I saw a woman lying in the middle of the street. She was curled up like you’d do when spooning someone. Only there was no one to spoon.
The street was a freeway. I was on a bus – the first vehicle that stopped after a motorcycle ran her over. Her feet were naked. Her skirt had slipped up, revealing her lower legs and bare feet.
Should I get off the bus and make sure she got to a hospital?
She was facing away from us. “Dios mío,” whispered the woman sitting next to me. The sun was shining.
A friend, a lawyer, once told me, “If you ever hit someone in Guatemala, run.” What if the guy on the motorcycle had received the same advice?
His motorcycle was parked on the side of the road. He was fine. He was making a phone call. He wasn’t going to run. And, just like that, I decided to stay on the bus.
The woman in the street slowly lifted an arm. Just a for a second; then it dropped back down. It was the only movement I had seen since we stopped.
“She’s fine”, said the driver. “She’s moving.”
(I’ve seen the mouth of a sheep open and close a minute after separating the head from the body. Clearly, moving an arm doesn’t prove you are fine.)
And we continued on, the bus leaning into the turns so you had to hold on to your seat with two hands, blasting reggeaton.
Later that day, I asked a friend what would happen to the woman. She had no shoes. She certainly had no insurance.
“They’ll take her to the Hospitál Nacional,” said my friend. “It’s free.”
“Will they do a good job there?”
“They won’t,” he said. “If she gets there alive, and she’s badly injured, she’ll die.”
I thought of Peter Singer. He holds that there is no moral difference between walking past a dying person in the street, and choosing not to think of all the dying people in far away places.
It’s morally outrageous to see footage of someone walk past a dying person in the street. We all believe we would stop. (We can’t know if we would. I’d have said I would stop – but I stayed on that bus.)
The thing is: there was no good reason to stay on the bus. If someone is lying in the middle of a freeway, and no one stops the oncoming traffic … How long until they get run over again, this time for good? I’ve seen cats and dogs on that freeway, flat like sheets of paper. There was no breakdown triangles, no traffic cones, and no one was stopping cars for this woman. I could have stopped cars for her, had I gotten off the bus.
I suppose Peter Singer is right. There is no moral difference: maybe we’re just as bad up close as we are at great distances.
When the sheep had just moved in, I let Mick have a go to see what he’d give me. He was quite bitey, and I ended the session quickly to work on foundations some more. I don’t want to use harsh punishment on my dog, and I don’t want my sheep to get hurt. I took the biteyness as a sign that Mick wasn’t yet ready to be in with the sheep at that point.
I worked on recalls and lie downs in the proximity of sheep, and on flanks outside the round pen. Mick’s ability to keep me in the picture grew. He got used to the fact that there were now sheep on the property, and less excited about this fact. At the same time, I have been learning more about sheep behavior by trying to move them from A to B myself. My growing sheep literacy is helping me read Mick better as well.
After watching the MacRae Way videos on Starting Young Dogs, I decided to take a paper bag with me into the round pen. If Mick tried to bite a sheep, I’d shake it. Ideally, I’d prefer not to use this visual and auditory punisher, but just having it made me feel confident that I’d be able to protect my sheep if push came to shove. I needed to be sure of that before taking Mick into the round pen again!
Mick’s round pen behavior looked a lot better this time – likely a result of our practice over the last few days. My growing sheep literacy allowed me to identify several antecedents to Mick’s biteyness in today’s first session:
+ When the sheep huddle against the fence and Mick can’t move them, he’ll bite when they finally do move.
+ He’ll get bitey if they scatter rather than stay together.
+ He’ll get bitey when one of them (usually the largest ewe) challenges him.
These sheep aren’t easy to herd. They don’t (yet) know to come to me for protection, and they like to huddle against the fence and stand still. Even though we worked in the round pen, Mick had a hard time moving them off the fence:
I tried to help him, but couldn’t get them to leave the fence, either. So I ended the session to go back to the drawing board.
In the following session, I had Grit outside the round pen to help keep the sheep off the fence. As a result, Mick’s confidence grew, and he had less reason to bite!
These are still messy beginnings – I’m throwing out “Come by!” and “Away!” as Mick goes the respective directions, and waiting for Mick to find balance so I can start walking backwards and have him bring the sheep to me. This is messy – but it’s a little less messy than what we started out with, and that is making me happy! I am hooked!
Herding! I’s been a dream for a while, and this year, I’m making it happen. I’ll be sharing my meanderings, and the trials and errors of my learnings under the Adventures in Herding category. I’m looking forward to learning from my mistakes, my dog, and my sheep while striving to be kind and fair to all of them, keep in mind the scientific principles of learning, and resolve new challenges on the basis of positive reinforcement.
On Friday, 6 sheep moved in. They are Dorset x Pelibuey crosses – 3 brown ones and 3 white ones. Otto has started them for me, so being herded is not completely new to them.
Herding sheep isn’t completely new to Mick, either, but he hasn’t had a chance to work sheep in a long time. He’s starved for sheep work, and highly excited.
This is what we did today:
I had Mick in a harness and on a 15-foot (5m) long line, and took him into the enclosure where my sheep currently are. Holding on to the long line, I called Mick. I waited until he came, cued “Sheep” (the marker cue I’ll be using to release him to work sheep), and let go of the line. I allowed him to chase/play. After several months without working sheep, I suspect he needs to get out some steam before he can work them calmly and quietly. I mostly observed at this point: I’m learning about both Mick and the sheep, and how the behavior of each species affects the other.
When Mick tried to bite rather than just chase, I stepped on the long line, and got him back: biting without a good reason results in the loss of the opportunity to keep herding.
This, again, set me up for the next rep of calling Mick away from the sheep. I’d say his recall cue (Magpie), wait him out, mark moving towards me with “Sheep!”, and reinforce by dropping the line so he could go chase sheep again.
