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It's Nelly's World

Just a Wee Tiny Despair

alec vanderboom

Here at the swimming hole, Nelly is tied on a long line. She ventures out--freedom is mine!--and then she hits the end and feels the implacable rigor of The Tree. She is tethered, an unusual state for this free-ranging dog, because there are people here with food. (And where, I submit, are there people in America who don't sally forth without food anymore? I know we're hardwired as animals to eat whatever food is available, but hasn't this gotten ridiculous? What meal is it that these people are eating at 3:30 in the afternoon--tea? With submarine sandwiches?)

Nelly too is wired, programmed, habituated, reinforced, and possibly drawn by supernatural beings to obtain food. Now--and here is the secret that many people don't get--some dogs are born like this, and some aren't. It's not a moral thing, though that's the gloss one hears over and over: "My dog is a good dog. He won't steal food." Ahem. To a dog, as long as there aren't bared fangs in the proximity, anything is fair game. On a plate or not. What is a plate?

Until someone can give me a plausibly logical explanation of how a member of another species learns the concept of ownership--something that's messed us up, for sure, and leads to taxes, wars, partisan fighting, and the whole Housewives franchise, to mention a few of the pits dogs have not fallen into--I won't buy it. Just as I no longer believe in the tooth fairy, having been the tooth fairy for some nine years now.

Which brings me to my small despair. No, not that after said nine years, I have pretty much run out of ideas for what to put under the pillow, before he has run out of teeth. And no, not that Nelly is driving (has driven?) me nuts with her incessant vocalizations--why didn't I get one of those good dogs, one of the quiet ones?

(I say, like a mantra, what trainer Kim told me long ago, when I had also reached the end of my rope: "You get the dog you need," meaning the struggle to overcome her problems will somehow lead me directly to the problems I must struggle with inside myself.) My companionable despair has to do with how dogs are treated--and the book I feel I must write about it.

Five years now, and I've been spinning my wheels. The way in has not shown itself. No subject has seemed as big, or as impenetrable. I don't know how to say what I know I want to say--desperately want to say--in a way that will yield better results than it has at any number of parties.

Take one last week. The chitchat turned to dogs, and to trainers. As always, there was murmured approval for one of the telegenic proponents of old-fashioned German military thread of training (developed by Konrad Most at the turn of the last century). William Koehler popularized the style, though if you have a drop of genuine love for animals in you, you might want to spare yourself the nausea that follows on studying his methodology. He is alive and well (though he himself is dead) in the trainers that people today adore. They look stricken if you dissent: I literally cannot count the times I got into conversations at parties in the past six years--yes, flirtations that were going quite well, thank you, with smiles and deep eye-locks and all the rest--when such a dissent from me caused the immediate dynamiting of good feeling and turned it to rubble. So quickly. But I can't not say what I know: that our sad, sick love of domination because it makes us feel good to hurt, to make others fear us, is harming the animals we purport to love. And do. The myth of dominance in regards to dogs--just Google it--has been put to rest by scientists with knowledge far greater than mine. (Hence a seed of the despair.) And the way of hope--an obedient dog, as well as a happy one, who has been taught without pain or fear--is readily available. But people don't want it. Why? The despair grows.

It bloomed full open, when a guest, a gentle young woman, revealed that a movie had been made about the local trainer I call The Nazi (I've seen him teach his clients to kick their dogs, and his prime arsenal consists of neck injury by collar pops and repetitive yelling, which nonetheless don't work all too well, witness the time I walked by his class with Nelly in a perfect heel, while his students' dogs were breaking all over the place). And she smiled as she declared herself a fan of the guy after seeing it.

Why are we so attracted to punishment? Why do we fear, and belittle, kindness? Moreover, kindness that works, because it is scientifically grounded in how mammals learn? A law, rather than a myth. Why? Why the persistence and valorization of methods that hurt, and that don't even work? Why our blindness?

Why the demonization of a treat? Please, folks, it's just food. It's just what the dog is programmed to want more than just about anything, although in their time, water, freedom, the door opening, a tennis ball, can be more desired, and hence should be used. The one thing it's silly to think a dog wants--though people do it all the time--is praise. Hello? Words in English? Where do those appear in canid evolution, pray tell?

If my life depended on a dog doing what it has been taught, then I will find a dog who has been clicker trained. (My clumsy shorthand for operant conditioning.) It is what the Navy realized, when it was placing people's lives on the line when it was training dolphins for top-secret work. They hired a man named Bob Bailey, who in 1962 became the Director of Animal Training for the Navy. This is not an outfit that has any place for sentimentality; they must know that something works, and they must be damn sure of it. And Bailey found that only operant conditioning could give that level of reliability. In his illustrious career as an animal trainer--across 140 different species, and thousands of individual animals--he has proved beyond a doubt that what works is positive reinforcement. It is also, just coincidentally, humane. He has said that if aversives worked, he would have certainly used them; but the uncontrollable fallout from their use is too dangerous when lives are at stake. He meant the lives of humans. But he could as well have meant those of our companion animals, whose troublesome behaviors are often exacerbated by punishment-based training to the point where euthanasia is required.

It is possible, if one searches, to find the trainers who have been called in to mop up the messes created by our beloved television personality, the one who gives us permission to frighten, hurt, and dominate our dogs--and smile while he is doing so. He tells us it is right, and we happily believe.

My despair crystallized in the deeply dismayed gazes of the dinner guests whose paeans to the local trainer were not seconded by me. The conversation froze. I froze too, thinking, How? How can I say what I know in my heart and in my mind?

If I cannot get it across to some friends gathered around the cheese plate on the kitchen counter, and if I cannot get it across to some guy who was already leaning toward "Maybe I could give you a call sometime?", how the hell can I write a book about it?

Oh, it's a good thing my despair is so small.