My friend, Amy Swope, wrote the beautiful, poetic post below. Amy has worked with K9s for a very long time and has seen the good/bad/ugly of the working dog world. She stopped, and started a rescue from the ground up in rural Virginia for dogs – many that are sent from Kuwait from horrific conditions. See her Facebook site on https://www.facebook.com/BlueRidgeCanineServices/. (Please donate if you can.)
She should also look into a career as a writer!
I virtually met Amy when she was trying to help get remaining dogs from being euthanized by Eastern Services – a K9 sniffer dog company who had lost their contract with KNPC and had started killing their dogs rather than returning them to the States. She and local rescuers managed to get many dogs back to the US and re-homed.
When I read Amy's story below, it made me think of all the neveux dog owners in Kuwait and how so many have bought into the Ceasar Milan misconception of getting your dog to be submissive to the owner (and all the new, "trainers" who have popped up recently with the same thought process) instead of being (as Amy says) "partners". I remember taking my German Shepherd to get groomed in Kuwait. He was approximately a year old and I was waiting in PetZone for our appointment. Mikey (who, I now know will never get along with other dogs - just the way he is - and that's ok) was barking nervously. A young man came over and started advising me on how to deal with Mikey (because the man had seen the entire Ceasar Milan collection on DVD) and then poked Mikey with the hissing noise. Mikey turned his head to look at me for permission to bite (I wanted to agree, but just told the man to go away). Because Mikey and I ARE partners, sometimes a look is enough to understand each other. He has trained me well.
Amy is a wonderful, compassionate, caring person and I love her perspective. Read on….
There is something very specific that overcomes my heart when working with crazy animals. The genetic machines. Outliers of the animal world. The ones who don’t quite fit the domestic mold. Or broken spirits, tangled in the unnatural weight of society’s burdens. It is a moment that i call “untraining”. It took me 10 years of “training” to learn the art of untraining. It is the moment the animal lets go of its past experiences of human interaction. And when I let go of human expectations placed on the animal. And we jive in that sweet spot of mutual respect. That partnership where “dominant” and “submissive” melt back into the neatly packaged Caesar Milan marketing campaign. And where all the control devices for “training” fall into a suburban poop bag which then gets tied into a tight little knot and tossed into the Rubbermaid bin.
All of that is gone and we are back at square one. That point where we say, I won’t fuck with you if you don’t fuck with me... let’s work together... just like humans and dogs evolved to do. I was never a wolf, and the dog was never a human, so we will never relate to each other on those terms. Man is the provider of needs for the dog. Dog is the provider of protection for the man. We are companions. I am not his alpha, nor is he my human child. We are partners.
I’ve been bitten. I’ve been thrown from a horse. I respect both of those responses as natural for the animal and I know that somewhere I’ve crossed a boundary. I back up and analyze natural ways to renegotiate those boundaries. How can I help the animal believe that it’s in their own best interest to expand their world? That isn’t training - that is teaching. And it’s an art.
Ive been laying awake all night thinking of when i started as a K9 trainer living in South Africa. Thinking about how I missed the natural life I lived there, and how it affected the relationship i had with the animals I worked with. The lessons it taught me. You can’t control Africa. You can’t fit the wildness of it safely into a crime-free, safe suburb, best school district, corporate ladder packaged life. The only thing predictable is the lack of circumstantial control. In the USA, it is a giant inconvenience if an espresso machine at Starbucks is broken, making us coffee-less and 10 min late for our routine self-important life. Meanwhile in South Africa, an entire reel of overhead power lines get stolen, no one in 50 miles has power, and yet “a boer maak n plan”. Or as the military would say “adapt and overcome.”
I started learning to train working K9s using all of the traditional methods. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the untraditional genetics. Out of 500 dogs bred for work, maybe 1/5th would be strong enough to pass all the tests. They were tested in their totally raw genetic state, prior to any training. Would they work through a bomb blast? Would they bite and not let go, even when being beaten? Do they have nerves of steel, courageous hearts, and the pain tolerance of a Spartan? These anomalies sit and look at you with adoring eyes. They are like every other dog - but they’re not. A pinch collar will bring your 90 lbs pet Shepherd to its knees and it will respect that painful correction enough so the next correction will be barely painful but just a reminder of what could happen. Walaaa! Your dog is “trained”. But these anomalies say “fuck your training - I’ll see your pinch collar and raise you a shock collar.” And before you know it, you’re hanging a dog by a pinch collar while it’s holding onto a cement block and you pray it doesn’t let go (even though you want it to let go) because you know it’s going to bite you next. And I’m not exaggerating.
My years living as a K9 trainer in South Africa ended up being a nerve-wracking juxtaposition between the need to crush wildness into little broken pieces and glue it back together as a trained dog, and the understanding that you can truly never crush something wild. Not for real. In a moment of human weakness or error it will be wild again. And it will turn on the one who crushes it. This is often referred to as “coming up the leash.”
I was given my first horse in South Africa - he was a racing Thoroughbred that had injured his hock. I didn’t even know how to mount a saddle. We had a shitty relationship for a long time. I constantly tried to control him. Then one day I had a few beers, wrapped a dog leash around his halter, jumped on his back and rode him into the African bush. He saw an open cattle field and did what Thoroughbreds do - he tossed his head back and ran. I hung onto his mane with all of my strength. At the end of the field he approached the electric cattle fence and came to a screeching halt. I flipped over his head and landed hard. He nuzzled my face and nickered as if to say “wasn’t that fun!”
That’s when I learned. I still sucked at riding him, but I learned to love him, and all his wild. I read Pat Parelli’s book “Natural Horsemanship” and I read Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot The Dog” and I never looked back.
Now when I get the chance to work with the weirdos, I can’t wait to get to the point of untraining. That magical place where we can have a partnership. Where the trust resides and the animal allows a constant flow of information and renegotiation of boundaries. Because the animal trusts that learning is safe and performs his tasks as part of a partnership. I learn from every dog I work with. Just like Africa, the only thing predictable about an animal is the lack of control we have over it. But boer maak n plan. When I can adapt and help an animal overcome - in that moment of untraining - then the teaching starts to happen. And i get that specific feeling that is reserved only for the moments that I feel my heart racing beside the heart of the thoroughbred, or my feet plodding beside the running dog pack. I don’t know what to call this feeling except oneness with the wild.