He worked himself down relatively quickly. In the beginning, his tail was up; he was highly excited. He was hunting/playing rather than working. After a few reps of interrupting him for getting too wild, he lowered his tail into a working position, and his movements became more methodical. As a consequence, the time I let him chase sheep got longer.
In order to end our brief session – it was about 10 minutes altogether – I stepped on the leash and told him “All done” – my end of work cue for my dogs – and walked him away with the help of the leash.
Grit killed today. On our morning walk, she silently dove into the undergrowth – she often will; there are smells to be smelled and sticks to be found. I whistled, and she reappeared, carrying a chicken. The head, on a surprisingly long neck, swung back and forth with each of her joyful leaps; there was nothing to be done for the bird.
The chicken must have strayed too far from my neighbor’s house, and ended up in the forest. There had been no screams, no sounds of a scuffle. Death came fast and on silent paws. Grit carried the chicken like a pointer carries a pheasant; holding a full grip on its chest and back without breaking the skin.
We continued our walk, leaving the chicken behind a tree to pick it up later. I looked at my phone. 9AM. Good; I’d have time to drop off the dogs in my yard, head to my neighbor’s to apologize, pay for the chicken, and be back in time for my training appointment. I’d tell Juan Antonio, my neighbor, Grit had killed one of his chickens, and then I’d ask him how much he wanted for it. I was going to give him a chance to overcharge me if he was so inclined.
We had a good walk, the dogs and I. The morning sun filtered through the canopy of leaves. The forest vibrated with the sounds of insects and birds; I heard the one that sounds like a bicycle bell.
The death of the chicken didn’t upset me. I’d pluck it, and I’d feed it to the dogs. Maybe I’d have some of it myself. I have no fridge – a logistical challenge; we’d have to eat it soon. Juan Antonio raises chickens to sell the meat. The chicken was always going to die and be eaten.
Would I, under the same circumstances, have seen more than just a chicken in the past? I’m not sure. Today, in any case, it is just that: a chicken. The Trump administration is now targeting immigrants who are legally entitled to welfare programs, Pam Fessler told me on my weekday morning news podcast. What’s the death of a single chicken (always meant to be eaten) at the teeth of a dog in the light of the death of Jimmy Aldaoud (and so many others like him) at the hands of democracy? The US keep moving the mark of what large-scale cruelties are politically acceptable, and Europe is following suit.
I’m not scared of telling Juan Antonio that my dog killed his chicken. We’re just two people living on a mountain, doing the best we can. There was a time I’d have been scared of the conversation, scared of Juan Antonio, scared of what he might think of me, and my dog. Scared of potential consequences and implications. I might have obsessed about it for hours, days even. I might have self-righteously framed it to be his fault: why didn’t he take better care of his chickens? Out of fear, I might not have said a thing, and I’d have wondered if he knew it was me for days and weeks to come. I’d have avoided him in the street. We might not have eaten the chicken, either (how pointless a death it would be!): every second I’d have had to look at that chicken would have been one shameful second too many, reminding me of my failure (as you know, the lack of chickens killed at the teeth of your dog defines your worth as a person, your professional expertise as a dog trainer, and how deserving you are of love). The story I’d tell myself would be different, and the story I’d tell you wouldn’t exist since it would be a story too shameful to share.
The person I am today isn’t scared of individuals, or of conversations, or of dogs killing chickens. The things that move me deeply today are not fear. They are love and sadness, anxiety sometimes (about trivial things, but not chickens). The world is getting scarier – I appreciate that on a cognitive level – and I have become less fearful in spite of it, or because of it, or maybe just less fearful, period.
In a world that makes little sense, I want to be the kind of person who’ll tell you my dog killed your chicken, even if you’d never find out for lack of witnesses. The fact that my dog killed a chicken says little about me. The fact that I’m going to own it does. That may not be much, but it’s something: it also means I’m seeing the mark that gets moved, and I know that I’m part of the problem – as are you, and you, and you too – unless … we find a way to pay for that chicken. I don’t know how to do that, but maybe tomorrow, I will. For now, I’ll keep training dogs and telling you stories like this one, because those are two things I know how to do.
My car broke down today. I went to my neighbor’s workshop to ask for help.
Roberto, the mechanic, is in his 50s. He’s got a bit of a belly, the dirty fingernails of a good mechanic, and a formerly white Toyota that looks older than he is, but is still going strong. We took his Toyota (I miss having windows that can be opened manually) to go to San Cristónbal El Bajo where my car had broken down. A yellow teddy bear with long legs and long arms dangled from his rear-view mirror, and he had one of these little flasks with “new car smell” in his old car; a tiny tank holding a purple liquid attached to the air vent. There was a reassuring amount of dust on his dashboard. We’re in the dry season – la estación del polvo. Open the windows and don’t clean your car for a few days, and there’ll be enough dust on your dashboard to leave visible traces in it with your finger tips.
The first time in someone’s car, you learn something about them. Like the first time in their house. You notice things (like the teddy bear. Like the radio with a screen that came to life when he started the car. There was a USB stick plugged in, but the music was turned off. What someone listens to, and whether they turn on the radio or not – it tells you things about a person that go beyond their use of cars).
Roberto didn’t turn on the radio. I wound down the window, and we exchanged the usual semi-ritualized politenesses: how long had I lived here? Were he and his sons from San Pedro Las Huertas originally; had they always run the workshop? What did I do for a living? These four questions is all it takes to know whether you’ll want to continue the conversation, or get through whatever time you are having to spend together in silence, avoiding further engagement. Whatever result you come to – ideally, it’ll be mutual. Mutual silence? That’s okay. Mutual conversation? That’s okay, too. One person talking and engaging, and the other one decidedly looking out the window, playing with their phone, turning on the radio? Awkward.
