Sunday, June 24, 2007
No Bad Dogs
Our book today is "No Bad Dogs" by Barbara Woodhouse, a bestseller from the early '80s that puts us in mind of the great Renaissance painter who sent home apprentice after frustrated apprentice because, when they asked his advice on how to paint, he'd spend three days creating a little masterpiece in front of them and then say, "Do that."
Some people have a 'knack' with dogs. We've all seen it: dogs act differently around these people, show an almost immediate acceptance of them while still being wary around all others. Dogs have not been forthcoming on the reason for this; it's the single way in which they are inscrutable (although it almost certainly has its ultimate roots in smell, as does virtually everything else in their world).
This 'knack' very probably derives from a lack of fear. Almost all human beings retain just enough contact with their prehistoric cell-memories to feel just the slightest hitch of fear, just the slightest internal pause, when confronted with even the most benign of dogs. This is on one level understandable, since dogs - even in their current profusion of eugenically engineered shapes and sizes - are quite obviously predators (cat people will talk your ear off about how cats are still 'feral,' but nevertheless, cats all bear the most important genetic modification of all: they're all small). Their muzzles are full of teeth - both fangs and great grinders - their bodies are covered in quite visible muscle, and they display every day the vastly superior span of their senses, senses fitted for hunting.
It stands to reason, then, that dogs - even those most pathetically beset by overbred domesticity - would retain the essential hunter's ability to sense fear. In the wild, after all, fear engenders mistakes, and mistakes are invaluable to a hunter: the antelope whose fear prompts it to separate from the herd is the antelope who merits the pack's attention. Even attenuated by generations of interbreeding, that instinct lives in every dog.
People with a 'knack' for dogs have either never had that essential tic of fear or have unlearned it through a lifetime of dogs liking them, obeying them. In any case, they approach dogs differently from the vast majority of mankind, and this is a singular joy for them.
Unless of course they decide to write a dog-training book. A book in which they inevitably end up saying, "Do that" to people who can't possibly do so.
Barbara Woodhouse had a 'knack' with dogs. We here at Stevereads had the pleasure of meeting her, during a book-tour of hers in the mid-'80s. She was a proper, earthy, thatcherite British lady, sure of herself to an extent ungiven to unlanded peoples, and it was clear at once: she had an amazing connection with dogs. They loved her on sight, saw her instinctively as pack-mother, and wanted nothing more than to do what she requested, no matter what.
The 'no matter what' here encompasses a great deal, since if asked Mrs. Woodhouse would sum up her success in dog-training with one word: choke-chains.
Mrs. Woodhouse never met a dog-problem a choke-chain wouldn't help. Oh, not the small-link choke-chains, she quickly assures her readers, no: the large-link versions, which 'cause the dog no discomfort.' Only sayable by someone who's never had one around their own neck.
In truth, as we here at Stevereads can report, choke-chains of any diameter pinch like holy Hell. They are no different whatsoever from today's more popular electronic 'bark collars': in both cases, well-meaning young dog owners have spent their money on a device of torture.
Let's get this straight, for definition's sake: an implement of torture is any device that enables someone to compel another person's behavior or compliance by physically coercive means.
The lady likes choke-chains. She likes them just as our current nine-days-wonder Cesar Milan likes kicking dogs onto their backs and kneeling on them. In both cases, an individual with a genuine knack for dealing with dogs refuses to simply say that and instead push a product, an approach, as the secret of their success.
For Mrs. Woodhouse, the secret is the choke-chain, wide-linked and used with great discretion, mainly to startle the dog into knowing you mean business. In example after example, she's given a problem dog by the dog's owners, applies her choke chain approach and achieves nearly instantaneous results, much to the wonderment of her human clients.
Reading these stories now, thirty years and thirty fads later, it's clear what's happening in them: the dogs, frightened, stubborn, and disoriented, meet Mrs. Woodhouse, almost instantly attune to her (in her books, she refers to this as 'telepathy'), do what she's asking because it's suddenly important to them to do so, get the blissful reward of her thanks, and then get returned to their still-clueless owners. They get the same ill-behaved dog they started with, and Mrs. Woodhouse gets another statistic to pad her success-rate.
The ironic thing, of course, is that her books - especially "No Bad Dogs" -make it clear that she deeply, personally loves dogs (not a claim we'd say is really tenable with Cesar Milan). And not only does she love them, she revels in her connection with them, clearly sensing on some level that this connection is extremely rare:
"I find the chattering that goes on in class by those people who don't concentrate very hampering to this mind communication. It is like constant interference on the radio. But then I don't suppose many people know what a thrill it is to be on the same wavelength as a dog."
This is simply put and undoubtedly true. It isn't a particularly exalted wavelength, it must be admitted - it's mostly about poop and food and endless, endless sleeping, but shot through it all is a talent for affection so strong and pure it puts almost every other species on Earth to shame, and it IS thrilling when you feel it instead of only guessing at it.
That Mrs. Woodhouse could feel all that - that she could sense on some level how rare it is to feel all that - and still champion something as barbaric as a choke-chain is ... well, it's a serious indictment. Who knows, who can count, how many dogs over the last thirty years have been choke-chained into absolute misery because of Mrs. Woodhouse's wrongheaded teachings? We hold the suffering of every single one of them against her.
And yet, as her writings clearly show, she's one of us. Catch her when she's not talking about torture devices, and this couldn't be clearer:
"Why do hundreds of us give up our holidays to stay with them, cry our eyes out when we lose them, defend them against all those horrid people who don't love them and on our deathbeds make provisions for them in preference to our needy families? It is because there is something about a dog that gets to you. Even if you own a problem dog imbued with all the evil the devil himself invented, you still know that, inside that dog, there is something very lovable - a dog that will never criticize you, a dog that doesn't care whether you are from the top or bottom drawer, a dog that doesn't care whether you are clever or stupid, beautiful or hideous, rich or poor. He is yours and you are his."
And there's quite a bit of good old-fashioned rock-solid advice about dog ownership hidden in Mrs. Woodhouse's books, especially "No Bad Dogs." It's just the central theme we must discard, and we must discard it for the same reason we discard 'bark collars' and 'alpha male' nonsense and Cesar Milan's weird attempts to establish physical dominance over a species who could, to an individual, eviscerate him in an instant if they wished to.
It's not that there aren't biologically incorrigible dogs; there are, we've loved more than a few of them and seen them to their tragic ends. But they are not the same as the non-biologically incorrigible dogs, the willful ones, the stupid ones, the stubborn ones, the impossibly entitled ones. These dogs can be argued with, pleaded with, negotiated with ... but at the end of the day, they love us and should be given their way. Victories over the indisciplines of such dear, pigheaded creatures are paltry victories indeed; only a species as neurotic as man would seek them in the first place.
Mrs. Woodhouse's title is entirely right: there are no bad dogs. And since that's true, surely there's no need for choke-chains?