Animals in our lives: A philosophical investigation of the science of companion animals

I am terribly pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching Philosophy 271: Animals in our Lives, a new course offered by the Philosophy Department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

This class is a philosophical analysis of contemporary scientific research on companion animal (mostly canine) cognition, emotion, and training.

The students and I will explore:

  • how this scientific research is embedded in contemporary culture,
  • the practical influences on, and impacts of, this research, and
  • the role of values and ethics in the creation and use of this new scientific knowledge.

I’ll keep you posted as I develop and implement this course. I am So. Excited.

Phil 271 Animals in our lives

Life with a recovering reactive dog​: Part two

Note: This is part two of a two-part post. Click here to read part one.

Now.

A couple of months ago I signed Milo and me up for a research project investigating canine fear and aggression in veterinary settings. I jumped into this survey eagerly, sure that Milo’s jackassery would provide them with some interesting data. They wanted to know about dogs acting out, and boy could tell them about a dog acting out.

I don’t think I was ever so pleased to be so disappointed about an experiment.  You see, the survey questions all had a time index.


What sorts of fear behaviour did Milo exhibit at his last vet visit? None.

During that visit did he show any aggressive behaviours when:

  • Getting weighed? No.
  • Touched? No.
  • Vaccinated? No.
  • Having his ears examined? No.
  • Having blood drawn? No.
  • Having his temperature taken? OK, Yes. He growled at the vet tech when she tried to stick a thermometer up his bum. Fair enough. We didn’t get a temperature that day.

If those questions were about my worst vet visit or any vet visit three years ago, the answers would have been different. When I sat down to take this survey, I was ready to give those three-year-old answers. But, in the last three years Milo, and I, have changed. He’s a more confident dog. I’m a calmer person. And we’re a stronger team.

I caught myself living in the past again when Milo and I were camping at Killbear Provincial Park. Our campsite was beside what must have been an intergenerational, extended family camping trip. There were at least seven children under the age of five, they yelled a lot, and all of them, except the newborn, seemed to think that running while yelling was the thing to do.

Screaming creatures darting around—the kind of game that Milo was always keen to join, except that he weighed more than any three of those kids combined. I steeled myself for a couple of days of barking and a complaint from the Park Office.

Would you like to know what happened?

Nothing.

Milo started staring at one of the kids, and I told him to knock it off and that we don’t bark at silly things. He knocked it off and did not bark at the silly things. There were a bunch of people with dogs at that campground. And every single dog that walked by reacted to those children more than Milo did, every single one.

People came by my site and complimented Milo on being such a good boy.

One person even told me that I was “lucky” to have such a good dog. I let that one slide on by.

I will always be careful and respect the fact that Milo is a formidable animal. We’ve done a tremendous amount of work together over the years, developed a fantastic relationship, and things got better.

I love him to distraction. I just have to remember to love the dog he is right now.

2

 

Life with a recovering reactive dog​: Part one

Note: This is the first half of a two-part post.

Then.

The damn snow was dragging at my feet, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it to my car before I started to cry. Milo and I were not at our finest on that winter day more than three years ago. Fifteen dog-handler teams had arranged themselves in a big circle on a snowy country field, and we were taking turns walking our dogs around the group. The idea was to keep your dog paying attention to you, and not to the other dogs or people or bunnies in attendance. The accomplished teams heeled with quiet precision around the field. But most of us newbies kept our dog’s focus with a steady stream of happy chatter. We could have used food treats for this, but it is hard to hand out treats when wearing mittens and it was cold enough that mittens were mandatory.

Milo and I were doing fine until another male gave him a glance that asked: “Wanna dance?” Milo looked back: “Sure, let’s go.” And off came the gloves. The other dog snarled. Milo lunged. My feet broke through the crust on the snow, and I was stuck.

It all took a very long heartbeat. Friends swooped in to take care of Milo, and I clambered out of my hole. Everything was OK, except for my blood pressure and my pride. This was life with a reactive dog. It just took a wrong look. He didn’t fight. I saw to it that Milo never got into a fight. But both of us were bundles of stress.

Milo and I retreated to an adjacent field where we could cool down. We played a bit, did some obedience, and practised calmly watching those other dogs from a distance. I’d been working on Milo’s reactivity for a while already, but this exercise was a bit too much and a bit too soon.

What put me in tears that afternoon wasn’t just Milo’s reaction, it was the supportive kindness of the people around us. We were training with the Kitchener-Waterloo German Shepherd Club. These people know GSDs, and many of them went through similar challenges with their pups.

After a few minutes on our own, the club president came over to check on Milo and me.

“We’re going to work on recalls now, do you and Milo want to join us?”

“Really? Seriously?”

“Sure, we’re all paying attention. It will be fine.”

It was more than fine. Milo was perfect. I left him with another handler at one end of the field, ran about 30 metres away, and called him. They released him, and he was in flight, skidding into a beautiful sit in front of me. Folks cheered.

As we were packing up for the afternoon, one by one, people came up to me. They said things like:

  • “It gets better.”
  • “He’s a beautiful dog.”
  • “I’ve been there, and I know it’s hard.”
  • “Good for you for working so hard with him.”
  • “Half a dozen dogs here used to react like that, and look at them now.”

I needed this support and encouragement, but darn it, I was at the end of my rope, and I knew this kindness was going to make me cry. I just wanted to get to my car before I lost it.

IMG_0126I was in an all-positive obedience class at the time, and someone there asked me if Milo was abused as a pup. That question took the wind right out of my sails. I adopted him at eight weeks, and his ‘abuse’ was patience, loving-kindness, and outrageously expensive grain-free food.

