You Are My Sunshine...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Benny's First Winter!

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What sled dogs do best!

Happy Birthday to Me

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

Benny turned one year old on April 21st.  He is sound, healthy and strong as a little bull.  He and Nico are sustaining an equitable relationship, although Benny does not always back down anymore, and we must, as is always the case with Malamutes,  remember to keep the lines of authority clear.  Benny relies on us to make sure Nico knows he is not truly in charge. Nico even more so!

Who's in charge?

So there is nothing  much  exciting to report on the integration front, but I continue to find the evolving relationship between all three of these dogs endlessly novel and fascinating.  Nico's story  thoroughly embedded now in that of Thunder, and Benny.  Neither Thunder nor Benny have ever suffered mistreatment from human hands;  I see such marked differences in the way they deal with things compared to Nico.  The primary difference is the the degree to which Benny and Thunder both readily, if not automatically, defer to human judgement.

This is me on my birthday.  I could be a show dog.
But I'd rather get that cookie she just dropped...

All Malamutes are independent of mind, but Benny and Thunder are quite inclined to look to me before taking action. Nico on the other hand, acts first, looks to see what I might be doing about the situation second. I noticed the same difference when I had a similar situation years ago: two  Malamutes, one of whom I raised and one a Breeder Rescue.  I adopted the Rescue after she had been thoroughly messed up by foolish and abusive owners.  As is the case with Nico, before she came to me, she had learned that humans cannot be trusted.

The trust pact with dogs is a fascinatingly complex contract.  Domestication of animals makes humans into gods: we have control over these animals lives in every way.  But we do not control them: this is the mistake I feel many animal owners  make, one perpetuated by trainers, and even the very concept of  "obedience training."  The notion that you can make an animal to perform consistently to expectations like a machine  is silly. Animals as well as people can be conditioned to react in specific ways to specific stimuli; this possibility is the essence of most training programs one way or another.  Hold your hand over your dogs head and he will likely sit in order to see it.  Say the word "sit" when you do it, and give him a cookie when he complies, and after a while you can pretty much count on him to sit when you use the word or the hand signal.

Except -- and Malamute owners for the most part know all about "except."  Except when there is a squirrel, except when there is other food, except when playing seems like more fun!  Malamutes aren't the only dogs who have no trouble ignoring human requests when something else is more attractive.  However some breeds are more inclined to prioritize human expectations than others.  Malamutes are not on this list!

Quite frankly, when working with any other living creatures I do not think of having  control over  them at all, be they dogs, horses or children!  What I can exercise control over is my own behavior; if I get that right, I find my animals, anyone I am associated with really,  general falls into the congenial behaviors that allow us to live together.

The essence of the  relationship between human and domsticated animal is trust. We have absolute control over the lives of the creatures that are dependent upon us. We control their food, their shelter, and the emotional climate in which they live.  Emotional climate is not the least of these for we all know that if an animal lives in a context where fear and anger prevail, he will emerge nervous and irritable.  An animal that lives with humans who speak quietly and move easily and whose behavior is consistently reliable responds in kind.  Similarly, any animal that lives with love and affection learns to seek the same.

Some time in Nico's life that trust was violated.  Somewhere sometime someone who had the responsibility of providing shelter and food for this dog, joined that provision to anger and violence.  When Nico came here as a result he bolted his food, looking left and right flinching at the least movement on anyone's part.  Shelter meant hiding in the corner of the dog house and it was not the elements he was cowering from.  Benny and Thunder never had those experiences; they take their shelter, their food and the affection which is a part of their daily lives for granted.    As a result, they also look to us first when things go wrong.  It doesn't mean they dont' think for themsevles: I've never met a Malamute yet who didn't have his own ideas about what we ought to do to solve a problem. But Nico on the other hand, in a crisis acts entirely on his own, flinching,   running, counting on himself and no one else.

At least, initially.  Which brings me to his miracle, the miracle of trust regained. I did not complete that sentence with "and when cornered would probably attack."  For when Nico first came here, I had no choice but to corner him, and in that moment, instead of attacking, he let me pick him up.  What kind  of courage that took  I cannot pretend to image.   I wonder it that moment was one of,  longing for the kind of safety animals instinctively seem to know humans of the right disposition can provide.  Whatever it was it is is what has sustained me in working through his challenges.

The last of these of course is achieving integration with a new pack member, Benny.  In the course of that journey I have seen time and again that Benny automatically looks to me to take charge in moments of crisis. Thunder does the same.  Nico looks to me too, but it is not automatic.  He makes a decision every time. He hesitates, he pulls back, he tries to run in the opposite direction.   His ears hug his skull,  and his whole body retracts into a defensive hardness. It last for but a split second now, then he visibly relaxes and then  I know he will comply. In that moment, the miracle is renewed, and I marvel once again at the great gift that is an animal's trust.

It is a gift that is easily taken for granted when you work with dogs  like Benny, or Thunder.  But when you work with a dog whose trust has been violated, when you have to earn it back, you are reminded of its worth.  Trust is the pearl without price:  if it is shared there is no social problem that can't be solved. If it is not then there is there is only conflict, domination and defeat, and everyone is a loser.

Benny is one year old now, a fully integrated member of this family, Nico's pack.  Nico's journey into trust and joy has without question been wonderfully enhanced as has my learning of who he is and just what a dog's relationship with his humans and his world might be.  So I learn about trust and courage. So I learn from my dogs.