Walking Our Dog Kea over the Great American Divide

Walking Kea is never just walking Kea. Every time I hook the leash to the metal loop affixed to her collar, I’m irritatingly aware of the transition into training mode. She’s pretty good about coming to the door and sitting off to the side when she sees me walking through the living room with her red leash in my hand. She even knows to wait until I’ve stepped out and said “Okay, let’s go” before getting up and coming out herself. 

Once we’re outside though, her response rate to my commands plummets. From what I understand, this is normal, especially for a seven-month-old puppy. That’s why we have leashes in the first place. The world outside the house is too distracting, the potential rewards far more enticing than the familiar treats in the plastic bag I have in my left hand, gripped awkwardly alongside the leash and a training clicker. 

When it’s hot like today, Kea becomes still less interested in the treats, which include small pieces of thin-sliced turkey or chicken. Three quarters Siberian husky, one quarter malamute, she has black wooly fur on her back that must be hell when it absorbs the rays. She needs all the saliva she can muster for panting. This doesn’t mean we can’t do any training at all—I can still use other rewards, like progress toward her desired destination—but it does make me wonder how far from the ideal we’re working. 

The goal I keep in mind is to get the pulling under control, to a point where Kea’s grandma can manage her without straining. The seemingly simple alternative to training her like this would be to start using a prong collar. Unfortunately, in my mind these devices have evolved into a symbol of what’s worst in human nature. It’s like when you consider that as a species we’ve proven ourselves capable of traveling to the moon, but then you realize this feat was accomplished using technology originally developed to deliver explosives across vast distances, killing our fellow humans by the hundreds and thousands.

Dogs are the one creature our species has the closest emotional bonds to. And our best solution to their puppyish waywardness is a contraption for administering pain commensurate to their disobedience? The guy who invented the thing must be Catholic. Seems to me we can do better. Seems to me we really fucking should, if not for the dogs’ sake then for our own. 

 Then there’s the science. Ah, merely saying the word science sets my partner in raising Kea more firmly against me. She’s already trained a Siberian husky, one she would have gladly brought to live with us had her dad not grown so attached to him in her absence. Not only did she train her dog Juneau using a prong collar, but she did it so thoroughly and expertly that my talk of any science pertaining to methodology smacks of disrespect.  

The morning goes about its business melting and evaporating into a muggy afternoon. I watch Kea walk her swaying walk down the driveway and take to the sidewalk, her ears pricked, her nose almost prehensile in its pulling at the air. She’s so fluffy her fur moves in waves as her back rolls from side to side with each opposing step, two sets of legs walking independently under a salt-and-pepper bearskin rug. We don’t make it more than twenty paces before she’s off in the grass vacuuming up the scents of the neighborhood dogs whose owners are earlier risers than me. 

How long do you let a dog sniff around? If I let her sniff to her heart’s content at this age, will she be impossible to walk when she’s full-grown? If I yank her away, will I be making of our walks something for her to dread? I wonder this until I become aware of how neurotic I’m being. Just fucking walk the dog.

I count to three before saying, “Okay, come on” and give the air some rapid kisses. This time, she responds without any tugging. She doesn’t always. 

Alicia and I took Kea to a puppy socialization class that ended some months ago, and then to a basic obedience class, both at the same veterinary clinic where her dog Juneau went through all his training to become a Good Citizen, a certification program devised by the American Kennel Club. The trainer overseeing the program subscribes to what I’ve learned is called the “dominance and aversion” approach to training. Dogs are wolves, is what this school teaches. You have to get them to acknowledge you as the alpha if you want them to behave. Everyone seems to know this particular theory these days. And for some reason everybody seems thrilled by it—all that talk of being the pack leader. I mean, are people really so insecure they can’t resist the idea of lording over puppies?

Most people know about this school of thought because it’s what Caesar Millan preached on his wildly popular show The Dog Whisperer. What they don’t know is that it’s completely ungrounded in science. Dogs, it so happens, are not wolves. Any urge to dominate people would be a prime target for breeders to eliminate through successive generations. Sure, dogs are nearly identical to wolves genetically, but then humans are nearly identical to chimps genetically. No one cites ape behavior as an example of how to raise children, advocating that we beat our chests to intimidate and demand respect (though conservatives’ lack of horror at the Trump presidency is curious in this light).

Free-ranging village dogs in India and other parts of the world live without much interference from humans, and their social organization is nothing like what you see in wolf packs. These dogs may fight over a prime piece of meat, but resource competition like this doesn’t translate into any generalized relationship of dominance and submission. In lab studies, the dog who backs down in stand-offs over a coveted item is usually just the one who covets that item less, not the smaller or weaker one. It’s more a matter of motivation than of status. 

