File under: Dogs, ascots.
I love dogs and have two of them. I also live in Egypt which in some ways is the Wild West of dog ownership. Scooter, Antar and I go for rambunctious early morning walks in a mega gang of 7 or 8 with our street dog friends, everyone off lead and enthusiastic to be alive, sometimes even me. We rarely encounter people but, when we do, Scooter will occasionally order a double craziness shake with zany fries and do this thing where he sprints up to the person, makes a grhfgghgh sound and then sprints off, for a lark. Given Scooter’s hefty proportions this is a sight to behold, like a giant sausage being raptured. It is possibly mildly terrifying. However most people just look around themselves like, what the actual fuck just happened, and continue on their way.
So that freedom is a good thing about dog ownership in Egypt, along with everyone tolerating incessant dog barking. Baladis have things to say and opinions to be heard, let me tell you, none of them particularly interesting. But their voices get lost in Cairo’s cacophony of car horns and people shouting into the mobiles and at each other, full volume car stereos, donkeys braying etc. So again, nobody complains.
I often wonder how my dogs would fare in the UK, the land of quiet cul-de-sacs and disapproving glares. I never had dogs growing up, only cats, a rabbit and a hamster who my mother named Mashallah. So I have no experience of dog ownership outside Egypt.
I’m currently in London visiting the parents, and on my second day here made a beeline for my local park to bother dogs, accompanied by my dad.
The park was exceptionally Windows wallpaper gorgeous, all sparkly lake water and grass swaying in a gentle breeze. We eventually came across !!!!!DOGS!!!!!!, who were there with a man my dad knows, who we’ll call Cesar. Three happy little doggies frolicked with each other, and then with me. Result. One little Jack Russell insisted on throwing himself on his back every time I went near him like a demented acolyte. But I ended up giving him endless tummy rubs. So you tell me who was running that show.
Another dog turned up, one of those small poodle things with a perm. She was delightful, so I tried to engage her owner in conversation and ask advice about how things work in a public park if one has dogs whose version of a greeting is a drunk football hooligan enquiring of other dogs whether they want some. Unfortunately the man was less delightful than his dog, and I was repelled by the British no chat forcefield. But honestly if a woman came up to me thrusting a picture of one of her dogs at me and telling me that they are essentially barbarians I might be cautious, too. Actually that’s a lie. I’d immediately admit her to my inner circle of friends because of our shared interests.
We got chatting with Cesar about the Jack Russell. He told us how the dog was initially aggressive and bitey with other dogs, but that Cesar fixed this by “picking him up by his harness and twisting it”. I actually laughed out loud, because I thought he was joking. Cesar just stared at me.
“You’re joking, right?” I said
“No, that’s what you need to do. I had to break him,” Cesar replied, and then went on to describe another of his disciplinary methods, putting two fingers into an inverted V-shape and explaining how he thrusts said fingers over a dog’s snout when he barks. By this point I had established that he wasn’t, actually, joking. I wanted to shout YOU’RE A JERK and run away with his dogs, but stayed silent in deference to my dad while I pondered that image of the dangling Jack Russell being yanked about.
The topic changed to that of a man Cesar said hello to as the man went past. Cesar explained that the man was initially shy, and that it had taken Cesar “three years to make him chat”. I asked him whether he had accomplished this feat by thrusting two fingers over the man’s nose or perhaps picking him up by the harness and shaking him. Cesar just looked at me.
After I spent the entire walk back to the house complaining about Cesar, my dad told me about a programme called the Dogfather, about a trainer who my dad described as “exceptionally kind” in his training methods.
The Dogfather turned out to be a man who wears ascots and goes to people’s homes to sort out their dogs. There were the inevitable scenes of a woman getting dragged along the pavement by her two insane labs and a muzzled collie ineffectually lunging at the Dogfather’s knee etc. I watched 5 minutes but switched off when the Dogfather pronounced that “dogs have to be told when they’ve done something wrong”. I told my own father (the Sarahfather) that I am 99% sure that I would not agree with the Dogfather’s training methods. We then got into it, with the Sarahfather declaring that I do not give things a chance, and am too closed minded etc which to be fair is probably correct. So to defuse things, I agreed to watch one episode with him.
Sure enough, the Dogfather was advising a woman to gently push her dogs and make a noise when they jumped up at guests to the house. He also told her to replace her harnesses with collars “because they give you more control”. He suggested lead snapping when he pulls on his lead.
I furiously assembled my soapbox as we watched, and at the end got on it. I tried to explain to my dad that even if the intention was good and the dogs are not physically harmed (at least not immediately) by these training tactics, as a philosophy it is the direct opposite of the approach I try to use for my own dogs. This approach is force-free and underpinned by the philosophy of behaviour change through positive reinforcement.
In essence, positive reinforcement is about rewarding the behaviour we want rather than punishing actions that we don’t want the dog to do. So giving the dog a treat every time he does something “right” rather than a bollocking every time he does something “wrong”. Not that there is a wrong or right as such since dogs are not moral philosophers. This distinction was transformative for me for two reasons. Firstly, it essentially eliminated the resentment I felt towards my dogs as puppies for what I perceived as willful “naughty” behaviour. Secondly it helped me understand why the behaviour was happening. I was a first time puppy (puppies) owner who didn’t have a scooby doo what she was doing. It was a flaming shitshow on wheels and the chaos was inevitable. It allowed me to forgive myself as well as the dogs.
So there is behaviour, and there are consequences of that behaviour. And dog owners can encourage the behaviour they want to happen by shaping the consequences, either through rewards or controlling the dog’s environment. Force-free training chooses to do that without using force of any kind. The Dogfather chooses to use “mild” forms of force to “correct” behaviour after it has happened whereas at the extreme end you’ve got trainers using all kinds of violence and intimidation to “break” an animal, including the use of tools such as prong collars and whatnot. It’s grim.
I’m disappointed that force-free training isn’t more widespread in the UK. I’m even a bit surprised, given the country’s famous love of animals. But it’s labour intensive and demanding, and arguably more of a crapshoot for ordinary dog owners than aversive methods of dog training are. I’m glad I discovered it and would never use force as a training method with my dogs. I also would never judge any responsible dog owner who chooses alternative methods. Dogs are hard work. Mine have slightly ruined my life, BUT I LOVE THEM!!!!!!!
More of this please.