Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dog people and cat people...

Though allergic to cat dander, and the proud owner of a German-bred Verein Deutsch Drahthaar (a pedigreed pointing versatile hunting dog),,, I will try to have this discussion without being influenced by my own personal bias.

This "discussion" is more or less a plea for understanding, not meant to be a judgement of people or the types of pets they own. In fact, quite the contrary. I'm begging for a little understanding due to an experience I had a couple weekends ago with my own aforementioned dog--a five year old German Wirehaired Pointer (the Germans call them "Drahthaars"). Her name is Ecco.

A couple weeks ago, I had the good fortune of spending the weekend with four friends from college--two couples, all four "cat people", i.e. cat owners/lovers of domesticated felines. All of whom (to my understanding) have never owned dogs,, let alone German-bred hunting dogs. Anyway, this is where my story begins...

I spent a good part of the first two years of Ecco's life training her to be the disciplined loyal hunting dog and well-mannered house pet that she is today. Three to five evenings a week were spent in the yard drilling "sit", "stay", "kennel", "lay", "down", etc. Then, most Saturdays were spent at the pond near my house getting her accustomed to swimming, retrieving, and the like. After she got a little older, I even paid for a lease in order to use some acreage of land away from the city where she could practice her natural hunting ability with wild game, and even some planted birds for specialized training. All in all, I'd say that we spent literally hundreds of days over thousands of hours together--training, playing, hunting, walking, swimming,, and generally learning each other. And we do to this day. She is who I come home to, she is a Godsend. I love her with all my heart. My dog and I have a relationship that is hard to put in words. She knows me as well as any person--she is loyal, respectful, and knows that I love her. I strive to be the person my dog thinks I am. I only describe all this because I need others to understand that I've spent literally thousands of hours with my dog--at home, in the field, and watching her swim in the water. I am intimately familiar with what she can do, what she can't, and what influences her in most situations. At last count, she knows 21 verbal commands, three hand signals in the field, and is working on three more hand signals in the water. And that's not counting her ability to read my tone of voice, subtle gestures, and even facial expressions--all of which I am convinced she is able.

Now that some background is laid, I can continue with the events of the weekend. After spending a day and a half in Boston, we decided to drive up to Portland, Maine, where one of my friends and his wife reside. It was just an overnight trip, so I'm sure Ecco would have been okay staying on my back porch, but the "cat people" insisted that we bring her up to Portland. No big deal, she's crate trained, and loves to travel. So, we packed up some food in a Ziploc, and headed north with Ecco occupying her crate in the bed of my pickup truck. Which by the way, I could tell was met with some resistance that Ecco didn't get to ride in the cab with me. A lot of folks don't realize that a crate trained dog is very comfortable, safe, and secure in their crate--they are den animals, and a crate is like a "den". And by the way, it's the safest way for them to travel. Anyway, she made it all the way to Maine (a two and a half hour drive) unscathed and happy.

While in Portland, Ecco stayed in her crate. If she had come into the house, there would have been two dead cats in a matter of seconds. In Germany, dogs are bred to instinctively attack and kill small furry animals because of the rodent problem in Germany. It's kinda hard for a dog that is genetically programmed to kill vermin on sight to discern the difference between a small furry feline,, and a small furry rodent. So, I've never tried. I don't want to defeat her instinct to be a hunter. So,, like I said, the dog stayed in her crate. She put up a little fuss because she wanted to be with us,, but she settled down after a few minutes and took a nap. I took her for tons of walks and bathroom breaks, made sure she had food and water, and always cleaned up after her--for your information. :-)

Now,, the thing with hunting dogs, especially German hunting dogs (weims, shorthairs, wirehairs, and the like) is that they are driven with a hunting instinct, a kind of fire that burns in their guts. That fire is what produces their drive to hunt out in the field, their desire to work for their handler in the field and in the water. It's that innate "desire" that motivates a dog like Ecco to voluntarily swim through an ice-chunked river in the middle of January after a downed mallard duck. It's that same "desire" that motivated Ecco to hunt for pheasants in North Dakota for four days--about 7 hours a day, with very little rest. During that hunt, she was pretty much at full sprint covering as much ground as possible looking for pheasants for many hours a day--without complaint, and without falter. She endured a full face of porcupine quills, and bloody paw pads after the second day,,,,, but still wanted to hunt,, and did so in elegant fashion. A meek, mild, sensitive dog, without all this "heart", may very well not perform to such an amazing degree in the field. But Ecco, along with virtually all dogs in her breed have this desire. It's not trained. It just comes naturally. But with this "desire" comes challenges when training. Ecco is pretty much impervious to punishment. Let me re-emphasize, she does NOT get her feelings hurt even after the most severe punishments are administered. She may react to the punishment while it is happening, but the second that the punishment is over, she is wagging her tail, bouncing around, and excited for what's next. Because she isn't all that much affected by punishment, coupled with this extreme hunting desire, training can be a constant challenge. I am convinced that she reasons through a decision--weighing the likelihood of getting caught, gauging the severity of punishment, and rationally deciding if the reward for being disobedient is worth it. For this reason, even though she is almost six years old, she still acts like an 8 month old pup. She knows obedience, but still pushes her limits like a toddler would with its parents. It's this constant discipline that was abhorred by the "cat people" and subsequently admonished. I don't blame them for caring about my dog's feelings, I just beg of them to gain a little understanding before jumping to the conclusion that I am an abusive dog owner.

