This post was drafted last week, when my parents blew into town for a brief visit. I’d been sitting on it because it’s a doozy. The story’s probably boring because it’s so common, but it’s been on my mind.
One night I was invited to a dinner party at my parents’ friends’ home. Another pair of their college classmates who now happened to live in the area was invited. As the three couples reminisced and talked shop and vied for their turn to be loquacious, the topic eventually drifted onto the subject of pets. My parents somberly noted the recent death of one family cat, a dear calico named Lucy who had lived to be 18 years old. I was a kid when we first got her, but as I’ve not lived at home in over a decade, my memories of her have grown faded and her affections, if she had any for me to begin with, had long since turned elsewhere, specifically towards my mother. Another couple regaled us with stories of their cockatiel. Through their charming narration, expertly paced and animated with all sorts of facial gymnastics, I felt like I learned much about the manners in which birds express personalities.
For his contribution to the conversation, our host had nothing but complaints about their recently adopted dog, a Manchester terrier mix. “We were lied to,” he grumbled, resentful that the adorable, 9-month-old puppy they had brought home three months ago revealed himself to be “aggressive” and prone to fits of hyperactivity. “Do you want another dog? You can have him!”
After dinner, I asked the hostess if I could see the puppy. I’d caught a glimpse of him, crated in the garage earlier in the afternoon. We entered together, she popped open the crate door, and out shot a quicksilver black form, slapping his paws against my body in glee, leaping four vertical feet to bounce off my chest. The hostess started yelling at him immediately. “NO. BUDDY. NONO.” She saw me turning my back to him and trying to ignore him (i.e., not reward him with attention) when he was climbing all over me, and started apologizing profusely, saying he should go back in the crate because “He’s going crazy again.” Well… he’s going crazy because he never gets any attention and I’m somebody new, I thought.
I convinced her that it was all right, that we should give him a few seconds to get over his initial excitement, and that I was ignoring him not because I didn’t want to play but because I was waiting for him to calm down.
“Oh, he’s not going to calm down,” she said. “He just gets more and more aggressive, and that’s when he attacks.” As she said that, Buddy leapt up and grabbed my arm. I felt the slightest pressure, like he was about to get his hump on, so I turned and told him to sit.
And he sat.
And then he started jumping up into my face again.
“He knows his commands…” she said. “He knows ‘Flat.'”
“That’s great! What’s ‘flat’?” I asked. She showed me how to do it, putting my fingers (with or without a treat) in front of his nose and pulling towards the ground until he was completely down on his side, tummy exposed. I didn’t know this command because we’d never trained our dogs to go any lower than a down/stay, as I don’t really see a use for this particular position — just as I avoid parlor tricks like “crawl” or “play dead.” I took it as an indication of our differences in training philosophies.
“Did you work with a trainer?”
No, they hadn’t, was the answer. They hadn’t taken him to training, because their vet had told them “It’s not worth it” with the extent of his “aggression” (I couldn’t call her out on a lie with no proof, but really?!). The family was working with him based on the mother’s prior experience with an easy-going, highly trainable German Shepherd, and consulting their in-laws with dogs — but this dog proved recalcitrant to all efforts. What I heard made me think the problem was less in Buddy, but with their approaches. The dog had already been through three other owners (including breeder) before them. He was neutered. He appeared to be quite healthy. His faults, as they assessed the situation, was that he was “too dominant,” that he’s an “alpha dog,” that he had some “aggression” that wasn’t adequately disclosed at the shelter they got him from. She said Buddy had been described as dog aggressive, but good with kids. The match did not live up to their expectations, and they felt burdened by a dud dog.
