[Disclaimer: This is not a dog training post. And it’s a story of the past – a story of pre-COVID-19 times.]
I don’t know how long she had been walking next to me. I’d been speeding up, inadvertently, as I always do when I sense her behind me. She always catches up though. She politely kept her distance until I was ready for her. Half a meter between us – the distance a stranger will keep from you on a busy pedestrian street. The kind of street I was walking on when I finally noticed her: la Avenida 20 de Noviembre in the historical center of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. It’s a street filled with restaurants, bars, cafés, bakeries and souvenir shops, musicians, street vendors, and benches. And people – so many people! Give people an entire street, and they will take it over, like a river of humans, vibrant, humming in constant conversation. An Ed Sheeran song wafts through the open doors of an Italian restaurant, soon getting indistinguishable from the sounds of life in the street. A Shepherd dog is eating a taco someone dropped on the sidewalk.
She is walking closer to me now – the distance of a good friend. Drifting right, away from her, is no use. Soon, our arms will touch every couple of steps. Accidentally, an unknowing observer might think. Giving me goosebumps. Her arms are suntanned; her skin is warm, warm like her hazel eyes. She’s shorter than me. Her hair is sun bleached and curly and wild. She’s an outdoors kind of person. I breathe in and out.
And out. She’s still here. Inconspicuous, yet inescapable. Another block, and she’ll put her sun-tanned arm around my shoulders. It’s a comforting gesture. I feel her hand on the soft skin above my hip. Her touch is gentle and warm. It’s the touch of someone I’ve known long and well.
She’s never been mean to me. She’s loyal, like Churchill’s dog. “I promised you I’d be back.” Her eyes are soft. “I’ll be back anytime you are ready.”
I didn’t know I’d be ready today. I thought I had time –.
I listen to her – I don’t feel like talking. There’s nothing to say. Our hips are touching every second step now. We’re walking close to each other, falling into lockstep.
I breathe in.
And out. I have to keep walking. I can’t stop when she’s with me. If I stop, I’ll be hers.
“You’re alone,” she says gently. “You’ll always be alone.”
I keep walking in silence.
“The people you meet and connect with …”
“Yes?” She always gets me eventually, leaving an unfinished sentence hanging in the air until I can’t bear it.
“They are temporary, those people. They’re not yours.”
“You go places. You meet people. You make that social shit look easy. And in the end of the day, you go home alone. You fall asleep alone. You wake up alone. Noone will make you tea when you’re sick. You’re fundamentally alone, my friend.”
“Don’t worry. I’m right here. I always am. It’ll be dark, and I’ll hold you. I’ll gently kiss your forehead. I’ll smell of sunshine, sand, and wind-dried sweat. You’ll curl up under your blanket, all alone and so fucking exhausted. I’ll wrap myself around you, and you’ll cry. I’ll gently stroke your hair, and you – you just sleep. Sleep, my friend. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”
She’s soft-spoken, as always. We know each other well, and she – she means no harm, she says, and as always, I almost believe her. “I’m holding space for us,” she reassures me. “I’m holding space for you, and then I’ll fill it up until you drown.”
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.
I used to call myself an “R+ trainer,” but haven’t used the label in a while. I’m just not happy with it anymore. It’s commonly used to describe someone who strives to only ever use positive reinforcement. That’s not true for the trainer I am today: I have stopped looking at training plans in terms of the operant conditioning quadrant they fall into.
Today, I strive to be the kindest and most effective trainer I can be. When I say “most effective,” I mean that I’ll get to know the individual team in front of me. I’ll learn about their specific situation, their resources, goals, and challenges. On this basis, we’ll come up with a training plan that sets them up for success. We’ll leverage the existing dog/human relationship, and shape behavioral change with the help of ideas, tools, and interventions the owner is comfortable with. Occasionally, my recommendations include mild aversives: I’ll consider verbal corrections or brief time-outs IF I believe they will substantially speed up the training process without negatively impacting the dog, the human, or their relationship.
Another reason I’m not using the “R+” label for myself anymore is that it is increasingly being claimed by trainers who subscribe to a laissez-faire ideology of dog training. The laissez-faire subculture has caused two entirely new categories of pet-dog related problems to surface: on the one hand, it seems like there is an increasing number of pet dogs who suffer due to a lack of structure and clarity. A paradigmatic example of this are insecure dogs who display reactivity when being left alone with encounters they don’t know how to handle.
