Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

We have met the enemy, and He is Us

The young dog was gaunt, but I knew he’d been fed on a regular basis. Now, in our care, he ate warily but readily, as long as the food was left for him and no one was looking. His eyes darted back and forth, watching everything. He shrank back in his kennel and occasionally we would hear a low growl emanating from him when we came too close. Crouching down and looking over his head was better, but he still wouldn’t readily approach. At one point, I went and sat in the 8X10 run at the far corner, a handful of chicken pieces in my bait bag and a book in the other hand. I would sit and read out loud, and toss chicken in his direction. For the first 15 minutes he ignored it. Growling came and went. I never looked directly at him.

He eventually stuck his slender neck out and snatched some of the pieces hurriedly, fearfully. After a few agonizing minutes he finished the rest, never taking his eyes off me. When I finished the chapter, I stood up very slowly and exited, not looking back. He watched me carefully, but didn’t move a muscle, as I walked away.

After 3 days of this there hadn’t been much change. I was able to loop a leash over his head, and he would walk with me, but it was not a normal walk. He alternated hanging back and forging ahead in an attempt to free himself from the leash. When the door to the outside opened, he bolted through it and stood, shaking, on the other side. I had him out for about 20 minutes, and he never eliminated. I was able to stroke his fur on his side (he started when I touched him, but didn’t move away, so I left my hand there), but I did not try to touch his head. I spoke calmly to him, and watched as he scanned the area hawkishly, his bushy tail tucked between his trembling rear legs. A loud truck went over a bump in the road, and the dog nearly leapt out of his skin.

He looked wolfish, but it was likely German shepherd and some other lanky breeds. Had he been at his correct weight, where ribs could be felt but not seen, he’d have been beautiful. He had what we like to call “human eyes”: dark brown with rimmed irises. His coat was in decent shape, he was neutered, and I knew he’d finished his last round of vaccinations about 6 months ago.

No, Shiloh wasn't some stray we'd picked up on the side of the road.

He was adopted from the shelter as an 8-week-old pup, by a happy couple who had owned dogs before. They were middle class, no kids (yet), and far from ignorant or unprepared--at least as far as shelter personnel knew. There was no reason to believe that this puppy would live anything but a pampered life with them.

But here he was, returned 8 months later, a victim of abuse. Oh, they never laid a hand on him except to pet him (and I know this because they were horrified the shelter staff might assume they had). He was housebroken, but he didn't have much else in the way of "formal training." You might think that's why I considered him abused--refusing to train a social species that hungers for information about how to fit into our world is, well, at the very least disrespectful to dogs--but that really wasn't even on my mind as I sat with him and remembered the wife crying in the Intake waiting room.

"I'm due in 3 months. And I love him--he's very loyal and attached to me--but he is so scared and spooky, and I just can't take any chances with the baby."

Pregnant couples giving up on perfectly good dogs is nothing new in sheltering. It happens a lot, and one can blame them up one side and down the other (I mean, you've known for a while you were gonna have a kid, right?), or even have some compassion towards their predicament, lame as it sometimes sounds, but at that point, it is moot. Cultural traditions, myths, advice from well-meaning people and the glut of information online, coupled with the emotions surrounding the fact that your lives are about to change forever, put seeds of doubt into would-be parents' minds, and often there is no going back.

I didn't fault this woman for the choice she had made. Pregnant couples giving up on perfectly good dogs may not be new, but Shiloh was far from "perfectly good." He was spooky, flighty, and on edge. I couldn't imagine him around a newborn, not to mention all the preparations, and the arrival home from the hospital, and change in schedule, and family in and out after the blessed event. He barely had enough confidence to eat enough to keep his ribs from showing when it was calm and quiet at their home with no visitors or stressful events. A baby in the home would be an accident waiting to happen. I'm childfree by choice, but I know enough to know that nervous, frightened dogs don't mix well with kids, and parents don't usually have a lot of confidence in them--which perpetuates the cycle.

So if they never laid a hand on him or made him go without, how dare I claim "abuse"?

I'll tell you why: he was scared of everything, and not just at first. Shiloh was distrustful even after a period of time had passed with nothing bad happening to him. He couldn't "bounce back" from his fears easily. And while fear has an evolutionary advantage in mammals, an overabundance of fear is not better. It's far worse.

But how is his fear their fault?

Well, the genetics part isn't, at all--they didn't breed him. And though they never laid a mean hand on Shiloh, never yelled or screamed at him, never left him in the cold without food or shelter, never ignored him when they were home with him, and never neglected his veterinary care, they abused him, passively, just the same.