Roberto and I unspokenly agreed that we were going to have a conversation while the wind was blowing late morning heat through the car. Noon was in the air, and dust – always dust.
“I’ve heard San Pedro used to be controlled by a gang. This whole concept of gangs … it’s foreign to me. It doesn’t really exist where I come from. Can you tell me about it?”
And he did. “It wasn’t really a gang,” Roberto said. “People like to exaggerate. It was a bunch of boys. Ladrones del pueblo. They’d steal stuff – chickens, for example. Anything they could get their hands on, really. They’d threaten people and take things from them, or break into houses.”
“That’s interesting … It seems like San Pedro Las Huertas isn’t full of super rich people. Who’d they steal from?”
“Oh, everyone. It didn’t matter if you had little or a lot for them to take it.
We didn’t have problems with them for a long time. My dad … he was the kind of man who doesn’t get involved in the lives of others. You know, the kind of man who doesn’t get upset as long as the ladrones harass someone else.”
“But we did have issues with them at some point …”
“My brother was walking … right here, in this street. Walkmen had just gotten popular, and he had his walkman and headphones. They took it …”
“They stopped him and threatened him … with weapons?”
“With knives, yes.
We knew who they were, of course. We knew where they lived.
And then they took my brother’s bike, too, the next time they saw him.”
“Yeah. So my dad, who usually didn’t get involved, went to their house, and he knocked on their door …
He said, ‘Why did you take my son’s things?’
They denied it, but my dad just took the boy’s machete from him … And he told him to return my brother’s stuff.”
I could imagine Roberto’s dad – probably looking much like Roberto did now – threatening that young man at his door. The mechanic would speak calmly, and look directly into his eyes, exuding power by his mere presence. I pictured him wearing an oil-stained red polo shirt, like Roberto was wearing one today.
“They gave it all back, and they didn’t steal from us again”, said Roberto. “Some people let others take their stuff. So they will keep taking stuff from them. Others confront the ladrones; they stand up to them – and they’ll be left in peace.”
“What happened to the ladrones? They are gone now, aren’t they?”
“Yeah … one of them went to prison. One was murdered. One left … None of them are here anymore.”
“… until another group just like them takes their place?”
“Yeah. There was another group already. They tried to do the same thing. But people stood up to them, and the group didn’t last.”
We got to the place I had left Bergziege, my car. Roberto unloaded a rusty yellow toolbox and a large piece of cardboard, and his upper body disappeared under the chassis. There’s something reassuring about a person’s legs sticking out from under a car, for some reason. I sat down on a concrete step and told him to let me know if I could assist him in anything.”De acuerdo,” he said, “Okay.” He wasn’t a douchebag kind of guy who believes women can’t hold a hammer.
The problem, he said, was the transmisión. Bergziege had lost a few screws. He took something off the undercarriage: a long metal tube with a joint in the middle.
“You can drive like this, without the transmisión. Just not up very steep hills; you’ve only got front drive now. It’ll take a few days till I get the screws, but then we’ll put it back on.”
“Okay. I’m supposed to drive up a hill today though … That’s actually what I was going to do when the car broke down. I need to take three bags of cement up there. You think I’d better not …?”
“Nah, better not until you’ve got the 4WD back. You may not make it up with the cement.”
I asked him if he’d help me. Could we take the cement up the hill in his car?
“Sure; I’ve got time.”
We loaded the cement out of Bergziege and into the Toyota, and then it was my turn to tell a story. His daughter, now 27, used to really, really want to see the snow when she was little (he said).They got a Christmas tree, and covered it in styrofoam crumbs to give her a glimpse of the experience.
My story, then, needed to be a story about snow. I told him about a particularly snowy winter a few years ago, when I lived on a hill in Austria. I seem to always end up on hills of some kind. We’d walk up the hill, through the forest, in the snow – they only cleared the street once a day, and if it kept snowing, cars would be useless. (The way it feels to walk uphill in fresh snow; how it gets exhausting, but is also its own kind of beautiful? What it’s like to walk at night, taking a shortcut through the forest, when the air is crystal clear and cold and dark, and if there were no highway close by, it would be completely silent except for the sound of your feet? The way the snow makes time slow down, and your thoughts too? Also, being in warm houses when it’s snowing outside; the beauty and the relentless cold and all the things that fit in between.)
We had delivered the cement, and he stopped on the bottom of the hill to let me out where Bergziege was waiting. “Thank you, really,” I said. “What do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry about it. Come by on Tuesday and see if I already got the screws we need for your transmisión.”
I closed the car door, and the sun spit his Toyota back out into the dusty street.
What can we learn from this? At least five things. In chronological order: people tend to exaggerate when talking about crime. Quiet people are more powerful than loud ones. Cars come with large metal parts that aren’t essential for them to work. I’ve got lovely neighbors.
(Also, something about human nature and the fact that standing up to ladrones pays off, but I’m not sure about the details of that lesson.)
Are you familiar with the trolley dilemma? It’s a thought experiment. You see a trolley moving towards five people tied to the train tracks. You know it will not be able to stop – and if it keeps going, it will kill the five people. There is a lever in front of you. If you pull it, the trolley will be redirected onto a sidetrack, and the five people tied to the main track will live. However, there is one person tied to the sidetrack. If you pull the lever, the trolley will kill that person.
What do you do?
I don’t have to think about this a lot to know what my answer would be: I would not pull the lever. It’s an easy decision. If I pulled the lever, I’d feel personally responsible for killing the person on the sidetrack (but I wouldn’t feel responsible for saving the five). As long as I did nothing, I’d feel like an innocent bystander watching a tragic situation unfold. I can live with that, but I do not want to be responsible for the death of an individual.
