired. When he’s saying “Oh, I want another ball now!” and you go ”No, my ball. That’s it.”
I have a basket of toys, and I tell them to bring me a specific one, like the dumbbell. If they get it wrong, I won’t play.
I’d better stress that dogs need brain stimulus, as well as physical exercise. A lot of what’s happening with dogs today is that people are getting them very fit, but with no control. You can get the dogs fitter and fitter, which may only mean they can pull you down the street faster. But they need mental stimulus too. Training not only gives you control but makes them think too.
A ball can help with that. If your dog likes to play ball, it’s one way of getting a little more control. You could find yourself an empty place and get your dog focused on the ball. Take off his leash, but maybe put on a long trailing line, like I told you about. If someone goes past with a dog, you keep throwing the ball and if he chases it and ignores the other dog, you’re actually teaching him to ignore other dogs and not respond to them and interact with you more. If that doesn’t work right away, step on the trailing line!
Weapons to carry
JIM: let me ask you about things that people might carry to ward off attacks on their dog, if they can’t cope with training their dog. Apart from pepper spray, what about deodorant or even air freshener?
No, I don’t think it would have any effect at all. If you get close enough, it may cause an irritation. Maybe it wouldn’t be very nice for the dog. Also it’s windy a lot here. It’s unlikely you’d ever have a day that’s calm enough for something to reach the dog. Or will you have an owner calm enough to wait for the dog to get close enough? If the dog got that close, the owner probably wouldn’t be prepared for it anyway.
JIM: OK. It probably wouldn’t work. But maybe you’ve heard of someone quickly hooding their dog?
No. You’re going to traumatise the dog something incredible. If you’re about to be a victim of an attack, would you like to have a bag pulled over your head?
JIM: and you obviously aren’t going to get it onto the OTHER dog.
No. You’re never going to be in that much control, the way they move around you. If you had that much control, you’d do it the correct way, which is to leave your own dog and control the one that’s attacking. But that ability is rare, because people get hysterical. I’ve been around when people had their dogs attacked, and they’re screaming and pulling their dog around. And I’m saying, “Let go of your leash! Keep quiet.” But they won’t listen. You can’t penetrate, because they’re over the top.
As far as stuff to carry, I think you could carry a stout walking stick. Because you’d feel braver. “I have a weapon, so I’m more dominant.” And that may give enough body signal to penetrate, and the dog would think: “This might be a bit too much to take on.” Whereas if you’ve got nothing, you feel vulnerable and give out those signals.
The first thing we do as humans is assess who we’re going to compete against. If it’s too big, the competitive urge doesn’t come up. Same with a dog. He’ll size things up: can I take this on? If the picture to him is, “This is too big,” he’s going to go pee on a tree and walk away.
If you have two motorbikes at a light, and they’re about equal, then it can cause a competitive urge, a chemical release that triggers it. It would be the same with dogs, I guess.
A lion will take on a certain number of buffaloes, maybe five, but greater than that, they don’t.
If a German Shepherd sees your Jack Russell, he’ll think, “I stand a good chance here.” But if the owner is someone like myself, perhaps who’s very dominant, then he doesn’t just see a Jack Russell. He sees a great Dane and a Jack Russell. Or maybe an ape and a Jack Russell. Anyway, a bit too much.
Giving a person a stick or pepper spray, makes them feel a bit more in control. And their body language is saying, “I’m in control and I’ll fix you.”
JIM: what about fire? My dog is terrified even of a match. Are they all scared of fire?
No. And you can train them out of fears like that.
When I had Chilli as a young dog, for example, she couldn’t stand me ripping off a sheet of Glad Wrap. Now she doesn’t care, because I desensitised that. Another dog might not like the sound of a dust bin lid being put on.
I think you’d have to go in like Schwarzenegger with a great flame thrower before you’d convince some dogs there’s a problem.
JIM: there are those little boat flares. A purple-orange flame shoots out. I thought maybe that would scare them.
Very expensive. You still come back to people who cannot identify a dog’s aggression, compared to its simple interest. They’re going to be releasing their flare at the wrong times.
How do you read a dog’s body language?
You can develop the ability to read a dog’s body language. Then you’ll already know at a distance what the dog’s going to do.
