Decision 2008: What We Can Learn from Annie the Dog
We have two dogs, Max and Annie. We rescued both from shelters about a year apart. Max is kind of a lovable lug, not too bright, but even-keeled as the day is long. Annie, on the other paw, while extremely pretty, has, shall we say, “issues.” She was brought into the Indianapolis Humane Society as a stray, and had BB wounds in her leg. She weighs about 60 pounds now, but was about 42 pounds when we brought her home. The first time I took her out for a walk on the nearby rail-to-trail she trembled. All of this is to say she is what is known as “dog-dog aggressive;” a sweetheart to people but lacking in social skills with other dogs. She gets along fine with Max, but has a hair-trigger fear reflex, and a “good offense is the best defense” strategy.
I can’t even begin to count up the hours and dollars we have spent on training with Annie. We have gone from the choke collar correction to positive reinforcement methods and back and forth again. I have watched endless hours of Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, until I became convinced that most of his method is wrong, and this begins my point of departure that is going to end up, believe it or not, in a discussion of the 2008 U.S. Presidential race. Bear (or dog) with me.
Our current trainer is Vera Wilkinson of The Pet Needs Company here in the Boston area. Her primary method is using positive reinforcement (in the form of treats, namely chopped up Red Barn dog food) to get Annie to connect with me in the face of distraction, like other dogs. We work on basics, like sit and stay and come, all with the object of getting her to look first to me when she is either distracted or fearful. I’d say we’ve made a fair amount of progress.
The main objection to Cesar and others is the attempt to psychoanalyze the dog, and the anthropomorphizing of the dog’s behavior. Dogs don’t want to please their owners. They respond to pain and pleasure. They understand “safe” and “dangerous.” They are black boxes that we train not by thinking of them as human, but by operant conditioning. (I want to make it clear that I think dogs have souls, but agree with Douglas Hofstadter that compared to humans they are “smaller souls.” This is why I have dogs and not mosquitos as pets.)
Well, if you want to find out how this all segues into Decision 2008, unless you’re reading this on your RSS feed, you’re going to have to continue below the fold.
Yesterday, I made a bad mistake. When I feel like I’m in a hurry, and particularly in the morning, and despite Vera’s best advice, I walk the two dogs together down to the “poop park” at the end of the block. Controlling two dogs when you are used to training is geometric; it’s four times as hard as walking one dog. In Annie’s worst cases when she’s on the leash, she sees another dog, goes ballistic at the end of the leash, and in her frustration (or fear) turns on Max. In her best cases, she turns to me and takes a treat (actually, one time we got her to make a dog friend).
As I said, we’ve been making progress, and I got over-confident and complacent. There was another dog (leashed with its owner) in the “poop park” and I thought I had Annie under control. I said “hello” to the other owner, and she said “hello” back. The next thing I knew the leash had slipped out of my gloved hand (it was cold) and Annie was all over the other dog. The woman was screaming, the dogs were squealing, and I dove in to separate them, yelling “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” and prying Annie’s mouth off the other dog. I simply lay on top of Annie, with Max next to us, for several minutes. Somebody came up to me and said “are you okay?” I said “yes, is the other dog okay?” The person said yes. I got up, realized there was blood all over my hand because Annie’s teeth had cut me in the process.
Suffice it to say this incident wrecked my whole day. While Alene was cleaning my wounds, I was calling Vera, dealing with the waves of guilt that were washing over me, and wondering whether our umbrella insurance policy was paid up. Twenty-four later, I’m still thinking about it, and now we have come to the point. It’s clear that Annie was aware something was amiss just after we got home, but I’m pretty sure the whole thing stopped bothering her about two or three minutes after it was over.
See, it’s this damnable capability for self-reflection that makes Annie a dog and me a human. I’m sitting here typing furiously and she’s at my feet snoozing away. Annie is incapable of thinking about thinking. She is incapable of the self-reflection and self-reference it takes to consider things from somebody else’s viewpoint. She wouldn’t recognize a paradox or an antinomy if it stood up in her dog dish and said “eat me.” I know that she has never considered the Rule of Law, and how it is that we can simultaneously be principled and (pardon the pun) non-dogmatic at the same time.
I have written that I think the difference between law and ethics has something to do with understanding when a position is right, and when it is mere rationalization. I talked about Martin Buber’s I-You relationship (which has a somewhat different spin than Rob Kar’s application of Darwall’s second person standpoint.) (Annie never rationalizes but she would like Buber’s beard.) Very few things are as important to me. Jump now to the fact that I have been impressed with, other than the obvious things, with Barack Obama’s seeming willingness to be non-dogmatic, and decided to read his book The Audacity of Hope. Now, I’m a middle of the road weenie from way back, but I loved politics when I was a kid, but I don’t like politics much now. But I think this guy is the real deal when he says: “It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule – not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.”
I don’t think I’d want Buber for President, and, of course, with Obama, the question is his experience. But when I find somebody who is otherwise really smart and balanced and charismatic, and this is the central part of his moral code, I like it. One of the most important things to me is thinking about the kind of self-reference and self-reflection that makes us human. This was enough to get me to send some money to his campaign and go to an organizing meeting next week.
Annie’s endorsement is still up for grabs, but she can be bought with a couple treats. That’s what makes her a dog.