Interestingly, most people will choose to pull the lever in the thought experiment. Their criterion is to save the most people possible. Rationally, pulling the lever is the right thing to do because it meets that goal.
I’ve had many conversations about the trolley dilemma. People’s answers – and how they reach them – fascinate me. It always gives me pause when a good friend believes they would pull the lever without hesitation. From where I’m standing, pulling the lever looks a lot like getting involved in something it isn’t my place to get involved in. I wonder if whatever personality trait makes people want to pull the lever, and play God, is also behind our ethnocentricity, our fighting of wars, our self-righteous attempts to keep immigrants out of our country, or our denying of health services to those who can’t afford the insurance premium. If you pull the lever, you change the trajectory of others because of your own belief about what the path of these others should or shouldn’t look like. How is this different from building border walls to keep people from pursuing their journey? The one pulling the lever (or building the wall) always believes they are doing it for the greater good. I’m critical of all these things.
Body jolts can be a symptom of neurological deficits caused by distemper. I didn’t know that until a friend mentioned it the other day. Distemper is a viral disease that spreads through aerosol droplets, fluids and contaminated food and water. I had seen body jolts like the ones my friend described in one of the free-ranging neighborhood dogs. One of the dogs who hangs out in my street – the only one who isn’t in good shape. A black female. I took a video of her incessant body jolts and sent it to my vet. “Looks like distemper,” he said. “She probably needs to be put down.” My hand was already on the lever when I realized what I was doing.
I asked around, and found the owners of Black Dog. A dark red corrugated metal door in a corrugated metal house. I knocked, and a little boy opened the door. I caught a glimpse of their dirt floor patio, the rusty white pickup truck parked in the corner, and a cage with a blue parakeet. Black Dog (whose hind legs seemed wobbly) stumbled up to the door to see who was there.
“Is Black Dog yours?”, I asked the boy.
“Yes.” He was holding on to the doorframe with one hand and looking at me with bright brown eyes.
“She looks ill. I thought maybe I could take her to the vet.”
“Sure,” said Little Boy.
“Thank you! Are your mom or dad here so I can ask them as well?”
Little Boy ran into the corrugated metal house, and came back with Dad, a young man.
“Hi,” I said, “I’ve noticed Black Dog shows signs of moquillo. Distemper. It’s an infectious disease that could put the other neighborhood dogs at risk. I wondered if you’d let me take Black Dog to the vet.”
“Okay,” said the young man. “You can take her if you want. She was hit by a car … That’s why she’s not well. That’s all.”
“Okay,” I said. “If the vet says she also has distemper – would it be okay with you if he put her to sleep? In case we need to do it so she cannot spread the disease?” The Spanish word for “put to sleep” is “sacrificar.” Literally “to sacrifice.”
“Yes,” said Dad.
“Thank you. I’ll get a leash from my car, and then I’ll take her. I’ll let you know what the vet says.”
“Okay,” said Dad, and closed the corrugated metal door behind me and Black Dog. Black Dog strolled down the street, sniffing for food.
I got hot dog slices and a slip lead from my car, and followed her down the street. The sun was shining. Black dog was happy to pick up the hot dog slice I put on the street between us, and let me pull the lead over her head. Being incredibly gentle with her mouth, she took a second hot dog slice from my hand. I lured her to Bergziege, my car. Black Dog let me lift her into the crate without protesting much.
“You’re very good”, I told Black Dog on the way to the vet. “Let’s see what the doctor says.”
“We’re almost there.”
“You’re a good girl.”
“It’ll be okay. You don’t worry.”
The vet had no doubt it was distemper. The jolts and her wobbly gait were advanced neurological symptoms, he said, meaning the virus was affecting her nervous system.
He switched off the cheerful bubble fountain in the aquarium in his examination room. I lifted Black Dog up on the metal examination table and wrapped my arms around her.
“Hold her tightly,” said the vet. “You can talk to her.”
He injected a sedative, followed by a reddish liquid that would stop her heart, and finally saline solution to push the euthanasia drug to her heart. It was peaceful, and took a few minutes at most. I told Black Dog she was a Good Dog. That it was okay. In German this time: “Brav bist du. Es ist okay … Gleich ist es vorbei. So ist es gut.” Her neck went limp. I let her slide out of my arms and onto the table. The vet listened for her heartbeat. It had stopped.
I helped put her in a large black plastic bag, and paid 300 Quetzales. One of the staff members carried the bag to my car. In Guatemala, you need to take your dead animal home and bury her yourself.
“I’m sorry,” I told Black Dog in my car. “I am sorry, girl.”
The road to my neighborhood isn’t paved, and I could hear Black Dog in her bag slide back and forth in the crate every time I went through a pothole. Jhhhh-clunk. Jhhhh-clunk.
I stopped at the red corrugated metal door and knocked. The sun was shining, and the street was busy with farm workers on their way to the coffee fields.
Dad and Little Boy weren’t home. Grandmother opened. She had no teeth in her mouth and was hard to understand.
“Hi … I’m the girl who took Black Dog to the vet.”
“You already took her?”
“Yes. I am sorry … It was distemper. The vet had to put her to sleep …”
“He killed her?”
“Yes. I am sorry.”
“Well,” she started to close the door.
“Wait,” I said. “I have her in my car. We should bury her.”
“I don’t want to see her.”
“I am very sorry …”
“You killed her. YOU bury her.”
“Okay,” I said. “I will bury her. I am really sorry. It was moquillo. We had to to put her to sleep to keep the other neighborhood dogs safe.” “Sacrificar.” That word again. It seemed oddly appropriate.
There was a moment of silence.