Because Shiloh was never socialized. By their own admission, they kept him inside with them all the time, and during the crucial socialization period that all puppies go through between 3 weeks and 16 weeks of age, when they should be learning positive things about the world, Shiloh was kept from life. They were worried he might catch a disease, so they avoided exposing him to the world. Unknowingly, they took away his ability to develop the capacity to deal with the world outside. Shiloh never went for walks, or on short trips to safe places that wouldn't overwhelm him. He hid in the bedroom when guests came, and he had never seen a child up close. He didn't get to play with other dogs; he didn't attend training classes; he didn't really get to be a dog.

Socialization is inoculation against later fearfulness, and his owners, while meaning well, denied him this vaccination.

And in doing so, they made sure Shiloh would never be normal. Some of his fear was likely hereditary, given his potential breed mix. It was a double whammy, nature and nurture in a negative capacity, and he never saw it coming.

Dogs are social creatures who develop bonds early in life to their own kind and, thanks to years of selective breeding, to humans. It's part of their genetic code to seek a social group, and to seek a place within the hierarchy of that group.

Deny a human child the company of other humans during our formative years (namely, birth to puberty), and the Critical Period Hypothesis says you will get a child that will have lasting damage, including an inability to master language--a result that is not fatal to the child, but certainly increases stress and makes life way more difficult. Puppies go through critical periods of development as well. John Fuller and John Paul Scott, in their landmark study chronicled in Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog (1965), said,

Every highly social species of animal which has been studied so far has a short period early in life when primary social relationships are formed…in the case of the puppy, it looks as if a small amount of contact shortly after 3 weeks of age will produce a strong social relationship which can be duplicated only by hours or weeks of patient effort at later periods in life—if, indeed, it can be duplicated at all.

While Fuller and Scott’s study doesn’t say when the “socialization window” closes, other experts agree that it appears to be around 16 weeks of age. Again, it’s a window, so it never completely shuts. But we do know that if puppies are not handled at all by humans before 16 weeks, they will always live in a feral or semi-feral state.

Most puppies get at least some handling between birth and 16 weeks, whether it be purposeful or not. Shiloh certainly had some. But it appears that he—and many others like him, sadly—didn’t get enough. And that’s something puppy breeders, buyers and adopters can change.

Granted, when we compare the undersocialization of human children to the undersocialization of dogs, the latter seems pretty trite. But dogs are everywhere in our society, by our choice, so undersocialization cannot be brushed aside as inconsequential, since it definitely impairs their ability to adapt to our confusing, loud, emotionally-affecting world. And fearful dogs may not want to bite as their first defense, but when cornered, many will.

Refusing to train a dog to understand the rules of our world is refusing to acknowledge the dog's real needs, does nothing to help dogs, and often harms them. It's especially heartbreaking when you know training isn't difficult, time-consuming, or expensive, it need not be harsh at all (it's actually a lot of fun if done correctly).

But forget obedience training for the moment. Not exposing a puppy to what life will hold for him later, even just the basics of people with different skin tones, outfits and different voice tones; loud noises; cars; children; bicycles; and various and sundry things we take for granted every day is abuse. It's setting up for failure a creature that craves anything but social isolation. It seems inocuous, but it isn't. It seems better for the pup to isolate him from possible disease, but it isn't.

The problem with neglecting to socialize a puppy that is hard-wired for it is that once the crucial window closes, experts agree that it is partly closed for good. Yes, it is more than possible to socialize dogs past 16 weeks (it's a window, not a steel door); people do it all the time. But you can't get back all of what you lost. You can help the dog, but something will always be missing: an important piece of the puzzle that is best acquired while the dog's brain is still forming.

My friend Sarah Wilson is an author, teacher, damn good trainer, student of the human-animal bond, and a wise woman. She does her best work with what she calls "deficit dogs": dogs with decent genetics who had a bad start in life, but with the proper training and an owner who looks to the future instead of dwelling on the past, will make progress. Most make incredible progress under her tutelage, and so do the bipeds holding their leashes. (An article from Sarah with ways to help deficit dogs.)

When it's done right, it can be remarkable. The dog may make infintesimal strides forward for so long you think nothing is happening, and then, Bingo! You see a huge success. If you don't push it, more success will follow.