Not that long ago I was on my motorbike and I saw this Bull Terrier at the top of a long drive. Because of the way it was standing there, I thought: I have a problem here. And then I looked down at the front gate and it was wide open! I knew I had a major problem. I thought: could I outrun the dog past that gate? I tried. Other people might not have noticed the dog until it was hurtling out the gate. But I knew right away. He was assessing, and I could tell by his posture that he thought I was fair game. And I knew he’d try to latch on. He did. He latched onto my leg. If they get behind you, with your helmet you can’t see back. I slowed down, put my visor up, and gave him a few choice words. And he let go. Obviously this was a habit with him. Motorbikes were on his list of things to chase, and he must have frightened a lot of people. People act scared and shout, and act fearful, try to shake their leg. When I stopped and said to let go, he looked as if I wasn’t meant to do that. And my posture was: if I have to stop, I’m going to kill you. And it was like to him: this might be too big. And he let go.
But if someone got in a panic and tried to shake him off, that’s what he wanted. He wanted a conflict.
It’s years of reading the total body language. The eyes, what their tail is doing, what their legs are like, their ears. So if you get some dog running up, basically for a play, you don’t wallop it with a stick. But I’ve seen friendly dogs like that that have been kicked, that’s then made them a problem. One of my dogs hates cyclists for that reason: he got kicked by one as a puppy. He only went to say hello. But obviously the cyclist had been bitten before, and kicked him.
So this is where, if you aren’t careful, you end up with people creating more problems with dogs. In over-reacting to a threat that isn’t there.
You said dogs all like cheese. Could that be a kind of weapon?
Yes. Sometimes, if you’re really worried, I think you’re better off going armed with a handful of chopped-up cheese. A strong smelling cheese. The dog runs up, you scatter a big handful. With a bit of luck, the dog might be greedy. He thinks: “Hey, this is nice. You come along with your dog and I get fed!”
I carry chopped-up bits of treats, in a little bank-change bag. When I need it for heightened situations, or to reward my dog for something special. I keep my dog focused. “You’ll get a piece if you watch me. What have I got here?” Chuck some cheese or whatever and feed my dog too, so my dog’s attention is on getting a treat.
JIM: so if that other dog is interested and sniffing the cheese, then what do you do?
It should break the tension. Because first the dog is approaching: you’re on my territory, or whatever. And dogs are very piggy for things like sausage and cheese. If you chuck down dog biscuits, it’s no big treat. Garlic sausages are good! Something strong enough to override the intensity of the dog coming toward your dog. So if it’s mild cheddar, he might go past it before he even realised it was there. He’s too fixed on your dog.
But dogs like both garlic and sausages! So garlic sausage is perfect. Chop them up into five-cent piece sizes. I cook them in the microwave, on paper to draw out a lot of the fat, chop them up. (You wouldn’t want to be giving a lot of that every day to your dog as a treat.)
Experiment with it. Try a little piece of garlic sausage on a friendly dog, or one that’s aloof.
JIM: anyone could be confident about doing that. You don’t have to go out and buy some weird thing.
I’d use garlic sausage in preference to Smackos. Smackos do have a smell, they’re dried meat. But wouldn’t be strong enough to get the dog’s attention in a crisis.
If you’ve misread the dog, and the dog isn't aggressive, it will definitely stop for the treat. It isn’t going to attack your dog anyway.
If you are a person who usually worries and stresses, if you do that treating regularly, the dog will come to think: “Here come the treats! A great person. I like your dog and we all get on.”
Your dog is also rewarded to keep his attention on you. He sees other dogs arriving at a time he gets a reward from you. So it makes meeting other dogs rewarding.
What about a strong personality as a weapon?
JIM: an ex-cop told me he could always stare down an attacking dog, even a group of them. It never failed.
He had to be used to facing down people. His body language would say, don’t mess with me. The dog would pick it up.
JIM: the RSPCA would say the opposite. Don’t move, look away.
That’s because most people would be giving off the wrong signals. If you stare at an animal and you’re a little uncertain, you’d be inviting them to take you on.
What happens when loose dogs meet by themselves?
It depends on what they decide about whose territory it is. If you walk from home, you’re increasing your dog’s territory. Your dog sees where you walk as part of his domain. Wherever they wander, and squirt on a tree, it’s their patch, this is my territory. He might defend it.
But it’s rare for them to fight. Most dogs are social. And they’re not meeting on the loose as competitively as they would in the wild. They aren't competitive for food. Very unlikely they’d fight. Probably one in a hundred. They’re going to assess whether it’s worth being competitive. So one or the other is likely to go, “No, this is too much for me. I’ll just go my way.” He won’t go into range to be attacked. Won’t even go to the sniffing stage.
If the dog has escaped (wow, freedom!) and he’s bowling down the track without thinking, and runs around the corner and ooop, there’s this dog! Generally, it’s a quick assessment. If he feels very vulnerable, he’s going to roll on his back and expose himself. The dog’s way of saying: “I don’t want to fight, I’m weak, a total wimp.” The other dog then perceives it’s not worth taking on. He would go off, pee and carry on with his business.