Even wolves aren’t hierarchical in the way the dominance theory imagines. The observational studies that had biologists believing they were date back to the 1940s and 50s, and they all focused on captive wolves living in the most unnatural of conditions. Wolves in the wild, we learned some decades ago, don’t vie for status within their own groups, because they live with their extended families. Each litter of pups sticks around to help the parents—the so-called alphas—with the next litter of their siblings. If the youngsters want to procreate themselves, they leave and try to start a new pack. Packs do battle with other packs over territory, to be sure. But within group status has nothing to do with this type of skirmishing. 

The most famous Yellowstone wolf, known to researchers simply as 21, never lost a fight with wolves of rival packs, despite having once taken on six at a time. Yet one of 21’s favorite past-times was wrestling with his younger pack mates, and in violation of one of the training principles his kind supposedly inspired, he always let his playmates win. The researchers loved this wolf so much they all sobbed when he finally died, of old age. 

***

The guy on the corner of our block has a stand of bushes and short trees boxed in by wooden planks. Kea loves sniffing around in there. She loves staring at the trees where she hears the birds shuffling the leaves. Then there are the neighbor kids across the street, always playing basketball. She’s a sweet, curious dog. I want her to stay that way. I want her to be flexible and intelligent, so she doesn’t get anxious. Most dog attacks are motivated by fear, not anger, certainly not some urge to dominate. And isn’t curiosity the mental state functionally opposed to anxiety? 

The question is, how do I encourage her to be curious when my goal is to teach her how to walk without pulling at the leash incessantly, without stopping whenever she bloody well feels like it? 

I scan the block ahead for trouble. Some dogs are good to say hi to. Some are best to give a wide berth. Just now, I don’t see any dogs in either category. I wouldn’t be this neurotic about my walking and training methods, it occurs to me, were it not for the contrasting philosophies at home. Rather than have it out and risk lasting resentment, Alicia and I both opt to avoid the argument as best we can. She’s backed off the training, for the most part, while I’ve assumed primary responsibility. That means every time Kea does anything wrong it’s all my fault, and it’s entirely due to the ineffectiveness of my methods, which means a new training policy will soon be going into effect. 

Dog training, I’ve come to realize, has its own red state-blue state divide. On one side, you have the people who bow to ill-informed tradition and take instruction from tall white guys with blustery attitudes and terrible diction. On the other, you have people who insist on evidence-based approaches, and who want to treat every living being like a mewling infant with genius potential. I like the part about following the evidence of course, but dammit—who has time to come up with a positive alternative to every form of misbehavior? And how are you supposed to get the little bastards to perform this preferable behavior in situations where they don’t care about treats? 

If Kea doesn’t start doing better on her walks with mom, I’m afraid, the prong collar will come out, pain will be inflicted, trust eroded, enjoyment diminished, and all the time and effort I’ve put into getting her to this point will begin unraveling step by leash-jerking, neck-pinching step. 

Or maybe not. Maybe Kea can stand a little harsh treatment. It’s not like I can save her from it altogether anyway. She’s her mom’s dog too. And her mom is right; Juneau is a good dog, a bit aloof maybe, not especially charismatic, but gentle and compliant, for the most part. Alicia’s methods may strike me as overly severe, her boundaries overly strict, but there’s no denying she loves that dog. 

The first few times I was around Juneau, an eight-year-old purebred husky, he struck me as at once stubborn and subdued. He walked nonchalantly around, not especially interested in anyone, keen to find someone who’d respond to his begging. He was sort of just there. It’s only lately that I’ve developed a fondness for him. Kea has from day one gone bonkers whenever she sees him, lunging after him to begin a playfighting session she would probably drop dead before calling a halt to of her own volition. I love bringing her to see him, because when I get home I know I can put her in the cage for the night assured she’s well-exercised. She may even sleep in the next day. I love bringing her to see him too because it makes her so happy. 

Juneau loves it when Kea shows up too, bounding back and forth and dropping vocally into a dramatic play bow, even though she can be relentless in her harassment. (If he’s the higher ranking of the two, I’ve bit my tongue not to ask, why doesn’t he put a stop to it?) I guess you could say Juneau and I bonded over our mutual love of Kea—and our mutual exhaustion with her. How different of a dog would he be if he’d been trained using positive reinforcement instead of punishment? Impossible to tell: he came from a puppy mill, Alicia discovered some time after bringing him, the product of inbreeding. And he’s been on medication his whole life to prevent seizures. 

Impossible too is the task before me of finding some compromise between the two training styles. Alicia wanted, at least in part, to go through the same process of training our new dog as she went through with her older one. She was plenty happy with the results the first time. So what does it matter to her what wolves do or don’t do in the wild? What does it matter what surveys and experiments show about different training techniques? To her, I’m just making things too fucking complicated—and ruining her fun. 

