Off the Porch: Canine relationships, imperfect dogs

Sep. 18, 2013 @ 10:45 AM

Jack London was on the list of classics when I was in school. I have no idea if his work is even mentioned in today’s education system, but he was a favored writer when I was a boy and cars had fins. I read both Call of the Wild and White Fang, both stories of working dogs in the Yukon gold rush. Both dogs had the same kind of personality, provided you believe dogs have personalities, and I do.
The dogs of London’s stories were one man dogs who only loved one man and would do anything including sacrificing their own lives for the man they loved. Such dogs are rare, but they do exist. Such dogs aren’t always convenient to own, either. In my life with dogs, I’ve owned two such dogs. One was a stray who came to our house for a hand out. I didn’t want a dog and I ran him off repeatedly but he kept coming back. One Saturday morning, my daughter saw him hanging around the back yard and she began to cry, tears welled up in her eyes as she asked me if that poor dog could just have the milk from her corn flakes. I took him to the vet to get his shots the next Monday.
We named that old black setter mix, George. Why we came up with George as a name, I can’t  remember. I tried to give him to everyone I knew, but no one wanted a full grown dog. When George died, several years later, I sat on my front porch for about two hours and cried like a baby.
George had experienced a rough life. When he came to our house, he was emaciated and dirty. He possessed a sad look in his eyes and I suppose that look was how he won Julie’s sympathy, though all girls that age seem to have plenty of sympathy for forlorn animals. George was a kind and gentle soul. He never chased squirrels or rabbits, had no avarice for other dogs and when another dog was aggressive to him, he appeared to not understand. In spite of this benevolence, he was the most protective animal I have ever owned.
He had, at some point in his life, been somewhat trained. At least, he did know basic commands. Snap a leash on him and he acted like a Park Avenue poodle. “Sit”, “stay”, and “come” as commands got an instant and correct response. He was house broken and refused to soil the grass in the yard; he went to the woods for those needs. In retrospect, I was oblivious to just how good a dog George was and I regret that to this day. He was, however, a problem dog.
George adapted us as his family and he was fiercely protective. He was so protective that it was problematic. When someone outside our family group was touched by another person, George growled. In fact, he sometimes bit. His bites were not vicious bites meant to do serious harm, though I’m certain they would have escalated to that level had they not instantly had effect. He would growl and charge in to our “assailant” with his jaws open and hit them with his teeth. He didn’t close down, but rather planted his teeth on whatever part of the offender he could reach and pressed in.
George bit both of Julie’s grandfathers, he bit UPS men, friends, relatives and anyone else who got too close to us. One of my friends liked to grab me just so George would rush in; it probably wasn’t a wise practice but I knew little about dog behavior then.
Whether Jack London’s idea of the ideal dog as a one-man dog who was fiercely protective of his master is a good idea today is questionable. The qualities that make a dog so protective would likely be troublesome in modern society. London wrote about the unforgivable law dogs live by which is to never bite the hand that feeds you.
My next one-man dog was Ernie. I’ve written a lot about Ernie because he was the most obedient dog I’ve owned and he was just as good as a hunting dog. It’s said that you only get one really great dog in your lifetime but at this point, I believe I’ve had three. Ernie though, was the greatest of these. Ernie had such a strong desire to please me I think he would have killed himself trying to do so. I had to be careful about sending him on tricky retrieves in the water because he simply committed to the task and would have rather died than fail. I once sent him after a Canada goose I thought was dead but it was only winged and he chased the goose halfway across the lake and had swam over a mile before we could intercept him. I really believe he would have swam till he drowned before he would have given up.
While Ernie never threatened a human, he did have a really big problem with other dogs. Whether this was jealousy or he simply didn’t like dogs, I don’t know, but he would fight any dog that didn’t instantly submit to him. I learned to keep him a healthy distance from other dogs and that it was better to call him to me before the fight started than try to retrieve him by approaching. I think the will to fight was jealousy over, or defense of me
Larry, my current canine companion, is the polar opposite of George and Ernie. While he’s obedient and loves to hunt, he never met a person or animal he didn’t like. He has no animosity to the birds he retrieves, he just goes about his business of bringing them to me. He is bonded to me, but while I believe Ernie would have simply dried up and died if I hadn’t come home, I believe Larry would eventually adjust just fine.
The point of all this is that all dogs are different. They’re like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. There are currently three canines in our family and all have distinctly different personalities. Some qualities are good and some can be problematic.
I believe our responsibility as a dog owners is to make the best dog we can with the dog we have. Keep your dog out of situations that can create an issue and train to get the best results by observing where the problems start and avoiding those situations. After all, you’re not perfect, either.