If they’re very social, say a Poodle comes around the corner and bumps into a Golden Retriever, they’ll go through the sniffing, running in circles, playing around, jumping about. And they may go off and see who else they can meet, and generally go together. Until one returns home, or the owner finds them.
Sometimes several dogs will get together, and they start to become a pack. And that’s when you can get attacks on livestock. The instincts of the wild dog are still there. And it only needs certain triggers, and you have a pack. It starts with something like a rabbit or someone’s lamb, and goes from there. Whereas one dog wouldn’t do that.
It would be worth going to the park in Kalamunda and watching there. A lot of the dogs are loose. You’ve got trees and bushes, fairly natural (not like the oval in Darlington). It’s quite big. You can see what dogs know one another. Also see the people’s reactions. If the people know one another, the dogs would too.
What to do when your dog is on a leash, when a strange dog and owner approach?
It goes back to observation. If you’ve got a person who’s full of swagger, the chances are you’re going to have a problem. The dog will be assertive too.
If the person is an ageing hippie type (“I’m a peace loving person walking with my good-karma dog”), chances are the dog isn’t going to do anything. Dogs are like their owners. If you get an uptight owner, you have an uptight dog. If you have an assertive owner, half drunk who thinks he owns the whole track, the dog will be the same. If you see that kind of person, he doesn’t own a miniature Poodle.
If a burly guy comes along with a pipsqueak dog, then the dog isn’t going to do anything, because the dog isn’t right. Doesn’t fit the picture. It means that big guy is actually quite friendly, just a big boof himself, and the dog is a little boof. Compared to a guy covered with tattoos, acting like he owns the trail, with a Pit Bull.
The best thing to do is say: “Hi, how you’re going? Isn’t it a great day for a dog walk?!” But instead people go quiet. They stare at one another and stare at the other dog. And everyone gets tense.
If people have a relaxed dog, then when they approach, nothing usually happens.
But if you get a person who can’t control their dog and they’re worried their dog will jump all over someone, and you get another person who feels the dog is going to attack, all their signals feed to the dogs.
If I see someone coming with dogs, I try to assess what picture the person gives me.. Like a calm-looking woman I saw with a well-controlled dog. She told me at a distance that hers was on heat. That’s all she was worried about, what my dog would do. I explained my dog didn’t have the tackle. We were talking, so it became very relaxed, and the dogs reacted like: “Hey, good, do we know each other?”
But you’re always going to get caught out sometimes if you walk around the corner, and boom!
I saw one woman coming down the path with very tense shoulders, almost like her shoulders were holding her ears up, and her step was short and quick. An anxious person. And she had a small Terrier, held up in the air, trying to protect it. That told me, even though my dogs weren’t going to fight, it would terrify her to death if they went over there. So I had to put all mine on leashes and sit very quiet beside the track while she climbed beside the trees to get past them. And mine were totally social, and hers would have loved to play. Her dog was going: “Oh, let me get over there!” But she thought her dog would get eaten. The dog didn’t have a problem, but the owner was very uptight.
Another man came along with two Dalmatians. He was cautious, he walked slowly, he had long strides. I could see him think about what was coming towards them. He kept his dog in. He put the leash on. But it was all natural. There wasn’t any hanging on to the dogs. It was just being in control, because we don’t know exactly what’s coming. I was watching, and as I said, on the Heritage Trail it’s unnatural for the dogs because you’re coming head-on. It doesn’t give them a social relaxed situation. I could see we weren't going to have a problem. Our dogs never actually got to meet. He kept his dogs with him, and so did I. We stopped and talked. The dogs were communicating at their distance. But because they were trained, they weren’t going to move, because that’s what the boss had said. I don’t think anything would have happened if we’d let them meet.
One man phoned me who owned an Irish Wolfhound, and said the dog was getting more aggressive with other dogs on walks. I tried to explain to him about the Heritage Trail. His dog had been attacked twice and had become very sensitive. He was pulling back on the leash, and was probably causing fights. And his attitude was: my dog’s on leash, under control, so I can’t be wrong!
How to handle conversations between dogs on leashes?
You can let them sniff. But it should be on a loose leash. Because if there’s tension, it can turn into fights.
JIM: I find what happens is the other owner says, “Oh, let them say hello”. They go nose-to-nose, and something normally goes wrong. One or the other starts snarling, I guess because we’ve put them in the wrong posture?
