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The Reason for the Book
I have often been referred to as a "dog whisperer". Although I'm sure this sobriquet is intended to be complimentary, I have never been comfortable with it. A dog whisperer gets into the psychology of dog behavior, using methods and techniques to correct a misguided, confused, or misbehaving dog. This practice is fantastic in many ways. I'm glad I was blessed to have been initially influenced by the best: my very first dog training professor — my mom.
Mom was a hazel-eyed, white-haired, tough Irish woman who raised seven children with an "I have an iron fist, a strong will, and I'll do what it takes to get things done" attitude. My dad, a hardworking, intimidating Irishman with thinning hair and smiling eyes, always brought home the new family dog, but it was always Mom's magic creating the amazing pets they became. She always uniquely understood "mutts". Not one of our family pets ever came from a breeder. Not a single penny was spent acquiring these dogs. Their lives generally started in a barn and ended up at our house in the center of the city, in a neighborhood of so many houses so close together, you could borrow a cup of sugar through the window without ever leaving the comfort of your kitchen.
I learned when very young to gaze into a dog's soul. I know it's said now that dogs don't have souls, but you will never convince me there is no spiritual energy at work. Why do you think the word "dog" is a transposition of the word "God"?
Further training came from loving and knowing my own dogs. Recently, someone asked if I would dedicate this book to these special animals; well, this book IS indeed dedicated to my dogs, past and present. People often remark about the way my dogs seem to be a bit unnaturally attached to me; I could never disagree but have always attributed this to the power of the alpha and to the two-way trust.
These dogs have taught me so much — dogs such as Midnight, our family's first one, a black Labrador Retriever. My father came home one day and dropped this eight week old Labrador retriever at my mother's feet, a gift from one of his farmer friends. Midnight became our newest family member!
Labrador Retrievers are by nature swimmers, bred by Canadian fishermen to assist with fetching fish and with retrieving nets. Midnight was no exception. My parents took all us kids to our summer home at the lake, a quaint cottage with no running water, but we thought we were rich. My brothers, sisters, and I pretended we were drowning and that Midnight came to save us. We grabbed her tail, and she swam us to shore. We called her our lifeguard. But we ignorant kids kept this up until Midnight got sick and we realized we had overdone the fun. In truth, we had probably nearly drowned her.
Another example of our childhood ignorance of dogs: in the City of Buffalo were many abandoned industrial buildings to investigate, and we always took Midnight with us on these adventures. On one of our trips to an old cement factory, we were walking down one of the dark, damp hallways when Midnight cried out: she had badly cut her ankle. It was bleeding so profusely, we feared we would lose her right there. We knew we had to get her home fast, and we trotted ten blocks home, keeping pressure on the wound but fearing the worst. When we rushed into the house with her, Mom told us to tightly wrap the wound and to keep a close eye on her ourselves: supporting seven kids made affording a vet impossible. Midnight healed within a few short weeks, but my brother and I caught hell for what had happened. In retrospect, I ask myself, "Who takes a dog into an abandoned industrial building?"
Midnight lived to be fifteen years old, dying when I was seventeen. She had shared my entire childhood. We'd grown so close through the years that, while I was away on a camping trip, a strange feeling came over me. I knew Midnight was in good health but was unable to help feeling that something was wrong. I shared my fears with my brother Dan, who questioned my intellect, as well as my overall mental well being. When I got home, I threw open the large front door and immediately asked Mom where Midnight was. She told me Midnight had died. No surprise. Somehow, I had just known! Mom told me that while I was away, Midnight had become so sick that Dad had carried her to the basement and had held her until she passed away. My dad, the strong, tough, World War II Marine Corp veteran of the South Pacific, had cried hard that night.
Shortly after losing Midnight, we were again at the lake when neighbors across the street told us their dog had birthed Pointer mix puppies, one of which became the family dog between our Labrador Retrievers. She was six weeks old, white with random black markings. The runt of the litter, she grew to only twenty pounds — not much for a Pointer. We named her Cookie.
Cookie was a poor bird dog, but she was everything we wanted in a family dog and loved to clown around, climbing ladders, jumping through hoops, and running around like one of us kids. I remember lying on my back on the living room floor, watching television. My head and hands rested against the base of the couch when, suddenly, I felt a small paw dart from underneath the couch and lay on my hand. I remember thinking, "This is just too cute." That gives you an idea just how small Cookie was. Sadly, this was my last memory of Cookie, who went hunting with Dad and Dan the next morning and never returned. They thought Cookie had gotten lost. For days afterward, Dad returned to the hunting fields to find her. He never did. We concluded that someone had stolen her.
