Human Demonization and Canine Absolution

Shevik and me, AKC Obedience Trial                 ~Marymoor Park, 1985~



It is natural to discount philosophies which include objectionable or even abhorrent methodology, but it can be a mistake when we are too thorough in our rejection – there is often something that can be learned if we allow ourselves to learn it. I only use reward-based teaching and communication, and eschew physical corrections, harsh verbal reprimands, or anything that might be considered a punishment. There is much which can be learned, however, from people who do things differently, because even people who are rougher with dogs than I am may have at least some knowledge I do not. In dog philosophy, as in politics and real life, when we demonize, we lose the ability to learn.

I was sixteen when my first dog, Shevik, a Malamute-mix, came into my life. There was no Internet back then, and only a few dog-training classes in Seattle. The local bookstore had three books about dogs: How to be your Dog’s Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete; The AKC Book of Dog Breeds, and The Koehler Method of Dog Training, by William Kohler. I bought all three, and also found a copy of The Kohler Method of Guard Dog Training, by William Kohler, in my high school’s library (I have no idea why that was in a school library). I signed up for a dog-training class through the Parks and Recreation Department. The class met in a church’s gymnasium.

The AKC book of Dog breeds said that Malamutes were headstrong, stubborn, and required firm discipline. I was 16, and kind of a hippie-punk kid from Capitol Hill in Seattle — more interested in getting high and listening to Led Zeppelin or Talking Heads records than I was in meting out “firm discipline.” I was, however, quite serious about loving my dog, and I did (and do) believe that training is an important part of the human/dog relationship.

I skimmed the two Kohler books, and they really alarmed me. I remember thinking I may have made a huge mistake in getting a dog. There was no way I could do those things to Shevik, but I was also afraid that if I did not, I would have a huge, out of control Malamute. I felt great relief when I started reading How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend. Today, I warn people against it, but at that time, in the early 1980’s, it was relatively progressive.

The Monks encouraged a very positive relationship, and a strong bond brought about through trust, affection, and discipline. The book also had a whole chapter about the proper way to hit your dog, and another section on the “Alpha Wolf Rollover” – they even instructed the reader to pick up the dog by the scruff and shake it. As terrible as all this may sound, it was gentler than the directions in the Kohler books, so I decided The Monks were for me.  I read it from cover to cover and I read it again. I did everything that book said to do. They have revised the book, taken out the part about the rollover, but at last printing it still has the chapter on how to hit your dog properly.

One concept from the Monks still helps me every day, though – what they call “in-seeing” – considering what the dog sees, smells, and hears, and trying to understand how to change that for the better.

The first day of dog class, our instructor broke out the choke chains and showed us how to put them on our dogs, and then how to pop and jerk. I was 16, she was 40ish, and her dog seemed happy and was very well behaved. Plus, it was a Parks and Rec class, and it was being taught in a church! It felt wrong to me, hurting my dog, but I did as I was told, and Shevik learned to heel right away. The instructor showed me how important footwork is, and I still think of her when I am working with my own dogs on heeling. I don’t use choke chains anymore, of course, and regret doing it with my first dogs, but I am glad I learned about footwork and posture from that class.

Absolution is an elusive target for me; I still feel bad about things I did with my dogs twenty years ago. I read somewhere once that guilt is about things in the past, while shame is about what you are doing now, or who you have become.  “I FEEL guilty about.” vs. “I am ashamed of my SELF.” I still feel guilty. And I am still ashamed. I do like what I do now, and things are getting better. There is solace in learning new and better ways, and in allowing myself to acknowledge the good things from the past. Each time I look into my dogs’ happy, contented eyes, I get closer to that seemingly unreachable goal of forgiveness for myself.

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