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"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals... We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. "
--Henry Beston




What makes a man want to live with a dog? What about us is so fundamentally incomplete the need can only be filled with an inherently different being?

No one had invented the idea that history should be recorded when the first circles of humans incorporated dogs. There are many theories. One is that humans used pre-domesticated canines advanced senses to guide them in the hunt, and that as a reward the dogs got the leftovers from the kill.

It may have been that early symbiosis that brought men and dogs to share their space. There is no doubt that as time progressed men selectively bred the animal to meet particular needs. So dogs were created to track, to retrieve, to haul, and to guard. The basset hound routed vermin from underground tunnels. The poodle retrieved downed water fowl, its outrageously pompous haircut keeping it afloat like Salvadore Dali's version of a kapok life vest. Akitas guarded homes in densely packed communes; border collies herded sheep.

Yet, the original reasons for cohabitation with dogs is lost in this day of mechanization. In the twenty-first century we are less likely to put our komondor to work guarding our farms than to show off its extreme haircut to friends. And dogs are not people. They process the world differently than humans, perhaps more simply. They are our perception of zen, living in the moment with a hazy recollection of the past and an incomplete projection of the future. They are unconcerned with our politics, our beauty, or our position in our society. They do not conspire against us. They see us exactly as we are, unadorned by the baggage of our choices or luck.

A dog's only concern for its family is whether they are well, and whether they are here.

Today, a full sixty percent of all adopted dogs wind up rejected by their family. Animal shelters are filled with animals no longer wanted. The most frequent issue cited is behavior. Poorly adapted animals wind up on the wrong side of their humans, who pressured by the impact of modern living rapidly reach the limits of their patience with the animal's natural behavior.

Most dog advocates will point to poor training for the problem. And who can be held responsible for the failure in the relationship? Surely it must be we humans who fail to educate ourselves to the canine's way of the world. Dogs are not people, and blatant anthropomorphising leads to confusion that inevitably takes its effect on the member of the family least equipped to adapt.

In light of this phenomenon, there are numerous facilities and educators designed to teach the western family how to adapt to the canine member of the family. The new puppy owner will find three of these without having to look very hard. Sirius, by the UK's Dr. Ian Dunbar is very popular in the United States. Operant conditioning techniques through "clicker training" also have staunch supporters among the show dog circles. Finally, the Monks of New Skete have adapted age-old procedures to new learning.

All of the modern dog training techniques center around an understanding of wolf pack behavior. The fundamental premise between all of them is that the human members of the family must establish themselves higher in the hierarchy leaving the dog as the omega. Once the dog susses out his subservient position, he's more docile, less paranoidal, and easier to train. All the techniques align philosophically with the zen nature of dogs--that the dog lives in the moment and as such will respond better to positive reinforcement than negative correction.

The techniques stress the dog must be accepted for what he is: an animal, the result of millions of years of evolution, and hundreds of years of breeding, and his needs and reaction to input as an animal must be understood. They stress the dangers of conditioning a dog by expecting human results from stimuli that would normally be directed toward a human child. Dogs are completely transparent. They communicate continuously. Human members of a family with a dog must take the time to learn its language or forever commit the faux pas that inevitably end in a doggie divorce.

From this philosophy, the techniques diverge. Clicker training stresses "operant conditioning" a la Pavlov. Every time the trainer "catches" the dog doing something "good", either on purpose or by accident, he clicks one of those metallic cricket like devices and rewards the dog with praise. Given dogs are social animals that seek praise, the dog will tend to repeat behaviors that resulted in a click. Afterward, one need only click to get the dog to repeat the behavior. At no time is the dog corrected for errant behavior. Errors are simply not rewarded. Results may take longer to achieve that other methods, but proponents would suggest the effects are not as easily "unlearned".

Ian Dunbar's Sirius training relies on a series of hand signals and vocalizations to establish dominence and pattern behavior. Tasty doggie treats are liberally distributed along with praise in lieu of clicks. Some minor corrections are applied. The trainer may growl at a puppy or even grasp it by the scruff of the neck in the same manner a mother dog would do to repremand her pup. This training is popular as the results are quick and long lasting.

The Orthodox Catholic monks of the New Skete Monastery in New York state have been breeding German Shepherds for over thirty years. During this time they've developed a technique for training "difficult" dogs that has earned them an impressive reputation throughout the world. Their techniques are derived from "old school" methods, but it's doubtful our grandparents would believe the monks could be so successful with such toned-down methods. The monks reward good behavior only with praise. No clicks or treats are provided. They also believe in minor corrections, usually applied as sharp tug on a leash and a harsh retort from the trainer.

Many practitioners of these techniques are religious in their adherence to the name of the methodology they apply, but hardly faithful to the originator's intent. Most see fit to vary the program as fit their taste. And oddly, the results do not vary dramatically.

It seems that as long as one dedicates the time to attempt to communicate with the animal, results are achieved. Spending several hours per week attempting to get one's dog to sit, stay, lie down, and come when called results in a bonding that breeds tolerance between the parties. The dog is more likely to become pliable. The human is likely to internalize the dog's personality and how that personality has little to do with human expectations. In the end, the dog will learn to sit when asked, and the human will learn there are times when asking the dog to sit is rude. So the human will tend to ask the dog to perform when it's best for both, and the dog will comply because the command simply makes sense. Then the relevance of the training technique fades behind the glow of a healthy relationship.

The essence of obedience training is to provide the vehicle to establish the relationship between man and animal. The monks believe the relationship between a human and a dog helps the human relate to the spirit of the earth around us, and so to know better God himself. To interact effectively with an animal, we must reduce our behavior to the simplest form. A dog does not care if the hand that feeds it is that of an international superstar, a brain surgeon, a teacher, or the person who sweeps the train station restroom. There is no device of any price behind which a mean rich man could hide his cruelty from a dog. And so in the presence of the dog one simply is what he is. The weight of pretense falls away. Suddenly we are free, and we didn't know we needed to be.

Dogs see love as love and anger as anger. They are not deceived by our clothes or our words. It takes time for us to realize this--we the humans need to be trained. If the dog training advocates have done anything effectively it is to have wrapped "human training" in the guise of animal training. The dog's nature is not modified by the training. But if the training is successful it is us humans, the more infinitely adaptable and capable, who are changed.

So why does a man choose to live with a dog?

One need only sit quietly in the park with a dog at one's side to realize how simple things must be to the infinite, how harshly we could be judged if God chooses to see us through our own eyes instead of those of a dog, and how wonderful life is when one sits in silence with a being who enjoys every second simply being alive, who needs nothing other than to exist, simply sitting with you.



"They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
-- Henry Beston




References:
"The Art of Raising a Puppy" by The Monks of New Skete
"How to be Your Dog's Best Friend" by The Monks of New Skete
"After You Get Your New Puppy: The Clock is Ticking" by Dr. Ian Dunbar
"How to Speak Dog" by Stanley Coren

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