The trainer Alicia learned from at the veterinary clinic really is good with dogs, I have to admit. He reads them well, knows how to get their attention and make them comply. And there must be something to be said for long experience. The guy has probably worked with hundreds of dogs. Maybe he’s got some surprises in store for me and Kea that my research into his training philosophy didn’t uncover. That doesn’t mean I trust his pronouncements the way I trust entire scientific research programs. But I would assume training from him is better than no training at all, even if that training does entail the infliction of pain. Better to get pinched by a prong collar once in a while than to get put down because you’ve run off and bit somebody. Or run off and gotten hit by a truck.

I know, I know. Those aren’t the only two alternatives. But this position I’ve taken where I have to race day by day to rescue my poor darling Kea from the dreaded medieval torture device wielded by fascist animal enslavers is a little ridiculous. It’s also stressing me the fuck out. This isn’t Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Alicia is about the sweetest person in the world. The whole reason she got us the dog was because she thought it would make me happy. She took Juneau through his classes for Good Citizen Certification not once, but three times—that in addition to agility training. She once let him drag her across the pavement after she fell while getting pulled on her roller blades, because she was afraid he’d get lost if she let go of the leash. 

At the end of the street, Kea turns left, making the decision to take the shorter route back to the house. That probably means she’ll have plenty of energy to burn when we get home, which means it’ll be harder to get anything done until I’ve played with her for a bit. If only one of the friendlier dogs like Tucker were around for her to roughhouse with. She’d want to rush home afterward to slurp down a bowl-full of water, but she’d be plenty tired. 

As if hearing my thoughts, Kea turns and flashes me a look with her frosty blue eyes. She usually seems to be ignoring me when we’re out walking, but she does check in from time to time. When she turns back to the sidewalk ahead of her, I look up at the white puffs of cloud covered in the heavy gold dust of the dense summer sky. That look she gave me was pure innocence. Her heart’s deepest desire is to get all her people together with all her dog friends to go explore for hours and hours, in some place twenty or thirty degrees cooler than here, stopping along the way for lots of playfighting and bird chasing. As her lone pack mate, I can’t help but feel I’m depriving her. Why do we breed these animals if all we can think to do is isolate, confine, and immiserate them? 

(We’re talking about the dog still, right Dennis?)

***

I want to open my mind and my heart to let Alicia have the experience with Kea she envisioned when we first brought her home. My sticking point is that aversive tactics—yelling, striking, pronging—cause anxiety, however minor, at the same time the dog’s high arousal is getting her into trouble. You hurt her a little, she naturally responds by getting more excited, perhaps thinking you’re instigating a game, and then you’re forced to escalate the punishment. Escalations like this are probably why researchers find that “status-reduction tactics” like hitting or pinning or “alpha rolling” tend to result in increased, rather than diminished, aggression. Somewhere in this runaway feedback loop of intensifying pain and heightened arousal, the dog may figure out the proper behavior, but that seems unlikely. Even if she does manage to do what you want in one instance, she’ll be more likely to recall the punishments themselves than the specific behavior that delivered her from them. 

The whole process reminds me of Martin Seligman’s experiments with learned helplessness, where dogs prevented from escaping an electric shock in one stage didn’t bother even trying to escape it in the next, even though they would have been perfectly capable. Instead they lay frozen in place, whimpering. Seligman’s research is allegedly what inspired the “enhanced interrogation” methods used at Guantanamo Bay. The state of learned helplessness is also thought to be a factor in human depression. Doing this on purpose to a creature under my care is not okay—nor is standing idly by while someone else does it, however much I happen to love that someone else. 

Ah, but Alicia is no Dick Cheney. She’d never ask Kea to do something she didn’t already know how to do, never put her in a position where she felt powerless to escape punishment. Still, why risk it at all if you can raise a perfectly good dog using positive reinforcement and negative punishment (withholding something the dog likes, like forward progression on a walk)? Why? Because she thinks I’m crazy. Because since I’ve never raised a husky before, I can’t possibly know what I’m talking about. Because my “Mickey Mouse Training” is all well and good but at some point, the dogs have to join the real world where not everything is fun. Because science books and YouTube videos are no match for old-fashioned techniques honed over generations of professional dog training. If the scientific studies fail to support the long-established techniques, that’s as likely owing to something wrong with the research methods than with the training principles. Anyway, what do I know about her training methods? So far, I haven’t seen much of the guy she likes in class because he only comes in at the more advanced levels? I’m so hung up on the damn prong collar that I haven’t bothered to look into what else he may have to teach. 

I stop for a fortifying intake of the hot soupy air just as Kea starts pulling me into the neighbors’ yard so she can get a whiff of a soccer ball lying there. This isn’t so bad. She lets me pull her back to the sidewalk without too much resistance. Grandma could have easily done that. What about the sweeping back and forth behind me, though, so she can sample the scents on either side as we make way? Is that something I should discourage? Alicia probably wouldn’t like it. But I’m not sure I see the problem. 