A good idea is to have both dogs sit down, if you can, and you have a conversation with the other owner. Let the dogs sit next to you for a couple of minutes. That allows the tension to settle. A loose leash, and they’ve got to sit. The way I do it with mine, particularly when they’re young and they’re learning, I’ll tell the other person, “My dog is really good and friendly, but I just want her to learn not to rush. So if you don’t mind bearing with me for a moment.” And if my dog goes forward, I wiggle the leash. Which says to my dog, no, no, no. Going forward is the reward. So unless you stay with me, you’re not going to get to meet the other dog. I play that sort of game until she learns to stay on a loose leash. It lets things settle down. She’s dead keen on meeting these other dogs.
If the leashes are loose and stay that way, there isn’t that intensity to get to one another. Because they’re within reach anyway. And if you have treats, you can say: “Do you mind if I give your dog a little treat?” And the dogs then think, when they meet you, you’re friendly and your dog’s friendly.
JIM: if there’s a scuffle, when both are on leashes, the reality is that you don’t get a fight, you get both dogs pulled apart. You get an annoyance.
Let’s say your dog makes the first growl. You snatch your dog away and it’s learning a habit. So when you meet a dog that’s loose, you have a problem. So you’ve got no chance of ever doing anything else. Every time you meet a dog on a leash, he tries to beat up the other dog. So what’s the difference with one off the leash? To him, none.
So the best hope is with a young dog that hasn’t yet learned that behaviour. Once a dog’s been attacked, it becomes defensive. Once that happens, you can’t tell the dog it won’t happen again. You can’t reassure him. They don’t know language and it’s not in their nature.
Doesn’t too much training ruin the fun of a dog?
JIM: We’ve been training Max at home, demoting him from honorary leader. We go through doors first, feed him after we eat. But when I come in, the dog runs up to greet me. I want a dog that does that — fun to be around and spirited. My tolerance for training the dog runs up against that. People must have different tolerances for that. You must get that a lot. People think: OK, I’ll train him up to that point, but I’m not going to do this or that.
Yeah, we all do. Even trainers, we have our weaknesses for little peculiarities we like in our dogs, even though we know this is really a no-no in a pack. But you can’t have supreme control, unless you follow the rules. Because you confuse the dog. They don’t have our emotions. I really like the dog greeting and jumping all over me and giving me a big slobbery kiss and all. Kind of cute. But the dog doesn’t think: “Well I’m allowed to do this because it’s cute when she comes home. But I still have to do as I’m told later.” The dog just sees it as manipulating you.
I come home from work. I love my dogs. They’re my kids to me. They have everything. When I come home, of course I want them to greet me. I can see them lined up at the door and think: isn’t that cute. They’re doting on me, they just want me, I’m so important! I’m a great value in someone’s life. Because that’s what we want as humans. We want approval. In our jobs. In our ability. In our love life. That’s our make-up. But dogs don’t seek approval as such. They see it as a hierarchy of who’s in control. Of course they like our praise, they like to get on with us. But basically their instinct to greet you is in the hope that you might regurgitate, like a wolf cub meeting its mother. They aren’t really saying: I want to show you how much I love you.
When I come in, with my helmet, I have my hands full. I could fall over the dog and break a leg. Then who’s going to walk the dogs?
So I have this routine with them. They’re pleased to see me, their tails are going. I rock in and all I say is: “Wait a minute!” They part, then stand there, all pleased and waiting. I sort myself out and then invite each dog to come up, in the pack order. And I give them a pat. So it’s on my terms.
JIM: you actually greet them in pack-rank order?
Yeah, because Muffy is top brick of the chimney, so she gets her pat first. Chilli is the pushy one, because she’s young. If I were to pat her first, Muffy would then see her as a problem, to be put in place.
People think: we’ve got to knuckle down to the dog, or it won’t love us. But that’s not how a dog works. The dog will still give you a greeting — it won’t go sulk in a corner — but it’s when it’s convenient to you, because you’re leader.
Sometimes a vet will say: you have to feed the dog a bland diet. The owner will say: “oh, I can’t do that!” But it’s really us! The dogs don’t care. They don’t think: “Oh, God, chicken and rice!!”
Not long ago I had a lady whose dog was demolishing the house. It had chewed everything. I said: put a pen in the garden, where the dog can dig and make a mess. And if you’ve got it in the house and have to leave for an hour, put it in the pen. To me, that solves the problem. The dog won’t wreck anything and you’re happier with the dog. It’s got its toys in its pen. And it’s learned: well, this is life. Just like we get used to having to go to work, the dog does too. But she said: “Oh, I can’t do that!”
