Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mac: Socialest, Social, Not Social At All

(warning: dognerd post ahead! Camera dorks, bookophiles, and pretty much everyone else may be bored to tears by this. There will be some touching MacMoments, but I can't promise anything else.)

Deborah Flick at Boulder Dog posted an amazing blog that was a followup from a conversation she was having with the renowned Ian Dunbar on Dog Star Daily. I highly recommend you read all of the blogs, in order, and check the comments, too. I'm not a good summer-er upper, but the short version:

Flick met with Turid Rugaas, who you may know without knowing her name if you've heard of "calming signals." She's well known, and I like what she has to say (check some of it out), but somewhat controversial. Flick and Rugaas shared some stories about some intensely fearful, stressed dogs that came to them after some damaging undersocialization. Flick left with the feeling that she had "done too much" with her dog, thereby damaging her more. Dunbar, the founder of Sirius puppy training, the first place to emphasize "formal" puppy socialization, wrote a response basically saying, no, the damage to Flick's dog had already done prior to Flick's arrival on scene, and there was no such thing as "too much socialization." Flick wrote back, agreeing with Dunbar that socialization is great, especially for puppies, and sharing her experience with a fearful, stressed out job, and how stressful this is for an owner. A bunch of readers chimed in about how much this resonated with them. (End pathetic sum up. Go read them for yourselves!)

So, I've sat with these posts for a few days, waiting to figure out how I feel, and what this all means to me. On an intellectual and professional level, I agree with both Dunbar and Flick (and I don't *really* think they're disagreeing). I see dogs every day, dogs that are skewed in some way, from minor to major, that could probably be awesome stellar dogs, if they had been socialized from an early age. I see owners every day that are scanning the horizon for things that they need to be vigilant about for their slightly skewed dogs. And I see adult dogs that would be perfectly acceptable dogs in an environment if their owners stepped up and were slightly more vigilant for the things that trigger the minor issues that are caused by lack of socialization.

On a closer to home level, I totally understand why 28 people commented on Flick's follow-up blog. Checkout the comment about "social dog envy." On one hand, I'm not sure this mythical "social dog" exists- is it just a fluke that not a single one of my friends has one?- on the other hand, man, do I wish there were more of them. I started to type "I want one," but I deleted it out of loyalty to Mac. So I think I'll share Mac's story, in a poorly summed up version, and some of my pet theories (I'm killing me here), and why the back and forth between Flick and Dunbar and Flick again really hit home. Those of you who know me know this story back and forth, and reliving it will bring back ugly memories. Tune in for my next book review. Also, I feel I'm airing some dirty laundry, and wonder why I feel ashamed? Mac is not perfect. I own a less-than-perfect pit bull. So. There. I am not putting him down. All of you pit bull purists, I don't apologize.

I think Kozi, my family dog growing up, was one of those mythical "social dogs." She was a responsibly bred wheaten terrier, with appropriate socialization, and we may have even taken her to Sirius puppy classes. We did all the things you're supposed to do with a dog. Her biggest "issue" (gawd, it feels weird calling it that, where I am now) was her indifference to dogs. She didn't actively dislike them, but she had no need for them. She would politely tell them off, but as we liked to say, she didn't know she had teeth. She had no outward aggression or leash reactivity. She just liked people. When I went to college, I missed that scruffy thing terribly. So I started volunteering at an animal shelter. I fell in love with pit bulls, who, like Kozi, liked people. I was a dog rookie, thinking all dogs were social, like her. I knew pit bulls didn't always like dogs, but then was under the sway of people who believed "it's all how you raised them." I didn't know about genetics, or about the nuances of socialization. My understanding of dog temperament wasn't very refined, or maybe nonexistent. I knew I could recognize a nasty dog, and a sweet dog, and had a sort of intuitive sense of a "connected" dog, which is what drew me to pit bulls- they were the most connected dogs in the shelter.

Three years in, I met Mac. Here I was, devoted volunteer with some decent handling skills and some good practical knowledge about bringing a dog home. And I took one look at this dog and know he was mine. When I got him, he looked like a beagle pit mix. I was at the point where I still thought mixes, especially pit mixes, were better. So I saw this dog who would come to the front of a noisy, crowded city shelter, roll on his back on the cement and pee everywhere, begging to be petted. Sweet! A connected dog! A connected mess of a dog. He was mine. And he was a mess. Mac submissive peed on everyone he encountered- not met, because it was people he knew, too. He submissive peed on most of the people he encountered for the year after that. When I took him to dog parks (I know, right?), he didn't really play with dogs, he ran around, and occasionally engaged in chase behavior, as the chaser and chasee. He busted out of every crate I put him in, and I eventually took to working out my schedule so that he could come with me every single place I went- either in the car, or within eyesight, including to work.

