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?


Kevin Caron said...

I never encountered the choke-chain until a few years ago, when a friend resorted to one to keep his White Shepherd under control (just for when he was being walked, I believe). Argos was the kind of dog who pulled ahead on his leash while going for a walk until he was practically choking himself (a trait I first saw in my dad's poorly trained Irish Setter). My friend soon replaced the choke-chain with what seems to be a much more humane (and intelligent) sollution - the leash has a small loop that slides loosely over the dogs snout, connected to the normal collar bit by a small strap - the leash is attached to a ring on that connecting strap, so that if the dog tries to pull past the point where the leash goes taut, it simply turns his head to one side - it doesn't hurt him, just annoys him a bit, and he quickly stopped trying to set the pace.

My dogs never had that problem, but they had the distinct advantage of living in the country where they could run around unfettered. Argos lives in a small condo.

I've held off on getting dogs for a decade now, because I want to wait until I live somewhere that would give them that kind of space. But I sure do miss my dogs.

beepy said...

Geez Steve, how many times do I have to apologize for that time we "experimented" with the choke chain. It's not my fault that you forgot the safety word. Get over it already.

Kevin Caron said...

Also, I think you're on the money with the knack/fear theory of dogs & people. Having grown up with my rather large dogs (Ben was a black lab/newfoundland mix, I think), I have always been comfortable around dogs of any shape or size. I also think that dogs gravitate to humans that 'get' them - know how to communicate with them, how they like to be pet, and melt a little bit when they pop their snout up onto your lap and look you right in the eye...

Sam said...

I don't know, I see a lot of people get edgy and uncomfortable in the presence of cats--it's never as pronounced and visceral a fear as around Great Danes and Rottweilers (or even Black Labs, sometimes), obviously, but even so, a sizable percentage of the population is always afraid about being clawed or bitten (or maybe sprayed) (or maybe, for the more superstitious, cursed).

If your dogs were out catching moles and birds and squirrels and then leaving them on your welcome mat as gift offerings, you'd talk everybody's ear off about it too, in the half-proud, half-exasperated way of all cat owners.

(Geez, can we get through a single entry without some swipe at cats and their owners...?)

steve said...

Kevin - while I appreciate that your friend opted for something non-punitive, I have to point out that the snout-turning strap you describe is still a poor substitute for actually COMMUNICATING to Argos what your friend wants of him. A poor substitute and deeply annoying (imagine in on yourself).

And I also feel compelled to point out to you that dogs of ANY size don't require vast open spaces to be perfectly happy. They need whatever exercise suits their metabolism, and they need affection. If you're able to provide those two things, you urgently SHOULD get a dog (or two) - especially since thousands of them are put to death every week in America in part because people who'd want them think they need 45 acres to have them.

steve said...

Sam - notice how even the word 'swipe' has a distinctly malevolent, feline feel to it?

steve said...

Oh, and Beepy? The safety word WAS 'shut up'! Our problem was that we should have picked something I don't say to you 15 times in every conversation ... next time, our code-phrase will be 'Why, Beepy, that was an interesting thing you just said' ... THAT'll stick out like a sore thumb!

Kevin Caron said...

I tend to agree, proper training should alleviate the need for even the head-turning leash, but I've never had one of those dogs that's so insistent on trying to pull forward when on a leash - I hate to judge the owner's ability to train the dog too much - maybe it's training, maybe it's a trait of some dogs, I won't be able to say for sure until I encounter it. Regardless, 'deeply annoying' is a bit strong - it's probably about as annoying as being scolded for pulling. Argos got the idea pretty quick - he rarely pulls anymore.

As far as owning dogs goes - considering I can't save 'em all, Steve-O, I'll going to stick with waiting until I've settled into a place with a bit more room, because I personally feel that a dog the size I like needs it, gets more jumpy and nervous without a bit more room to move. Call me selfish (again).

Sam's also right, as far as the cat thing goes - I've seen many non-cat people approach my cat with a tentative, ready-to-snap-back-at-any-moment hand and, lo and behold, they get swiped at, because the cat thought they were playing 'bet you can't catch the hand'.

The whole dog person/cat person nonsense gets old - I've never seen the point. Dogs are wonderful for various reasons, cats are great for others. I find liking one at the expense of the other childish.

Greg said...

Yeah, but dogs are better.

Kevin Caron said...


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Kevin Caron said...

We'll show you where to stick your widget. Beepy, hand me the choke-chain.

sam said...