“It’s a sin to take the life of an animal or a person,” said Grandmother. She was calm. She didn’t cry. She didn’t seem angry. She looked straight into my eyes and informed me of a fact. “It is a sin.”
“I am sorry,” I said, because really, what else was there to say?
We said goodby, and I left. Black Dog was dead, in my car, in a black plastic bag. I realized that I didn’t own a shovel.
Black Dog is now buried on the edge of the coffee field behind my house. I asked two guys working in the field to help me. “Of course”, they said. They had shovels. We made a deep hole and buried Black Dog. “One gets attached to the animals, doesn’t one?”, mused one of the guys. He was wearing a white shirt which, inexplicably, was still white after hours of field work. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s true.”
Today, I pulled the lever, and I redirected the trolley. I reached into an ecological niche, and I pulled Black Dog out of it. I don’t know whether the death of Black Dog will butterflyeffect the free ranging dog population “for the better” or “for the worse” – I don’t think it is possible for us to know.
I believe there is no “right” answer to the trolley dilemma. The dilemma isn’t about doing the right thing – it’s about knowing who you are, or who you want to be. Do you get involved in something you aren’t a part of – something you can only see from your own, limited point of view – or do you not? Do you dare disturb the universe?
I do not want to be the kind of person who pulls the lever if it means harming someone. Today, I harmed Black Dog’s family by imposing my own cultural beliefs on them. (Sure, you could say I was imposing facts, medical facts, on them rather than mere opinions, and of course I was doing it for the greater good; for all the other neighborhood dogs, for the vulnerably-aged puppies down the street, or for whatever helps me sleep at night. It’s easy to justify the dogmas of our own ethnocentrism. It wasn’t my place to disrespect Grandmother’s beliefs though.
Grandmother must think I do not understand. At all. And she would be right. I do not understand what her life with Dad, and Little Boy, and Black Dog is like behind the corrugated metal door, in the corrugated metal house, in a postcolonial society. Who is she? Who are her family? What do they love, and fear, and hope for? What do people and animals mean to her? Did they love Black Dog? I don’t know. I’d like to think that they did. I, not God, took Black Dog to die, and maybe the fact that I could go out and do this – just like that! – is part of what is wrong with the world.
The most difficult moment today – the moment I needed to hold my tears back – was not the moment I held Black Dog in my arms on the sterile metal table, and felt the life slip out of her. That moment was peaceful. I am not scared of death, and I don’t think animals are, either.
The difficult moment was when I turned away from Grandmother in the door, and towards my car. “It’s a sin to take the life of a dog or a person.”
There is a power dynamic that allowed me, the white girl with the broken Spanish, to knock on a red corrugated metal door in a little corrugated metal house with a dirt floor, and take something away from a Mayan family. And I don’t mean their dog – I mean something bigger than their dog. The moment Grandmother looked into my eyes and said: “It is a sin,” I learned that I would rather be someone who respects the beliefs of others than someone who knocks on doors in this way. I would rather allow a sick dog to continue in the population, whether that entailed watching the trolley run over five others or not. I am, of course, aware that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. Maybe one day, I’ll own the grace it takes to move in this world without stepping on things.
What makes a behaviorally healthy companion dog? I’d say the ability to get along well in a world designed for and by humans. And yet most of my dog-geeky friends and colleagues have – just like I do – a dog with a minor behavioral issue or two: insecurity or separation anxiety, overarousal in public, a tendency to bark and lunge at dogs on leash, …
These issues are so common that they seem normal to us. So normal, in fact, that we go out of our way to nip them in the bud: from the day we get a new puppy, we socialize her to dogs and people, and we carefully introduce her to the visual, auditory and tactile stimuli she will encounter in our world. We don’t just expect her to grow up and be behaviorally okay; we actively make an effort to minimize the chance of future behavioral problems. We recognize that we need to invest a lot of time and energy into setting our dogs up for lifelong behavioral success. And that seems pretty normal to us, too. So normal that we don’t consider minor behavioral issues a reason not to breed a particular dog, for example. If his hip scores are perfect and his ring performance is great – who cares that he doesn’t like strange dogs! We avoid potential problems by means of things like leash laws that, as long as people abide by them, keep the leash-aggressive dogs we have bred from biting each other.
Over the course of the last year, I’ve been immersed in cultures that have different norms of dog ownership. I’ve observed something that fascinates me. The dogs I’ve seen on the sidewalks and ranging free in the streets – and there are a lot of them! – are the most behaviorally healthy population of dogs I’m familiar with. They get along with each other, and they get along with people and farm animals. They are attracted to people, but not to an obnoxious degree. They are moderately active, happily walking with the farm workers into the fields every day, but not pushy and demanding if they miss a day of exercise or attention. They are independent enough to not annoy their owners, but have a degree of handler focus that makes them stick to their people quite naturally when out and about, and curl up next to them when they work in the field rather than taking off – and all that without mat work or tethers, radius or recall training. They are the epitome of what people are looking for in a companion dog – even though their owners certainly haven’t invested a lot of time and energy into consciously socializing them as puppies.
Where do all these dogs come from, and why do they seem so much less aggressive, stressed, hyperactive, insecure, and barky than the average Western companion dog? Who – or what – makes them this way? And what are we doing wrong in Western Europe and North America since our dogs seem to have many more issues?
Maybe the free-roaming dogs I’ve seen here are close to the proto-dogs – to the first dogs who domesticated themselves a long time ago, when people started settling down. I like the theory of domestication put forth by Ray and Lorna Coppinger: dogs developed into dogs because of natural (rather than artificial) selection. The wolves with the shortest flight distance lived to reproduce, because they could eat the most food at the village dump: they got there first when someone threw out food and ate the best bits, and they didn’t waste energy on running away whenever a human looked their way. Tameness was THE selection criterion as far as behavior was concerned – and that’s how the wolf turned into the dog. Not because he was consciously bred by humans, but because he was well adapted to the ecological niche of the village dump. Tame animals got fed (i.e. they fed themselves), hence they survived.