Harbingers of things to come, I'd say. Mac grew into a pit bull mix, or a badly bred pit bull with hound dog ears, or a dog with a big head. Although his submissive pee issues subsided as I learned, with the help of training classes and private training and lots and lots of reading, to build up his confidence with obedience routines and socialization and working at his comfort level, Mac has always been a "soft" dog. In some ways, he's very confident in the world, and the somewhat bizarre and stressful situations I put him in: I've written about how he loves to explore and has never been afraid of strange surfaces. He doesn't flinch at fireworks (I think he sleeps through earthquakes, too) or other loud noises. Marching in the Pride Parade two years in a row was about the best thing in his life, he told me- talk about an overstimulating situation for almost any dog! He loves training, he is extremely connected to me, and learned to stay home alone as soon as I gave up on crate training (duh, training/behavior is not one-size fits all- took me a minute). He's great at the vet- sometimes I take him there on our walks, just for a treat. You can touch him anywhere, at almost any time, and he thinks it's wonderful (he probably didn't think the time I closed his tail in a Volvo door was wonderful, but he certainly didn't even think about biting me). Anyone can get in the car with us, or come into our house, whether he knows them or not, and he thinks they're his best friend! Oh, boy, the UPS man!

On the other hand, Mac is not the most stable of pit bulls, or dogs. I had to teach him to tug- he was so soft that he would almost cringe if I tried to rile him up by playbowing at him or waving a toy around at him. Now he can be pushy and demanding when he wants to eat or play, in a muzzle-punching kind of way. He has questionable dislikes of certain people, in an "unpredictable" way. I put set aside "unpredictable" because most dog nerds can tell you that there is some trigger in what bugs a dog. I've lived with this dog for 7 and a half years and I'm just not sure I can put my finger on a consistent trigger. He has developed a dislike of children, which makes me life difficult, and has shrunk his world. He used to literally lie down and take it: I remember taking him to one of his many dinners at a cafe, and watching horrified as a toddler kicked him in the face twice before I could stop the kid. Mac just laid there and wagged his tail while my friend gave his mom a piece of her mind. Five years later, I envision this scene and have nightmares of a mauling. Mac and I eat in public any more. Mac's prey drive, once a quiet, houndlike stalking and treeing of squirrels, complete with pointing, is now to a point where I feel lucky that we've only had one close encounter, and that that was due to faulty equipment. I thank the god of dawgs that this was our only encounter, and hate that it happened at all. Mac tolerates dogs now, but hates being touched. He's not leash reactive 90% of the time, but if he gets a chance to stare, the game may be on. I don't trust Mac not to seek and destroy. Mac guards his very very special stuff- a raw bone, a tug toy when he's aroused, etc. We worked trades, and he will give it up for me, but when he's in high drive (for him!) mode, I warn my friends away from his ropes.

My dog has more friends than I do. My friends ask me where he is when I don't bring him places. I bring him to the camera store (not a place where I'm likely to see small children) and when I don't, I worry they will kick me out. He is a crowd pleaser, especially in his outfits. He's great on leashed walks with other dogs, and has helped me help other dog owners teach their dogs to look less like freaks on a leash. And Mac can be about as naughty as they come, which leads me to "social dog envy." I wouldn't trade Mac for anything. But I miss a couple things. I miss the ignorance that came with owning Kozi, and with the first few months of having a dog that "just" submissive peed on everyone. (The time he peed on my thesis adviser's "little sister" was pretty awful, but I got over that.) I miss being able to walk him (onleash of course) on relatively quiet days in parks, and not having to worry. I wish I could let him out in my backyard and not worry that a cat would come over the (pathetic) fence.

This is not about having a pit bull. This is about having a special pit bull. This is not about being a responsible dog owner. I'm all about having a pit bull, and being responsible about it. This is not about regretting any of my decisions, or about thinking Mac is a "bad" dog. This is about agreeing with Flick and Dunbar. Mac was dealt a shitty hand. When I got him, at probably 8-12 months, he had already lived a lifetime of small (or big) setbacks that I will never know about. He has an ear that is smushed up, and multiple vets have told me it is due to some kind of trauma- maybe an older dog he lived with biting him. For a sensitive dog like Mac, even his short, week long stay in the shelter must have been torture. And a novice owner like me did the very very best, and socialized him, but we all make mistakes. Every moment was a training moment, like they say, for both of us. I trained Mac with a clicker, but also quickly got hooked on a prong collar. I didn't manage all of his interactions with dogs, or with children. I took one class a year, and should have done more with him, to continue to build his confidence, in appropriate times.

As I write this, Mac is spinning in circles, kneading my dirty laundry up, trying to get comfortable in the hamper and practically breaking my heart with cuteness. I wouldn't trade Mac for everything. I've made tons of mistakes, I've pushed his limits, and I've isolated him too much, especially for the 2 years that I lived in Santa Cruz where we lived on a dead end street full of off-leash dogs. I picked a dog that was a "project" when I probably wasn't ready for it. I didn't want a puppy, and I know that when getting an adult dog, you "risk" missing the opportunity to socialize the dog yourself. I didn't know how to "properly" pick an adult dog when I got Mac. I love Mac. He has taught me how to be a good dog person- I suspect many many dog professionals would attribute many of their skills and much of their knowledge to a project dog or two.



Rinalia said...

I happen to think most dogs are perfect. Mina certainly has quirks and traits that "pit bull purists" would balk at. She's not effusive with new people, though she's stalwart in her tolerance of them (and once she knows you, she's yours for all canine eternity).

She's also a leash-reactive, shy, dog-stupid, prey-driven, adorably awesome dog. I would not have her any other way.

Mac sounds like he's a normal dog who interacts with his environment and responds to it in his own canine ways. I think we expect far too much of dogs, forcing them into strict containers of "right" and "wrong", "good"and "bad" as if dogs have any clue. They are who they are and, if they are lucky, they end up with people who get that - like you and Mac. :)