Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trust and control (and dog psychology)

I've been thinking a lot about trust the past couple weeks. The most obvious question is, how can you trust a dog that's bitten someone? In the first few days after the bite, that question was foremost in my mind. As the days passed, and as I watched Sovalye more, I realized that trust is something that goes both ways. He had lost trust in us also.

When I first opened the back door of the barn, he would only walk outside several steps behind me, and he wouldn't get close to me. When I headed back into the barn though, he was always ahead of me or right next to me. I think he was afraid I was going to make him stay outside. As the days passed, he was venturing out more and staying longer. He would even run to the end of the barn pasture. After telling the bite story to animal control and the new vet and having both of them say it sounded like a fear bite -- without my saying that he was scared to go into the pasture -- I started to realize that Sovalye didn't trust us to keep him safe. In spite of his massive 115-pound structure, he usually acts submissive towards us, and I've also noticed this more as each day has passed. When I go into the barn, he rolls over on his back and shows me his belly. Without regurgitating everything I've read over the years about alpha dogs and submissive dogs, I'd say the trust between us and Sovalye is even stronger than it is between us and Porter, our English shepherd.

For almost five years, we've taken dozens of complete strangers into the pasture, and Sovalye has never barked at a single one. If someone stops their car along the road though, he barks non-stop until we come outside. He trusts our judgment and trusts us to take care of things. On the other hand, when a stranger comes to our house, Porter barks and sometimes growls incessantly. We've had to lock him up sometimes because he refuses to stop barking or growling. It's as if he's saying, "You don't understand! They're dangerous! Let me chase them away!" He doesn't trust our judgment.

As far as knowing that a dog "will bite" -- I came to the conclusion last year that one should never assume that any dog will not bite. In other words, every dog has the potential to bite. When my dear standard poodle Addy was 9 years old, the FedEx man was delivering a package, and she was barking at him non-stop. I said the dumbest words ever uttered: "Don't worry. She doesn't bite." He believed me and started walking towards the house. Addy lunged and snarled with teeth bared. He jumped back. I grabbed Addy and apologized profusely. I felt light-headed and stupid, but I'm sure the delivery man felt even worse. I hope he learned the same lesson I did that day -- never assume a dog won't bite.

In 2002, I interviewed the Monks of New Skete when they revised their classic, "How to be Your Dog's Best Friend." I've been thinking about them a lot lately, and the other day, I looked up the article I wrote. Brother Christopher, one of the monks, said he thought their book, originally published in 1978, became so popular because it was the first dog training book to look deeper into a person's relationship with his or her dog. It didn't just talk about training techniques. Although we all expect our dogs to listen to us, do we listen to our dogs? They are trying to communicate, but they can't speak English any better than we can speak dog.

A couple days before Margaret got in a fight with Sovalye, she had just read a book on dog training. Although it was one of the more intuitive books out there, she still came away with ideas about controlling him, asserting her dominance over him, and making him do what she wanted him to do. It's kind of ironic that 20 years ago, she taught me that control is an illusion. Anyone who thought a parent could control a baby never had a high-need baby. It's a lesson I never forgot. Living out here, I've often said, "Control is an illusion!" in response to many things -- the coyotes, a 500-pound heifer, a 300-pound pig, and even a goat in labor. We humans think we have to be in control all the time. A lot of authors make millions telling people how to control every aspect of their lives.

But, just as I learned to listen to and trust Margaret when she was a baby, we should have listened to and trusted Sovalye. Dogs don't lie. If they're trying to tell us something, we should try to understand. Sovalye was trying to tell us that he couldn't work. After being bitten, Margaret started researching heartworm treatment and learned that it often takes three months to recover competely. And they weren't talking about dogs that had a job fighting off coyotes!

There is another book that I keep remembering -- Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. The subtitle was something about how to train everything and everyone from your dog to your kids to your husband to your own tennis swing. I re-read that book a lot 15-20 years ago, and I wish I could find it now. It's all about eliciting cooperation, rather than asserting control. A good chunk of that book talked about understanding motivation. When we were moving pigs through the pasture a couple months ago to load them into a trailer, I said to everyone, "We're not going to get 300-pound pigs to do anything they don't want to do." What motivates pigs? Food! But you also have to understand that they are scared of new places, which brings me to my final gem of wisdom for this morning:
Seek first to understand.
If we could always remember Stephen Covey's advice, it would save us a lot of headaches and heartaches.


Michelle at Boulderneigh said...

Loved your thoughts and insights, and think they are all spot-on. Sovalye is a very fortunate dog to have you all as his family, because too few would try to understand him and trust him again. He deserves it! I've learned many of the same lessons the hard way with horses, after being taught the "cowboy way" (dominance) early on. Fortunately, dressage lends itself to understanding and trust more than many disciplines.

Tammy said...

Very thoughtful post. I admire you for taking what many would consider the 'hard road', and trying to work this out. It sounds like Margaret too, is working out how this happened, so I think that has to be very healing. With Boone (my Mastiff) I also had to learn a 'new way' of thinking. Training methods that worked on the collies just did not make any headway with him. He is a great dog, but because of his breed and make up he thinks and responds differently than the Collies. I love how you discuss how you've come to learn that working with the animal (and situation) is so much more profitable. About the first year I had sheep, I realized that so many methods I used with other animals wouldn't work, so I started 'thinking like a sheep'. It's made things much smoother, and only when I forget, do things get crazy! Anyway, I wish you the best as you work through this with your mighty dog--with time, hopefully he will regain his confidence and trust. Also I've put the book by Karen Pryor on my wishlist at the paperback club I belong to. If I get a copy, I'd be happy to send it on to you, once I read it! ;-)

Deborah said...

Thanks to you both! And I'd love to read Karen Pryor's book again, so Tammy, if you get a copy before I find mine, I'd love to borrow it. I was very happy to see on Amazon that she did a revised edition a couple years ago.

Susan said...

Great post and thanks for the reading suggestions. I'd love to read your article with the monks.

One of the gifts you gave Sovalye was some time. (I'm glad you found a new vet.) When we're frightened, it's so easy to make decisions that might be regretful and dire. Sovalye and your family had time to absorb what happened and recover thoughtfully.
It's something I've always appreciated about homeschooling in that the time allowance turns many problems into solutions.
When we were in the barn with Sovalye, he was never intimidating to us. Even when you and I were in the milk parlor and the boys were hanging out with the other goats. He wasn't afraid of us and we weren't of him. (He was locked up in the stall, but he seemed to have it figured out as far as danger level with strangers.)
Our dog attacked a passing car on our road when I had just walked out of our front door. He'd never bothered with cars on the road before that particular timing other than to scope out who was pulling into our driveway. We think he was in protection mode of me. He lost the battle with a broken hip. We learned that assumptions of what is going in our animal's head is just that, an assumption, and that we need to be wary of his behavior at all times.
Hope Margaret is doing well.

Kara said...

Hi Deborah,

I am so glad Margaret is doing better. It sounds like your family people and critters alike, are fortunate to have your gentle and intelligent guidance in their lives. You alone know your daughter, the dog, the situation to its fullest. I am glad you are all recovering from this ordeal and you are still in my thoughts and prayers that happier days lie ahead for you all. Take care of you and yours.

Jenny Holden said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this with us all. I was really gripped reading this very considered response to an awful event in your family life. Sovalye is indeed lucky to have you as a family, it sounds as though he deserves a second chance. We don't speak dog half as well as they speak human and it must be very frustrating for them, especially when ill or scared. Well done x


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