The dogs in my neighborhood today are still very much the result of natural (rather than artificial) selection. The most well adapted ones survive long enough to reproduce and pass their genes on to the next generation. The people in my neighborhood absolutely factor into this, but much more indirectly than a breeder would. They don’t select breeding pairs – they simply feed the dogs they like, don’t feed the ones they don’t like, and cull the ones that cause problems.
I can see at least four behavioral criteria that determine whether a dog will live to reproduce and spread her genes in my neighborhood:
1. Attraction to people.
People live closely together around here; farmers often work in groups; children play in the street … Dogs need to get along with people. Threaten or bite someone or their child, and sooner or later, you’ll get culled.
People like dogs who are friendly and tame – those are the ones who get dinner scraps, and those are the ones who’ll pass their genes down to the next generation. However, be too much of an attention seeker and annoy your people, chew up their shoes and disrupt their workday, and you won’t get fed, and might get culled if you take it too far. The result: most dogs in my neighborhood are neutral if ignored, and friendly and curious when invited to interact.
2. Dog-Dog Sociability.
The free roaming dogs here tend to get along well with each other. I haven’t seen a fight – neither here in Guatemala nor in Thailand. Conflicts are resolved through body language alone. They are social: I’ve seen them play with each other, and I’ve seen them roam in small groups of friends.
3. Being a scavenger rather than a hunter.
People around here have farm animals, especially chickens and horses, and the dogs are indifferent to them. It’s unlikely the people in my neighborhood have the time or energy to train a dog who kills chickens or chases horses. This is not a rich population with a lot of spare time to train dogs – it’s easier to get rid of a dog who doesn’t fit into the community. Benevolent indifference towards farm animals is positively selected for.
4. Moderate activity and moderate loyalty.
Everyone here walks. And everyone who walks walks with their dogs. Men, women, children – usually, their dogs aren’t far. People will occasionally call out to their dogs, but mostly just let them roam around them. Dogs who aren’t interested in joining their people on errands will likely not get thrown a tortilla for lunch.
In a nutshell: the typical free-roaming dog here knows his people and sticks with them – but is independent enough to not be annoying. He enjoys exercise enough to walk a few miles every day, but doesn’t require more than that. He doesn’t chase critters and farm animals, and he is good with people and good with other dogs.
I’d say this describes the ideal companion dog – the kind of dog most people would love to have by their side! And maybe this is exactly the kind of animal we started out with when we began to artificially select and develop different breeds of dogs. But somewhere down the line, we lost elements of sociability and mental balance. Maybe part of the reason is that looks got more important, and behavior less important. Maybe sociability just didn’t seem as important anymore when dogs started to be kept inside the house and walked on leashes: as long as we control and micromanage our dogs, it doesn’t matter much if they like other dogs or people! Maybe developing breeds for particular purposes made us zoom in on one or two particular traits and neglect others, equally important ones. Maybe some desired qualities got lost through inbreeding. I don’t know – but I’m deeply fascinated by the dogs I’ve met around here, and I’d love to hear from you if you have observed a similar (or very different!) population of free-roaming dogs in a different part of the world!
Please note: these are my subjective thoughts and observations. Are things really the way they seem to me? I don’t know. Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. I’m not trying to say that breeding dogs according to breed club standards is wrong, either – not at all. I like purebred dogs. But these dogs, the free-roaming ones in my neighborhood? I’m very fond of them, too.
No matter when a relationship starts going south, people are most likely to get divorced in spring, the season of sunshine, birds, and break-ups. One possible explanation is that being outside more and soaking up sunlight energizes us. It wakes us from hibernating, and lifts our spirits just enough for us to finally turn our unhappy emotions into concrete actions.
The spring divorce peak seems like a good analogy for a behavioral trend in young dogs: traumatic experiences may only show their full effect when the dog is an adult – once the teenage hormones have subsided and she has grown up. Being a teenage dog is our metaphorical winter – the body is busy dealing with changing hormonal statuses, new impressions and experiences; the brain chemistry changes every day. The dog may be feeling yucky feelings – but she doesn’t yet act on them, just like the unhappy partners spending their last winter together. Once spring is around the corner and the dog stops being a teenager, we see who she really is: an adult shaped by genetics and experiences, ready to translate her emotions into actions.
Grit had a traumatic experience when she was about 6 months old. She had been a confident puppy up until then. This experience made her suspicious of a number of things – among others, strangers passing us on walks. Her body language mirrored her discomfort, but there was no strong outward reaction. I focused on classical counterconditioning: when someone passed us, I’d stop by the side of the road, wait until Grit noticed the person, and then feed one cookie after the other until the stranger had passed us. If she was on a leash, I’d often just stand there with her and feed; if she was off-leash, I’d ask her to sit and then feed, feed, feed. This is a basic counterconditioning protocol dog trainers use a lot: the approach of something scary or uncanny is being paired with good stuff in the hope that the scary thing will come to predict the good stuff and eventually take on the positive emotional connotations of the good stuff. In Grit’s case, this worked well enough as a management tool. Her emotions towards strangers passing us on a walk didn’t seem to change a lot though, even though I applied the counterconditioning strategy almost every time we met someone.