Now, the entire family was avoiding spending time with him because they were being bowled over by their hyperactive, 20 lb., year-old puppy. Buddy had gotten loose once and charged and bit a neighbor’s dog. He “wanted to attack” every dog he saw on the streets so walking him around the neighborhood was a chore (the hostess was too nervous to let me walk him by myself, though I cheerfully offered to do so twice). He would get too worked up when playing with their only, elementary school-aged son, and so they weren’t allowed to be together unsupervised. Meanwhile, nobody in the family had the time to consistently train him and most importantly, expend some of his energy. He just sat in a crate all day, released for a manically blissful hour or so each day to annoy his family and terrorize the roses bushes in the backyard, before being tossed back into the crate in the garage for the rest of the night.
What a life. No wonder the dog had problems.
At this point, I went to fetch a sack of treats, which I still had in my bag from my park excursion with Bowdu and Bowpi to tire them out for my long evening. With a fistful of Zuke’s salmon training treats, we started playing “It’s Yer Choice” (this was recommended via knowledgeable folks at the Basenji Forums for a puppy who jumped up on people and nipped) while continuing the discussion. She said that she had contacted the SPCA about surrendering Buddy, but nobody could guarantee that he wouldn’t be put down — probably because she was describing him as a severely aggressive dog! However, what I saw was a dog that was 1) still very much a puppy with a lot of unspent energy, and 2) very capable of focusing, as he quickly knew to look up at me and sit nicely with his tail wagging by the fourth treat. If he had motivation and focus, then as far as I was concerned, he could be trained. They just hadn’t tried hard enough.
Then the host poked in, followed by my parents, who had finally noticed my absence. Upon seeing “daddy” and so many new guests, Buddy immediately started streaking around the room again, darting inside the house at points and getting chastised for it. Daddy sat down on a chair at the side of the garage, and Buddy leapt right into his lap, squirming wildly. Daddy placed his hand on the dog’s back, which caused him to burst into a noisy fit of emotion before being shushed into stillness, appearing calm with his ears pressed backwards. “This is what the vet does — he’s really good!” he said. “The first time he laid his hand on Buddy’s back, he kept snarling and turning back to bite him, but the vet didn’t submit until he did. He doesn’t like it because that’s what alpha dogs do, and he thinks he’s alpha. Well, I’M alpha now!”
“Alpha to the dog, but I’m YOUR alpha!” retorted his wife, and they laughed at their little domestic inside joke.
I had nothing to say. Buddy was visibly more controlled in daddy’s hands, but I’m not sure that it was a matter of submission, and certainly not obedience… As soon as he was released, he resumed his whirlwind tour around the garage. It was time to move back inside for dessert, so Buddy was to be put away again, like a wind-up animal back into the toybox. That’s when Daddy started yelling at Buddy to get into his crate. Whenever he tried to dart away, he’d shout “NO!” in a really mean voice, and even stomped his foot a couple times, but it did not serve the end goal of getting Buddy where he wanted.
Hoping to show how just a little reward was all he needed, I brought out the training treats again, told Buddy to sit (treat), told Buddy to stay (very good), then come to me next to the crate (treat), then “Get inside” (their command) — and then jackpotted him when he did. An easy-peasy three steps with absolutely no resistance.
But then it all felt like a miserable lie and cheap trickery when I closed the crate door and reluctantly joined the other guests. If I hadn’t asked to see the dog, Buddy probably would’ve been ignored all night. And then there’s tomorrow, and the day after… and there’s nothing I can do to help this beautiful little dog with his sleek black fur and eager eyes and a need to be part of the family. I tried to talk to the parents, already knowing there was little I could do to change their minds in one night. “I don’t think he’s aggressive,” I said. “I think he has a lot of potential.” Not that I’m a professional evaluator by any means, but some things are just frightfully apparent…
The woman with the cockatiel commended me for being able to see Buddy’s positives when his owners could only criticize his behavior. “Well if you know someone who wants to train him, they can have him!” was their final word on the matter. They’ve made up their minds that they’re not going to keep him, and they’ve already prioritized him out of their life, just as my family did with a Golden Retriever a long, long time ago…
(To be continued.)
Note: This dog is still available for adoption if anyone who lives in the Bay Area/Northern California is interested.