But it's not an easy, or quick road. Socializing and training deficit dogs is a slow process that happens in small fits and starts, and one setback (e.g. thinking the dog is ready for The Big Leagues before he has even started batting practice) like thrusting him into an unwinnable situation, can reverse all the good progress already made. It's maddening for owners and trainers, and sad for the dogs.

Many of these dogs reach a plateau after a while. They hit the ceiling of As Good As It Gets, and they may never get past it. Owners of these dogs must be prepared for that, and all along they've had to be realistic about Fluffy, realizing she'll never be the outgoing Life of the Party they wanted. But that doesn't mean the dogs don't deserve someone who will try. And many people do--because you don't train the dog you wanted to have, you train the dog that you actually have, the one sitting right in front of you, for better or worse.

Shiloh is not a true deficit dog, by my estimation (though time will tell), because he likely has hereditary fear, and no amount of training will overcome genetics. He'll probably always be a bit flighty and nervous, and never really comfortable around men or small children.

When people see his behavior, most immediately assume the abuse he suffered came in the form of a child teasing him, or a man beating him. But in truth, it's because he was never exposed to children, and the only man he knew was the husband, who is short and very soft-spoken. Though there is no way to know, my experience is that what the public wants to see as conditions arising from physical abuse (cringing, submissive urination or defecation, ducking when an arm or object is raised, avoiding eye contact, bolting for safety, or even snapping when cornered) are more often symptoms of a lack of socialization. If your dog hits the dirt every time you pick up a broom, your first instinct is to assume that someone hit him with a broom. While that is certainly possible in dog you have not lived with his whole life, what is more likely is that a broom fell when he ran into it while exploring during his "fear period,"(maybe more than once), or an adult picked up a broom and gently shooed him with it while yelling, and now he thinks brooms are agents of Lucifer. Things learned during the fear periods have lasting consequences, and even if they are not harsh, they can be perceived or "remembered" by the dog that way.

NOTE: I'm not saying that the "guilt" behaviors mentioned above never have roots in actual abuse. It's positively horrific what humans are capable of doing to animals, and shelters in more rural or depressed urban areas see the effects of abuse far too often. But we do know that a lack of socialization also causes timidity to people and objects, and when we know this, we are less likely to spout The Abuse Excuse. When we let that go, we can move forward with the dog.

So what is good socialization? Experts don't always agree on how much puppies need, but most of us agree that many puppies don't get enough. Good breeders (you know, the ones who do health checks and genetic testing to weed out congenital defects, screen buyers carefully, breed for temperament, work with rescues to take dogs back, breed 1 or maybe 2 litters a year, specialize in one or maybe 2 breeds, don't disappear after the sale, don't try to pawn off multiple pups on unsuspecting buyers, and understand genetics and their breed thoroughly) raise pups in the home and generally follow the Rule of Sevens. (Some say that's a good guideline, but may not be enough.) They don't allow pups to leave the litter before 7 weeks at the earliest, and if they keep the pups longer (some up to 12 weeks) they start crate training, housebreaking, and do even more socialization. Good breeders also encourage the new owners to continue the socialization from the day after purchase through 16 weeks and beyond, with suggestions like well-run puppy training classes, and lots of safe visiting in the community.

Dogs born in puppymills generally have little or no socialization because those producers have no interest in the final product, only the money they receive from the transaction. In spite of that, to dogs' credit, some puppymill dogs manage to turn out OK, though that in no way implies that I support anyone going that route for a pup. But if you adopt a purebred or a designer mutt from a shelter, you may be getting a puppymill dog that an unsuspecting pet store shopper could not handle--so be prepared.

It has long been common knowledge to trainers that a lack of early socialization causes problems down the road. A lack of training will cause problems, too, but the "training window" never truly closes, as dogs (like people) are always learning. Many people have adopted adolescent and adult untrained dogs from shelters and turned them into fantastically-trained, outgoing, happy dogs. It takes longer than with a new puppy, but it's more than possible.

Trying to make up for a lack of early socialization, however, is like trying to push string. It takes a lot of patience and time just to get the dog to a place where obedience training can begin. Unfortunately, this is more of a project than the "average adopter" signs up for, and though deficit dogs tend to be very attached to their owners, excessive neediness is not healthy for man or beast.

It is far preferable to set the puppy up for success, so no matter what obstacles he meets later in life, from the stresses of a new baby at home to having to be rehomed, he can acclimate to them. Well-socialized dogs are easier to train and live with, and live less stressful lives.