On the other hand, I see owners who suffer because they believe it’s unethical to stop their dogs from engaging in unwanted behaviors: owners who don’t leave their house anymore because their dog will bark in a crate, or who stop having visitors because they worry it will make their dog uncomfortable.
In the former case, it’s the dog who suffers. In the latter case, it’s the human. When I say that I strive to be the “kindest” trainer I can be, I’m talking about both ends of the leash. I want the dogs I work with to get their basic needs met. These needs include safety, food, exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation. A baseline of these things should be available unconditionally.
The laissez-faire subculture of the positive reinforcement community has embraced this fact, and taken it one step further: they seem to have forgotten that humans, too, have a right to get their basic needs met: just like in dogs, human needs include safety, food, exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation. Sometimes, meeting them will mean leaving the dog at home. Sometimes, it’ll mean saying “No” to the dog. In any case, it means keeping the needs of both dog and human in mind, compromising when necessary, and being practical, pragmatic, and fair towards both ends of the leash.
Today, I’m going to show you not only “nice” videos, but also messy ones. Mick gets bitey, and his sheep are stressed. This, too, is a reality of herding (and life). We – professional dog trainers – tend to only show polished videos. It’s easy to make ourselves and our dogs look good in videos, pictures, and Facebook posts.
I don’t want to be that kind of trainer. I’d rather be perceived as authentic than perfect. I’m human. I’m pragmatic. I like to experiment and problem-solve, and sometimes, I get things wrong. I strive to train my dogs with kindness, and I don’t always succeed. This week, I experimented with pressure tools (a herding stick, and a paper bag) in order to protect my sheep.
It’s time to face our next challenge: it usually takes a minute for things to calm down. Mick starts out with force and intensity, barreling into the sheep like a cue stick shooting into the triangle of snooker balls, sending them flying all over the place.
I know nothing about snooker. It’s entirely possible that this metaphor makes no sense.
At a loss of where to turn in view of the mess he just made, he’ll end up chasing and gripping. He has no control over the situation that results from barreling into the sheep, and Mick is the kind of dog who struggles with a lack of control: it makes him anxious, chasey, and grippy. It takes a while until the sheep are flocking together again and calm down. When that happens, Mick will calm down as well, and start holding them nicely to me.
Once you’ve heard Susan Friedman talk about labels, you can’t just throw words like “anxious” out there. No matter how convenient it would be.
We must operationalize all the labels before we may proceed!
losing control shall mean that the sheep are not sticking together like a single organism with several heads, but rather running in different directions. Think headless chickens. They are not walking or trotting, but running fast – they are fleeing from my pet predator. A single pet predator can easily control a large flock of sheep that is sticking together like a single organism, but he’s at a loss when it comes to controlling even 3 sheep who are all running into different directions. At least my pet predator is overwhelmed by that.
anxious shall mean that Mick carries his tail high above his back (rather than just above his back legs. He will run (rather than trot), and he will single out a sheep, chase her down, and nip. Occasionally, he’ll start chasing one sheep, and then switch to another.
If on a lead, his tail will be high above his back, and he will pull and pant, or wiggle around my legs throwing behaviors at me while holding his head in a low, glancing up at me briefly, but not holding eye contact.
Now we may proceed.
Once the sheep move calmly and orderly, Mick will slow down, keep his teeth to himself, and lower his tail. He’ll curve around them and hold them to me. He’ll be in a thinking, working state of mind – that’s what we’re looking for in a working Border Collie.
The explosive release
It is Mick himself who causes the frantic behavior of the sheep that, in turn, makes him chase and nip. Pre-release, he’s anxious about gaining control, resulting in an explosive cue stick release. Only once the sheep have recovered from being hit by his force is he able to relax and work nicely.
Anxious Border Collies behave like cue sticks, which results in …
… unpredictable sheep running all over the place. This way lies madness!
We don’t want the madness. This is what we want:
Confident Border Collies curve around rather than barrel into the sheep. Treated this way …
… the sheep will behave like a single organism with multiple heads that can be pushed around while sticking together! It’s as if the sheep were trapped in one of these gigantic plastic bubble balls.
This is what I’ve tried to get Mick to curve out rather than act like a cue stick:
Our flawed heroine (who uses too many adjectives) believes the anxious Border Collie must be pushed and pressured onto the desired trajectory around the badass sheep.
insisting on a down before releasing him to the sheep (this makes things worse – it makes the release even more explosive than it would be from a standing start).