When Grit grew into an adult Malinois, her passivity around strangers began to change. Coming of age was giving her the confidence to say her opinion – and her opinion was: “Get lost, stranger!” I could tell Grit would translate her insecurity into fight rather than flight if I just ignored this and kept doing what I had been doing: every time a dog barks and lunges at a passerby, the barking and lunging gets reinforced. The dog is saying “Get lost!”, and passersby tend to keep walking. To the dog, it looks like her behavior has caused the person to go away (rather than pull out a murder weapon and butcher herself and you, as was obviously the intention of this stranger walking down the street suspiciously, wearing suspicious shoes and a suspicious t-shirt and smelling all suspiciously and talking into a suspicious cellphone!) Naturally, the dog assumes he has just saved both your lives (you are welcome!) and averted a tragedy, and is determined to apply the same barking-and-lunging strategy next time.
Clearly, I needed a new approach to passing strangers on the road – feeding cookies wasn’t cutting it. I wanted Grit to learn a way that would get her what she wanted (distance from the stranger) without stressing her out (by being forced to remain motionless while things were going on around her). I wanted to give her an alternative proactive behavior rather than asking her to passively wait and sit and eat food while a stranger passed us.
Grit reminded me of an important lesson fearful dogs have taught me: for many dogs, waiting patiently while a trigger passes isn’t an appropriate replacement behavior to lunging and barking – no matter how many cookies we feed. Passivity (waiting and “doing nothing” is pretty passive) isn’t necessarily an ideal substitute for active, motion-based unwanted behaviors.
An ideal replacement behavior would be as physiologically similar to the original (unwanted) behavior as possible. In Grit’s case, the original behavior entailed movement. Think of your dog as a pressure cooker filled with emotions. Barking/lunging releases pressure and makes the dog feel better. If I ask her to sit politely and wait while eating food, she may still feel pressure cooker feelings – only that sitting still doesn’t release the pressure! As Grit got older and the pressure inside her got stronger, she’d bark as soon as I released her after the person had passed us. She needed to put this pent-up anxiety somewhere!
In order to work towards a more active alternative behavior, I resolved to keep walking instead of waiting by the side of the road and feeding as many cookies as I possibly could. Whenever possible, I curved around the scary trigger and avoided standing still – often, in fact, without feeding Grit at all. It turned out that keeping a distance to the trigger and staying in motion was more important than eating. First on a long line, later off leash, but wearing a muzzle, and under voice control (calling her to me to curve with me), we worked on encounters. When there was no way out, I played LAT instead of just sitting and feeding: now Grit had something to do rather than just remain passive and silent. She could look back and forth between the passerby and me, and stay in a thinking state of mind.
I’m really happy with the result: without me cuing her or intervening at all, Grit will now, whenever she gets a chance, choose to curve around or move away to make space for the stranger we are passing. And when that isn’t an option, she just keeps moving to get past them, like any other dog who never had a traumatic experience would. If she feels yucky feelings, she’ll speed up to get past the strangers faster. She herself is making these excellent behavioral choices – and her good choices are automatically reinforced by the fact that the passerby keeps walking and the distance increases. Also, I don’t need to manage her all the time, which is always one of my goals on my walks. Check it out. All the clips below are from the same walk. There’s no trigger stacking – we can hike busy routes off leash! (*)
Grit uses a path up the hill to put some distance between herself and the people passing us:
Grit runs into the field when people approach (the dog who keeps walking towards the people is Game):
Grit takes a path up the hill to let the guy pass (this time, Game follows her):
Sometimes, there is no way to give the stranger space to pass. Grit is now dealing with this by just keeping going:
In this video, you can see her speed up – her way to get past the encounter as fast as possible. She translates insecurity into movement, and this releases the pressure she may be feeling:
This encounter is nice and relaxed. Grit trusts the stranger isn’t going to approach or even look at her – she can just keep going.
(*) There is no leash-law here. The dirt road in this video is frequented by off-leash dogs that either walk with farmers or just walk themselves, so having my dogs pass people off leash is not an issue here. Off leash dogs are the cultural norm in rural Guatemala, and people don’t mind. Here’s another video from the same walk, showing two random dogs who decided to join us for part of our walk, and another scene of Grit – and everyone else! – running past people.
Susan Friedman has a wonderful metaphor for shaping desired behavior in an animal: she says the trainer’s job is to be a choice architect – someone who makes the desired behavior easy and attractive, and the undesired behavior hard or impossible. Imagine putting a marble on a slope: it’ll choose to roll down – you don’t need to “make it.” As trainers, our job is to make sure the environment is slopy.
This way of looking at training has two elements I love: it emphasizes giving the dog choice (rather than “making them” do something), and it focuses on manipulating the environmental paths to reinforcement rather than the learner.
Soon after Game joined the family, I realized she would be a great dog to take places – if only I could shape her high sociability and environmental curiosity into laid-back confidence, and build her patience so she would choose to settle rather than pester people, whine or bark when she wanted to interact! Today, I want to tell you how choice architecture and patience helped Game grow from a dog who wanted to meet all the people and all the dogs all the time into a dog who is fun to take places.
Example: tracking group
When Game was an adolescent, I took her to a tracking class. I got permission to use the class as a distraction while doing my own thing. (I can’t say how much I appreciate my colleagues who let me do this kind of thing!)
I asked Game to wait her turn at a big distance from the group – a distance that made lunging and whining unlikely. Here, she had the choice to sit, stand, or lie down in the grass, or to wander and sniff within her leash radius. If she chose to sit or lie down, she got hot dogs and attention; if she stood up, nothing happened. The fact that after a while, she sat down and held her sit while watching the other dog/handler teams work showed me that I had chosen a good distance. Yes, I was the only one working at half a soccer field’s distance while everyone else was standing in a circle. But that was okay. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to my goal, and I wasn’t primarily there for the tracking.
When we met friends – humans or dogs – I waited for Game to offer eye contact or a sit before releasing her to say hi. If she pulled on the leash, I just remained standing. If she whined or barked, I let her (and made a mental note to choose a bigger pre-release distance next time). If she briefly looked back at me, I marked and released her to say hi or go play. Once she started understanding the principle, she chose to look at me faster and faster.