Shiloh was adopted eventually, by a young man who'd owned GSD before. He and I talked for a long time about the road ahead, and I really think he understood (though it is likely to be longer than he thought). We discussed how to make up for lost time, and how to go slowly, and we discussed the plans he had to make Shiloh's new life better through training and socialization. I told him that Shiloh didn't need his pity--he needed the young man's strength. I told him that his own confidence, plus guidance and structure (i.e., training), would give Shiloh confidence. I told him not to expect miracles, but to shoot for small successes every day. I told him that he couldn't change the past, but he could affect the future--and for Shiloh, a world with less stress and more chances to "be a dog" would be heaven.

Every dog deserves that.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Uttering joyous leaves of dark green"

All my life I've been fascinated by trees. I grew up in what the U.S.D.A. Forest Service calls the Blue Ridge area of the Central Hardwood region. There are a number of pine trees (considered softwoods) in my yard and in my neighborhood, but luckily, there are quite a few hardwoods, too. Oaks are my favorite, especially Quercus rubra (Northern red oak) and Quercus alba (White oak). In one of my first blog posts, I wrote about my favorite trees, and I alluded to climbing them. 

 My love for trees began early, when I'd spend every nice day outdoors, and often alone, in the woods behind my house. There was quite a bit of undeveloped land in the neighborhood, and I'd explore it happily and safely as often as possible. My friends and I built forts from discarded branches and created walking trails in an area probably only a few acres in size, but it felt gigantic (and private) to us. Neighbors didn't mind us tramping through their "way back" backyards (they certainly never went back there), and if they did, they didn't say. 

"In the woods" was where I started looking up. The trees were magnificent and plentiful, and my friends and I climbed as many as we could, but most in our woods were older and too tall for us to reach the branches. I often wondered what it would be like to perch myself high up in those branches, but I knew I couldn't fly and the idea that it was possible to get there was too wild to fathom. So I surveyed reverently from the ground, and in the meantime passed several phases of childhood in that shady landscape. "In the woods" was where I also had my first kiss (and several subsequent ones, but don't judge me--this was when "making out" was kissing and not much more), my first look at porn (1970's Playboys stashed under what someone must have thought was a hidden rock), typical pre-teen angst and mood swings ("I hate you and I'm running away!"), and many adventures jumping creeks, catching tadpoles and crawfish, and just hanging. I played softball and of course had school, but I never had playdates or structured activities that I can recall. You had to listen for the cowbell to know when Mom was calling you for dinner, and we were discouraged from being in the woods after dark, so our post-prandial play moved to the front yards and the nearly empty neighborhood streets until bedtime.

But the woods were the best. I used to fantasize that my folks would buy me a horse and I would build him a stable in the woods just behind the house ('cause, hey, I could built a rudimentary fort, so surely he could live in something like that, and he'd eat...leaves and sticks?), and I'd ride him through the trees along our trails. When I wasn't trawling the woods, I spent time in our own semi-wild backyard inside the fence. Grass never would grow in our yard, much to my father's consternation, because of the trees. That didn't bother me one bit, and I think he secretly was glad, because he had no intention of cutting them down--and he hated to mow. I climbed the one tree I could reach from the ground, a Southern Magnolia, to my heart's content and found great solace in being in the branches. It was my own special place, and I distinctly remember bolting up it through tears on the day I learned of my grandfather's death in 1977. (One of the first scenes in "Fried Green Tomatoes" always reminds me of that day.) The trees I love most and I grew up together, though they had a long head start. I still live in that house (yes, I moved away for a while, attended college and lived in a few other places--the usual "spreading the wings"), having bought it from my father's estate some 15 years ago. It holds much sentimental value for me, and the trees are a huge part of that. Though I always thought them huge, they are much taller now. And I still cannot fly, but yes, I have been in those topmost branches.

  In 2004, I decided that wings were not necessary to get up into trees, and I sought out treeclimbing. I found Tree Climbers International, and wouldn't you know it, it wasn't 10 minutes from my house. Founded by an arborist named Peter "Treeman" Jenkins, TCI taught recreational tree climbing, and just happened to have a "free climb" once per month. That's where they would set the ropes, help you into your harness and give you a little tutorial, and you'd be up in the branches as quick as you please. Well, if you were 10 and skinny, that is. My overweight, almost-40 self didn't do much quickly those days, so the first climb was a bit of a disappointment. I think I got about 15 feet off the ground. But I was hooked, and I was determined to make it to a branch at some point--first at the TCI grove, and then in my own yard. 