Using a paper bag (inspired by the MacRae Way videos) to correct Mick for barreling in. This correction (shaking the bag) also makes things worse for Mick – it increases his anxiety rather than decreasing it.
Using a herding stick to “push Mick out.” This, too, made things worse. Mick is very pressure sensitive, and me putting pressure on him with a stick pointed his way increases his anxiety. If he’s anxious, he’ll get grippy and chase.
I tried all of the above in combination with using a long line to keep Mick at a distance from the sheep while I myself got closer to the sheep. (The long line idea is another trick I’ve picked up from the MacRae Way videos). The results were similar, but I had more control now than I used to when next to Mick when releasing him.
No tools, and no cues, but still use a long line to keep him in one place while I get closer to the sheep. This is tricky: I need to give him space to choose a side, and then step in to push him out.
This is tricky, but it’s working. f I step in too early or too far, Mick will change directions and barrel into the flock with full force from the other side. If I’m too slow or don’t apply enough pressure with my body, he’ll barrel into them and split them up the way he originally intended.
It took me several tries to figure out the right timing, posture, and path to get the desired result – but I did! All of a sudden, I was getting flanks (mostly Come by ones, since that is his easier side), and things calmed down quickly: by means of taking a nice flank, Mick doesn’t split up the flock and immediately gains control of the herd. That, in turn, will give him the confidence to hold them to me rather than channel his rising anxiety into gripping and chasing. The last video in this post shows what a difference this makes.
Paper bag, and I don’t manage to correct the barreling in: a very big, bitey mess. From the release to the point where Mick is more or less able to hold the sheep to me, it takes 24 seconds.
Another attempt at using the paper bag. Apparently, I’m not a single trial learner! Again, Mick splits up the sheep.
Oh but it MUST work! I make one last paper bag attempt, and successfully correct Mick from barreling in. He is still anxious though, and it takes a while for things to calm down. The fact that I’m holding the paper bag is making things worse, not better. I’m not quite aware of this dynamic yet though.
I’m thinking maybe I need a more powerful tool to get this right. This whole paper back operation didn’t really go the way I wish it had. Maybe it’s just not impressive enough. What if I used a herding stick instead?
Unfortunately, the sheep aren’t in view of the camera in this video. But trust me: it was ugly. The mere presence of the stick increased Mick’s anxiety, and his anxiety increased his bitey desperation. I got the message and quickly dropped the stick – only then did he calm down.
Hrm. The paper bag wasn’t working all that well. I believed I needed to increase the pressure on Mick. I brought a broomstick into the round pen with me, and it backfired. What if the problem wasn’t a lack of pressure on Mick, but the opposite: what if I had been putting too much pressure on him? I test this theory by working without tools. What a mind-blowing difference it makes!
Another attempt without tools – another success! As someone who always tries to train with kindness, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. And yet …! Looks like we humans have just as much of a hard time generalizing knowledge from one dog sport or activity to another as our dogs.
~ ~ ~
What did we learn today?
Mick and I do better without tools than with tools (This makes me happy – I’d much rather train without tools anyways). I’m surprised how long it took me to realize the problem was too much pressure rather than a lack of pressure.
I am starting to understand how my body posture affects Mick’s movement. I’m learning about the pressure I exert on him while he is learning about the pressure he exerts on the sheep.
Anxious Border Collies, just like anxious people, make bad choices. Just like coercing an anxious person into doing what we want them to do, trying to guide an anxious Border Collie with pressure tools only exacerbates their anxiety. Anxiety activates the limbic system: flight or fight. Mick will fight (the sheep). People will get angry (at the person putting pressure on them, or at an innocent bystander), run and hide in their idiosyncratic ways, or they’ll vote for Norbert Hofer, Donald Trump, and Brexit. “These are the days it never rains but it pours.” (1)
The currency of power
Pressure is not a magic bullet. It’s really quite straightforward, and yet, it can be hard to remember – both when it comes to people, and when it comes to dogs. The dominant narrative of our culture (dog training-wise and societal) is that (1) power is worth striving for, and (2) pressure is the currency of power.
And that dominant narrative isn’t necessarily wrong. At least some of the time, it provides a lens through which the world (or your dog’s behavior) makes sense. That makes it attractive. It’s simple and straightforward, which makes it convincing. Just turn on the news, and all you’ll see are examples of politicians using pressure tactics to get the upper hand. Arms races, trade wars, and literal wars are fought this way. Dogs are trained on basis of the pressure narrative, and children are raised this way.
