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.

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4 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    First, very sorry to hear about your hand! that is terrible…hope it heals soon.

    Second, yes, the thinking about thinking point is key. But I think that it can also weigh down the process…for example, when tons of voters start voting on the basis of what they think other voters will accept:

    http://nymag.com/news/features/41285/

    “Electability” becomes a big shell game driven by a media that prides itself on some “insider baseball” understanding of a political scene that the “insider understandings” themselves construct.

    Third, despite your wise commments on the human-animal divide, the temptation to anthropomorhize is so strong, as evidenced by Dogster:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/06/fashion/

    06cyber.html?em&ex=1197090000&en=d2fd74cc66cbb3be&ei=5087%0A

  2. Charlie Martel says:

    Jeff–Great post. I agree with you about Senator Obama and am glad you are part of his effort.

    Reading both of his books, I am convinced he has a humanitarian code of values and that he thinks with depth and complexity about deep and complex things.

    On dogs, one of my dogs bit my wrist–it hurt and I hope you are ok. Another of my dogs is a therapy pet and we’ve visited wounded troops at Walter Reed hospital. From that I am convinced that there is nothing better than a good dog, and sometimes I think their souls are bigger than ours.

  3. CJ Anderson says:

    I really enjoyed your post and was sorry to hear of the bite. One thing for any to read this post to know, is that most states do not have a “one bite forgiveness law. In most states, the doctor is require by law to report the bite to law enforment or animal control who then will come and impound the dog, and in many locations, like Denver, even euthanize it.

    (Of Course in Dever, they will simply take and euthanize your dog even if he has never harmed anyone just because he was the wrong breed – over 1100 have died so far). So it is really important to watch for infection from bites – puncture wounds are the most dangerous of all the bleeding injuries and the most likely to become infected.(I teach safety for a living).

    I did want to add an additional view for your further consideration.

    Isnt it wonderful when positive reinforcement works?

    Cesar himself says over and over that the least energy used to control the dogs is what he is striving for, and in fact in his new DVD “Your New Dog, the First Day and Beyond”, shows how to prevent problems from even occuring and how much faster using postive techniques work when the dog isnt in a problem creating mode!

    It really would be more accurate to say that Cesar’s way didnt work for you, rather then Cesar’s way is wrong.

    Its not wrong,really! I am on my 15th problem dog rehab – everyone of them over the last year because the rescues who had them couldnt change their behavior and were going to euthanize them. They have all been rehabbed using Cesar’s techniques. I have movies of many of their rehab successes up on my youtube site at:

    http://www.youtube.com/cjanderson.

    I also run an over 2300 member email list of people working on their problem dog situations (with another 1000 who have come in and solved their problems and left our high volume list (100-150 posts per day) from people in 20 countries as well as US and Canada. I understand, that Cesar’s newsletter is delivered to over 100,000 people.

    So it cannot be accurate to say it is wrong when so many are being helped by it.

    Using Cesar’s way would actually prevent the problems you experienced, because it deals with the dog pyschology not training which is largely ineffective when a dogs instincts kick in.

    In my top video I think I included a picture of me on a bike with three dogs side by side but I have walked (biked) as many as 5 at a time and I am nobody – just an over weight 53 year old, 5 foot tall woman, using a turn key program as explain/demonstrated by Cesar Millan successfully, over and over to save dogs lives, when those dogs have been given up on by “professionals”.

    So I hope you will consider this position, and as I said, while Cesar’s way may not be a style you chose to use, many thousands of dogs are alive today because others chose to learn to work with it succssfully!

    With greatest respect.

    CJ

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    I hope your hand is better by now. I am still puzzling, though, over how the putative smallness of dogs’ souls explains why you have them, rather than mosquitos, as pets. … Are the souls of mosquitos too big to render them suitable? I’m inclined to agree with C. Martel on the canine soul issue, if not necessarily about Obama. (I’ve also had at least one Siamese cat who surpassed even my various dogs at empathy.)

    While the current Chief Executive certainly is an object lesson in the dangers of too little self-reflection, one wonders what degree of that trait could be more of a liability for an executive than an asset. Certainly I consider that my own self-reflective tendencies, despite my being a Myers-Briggs “J” type in most situations, could make me a crummy CEO. On the other hand, I think those tendencies do make me a better counsellor. Politically, I’m probably satisfied (apropos of this point, at least) with the weaker criterion of knowing that a President would have such reflective advisers around him or her, and listen to them. Even that would be a revolutionary change from the status quo.