Two years after losing Cookie, my girlfriend gave me a black Labrador Retriever, an eight weeks old, brown-eyed fur ball. I had this puppy for about an hour, until Mom persuaded me that Dad needed another dog and that because it was his birthday, I should give him the puppy. So, I put a yellow ribbon around her neck, went to Dad, and said, "What's black and yellow and just what you need?" I put the puppy in his arms, and she became his. He named her Middy, after Midnight.
Middy loved all the time and became Dad's best friend, going everywhere with him. He took her hunting and fishing. They were quite a pair. She was so loving, the entire neighborhood claimed her for their own. Occasionally, we couldn't find her, and she was at one of the neighbors' behaving as though she lived there. When she died fifteen years later, she departed in first class canine style: she left one winter evening and never returned. Come spring, we found her under a pine tree in melting snow, realizing she'd died the way she'd lived, loving and putting everyone else's feelings first.
A few years after gifting Middy to Dad, I married and fathered two children. When it was time for a family dog, I drove to the local animal shelter. Strolling among the many kennels, my eye caught a beautiful orange-and-white Brittany Spaniel/Collie mix who spotted me and worked her way to the front of the cage. After spending time with her, I asked the attendant to hold this dog for a few hours. I went home, picked up my six-year-old daughter Melissa, and returned to the shelter. Without pointing out any particular dog, I asked Melissa which dog she liked most. She gravitated immediately toward the same Brittany/Collie mix I had selected. Done! We had a new family member. Melissa and I named her Kelly even before arriving home; it must have been Kelly's fiery red/orange hair. The shelter had believed Kelly to be about two years old. She was a great family dog who guarded diligently our house and family members. She was my sweet best friend, and several years later I got Kelly in the divorce.
Kelly was mild-mannered and sweet but a bit of a wanderer. After the divorce, I purchased a "project" house in the country, one that needed rebuilding as much as I did. While my close friend Keith and I worked on the house, Kelly roamed the surrounding fields. She loved the country. One day, I watched Kelly sitting on the side of the road, watching oncoming cars, and when the traffic cleared, Kelly shot across the street for more fields to explore. She was a dog so easygoing, everyone was shocked when, one night around two A.M., I awoke to growling and barking. I found Kelly with her teeth around the ankle of one of the would-be-thieves trying to steal Keith's ladders and scaffolding he'd left at my house for the remodeling. Keith was so grateful, he kept Kelly supplied with a lifetime of treats. My mouse had roared like a lion that night!
But she feared thunderstorms. During one storm, she cowered in the garage, and we discovered she had scratched the entire side of the car trying to crawl inside for refuge. Afterwards, we kept her safely in the house. She lived to be twelve years old. It became increasingly difficult for her to walk and to see and, unfortunately, I lived in a cookie cutter neighborhood where every house looked the same. The neighborhood kids often had to bring her home to show her where her house was. Soon thereafter, I took her to the vet for evaluation, who determined it was time to let her go. Their whole lives, our dogs depend on us to do the right thing for them, and one of these duties includes a very painful final decision.
Many years later, I acquired Sasha, a Doberman Pinscher, three years old and already trained, with cropped ears and tail and with perfect Doberman markings. She was perfectly fit, all muscle, and became my last partner in the police department. This policeman never felt safer than when Sasha was by my side. Once, a bad guy attempted to assault me. Before he even got close, Sasha was leaping through the air, exposing teeth heading straight for his neck. Inches before contact, I called her off, and she dropped to the ground. I was always amazed by her level of obedience and by her extensive vocabulary. This guy had no idea how narrowly he had escaped being severely injured. I never had a better friend than Sasha. On the job, she would have given her life for me; as a friend, she was sheer beauty.
Once, I headed to Montana for a couple of weeks, and a friend reminded me I should tell Sasha I was leaving for a while. She looked me right in the eye, turned the other way, and gave me the cold shoulder. After I stopped laughing, I could not believe she'd actually understood me. I coaxed her back to face me and repeated, "Sasha, I have to go to Montana and will be back in a few weeks." Again, she stood up and turned her back to me. I wound up taking her with me.
Thus, some of my best times were with Sasha during frequent visits to the lake. We headed to the lake even in the winter months, and there were times when it was so cold, Sasha slept on the couch with me merely to share body heat. We were inseparable. Sasha was yet another case of 'loving her until she was too old to see or walk', and in the months before her death she was in great pain. Again, I was faced with the difficult, responsible decision to do the right thing by my dog. I sat in the room with her at the vet's office, and when it was time, Sasha actually handed her paw to the vet, her brown eyes gazing up at me with seeming gratitude. I held her while she exhaled her last. There were no dogs in my life for years after Sasha. There were so many things going on in my life: the marriage of my daughter, the arrival of my new granddaughter, my own new marriage, and the building of my new house. Then some good friends decided I had mourned and had been dogless long enough. Their three-year-old silver Weimaraner had puppies, and they insisted I had to have one of them. On July 3rd, a popular night for celebrating Independence Day, they dropped off a four week old black Labrador Retriever/silver Weimaraner mix named Carley (they'd even named her for me). We got her at four weeks because her mother had stopped feeding her and her siblings.