In the town of Portland, Ecco was on cloud nine! So many people, so many sights, sounds, smells.. And the number of other dogs,,, whew! To say that walking through the streets of downtown Portland was distracting to a dog accustomed to lonely neighborhood sidewalks, unoccupied ponds, and the wide open spaces of the hunting field,,,, would be a tremendous understatement. But I viewed the experience as an opportunity for training. There very well might be distractions in the field as well, and Ecco needs to learn to keep her focus, and to refrain from abandoning the obedience that we both know she knows. Let me admit that I was surprised how distracted she appeared to be. She can "heel" off-lead in most situations like show dogs, but even on-lead (with all the distractions of Portland), I was constantly yanking her collar, twisting her ear, and verbally reprimanding her. If I allowed her to run wild--sniffing every person and pet, jerking me into the alleys, jumping on passers-by, she would think that it is okay to do that all the time. She knows better, and I had to make sure she was duly reminded. Again, this is not exactly understood by the "cat people". It's not that I expected them to understand, but I was hoping they could give me the benefit of the doubt as the owner and single trainer of Ecco over the last six years instead of judging me out of their own ignorance. By the end of the trip, Ecco was heeling a lot better, but I admit it was a struggle.

Then came the beach. Unfortunately, the beach was the last impression Ecco and I left with the cat people. As I stated before, Ecco spends about three to five hours a week in the water--even in the winter we go to the pond to swim as long as the pond isn't frozen over. She absolutely loves the water, and literally jumps at the chance to swim--even if the outside temperature is below freezing. So, with all that experience, I thought we would have a wonderful morning at the beach showing off her prowess in the water. It started out fine. Ecco ran up and down the shoreline, sniffing every rock, every plant, and generally being Ecco. But when it came time to show off her retrieving skills, I suppose I got a little overzealous. We started out with a couple sighted retrieves where I throw out a bumper dummy while she's looking at me. I send her out into the water, and she brings back the dummy to my side. I even threw a couple "blind retrieves" where she doesn't see where I throw it, but goes out into the water in the direction I send her anyway. She was doing great till I threw out two bumpers "blind". She retrieved the first, but by the time I sent her out for the second, the cross-wind had taken the second one farther out to sea, and farther downwind. When she went out for the second, she didn't see it, and she was upwind from the dummy so therefore couldn't smell it either. She acted like she didn't hear voice commands--perhaps because of the chop on the ocean, I'm not sure. But to make a long story short, Ecco decided to swim non-stop for the next twenty minutes searching the ocean for the lost bumper dummy. She checked buoy after buoy, some of which were probably 300 yards from the shore and a couple hundred yards apart. Finally, when she was headed on a line downwind from the bumper dummy, a kayaker paddled up alongside her (between Ecco and the dummy), and forced her to shore. When Ecco got out of the water she was energetic, tail wagging, and ready to jump back in the water to continue looking for the dummy. I called her off because I could tell the group I was with thought that I was abusing my dog by making her swim for such a long period of time. I confirmed that assumption when I told one of my friends that I know Ecco would have found the dummy if the kayaker hadn't interfered. His response was a smug and condescending "That kayaker saved your dog's life." I was taken aback, and a little irritated at his ignorance, but I didn't start an argument. I knew that he didn't know any better.

As I said, Ecco was spry as always after her extended time in the water--sniffing around, sprinting up and down the shoreline, wagging her tail incessantly. In fact, she really didn't even act tired at all,, even though I wish she would have been more calm. I knew in my heart that Ecco was fine, would have been fine swimming for another twenty minutes, but I wasn't about ready to argue my case to the four of them--one of which had already left the beach because she couldn't bear witnessing such animal abuse. It was an uncomfortable setting back at the house, so I decided to pack up our stuff and head home. Ecco had a blast! I took a great opportunity to train her, but I'm fairly certain my friends think I should be reported to PETA and that my dog should be remanded to puppy social services... I'll say this, I was a little appalled when one of my friends tossed his cat from shoulder height to the hardwood floor, but I didn't question, comment, or judge. Maybe cats like five foot leaps onto hard surfaces. I don't know, because I've never owned a cat. I just wish he would afford me the same benefit of the doubt, and take the time to learn about my dog before judging me on the ways I care for her...

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

First let me start by saying, indeed you should write a novel, a book, a memoir.... You have remarkable writing abilities, you can capture the attention of a vast rage of readers, and invoke intense emotion from start to finish.

That said, this posting threw my emotions all over the place, for several different reasons. I am a dog lover, a cat owner, a disciplinarian, a peace keeper...I realize this is not about me, it is about you and sweet Ecco, but to accurately portray my understanding of your position I must offer my own sort of background information. Read it if you want,...or not...