Screen shot, New York Times, September 18, 2019, 08:23PM
Just because the pressure narrative is one lens that tells one coherent story doesn’t mean it is the only lens telling the only coherent story though. Sometimes, the coherent story the pressure narrative tells is also plain wrong. But boy girl, it sure is tempting to believe – even in the face of contradictory evidence (see videos 1, 5, 2, and 6), and even for trainers who are already committed to minimizing the use of aversives.
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.
Mick, Mr. Border Collie, is having me think about language, and comfort levels, and biddability. He came to me at age 2, after having lived with a traditional herding trainer. His native language of relating to people is different from the way I usually relate to my dogs. He’s been studying my language and is getting better and better at it – much like someone who’s learning a new language as an adult.
At the same time, I’ve been learning Mick’s language, and I’ve discovered a number of interesting things: when Mick first got here, he didn’t know it was okay to take food from a person’s hand – not only was it permitted, it was encouraged to do so! However, he had a very strong concept of verbal strokes. A stroke is a unit of social recognition: if I smile at you when passing you in the street, that’s a stroke. If you respond by saying “Good morning!”, that’s another stroke. Back to Mick, who greatly appreciates verbal strokes. When I talk to him in a soft voice – and that has been true from the day I first met him – he’ll respond by wagging gently. If he’s tense, I’ll see his body relax. The tucked tail will come out, the closed, hard mouth will open slightly, the tension in his ears will fade; piercing looks will turn into soft eyes.
While Mick didn’t know what to do with the treat I was holding out, he knew very well what praise meant. His body language showed that he greatly appreciated receiving it. Even out on a walk, when I’d call him, he’d soon come, and not take the treat – but he’d start wagging upon hearing my voice. And his recall got better – my praise was indeed reinforcing.
Is the effectiveness of praise as a reinforcer purely due to what we call “will to please” and consider an inherent trait? How much of it is environmental rather than hereditary? Could it be that the Border Collie’s upbringing has given him an appreciation of verbal strokes that is more widely generalized than what we typically see in R+ raised dogs?
Mick & Grit
Let’s take a look at Grit. She has been with me since puppyhood. Grit has a strong will to please, too. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s define will to please or biddability as the willingness to work for the acknowledgement of one’s efforts alone – for praise, pets, or other non-tangible paychecks. Grit will do things I ask her to even when she’s exhausted; she’ll do the same thing 20 times in a row, and she’ll try as hard the 20st time as the first one. She’ll come when I call her even when she’s too hot to eat or isn’t interested in my treats. She does things because I ask her to – even if I don’t pay well – and doesn’t question my wishes.
Grit’s biddability is tied to me as a person. She wouldn’t work for just anyone 20 times in a row. In fact, she wouldn’t work for anyone else at all, unless that person first built a relationship with her. Grit is short-fused (like most dogs in her lines), she’s hot-headed and intense. But never has she growled at me or said NO to something she knew how to do. Grit makes me feel special because it is clear that her will to please is tied to me as a person.
Mick is like Grit – but then again, he also isn’t. Mick, even though we are only just building our relationship, will come when I call him in difficult situations, and be all wiggly and happy if I praise him. Mick is a soft dog: he appreciates verbal strokes, and shrinks away from loud voices, raised arms, and objects being carried. At the same time, he is – for lack of a better word – opinionated. He has growled at me more than once when asked to go into or come out of a crate or through a gate before he was ready to do so. He’s not only interested in pleasing me, but also in standing his ground. He cares what I think, yet speaks his mind.
Mick’s appreciation for verbal strokes is not tied to me as a person. In contexts he’s comfortable (herding), he will work for the praise of others, and he’ll do so confidently. He has worked for two herding trainers here in Guatemala on the first day he met them. He responded to their voice and body language beautifully. He instantaneously recognized that they spoke his jargon – the jargon of working sheep – and he engaged in a conversation with them without hesitation. He didn’t appreciate their physical pressure – but he could read it; he spoke it as fluently as he understands praise. Mick’s appreciation of strokes is a well-generalized trait. Grit’s biddability isn’t. Why is that?