When Milo and I went on walks, I took to telling people that I was rehabilitating him. The phrase turned many frowns to smiles. After all, rehabilitating rescue dogs was god’s work. It was not a lie. I was rehabilitating him. I didn’t tell them he was a rescue; I just didn’t tell them he wasn’t.

Milo and I worked hard to get his reactivity under control. We went on weekly pack walks with the German Shepherd Club, I learned about counter-conditioning and desensitisation, and I worked on keeping control of my own emotions. I had to be calm to help him be calm–this it turned out, was the most difficult part of the whole procedure. I started working on obedience and scent detection with him. These sports taught him self-control and were something positive, fun that we could excel at together. Both of our confidence soared. He is a smart and biddable dog and was always a joy to work with, in isolation.

Things were slowly getting better, but they weren’t where I needed them to be until a fellow German Shepherd Club member and friend recommended that I take Milo to the trainer who helped her reactive dog. Finally, I found a trainer who understood Milo. It sounds simple, but she taught me not to permit Milo to be, what I have come to call, a jackass. We didn’t do anything dramatic or mean; I just learned to hold him to a set of high standards and how to properly handle such a big, strong, and strong-willed dog.

This whole process took about two years. Milo is a different dog now, but sometimes I forget how far we’ve come.

IMG_5095

Click here for the rest of our story and to see where we are at now.

Aaron Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

This park was stinky. Literally. I pulled into a campsite generously decorated with dog poop. While I was cleaning up it occurred to me that I had a neighbour who either lets their, evidently large, dog run loose, or is the sort of person who watches their dog poop in someone else’s campsite and thinks, “I’m just gonna leave that sitting right there.” I was looking forward to meeting this person, and their dog. It was going to be great. I knew it.

Sure enough, on Milo and my first walk two retriever-ish looking dogs galloped toward us while their owners yelled from their camp chairs, you guessed it, “don’t worry, they’re friendly.”

I yelled back, “I’m not.” It just popped out, no mincing of words at all. And at that moment, it was true. “Those dogs need to be on leashes.”

The indignant response was, “I don’t know why you’re upset. We haven’t had any problems.”

I saw this as invitation to describe the poop, and, you know, the law, which didn’t go over so well. Who would’ve thought? The best part was when they explained to me, and my fabulous gigantic German Shepherd Milo, that if I didn’t like dogs, I probably shouldn’t go camping. Oh boy, time to walk away. That time was actually long past, but as they say, better late than never. Some people.

In case you are wondering, here are some relevant bits of law:

Domestic and other animals

6. (1) No person in control of a domestic animal shall permit the animal to be,

(a) in a provincial park unless the animal is secured on a leash that does not exceed two metres in length;  …

(4) No person shall permit a domestic animal, while in a provincial park, to

(a) make excessive noise;

(b) disturb other persons;

(c) damage Crown property or vegetation;

(d) chase or harass wild animals or birds;

(e) injure, or attempt to injure, a person or other domestic animal.  O. Reg. 347/07, s. 6 (4).

(5) The person in control of a domestic animal shall immediately dispose of excrement from the animal in such manner and at such location that it will not cause a health hazard or public inconvenience.  O. Reg. 347/07, s. 6 (5).  …

I am sure these people are not a permanent fixture at Aaron Provincial Park, but I let them colour my experience of the place more than I should’ve. Thank heavens I discovered the group campground, a grassy field with picnic tables, empty. Milo and I spent a lot of time there romping, playing tug, training, and reading magazines (Milo didn’t read magazines as much as sat there and chewed a toy).

a black and tan German shepherd dog looking up at the camera. Fis shiny black nose is the highlight of the picture.

I can’t stay mad when I look at this big happy nose. Also, notice the leash…

Aaron Provincial Park is conveniently located on the Trans Canada highway just East of Dryden, Ontario. It lacks a sanctioned off leash pet exercise area.

For the love of god leash your darn dog

A post like this is silly because it has already been written about 14 million times. Pretty much all the dog trainers and all the dog professionals and all the municipal codes tell people to leash their dogs. leash

I’m writing it again because Milo and I were charged by a little schnauzer. I scared the little dog off and the schnauzer’s person got angry at me for yelling at their dog. What the what? I know that people respond weirdly when flustered. But seriously, that little dog charged my German Shepherd and I intervened before my dog did. That, my friend, deserves thanks. In fact, it deserves ice cream. Heck, it deserves a bottle of scotch.

This is not a rare event. Milo and I have been charged by Golden Retrievers, Poodles, little terriers, and a bunch of other pups.

I don’t care if the pup is a Yorkie or Mastiff, a puppy or senior dog, or a dog that’s an angel straight from heaven. I really don’t care if the dog is friendly. Even if the handler knows their dog can heel past a butcher shop, I don’t know that, and off leash dogs worry me.

Milo and I worked very hard, for years, to help him stay calm around other dogs. He is gigantic and now his behavior is, mostly, pretty good and so a person might not expect him to be stressed by a charging dog. He is. And so am I.

  • A little dog who reacts to Milo and me is not cute or brave, and does not think it is a big dog. It is probably scared, or perhaps stupid.
  • Yes, I know that Milo could ‘take care of himself,’ but I don’t want him to have to. And, who would want that to happen?
  • No, I don’t want the dogs to ‘work it out.’ That’s a project that could cost 1000’s of dollars.
  • And actually, I don’t want our dogs to say ‘hello.’ If we’re friends and I know your dog, then maybe. But my dog doesn’t play with strangers.

Where there are leash laws, please leash your dog. It’s the decent thing to do.