I am all too familiar with the bond between a dog and its' master. I had that bond with a dog of my own, once upon a time. T-Bone. He was my saving grace day in and day out. He never left my side, he knew me better than any human did. He gave me comfort when I was sad, made me feel loved when I felt so alone, really, truely, he was my saving grace. He could read every expression that shown on my face, interperate every word and tone that passed thru my lips. I cannot say he was as prestigious a dog as Ecco, or that he knew X number of commands, but he had my heart and I had his, in that dog/master sort of way, that I know you are familiar with.

On certain occassions when his instincts, or lack of better judgement would get the best of him and he would make a poor descision, I would be forced to, as you say, "administer punishment." The thing is, at the command word "sit", his bottom would not depart from the ground even though he knew I was on my way to teach him a lesson. He would wait patiently for me to reach him, as he, unfortunately for me, did not listen to the word "come" when he knew he was in trouble. (His usual misbehavior occured outside on the 10 acres of desert and this made for enough time for him to think about what he'd done, or what I knew he was getting ready to do.)

The instant his punishment was over, he was ready to be my best friend again. Wanted to play, wanted to be right at my side. Just a happy dog who understood he had done wrong and was ready to move on, as if to say to me "I'm sorry, how can I make it up to you?"

Without knowing the extent of your usage of the term "punishment", it is hard to say one way or another if your friends have validity in their concerns of your treatment of Ecco. Knowing you, and I think I have a pretty good feel for you, I do not believe that you would cause your dog physical pain or place her in imminent danger. I believe she is too big a part of you, your life, who you are, that you would never risk her well being beyond humane limits. You do challenge her, as you do with many things in life, which can be good, but can be dangerous. Accidents happen, things you cannot control, and you must be cautious of these. I can see how someone would be concerned about the length of time Ecco spent searching the water for her second dummy. But only you know your dog. If you knew she could handle it, then I have the confidence in knowing that as well. Some people just don't have certain expectations of their animals, they are just pets, some might say...they are not meant to serve their masters. Do you know what I mean?

I ask you now, does being the owner of a cat make someone a "cat person", using the term with the intent to stereotype...? I say no...it does not. I now have a cat, my T-Bone having to be left behind in a story I care not to rehash. I swore I would never have another animal. The sadness from my loss of him hurts to this day but is just something I must deal with. (I get it, the bond, trust me)

I love my sweet cat. She is who I come home to everyday, she found me and worked herself into my life. She would be on my porch, just like T-Bone, patiently awaiting my return home every day. I know her and she knows me.

I have thought about this on other occassions. The change from having a dog like T-Bone to the cat I have now. A huge difference is indeed the punishment factor. Felines are far more unpredictable as well as far more apt to act out. They do not respond to punishment the way dogs do. They are much more independant creatures than dogs, in that, they don't crave your praise and aim to please as a dog does. This in fact creates a completely different kind of relationship between the owner and the animal and maybe for those whom have not had the pleasure of experiencing the bond between a man and his dog, just don't understand. Could be they've never owned a dog...or maybe they have but the relationship level was not as intense...hard to say really...

As far as being appalled at the sight of your friend tossing his cat from 5 feet in the air... I was once posed the question, "does she like that?" when I did the same to my cat. I did not toss her, but I released her from my arms and down she jumped. To calm your concerns, if-you-will, cats generally do not mind, in fact, they are usually are the ones jumping from distances as such, hence the nine lives and their ability to contort their spines in order to successfully land on their feet. If they minded, they would let you know, it's in the bond between a cat and their owner.

So, in closing, I see and understand your points and concerns as well as seeing and understanding your friends' concerns. Indeed, no one knows an animal like its' owner, and it is healthy to push, but don't push too hard. You cannot control every factor in life and there are times when you must proceed with caution. I am sure your friends' concerns were legitimate in their eyes. But I ask you now, if given the chance to do it over again, would you do it all the same or would you change a little something? ...and not that this can make a difference for the past, but it can help with choices in the future...

lilannabelle said...

You and Ecco are lucky to have each other. You have trained Ecco for sport as well as for pleasant companionship; Ecco obeys and is rewarded with love and time, and you know each other's boundaries.

I think that some people would have a problem with some of your methods and find them cruel (keeping her swimming for so long or making her drool over her food before you give the command that it is okay to eat), but if they just watched you two together for five minutes, they would see the loving bond. If they can't see that, then they are blind.

Chris Ritter said...

She's a German dog; why not use stern Teutonic discipline with her?

I mean that in 80% seriousness. Sounds like your (former?) friends don't get the whole serious dog thing. They - like most people, maybe - have pets solely for the cute/cuddly reasons, and don't understand that there are other perfectly valid reasons to own a dog, along with perfectly valid attendant methods. You should scold them for spoiling and neglecting their cats by not training them.

Rebecca said...

To me, pet owning is sort of like parenting. And people - esp. friends - should think twice before criticizing another on their parenting skills. Even if it's "only" with furkids.

Just my humble opinion.

Caddis fly said...

chris ritter--
thanks for the humor! in 100% seriousness, they are definitely not "former" friends. They are among the dearest friends I have...

Anne said...

Interesting to know.