Example: walking in public
The Siam Crown training fields came with lots of opportunities to take strolls on leash at a distance from other dogs who were pottied on leash, and learn to not run up to them, but just walk and explore. We could also walk off leash (Siam Crown is a gigantic park with a wall around it) while other dogs were training in the distance. I kept a distance where I trusted that Game was able to stay in her radius around me rather than being magnetized to the action on a nearby training field. With time, we got closer and closer to dogs working on their obedience or protection skills.
I would find a spot at Siam Crown where I could read or cut up hotdogs with Game on a leash next to me. There were various dog training things going on in the distance. When Game lay down and stayed down, I reinforced her with attention and food.
We also visited Thai street food places – places where you usually don’t spend more than 15 minutes – and did the same things there. These were exciting! I had to up my treat value. I set the clock on my phone and rewarded every 15 seconds at first, then every 30 seconds, every 45 seconds … After a while, I was only dropping a treat between her paws every two minutes. This took work – but I was able to lower the rate of reinforcement surprisingly quickly! I set myself the goal to take Game to one of these places once every seven days. Once a week, I invested about 15 intense training minutes in this project. I didn’t find it to be a huge time investment, and loved seeing Game’s progress.
And … We did it!
Game just turned a year old in July, and I’m proud to say that we have met our training goal. Through making good choices easy and reinforcing, and preventing bad choices or making them difficult, Game has become a dog who can go places with me. She is laid-back and relaxed around people and dogs, and unphazed by commotion. (Not exactly a typical Malinois trait!) She makes good choices without me having to micromanage her.
Comfortable and relaxed in public:
An enjoyable loose-leash sniff walk in a busy place:
Now that making good choices has become a habit, I am starting to increase Game’s level of freedom. In the past, I would have used distance and/or a leash to make walking up to people (a reinforcer for her) unlikely or impossible. Now, if I am with someone Game knows and likes, I don’t mind if she chooses to walk over and say hi. She won’t be over the top, and it’s not her default thing to do. Having been a choice architect in her first year of life is allowing me to increase the amount of freedom she has today.
Of course, I’ll keep reinforcing good choices rather than take them for granted: it’s fun to catch a dog being good!
Have you been a choice architect in your dog’s life? Tell me about it in the comments!
For the past few days, I’ve walked past a litter of street puppies in between Antigua’s bus terminal and market. It’s very busy there, loud; there’s lots of traffic.
The first time I saw the puppies, I noticed that someone had given the mom blankets, and made a makeshift cover of a plastic tarp to give her shade.
The puppies are still tiny; their eyes aren’t open yet. Today, I walked past them again, just as an elderly man was finishing making a slightly more stable and larger shelter for them. He used an old metal cart for a roof and wooden boxes as pillars, draped with the plastic tarp and additional blankets for walls. A water bowl was chained to one of the boxes.
The man had grey hair, and lots of little wrinkles in his sun-burned face. A big smile revealed an almost toothless mouth when I greeted him. “Are they yours?”, I asked, and he proudly agreed. These dogs – the mom, who was sleeping soundly, trustfully, while he built a shelter around her, and the white dog standing next to him, looking into the distance – he considers them HIS dogs. They have no collars; they probably don’t live with him, and he probably hasn’t bought or otherwise chosen them. Their paths must have intersected – he, selling things at the market; they, looking for scraps of food. The dogs, or the man, or all three of them decided to claim each other. They are his dogs now. And he is their human. The big white dog shoved his nose under the old man’s hand while we were talking.
The man pulled back one of the blankets a bit so I could peek at the puppies. “They are sleeping,” he explained. “They can’t see yet. A few more days …!”
He probably doesn’t have much, and he probably doesn’t need much. Neither do his dogs. Life at the market is loud, and colorful, and rough sometimes, and there is love in it. Days go by like this. Weeks. Months. Years. Not a lot changes.
This image – a big, white dog shoving his nose into an old man’s hand in the middle of a bustling market – is the kind of image I choose to keep in my heart forever. I’ll remember the details: the white shirt the man is wearing, with thin blue stripes, tucked into a pair of washed-out blue jeans held up by a worn leather belt. The valleys and trenches dug into his face by the years and the sun, and his open smile – the shared happiness of two strangers as he lifts the blanket to let me peek at the three puppies and the sleeping mom. He lifts it just a bit, so he can give me the gift of a look without disturbing her. The old bottle crate cart, the roof of the makeshift shelter, must have been blue once. The paint is flaking off, and the metal bars are rusty. The grey plastic tarp that makes the roof. The red fleece blanket the mom is resting on. The sounds of a bustling market. Honking. The rumbling of tuk-tuks going over cobblestone streets under a bright blue sky. People advertising fruit, and tortillas. Motorcycle engines firing. The sun. The dust. One of my favorite places in the world.
People like our greedy Austrian ex-landlord? Sure, I’ll keep him in my memories (he makes a most excellent story, and I get better at telling it every time!), but not in my heart. The room in my heart is reserved for people like the old man and his dogs, and the smile the size of his heart.
I think that’s why I meet warm, nice, generous people wherever I go, and why I genuinely like humans. We choose what to keep in our hearts, and it defines us. It makes us either more cynical and bitter the older we get, or softer and gentler.
We choose what to see when we look at a scene, too. The scene today? If you wanted to, you could see irresponsible dog ownership, I’m sure. You could see sadness, and poverty, and dirt. The fact that you could see these other things is what makes me hesitate to share my story. I don’t want you to take this good story and make it into something bad. But you know what? I do want you to see it through my eyes. So here it is; my gift to you.
The old man put his hand on his white dog’s back. “He’s the dad,” he said.