I did mean to say, though, that I completely agree with your point that it's disingenuous for people with a knack for something to go peddling miracle cures to the rest of the hard luck populace. It'd be like me writing a weight-loss book. Or Steve publishing "How to Blog Like a Pro--In Only 30 Days!"

Geez, what am I saying? I SHOULD write that book.

steve said...

For those of you who're unclear on what Sam's comment about weight loss means (i.e. the dwindling few of you who've never slept with him), he stands 7 feet tall and weighs 100 lbs. soaking wet with rocks in his pockets. Like Beepy and myself, no matter how much he eats, the hard, curving ridges of his pelvis are visible from the end of the street.

Now if you'll all excuse me, I've got to get back to writing my dog-training manual. I'm thinking of calling it 'Do THAT'

steve said...

Needless to say, that book will make no mention whatsoever of a certain flatulent, moronic, homicidal basset hound ...

beepy said...

Geez Steve, just because you could slice bread on my collar bone doesn't mean I wouldn't enjoy having a FEW curves. You know how embarrassing I find it when we embrace and our ribs lock together.

steve said...

It's the embracing at all that I find embarrassing ...

Or, as Sebastian would put it, the embracing QUA embracing ...

beepy said...

Steve, I find that I'll be on a deserted island next week. I figure that I'll need about five books to entertain me in the time I don't spend trying to survive. Which five books would you most like to have with you if you found yourself in my position?

beepy said...

What about the rest of you - Kevin, Sam, Jeff, Gianni - which five books would you take with you if you had to spend the rest of your life trapped on an island in the South Pacific?

Jeff E. said...

That particular question is interesting because it's not What Are Your Favorite Five Books?, it's more like What Five Books Could You Enjoy Rereading Endlessly?

I would start with Neal Stevenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy. That would set me up with 2,500+ pages that I could stand to read many, many times. Next would be Kant's Critique of Pure Reason because I probably wouldn't have enough time to finish it. And then something to piss off Steve for wasting my final choice. That would be Douglas Hofsteader's Gödel, Escher, Bach. That would do it.

[Actually, I probably pissed off Steve with 5 out of my 5 choices.]

steve said...

What, so the Kant ISN'T designed to piss me off? What reality are YOU from?

steve said...

My five (arrived at quicker than most because, of course, I HAVE been stranded on an island in the South Pacific):

The Iliad
The King James Bible
The diary of Samuel Pepys
The Riverside Chaucer (sorry Shakespeare!)
The Secret (in case I run out of palm-fronds in the loo)

Gianni said...

Frankly, if I was stranded on a Pacific island "Lost-style" with Steve's 5 books, one of two things would happen: Either I would be rescued with an IQ ten times my current, or I'd want to kill my rescuers for taking so long. With the exception of the Iliad, I would have no interest in any of the books he listed. Something has to be light and easy to read for me to enjoy it enough to read something more than once, and so here's my list:

1. Battle Royale, Koushun Takami
2. Baseball, a Literary Anthology, edited by Nicholas Dawidoff
3. Everyman's Library Edgar Allan Poe Complete Stories
4. Ice Station, Matthew Reilly
5. Essential Avengers, Vol. 4

I know I've left off a number of worthy titles from my shelves, but these 5 should just about do it for me.

steve said...

'Battle Royale'? WOTTA SURPRISE!!

Gianni said...

Hey, what can I say? I know what I like.

Kevin Caron said...


I'm gonna steal Steve's Chaucer, grab a quality complete Shakespeare collection, bind together the entire volume 4 Legion and call it a book, throw in The Odyssey, and Nabakov's Lolita.

beepy said...

Ooooh, Lolita would be one of my choices too. I think I'd also take The King James Bible, either the Iliad or Odyssey (probably The Iliad), a book of Shakespeares plays and Grimm's Fairy Tales. That would keep me busy, I think.

Of course, if I had a typewriter, I could get all the monkeys on the island writing day and night. Eventually they'd come up with the Shakespeare and I'd have room for another book.

Sam said...

It was the best of was the blurst of times!

Karyn said...


Why so angry? The choke chain can be a terrific tool and is still used as the equipment of choice at the American Kennel Club Shows.
A bark collar can save the life of the dog wearing it when used correctly.
A piece of equipment can do no harm. Harm happens when people don't use it as it was designed for.

I'm always puzzled by positive trainers that behave so angrily.
Behavior doesn't lie.
Sorry your such an angry guy!