Saturday, September 16, 2006

Karma in a dog's mouth

Instead of organizing my office, mowing the lawn, doing my assigned readings for class, or any of those other responsible things I should be doing, I thought I would take some time out (also known as procrastination) to tell a memorable story about Felanie. This story should be considered in light of the sometimes unreasonable "dangerous dog" laws that are becoming more and more common in response to a percieved national dog bite crisis.

Especially notable is a trend among the media to make a dog bite sound absolutely horrific, even if the victim suffered mere bruises and scratches. Terms like "mauling" and "vicious attack" are used to describe dog bites that barely break the skin. Dogs are labeled "dangerous" or "vicious" after displaying what is actually a very natural behavior. I am not trying to ignore or belittle the rare very serious cases where a dog really does go "overboard" and a person is seriously injured or killed as a result. However, the vast majority of dog bites are not the brutal affairs we make them out to be. Usually the victim's most lasting scars are mental, because dog bites are - to the naive especially - a shocking repudiation of the social folklore that gives dogs the title "Man's Best Friend". That is to say, we take threats from dogs - whether it be a bite or a growl - very personally. Such threats are a violation of the trust implicit in the relationship between the species which we romanticize at every opportunity.

If you have read anything about Felanie, you know the brief history that follows, but I think it's important to place this story in its proper framework. Felanie's previous owner was a real jerk. He mistreated her, failed to socialize her, teased her, and encouraged her to be aggressive. Felanie became a Nervous Nelly. Everything frightened her, even a sideways glance from a stranger. If something unusual happened, Felanie had two possible reactions. The first was to bark incessantly while maintaining a safe distance from the odd thing. The second was to run and hide. She was a very fearful dog, and constantly on edge, which was a dangerous state to be in. Despite all her owner's shortcomings, however, Felanie still clung to him. He was all she had.

Of course, Karma has a way of biting you in the butt, quite literally. The story as it was told to me goes a bit like this. Felanie's owner managed to lock himself out of the house one night. However, to his pleasure the bedroom window on the first floor was unlocked, so naturally he decided to enter the house in that manner. The bottom of the window was at about chest level, and rather than jump up and tumble inside head first in an unelegant manner, Fel's owner decided to go in legs first. He lifted the first leg over the sill, pushed himself upwards, and was lowering himself in backwards when he realized the dark bedroom was not empty.

Felanie had been watching this bizarre event from the corner of the room. In the darkness, she could only tell that someone was entering through the window, not the identity of the intruder. As the shadowy figure started to slink in, she jumped up and began to bark loudly. This was quite unorthodox! The intruder laughed a little and continued in, and Felanie finally did something that she felt would make her owner very proud, since it was a behavior he constantly encouraged in her and was disgusted that she never did it: she leapt forward and clamped her jaws down firmly on the intruder's buttocks. In the next second she realized that the clothing of this stranger smelled quite familiar, and the howling coming from this person actually sounded a lot like... her owner.

I didn't ever learn whether the bite actually broke the skin. I suspect it was just a little nip designed to frighten off the intruder, not to inflict serious damage. But it was a bite nevertheless, and as a result I can't honestly say that Felanie has never bitten anyone. But as far as I know, that jerk was the only person she has ever bitten, and I admit I'm a little proud of her for setting some justice loose on his behind - whether that was her intent or not. You reap what you sow, and Felanie's owner certainly got the behavior he so badly desired... perhaps not in the manner he expected, but certainly in the manner he deserved.

When I obtained Felanie by accident, I recognized her growling and barking for what they were: fear-based behaviors, potentially dangerous because of her low threshhold for fear. Through socialization and training she has completely turned around. For instance, during the remodeling of our house I took the opportunity to habituate her to people climbing in and out of windows and even walls. I can't say she is completely free of fear - small children are particularly terrifying for her and thunderstorms make her shake and whine - but her much smaller set of fears are highly manageable and far more acceptable.

Dogs that bite aren't all determined to do as much damage as possible. They aren't all dangerous or deadly. They are simply trying to tell us something: "Leave me alone." "Stop doing that." "This is my space." "I'm scared of you!" Most bites are merely warnings; they are not intended to do significant damage. As Felanie demonstrates, a biting dog is not necessarily a bad, dangerous, or vicious dog. It is a dog that has not been properly trained or socialized and feels that there is no other option except to resort to a natural reaction in an effort to protect themselves or defend their space.

When we discuss dangerous dog legislation, we must take care to differentiate between the truly dangerous dogs versus dogs who are not dangerous but simply need better care and guidance. Felanie was one of the latter, and upon transfering to an owner who actually cared about her and wanted a better future for her (me), she really transformed into a wonderful, sweet, loving, obedient dog.

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