My initial reluctance turned into gratitude. Carley turned out to be the most talented bird hunter I had ever owned. Our ability to communicate was beyond incredible. It also bears mentioning that throughout my time with her, I also fostered many other dogs. Carley was always the balanced dog keeping me safe and the visiting dogs stable. We were great partners.
And then came Luke. While you will read all about Luke in Chapter Twelve, I must say he was an interesting addition to our family. I realized I understood Luke quite a bit.
While I explain my history with dogs, it seems only appropriate I explain why I feel such an instinctive connection with them. Growing up, I was in the middle of seven children. Every middle child can attest that we are the most sensitive. Being a bit learning-disabled with dyslexia didn't make things any easier; in the 50's and 60's no one knew much about dyslexia. I remember being told by a nun, my teacher at the time, that I was just a daydreamer.
Overall I was a pretty happy kid growing up. But, again, being the middle of seven, I was often lost in the sauce. An example, an unsurprising one, is that there are no baby or toddler photos of me.
My older brother and I were twenty-one months apart, but we were raised very differently. I have always enjoyed telling the anecdote of how differently we grew up and why.
My brother Dan was considered academically very bright, a sharp student in Catholic elementary school who graduated with honors. The problem was, he wanted to attend a public high school with his friends. My parents said, "No, you're going to Archbishop Turner, the private Catholic school." When I graduated from elementary school after repeating eighth grade, I asked my parents if I was going to Archbishop Turner, and they said, "No, you're going to the vocational high school where you'll learn a trade, even if it's only to learn how to make license plates."
When my brother graduated from high school, he got a summer job landscaping in a cemetery. He loved the job. Dan explained this to my parents and told them he wanted to forego college. My parents responded, "No, you're going to college for a degree." When I graduated from high school, I asked my parents, "Hey Mom, Dad, what college am I going to?" Of course, their answer was, "You're going into the military."
It may be hard to believe this story can possibly correlate to my world of dogs, but it does. I always preach direction. My parents realized my brother and I needed direction; no choices–individualized direction.
How does all this struggle, sensitivity, insight, and survival create the capability to read dogs? By creating recognition of a lack of respect: I believe there are no species in the entire world who suffer from lack of respect more than fish — and dogs.
First, the fish. A hooked fish is treated like a creature with no feelings at all, jerked from the water to asphyxiate and to be butchered while still alive. Brutal, but you never hear anyone complain about the life, and death, of a fish.
And then there is the dog. A dog can sustain starvation, beatings, neglect ... and what does it do? It responds with unconditional love. The only reason for biting is fear. And we think everything will be okay if we offer a treat. The crazy thing is, it's true. Dogs forgive us over a simple treat. I have always found myself amazed that I am able to recognize levels of fear in dogs, more than most other people. This doesn't mean I feel sorry for the dogs; it simply means I understand them. I understand the difficult place they may find themselves in. I understand the frustration and the weariness. Thus. the reasons for my seeming insight into the behavior of dogs: I learned so much in my years of communicating with them. They know I respect them! ...
Let's move into training mode. Again, dogs will forgive for a treat. Treats are for tricks–not for discipline. You don't give a dog a treat because it came when you called him or sat when you asked him to. Commands are too important to a dog/master relationship to be distracted by, or minimized by, treats. Use this rule: treats are fun, optional; obedience is necessary, not optional.
The three commands are come, sit, and stay. "Come" is the most important command, particularly for the safely of the animal. "Sit" is great because it takes the dog out of play mode and into a neutral position. But the most powerful command is the "Stay" position, especially the long stay, teaching the dog patience and also sending the strong message that YOU are the alpha, the one in charge.
Let's talk about the "alpha".
This is how alpha works: alpha wolf is not a position that some dog is driven to by his ego. It happens because he has no choice. If the pack is to survive and he is the strongest member, then it's in his DNA to step up and dominate the pack. It's a tough position to hold with a ton of responsibility that I bet he would rather never assume, but again–there is no choice.
It is this act of nature, alpha position, which gets a lot of our pets into trouble. If a dog lives in an environment where he perceives weakness, he may attempt to take over. In other words, he believes that he is alpha to his human pack.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Art Of the Dog"
Copyright © 2019 Thomas Purcell.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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