Interestingly, neither Mick nor Grit are confident around strangers. Grit does well as long as I provide clear leadership around new people. Mick does well as long as he can talk sheep with new people. He’s fluent in the language of herding – no matter whether he has talked to the person sharing his jargon hundreds of times or never before. It’s fascinating to see how suspicious he’ll be of a new person visiting my house, yet how effortlessly he’ll work for a new person as soon as sheep are in the picture. The parallel to human nature is hard to miss. If you’re an introvert and a dog person, you may not know what to do if thrown into a random social gathering. You’ll be like Mick, slinking around the edges of the room, picking at the label of your beer bottle, wishing you were somewhere else. But put you into a room full of geeky dog people, and you’ll make friends in a heartbeat.
Maybe Grit simply doesn’t have her version of sheep – she doesn’t have that jargon that ties into a genetically hardwired passion of hers, and can easily be shared with others who share that passion as well. Maybe the lesson of Grit and Mick is that every dog needs her sheep. (Who would you be if you didn’t have dog geekery?)
Nature and nurture can’t be pulled apart – the two are always working hand in hand. In the end, the reason that Grit is who she is, just like the reason that Mick is who he is – and the reason I am who I am – are related to both genetics and experiences. Genetics define the frame of what is possible. Experiences decide what parts of that framework get colored in.
Would Mick’s biddability be as well generalized if he had been raised in a different kind of home? Would Grit be as selectively biddable if she had been raised in a more traditional training environment? Maybe less so? Maybe more so? Would she, like Mick, be able to talk to strangers if she had been doing instinct sports all her life? Would Mick be more dependent on a single person if he’d never met a sheep? Does biddability generalize if verbal strokes are a limited resource rather than unconditionally given? Is the very reason Grit is the incredibly biddable dog she is due to the fact that verbal strokes, and positive regard, aren’t something she has had to earn? Oh, we cannot know! But it’s fascinating to think about anyways …
Is your dog biddable? How does their biddability express itself, and what do you attribute it to? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments!
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.
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.
Tonight, I’m going to tell you a story: the story of the lady and the doorknob.
My friends from Bangkok have a housekeeper. When she first arrived at their place a few years ago, they showed her around, and eventually asked her to get something from the kitchen. There was a door between the kitchen and the living room. A white wooden door, with a silver door knob. It looked just like this:
She walked up to the door while my friends remained sitting. She just stood there and looked at it. Seconds passed. They felt like hours. The door wasn’t locked. All she needed to do was turn the knob.
She couldn’t open the door. She didn’t try, either. She helplessly stood in front of it until my friend got up and opened it for her.
My friends’ housekeeper grew up in Myanmar. In case you don’t know a lot about Myanmar – it is one of Thailand’s neighboring countries, and it used to be under military rule until 2016. Between 1962 and 2010, the military regime was considered one of the world’s most repressive and abusive ones. Its history is one of genocide, child labor, and censorship.
Long story short: it wasn’t a good place to live if you belonged to certain ethnic minorities. Many people fled to Thailand. The woman who now works for my friends was one of them. My friends have been her first and so far only employers – she works for them full time.
Why did the woman not know how to open the door?
I’ve met her twice. She’s nice, and a few years younger than I. In the few years that she’s been here, she has learned both Thai and English. She grew up in an indigenous community, in a place without electricity or running water. She made her way through her own country, across the border, and to Bangkok. She has learned to do the household the way my friends want her to, do the shopping, and take care of their seven dogs. She’s now making enough money to send some to her family back home every month. She seems happy to me. I like her. And, boy, do I respect her! Growing up without access to education and managing to emigrate, secure a job, learn two new languages, and adapt to a completely different way of life in an 8-million metropolis, and all of this when she was probably no older than 16 … I know few people who would be able to do this successfully. It shows tremendous resourcefulness, intelligence, and guts.
Why did the woman not know how to open the door?
My friend told this story as a funny anecdote illustrating a cultural divide. Is it funny, though? Not really – especially not when it is used to justify the inequality of opportunities on the basis of perceived differences in intelligence. Intelligence had nothing to do with the fact that the woman couldn’t open the door. She had simply never seen a doorknob. There probably were no doorknobs in the community she grew up in. Maybe there were no doors, either. I don’t know. I do know, however, that she went on to open all kinds of doors for herself – literally and figuratively. She lacked the experience of doorknobs, and she lacked the concept that the mechanics of unfamiliar doors can be figured out by trying different things. We take this concept for granted – but it’s neither innate nor obvious. It is a learned behavior based on our experience with a large variety of doors.