If people can’t be realistic and they let their emotions rule, well they’ve got no hope with dogs. The problems we have with dogs are lack of control, because people want a relationship with a dog like they would have with a child or another person. They don’t see how much better their life would be and their dog’s would be. Dogs love having a leader.
Max watches me carefully. He always did. But I now notice him watching me and know why he’s so interested. It is his life to watch me and the rest of his changeable human pack. To keep up-to-date, to check his status and maybe find an opening to boost it, to note patterns and when they change, to know his place and make his place, and to be one of us.
It’s what your dog does, what everyone’s dog does. It’s why that photo-book of dogs and their owners can show so many human characters and so many breeds of dogs getting along so well. Because the dogs are doing the work.
After I knew that about dogs, I began to see Max for the first time. I might have seen it earlier, if I had been more curious about what a house-guest once said. We had a woman from India stay with us for two weeks. She’d never been out of India and had a lot to take in. Our house, the climate, our brand of English, shopping—everything was different or bizarre. But what really got her was Max: “He watches me all the time, just like a person!”
She was new to dogs. People in India don’t trust dogs, and not many own dogs. The country has more rabies victims than anywhere (81% of the people killed in the world from the disease), mainly from 25 million stray dogs. That meant that Max startled her more than anything, including the washing machine. It shocked her that a dog lived in the house with us, and that he paid her such close attention. She had no idea dogs were like that. She noticed it because it was the first time she’d seen a dog (in effect). But we’d never noticed, or took it for granted, because…dogs are everywhere.
Who wouldn’t enjoy having an intelligent creature around that pays attention to you? How many people listen carefully to what you say, are interested in each gesture and move, and make it plain you’re important to them? How many people make you laugh once or twice a day? Or make you feel a little more secure? Or who never judge you, no matter how far you rise or how low you fall. And who’re ready for a walk anytime you want to go?
Is it any wonder that a third of the households in the US, Australia and France have dogs?
We now use the following systems for keeping Max’s rank subdued:
He trots along with me, mostly on a loose leash now. No more yanking me along for the first two kilometres. But this happened gradually. Now he only yanks if he sees a rabbit, or a strange dog passes.
I no longer worry at all about dog attacks. I don’t carry pepper spray. We keep to the suburban roads (never on the Heritage Trail) and that solves most problems. The others are solved by garlic sausage and attitude. All the dogs we regularly see, the ones behind fences that used to leap and snap, have been stilled with tiny buttons of garlic sausage. They see me, they focus on me, they ignore Max. They’re waiting for their treat.
Not only that, but so is Max: when we see one of those dogs, Max swivels his eyes to me and almost asks: “Time for garlic sausage?” This also works with new dogs, even loose ones. When we see any dog, Max thinks it’s time for his treat. If the dog comes closer, I start talking to it, like Jacquie suggested: “Oh, what kind of dog are you? And do you like garlic sausage too?” Blah, blah, all friendly and confident. I throw a piece of sausage their way. Which has one of two effects: the dog sniffs and then eats it, and everything changes. It knows it’s onto something good. Alternatively the dog thinks that I’m throwing something at it and gets extremely wary at this show of strength. Half the time they run away when I throw a little piece of sausage at them! (Who would have thought? Remember that man who phoned me and said I should pretend to throw a rock?)
Sometimes a dog runs up too fast for this. The two dogs take over. If there’s uproar, I let it happen. I don’t kick. I don’t shout. I just give Max scope, even look off to the side as if something else is more interesting. And lo…it is settled. Five seconds of noise and scuffle, and they have it worked out. This has never failed.
Not perfect, but good enough
Jacquie may be disappointed, mildly. The authors of all those books might be disappointed, if they knew or cared. Because Max is not perfectly trained. The dog will not walk at heel, without a leash. Or even with a leash. The dog obeys no commands, except “wait a minute!” That’s the only command we care about. But that’s where the equilibrium formed, between my character and the minimum discipline needed to make life with Max a pleasure. Which it is.
What I learned in getting to this simple, satisfactory state, may be of use to others. Which is why I wrote this book. It would have helped me, thinking back to that confusion and anger after the German Shepherd attack, when I knew nothing.
There are dog theories and training systems that are still in rotation, not yet settled by experts. But I found enough that works, and solved my problem. And the rotation axis of all these theories remains as fixed as the Pole Star: dogs watch us. They work out how to adapt to us—whatever we may be like, strict or lax, alert or dopey, easy-going or bad-tempered.
They fit in.
One last thing
There’s something else. With people, they are mostly off in some thought world, even when they sit opposite you, over coffee. But any dog that’s awake displays the present and points us back to it. It doesn’t matter what the dog is doing, they show us the pure present. No wonder they refresh our spirits.