 Luckily for me, TCI offered courses to teach you how to tie the ropes and get yourself up into the canopy. The techniques they use are not harmful to the tree (no spikes), and you can go as high as a few feet below the branch where your line is set. I signed up, and after a pretty grueling 2-day intensive, I was armed with knowledge (and sore muscles--but I passed the course). I purchased my climbing equipment (standard arborists equipment with some slight variations) and set out to set static lines in the trees in my yard. People often ask, when I tell them I climb, "oh, is it like rock climbing?" When I say no, they seem disappointed. Treeclimbing with ropes is not as strenuous as rock climbing, though it can be a decent workout. And the ropes get you both up and down, not just down. It's also a "self-belay" system; you don't need another person on belay, so it can be a solitary activity. We use the same carabiners as rock climbers and cavers, but the chalk, special clothes, and special shoes (some tree climbers do it barefooted) are unneccessary. 

 Tree climbers use arborists' rope, which is different from rock-climbing rope, because it has less "give." You can't leave it in the tree all the time, because it will rot. So if you want to climb repeatedly, you set a static line in the tree in the setting you want, using a thin nylon cord that is impervious to the elements, and you haul your climbing rope up using that line. (I actually use plastic-covered clothesline; it's cheaper than zip line). Otherwise, you have to throw the line (using an arborists' throw bag) every time, and it's a skill I am only slightly good at. I set 4 lines, two each in two trees, the white oak Zemyna in my front yard, and the red oak Hannah in the back. So when I want to climb, it only takes a few moments to get my 1/2" rope into the tree and tie my climbing knots. Then I saddle up in my recreational saddle (the "Tengu" model at right), put on my helmet, hook on a water bottle, camera bag, notebook and gloves, and I go "on rope." I use locking carabiners to secure myself to the rope. 

One of the cardinal rules of tree climbing is that you never unhook from your rope while in the tree. If you obey that rule and tie your knots correctly, it's incredibly safe. The climbing technique I use is called DRT (double rope technique), and it uses a very ingenious knot called a modified Blake's hitch (the topmost knot in the photo at left) to allow the climber to ascend and descend easily. You pull yourself up using your own body weight (upper-body strength is necessary, but you mostly use your legs and your weight). I use a Prussik loop on the rope with my feet in it to literally pull the opposite end of the rope downward, which sends me upward. The Blake's hitch is scooted up by hand, and holds me in position. Eventually, I reach my destination branch, and after hanging out there a while, I decide if I want to switch branches and ascend higher, or descend. 

 Descent is simple and fun. You just grab the Blake's hitch and apply pressure on the top of it, and gravity will do the rest. A safety knot in the rope keeps me from plummeting too quickly, and if I get to going to fast, I just let go--and the knot holds. It's pretty clever. (A single rope technique, or SRT, exists too, but it is mostly used by more experienced climbers and for really, really tall--300 feet and up--trees like redwoods. SRT requires some different equipment and skills, and I never learned how to do it. DRT works fine for my trees, which are 80-100 feet tall.) It usually takes me about an hour from the time I decide to climb to when I'm on my destination branch. I usually go to a branch about 45-50 feet off the ground when I climb Hannah. Zemyna has more copious branches and a tighter canopy; when I climb her, you have to look hard for me in the summertime. (Can you see me ->?) 

 And what happens when I get there? Nothing. Blissful, quiet, cool...nothing. Being in the tree is indescribable, especially in the fall when the breezes are spectacular and the sky is so blue it almost makes you cry to look at it. You hear leaves rustling and the sound of your own breathing, birds chirping, and the creak of the branches. You can see your neighbors mowing their lawns or strolling by, and they can't see you (because they don't look). I admit that I like to call my dog and see how she'll react; she's not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, so she usually looks for me for quite a while before forgetting I exist (until I come down, and she has this relieved and puzzled expression I take to mean, "I thought I heard you calling me!"). Dusk is lovely, and climbing at night is even more thrilling. I haven't yet slept in the tree, though several companies make hammock-type apparati for doing just that. I'd like to put a semi-permanent pallet in Hannah, if I can figure out a way to do it without harming her. I have a Sky Chair that I will haul up and clip into a setting placed just for it. It's a great place to read or write or just think, which I do a lot of.
"Murmuring out of its myriad leaves, Down from its lofty top rising two hundred feet high, Out of its stalwart trunk and limbs, out of its foot-thick bark, That chant of the seasons and time, chant not of the past only, but the future." ~Walt Whitman, from Song of the Redwood Tree