Why am I talking about the lady and the doorknob on a dog training blog? Because if you are a professional dog trainer, chances are you meet the lady who has never seen a doorknob on a regular basis. She’s your client who’s in over her head. You know, the full-time working single mom who got a working-line German Shepherd to keep her kids company. The first-time dog owner who bought a Border Collie on Craigslist and thought he’d be happy with a leashed walk around the block twice a day. The student who didn’t buy one, but two Pomeranian puppies from the pet store because they were cute.
As professional dog trainers, we tend to complain about the lady and the doorknob, or ridicule her. We feel self-righteous and superior. We use her story to connect to our colleagues, and we leave out the part where she crosses a border in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain, and the part where she learns not one, but two new languages, and the part where she finds work and makes a living for herself. Instead, we reduce her to someone who doesn’t know what to do with a doorknob, and say she should have stayed in Myanmar.
“He doesn’t even know how to hold a leash!”, we say. “She got a Ferrari, and she doesn’t know how to drive a Volkswagen.” “He has no connection with the dog. He has no idea what connection even means.” “When this dog is an adolescent, they’re going to rehome it. It’s probably going to end up with me.”
These are pretty horrible things to say about someone in relation to someone or something s/he cares about. I know I’ve said at least one of them myself in the past, and I’m not proud of it. It’s not okay to tell these people’s stories as if they were all about doorknobs. The stories themselves are ambiguous. We can make the protagonist a hero or a bumbling idiot, and in the dog training community, it is common to do the latter.
And it is not okay. We don’t need to tell the story so the protagonist is the hero, either. We can just keep the story to ourselves, teach the protagonists (after all, that’s what they are paying us good money for), and let their success speak for itself. Everyone who wants to can learn to turn doorknobs. Let’s not be jerks about it.
Grit is not a fan of the urban world. People, cars, concrete, motorcycles, and the hustle bustle … Not exactly her favorite thing. We used to live in a teeny tiny town, at the end of a dirt road. I could open my gate and would pretty much be in the middle of the woods right away. It was perfect for her.
Now, we live in a townhouse in a dead-end street. It took Grit a while to feel at ease downstairs, with the large glass front looking out into the street, and it took her even longer to feel safe in the fenced-off carport in front of the house. But we got there, just by means of living life rather than consciously working on it. We can now play and train here, and it has become part of her comfort zone. This brings us to yesterday! I’ve started taking Grit on “city” walks in my street. Up until now, I hadn’t asked her to go out into the street – she told me very clearly she wanted to go from the house into the car, and from the car right back into the house. If I asked her to get out of the car before opening the door to the house, she’d wait at the door with her tail tucked between her legs. So instead of expecting her to spend time in our street, we just took the car and went to the beach, or to the park, or to the plantations where we could go for a nice, real walk. I’m all for giving dogs time, plus I totally agree that walking around palm trees and orchid plantations is way more fun than walking in streets anyways.
Now that Grit considers the carport a safe space, it’s time to expand her comfort zone further: I put her on a 5 meter lead and a back attachment harness, and she gets to explore our little street. Not because I tell her to, but because she would now choose to. We go in the middle of the day, when most people are at work. We start by walking in and out, in and out of the carport. I want her to know the gate is open and she can head back home anytime. Should someone show up unexpectedly, we will retreat. I have hotdogs in my pocket – just in case I need to distract Grit or lure her away from something that might overwhelm her. My goal is not to train, just to let her explore on her own terms. I’ll talk to her when she looks at me, I might comment on her sniffing spots – but I’m not asking anything of her as long as she makes good decisions. We’ll add food to the experience a little later – you’ll see. For now, I want Grit to take the lead.
This is a clip from today’s city walk; the second one overall. We just meandered around the street for a few minutes. And not only did Grit sniff, she also peed! For her, this is a big sign of confidence. She’ll only pee in places she feels safe. Does this look like a normal dog taking a normal walk? That’s exactly what it should look like. My favorite way of building confidence is to stay right at the edge of the dog’s comfort zone – at a place that allows her to look out of her comfort zone, but doesn’t require her to step out of it. Looking will push the boundaries further back, and make her comfort zone grow. (I know the neighbors are all gone because their carports are empty. So it is safe to let Grit explore on a long line without her unexpectedly running into a stranger behind a gate.)