And on it goes. Why am I letting myself get so worked up about this? Kea is just a dog, as Alicia is so fond of reminding me. Is there some underlying tension I’m trying to work out through all this worrying about training philosophies? Alicia and I are planning on having a kid at some point, so it’s probably good we work this stuff out now. But that’s not it. Alicia will be a great mom—you should see her with her piano students! (“Firm and fun” is her maxim for teaching.)

I think it’s more that this is another instance of a wider problem, both personal and societal. Disagreements never get resolved anymore, if they ever did. People never change their minds. Okay, not never, but rarely enough that it’s a pretty big deal when it happens. People just seek out confirming evidence for what they already believe, or they don’t even bother with evidence because now it’s okay to treat all reports as hopelessly biased if they run counter to your ideology. We dig into our preferred belief systems and lob rhetoric grenades at people with other ideas. Nazi! Snowflake! Dumb! Dishonest! Immoral! It’s us versus them, good versus evil, and the fate of the nation, of the entire world, hinges on us winning. Practical solutions to pressing problems can’t be devised—or rather, devising them would be pointless because their advocates would be attacked by partisans on both sides. It’s zero-sum warfare among opposing tribes, and the only rules we can agree on are whichever ones guarantee our side victory. 

On a personal level, I disagree with almost everyone in my life on at least one major issue or another. I’m an atheist in an overwhelming Christian country. I’m a classical liberal in a very non-classically conservative family. Even my left-of-center friends tend to be more postmodern and obsessed with identity politics than I am—which is not at all. I seek answers in science, through channels few people I know can break through the boredom of even trying to penetrate. The people I know go by their guts, where I’ve learned not to trust mine except in certain cases—the case of Alicia for instance. I don’t question whether I should be with her. I just know I should. I suppose if we had more problems than we do, or if she didn’t treat me as well as she does, then I may start to question it. But I’ve never been this happy with anyone. Which only makes this business about the dog, which may turn into business about our child, that much more maddening. 

I know Alicia isn’t the problem. And I know Kea’s freedom to expend her boundless energy and indulge her inexhaustible curiosity isn’t the only thing I’m concerned for. It’s also my own.  

Because what’s the point of all the learning I love so much when its main effect is to further separate me from the people surrounding me? What is reading these days but an exercise in solipsism, or at best tribalism? What’s the point of writing novels and essays only a few people I know in person can appreciate—or could if they had the time to read them? I guess I’ve learned some helplessness myself when it comes to relating to people as we seek out answers to life’s big questions alongside one another. I say “alongside” because it ain’t like we’re seeking them out together. 

***

Kea sits in the shade, her tongue hanging to the side. It’s too hot for walking huskies. I lean down and stroke the fur at her back. When I scratch under her collar and up behind her ear, she leans her head into my hand. If you were constructing a life for yourself from some outside design perspective, raising a dog would definitely be an element you’d want to incorporate. So why are you letting it cause you so much anxiety? Why are you risking letting it drive a wedge between you and the person you love most in the world? 

My answer to the funhouse hall of mirrors that makes up our current ecosystem of knowledge used to be to eschew any effort at persuasion. State the truth as best you understand it, simply, authentically, and then step away to let people make up their own minds. More importantly, live your life simply and authentically, giving full rein to your curiosity, feeding it, fostering it, so that you can make of your journey something worth attending to, something others can emulate on their own paths of discovery. Let those who take different paths go their separate ways, but never forget these people are fellow travelers wandering out their brief adventures on earth, just like you in most of the ways that matter the most. 

But now that adult life is cranking up its pressures—an ever more hectic work schedule, a house to keep up, two families to maintain bonds with, a high-energy puppy to raise—I feel like my lone candle in the darkness is fading for lack of oxygen. And I’m finding it harder to burn and radiate and reach out when I see all I’m lighting is an infinite line of turned backs. 

Here I am, though, reading book after book on the domestication of dogs, on wolves in Yellowstone, on the history of behaviorism and animal training (or listening to audiobooks on long walks anyway). Here I am mentally composing a self-indulgent narrative essay on my early days with a new puppy. Here I am, flickering in the overheated breeze. 

Kea lifts her haunches from the grass and waddles panting to the center of the sidewalk. I step behind her and we’re on our way to the next bend. Ten years from now, she’ll be an old dog, and I’ll be nostalgic for these days, wondering why the hell I vitiated my enjoyment with so much worry. Ten years from now, I’ll be at a new stage of life, with Alicia if I’m lucky and not too stupidly bull-headed, maybe with a son or a daughter, or two. I’ll do my utmost to indulge their curiosity, to protect it, to feed and foster it. 

It’s better to light another candle than to curse the darkness or bemoan the fading of your first. 

In the meantime, maybe I’ll make Kea the most written about dog in literary history. To be continued…