It’s dark in the back yard, nearing 10 o’clock, and all hell has broken loose. During the day, the house next to mine is used as a preschool and filled with the sounds of children playing. At night, it is vacant, an empty highway to the wetlands beyond the alley. Now, from behind the board fence comes a horrible hissing growl that sounds like it belongs to a 10-ft. Nile crocodile. Tinker finds the knot hole in the fence and inhales the smell, then erupts into a frenzy of her own.
Not a crocodile; it’s one or more of the local family of raccoons.
I’m ready with treats—chicken, cheese, steak—but there’s little point to them yet. As Tinker throws herself at the fence and starts tearing at a board with her teeth, I take her by the collar and pull her away as gently as I can. Amazingly, she accepts this, letting me lead her a few feet away.
“Tinker,” I say softly, “Sit.”
She is trembling, her nostrils flaring. She sits. “Tinker,” I say, “Watch me.”
She lifts her head to make eye contact, intense, reluctant. But she does it, locks on questioningly. Slowly, I let go of her collar. “Tinker, wait.”
A slight sound escapes her, a doggy %$#&^! But she holds the Sit, staring into my eyes. “Tinker,” I dare to say, “Down.”
The cartoon bubble would probably read, “Are you *&#@# kidding me?” But she sinks down. Holds it. Waits. “Tinker,” I say, “Good girl. Okay, git it!”
She explodes toward the fence to claim her reward. You’d think the raccoons would have had the wit to leave, but they start cussing back from the safety of the other yard. I collect Tinker again, another round. And another. The raccoons finally drift into the night, the alley beyond, leaving behind odor and hope. Tinker inhales the scent through her beloved knot hole, winding down a notch. “Tinker,” I can risk it now, I have a chance now, “Here!”
She leaves the fence, dashes over for a bit of cheese. Sit. Watch. Git it! Her charge to the fence is delighted, work become a game. Here! Git it! After a few rounds, Here—and chicken, cheese, steak—becomes more interesting than the fading smell of the raccoons. No critters were harmed in the making of the training session. Tinker looks at me, her eyes shining. She can’t come away from the raccoons once she’s on them, not yet. The Sit-Watch-Wait-Down from ten feet away is her gift to me, a glory of growing self-control from a dog born to hunt.
Three years ago on October 25, after months of struggling with the loss of my beloved Corgi Fox, a couple of 7-8 week old puppies were brought into the shelter by a woman who had found them abandoned at a local rest stop. One was a nifty looking black-and-white girl with shorter legs that I guessed was a ranch dog bundle of Border collie and maybe Jack Russell. Her sister was an odd looking white and speckled gray-faced cutie, leggier and stockier than her sis, that I speculated was the same ranch dog bundle with some Cattle Dog aka Blue Heeler thrown in. Hmm. Hmmm.
Of course, being a professional dog trainer gives one all kinds of training and sporting ambitions, not to mention an ardent desire to have a dog that makes us look good in public. The usual solution—which was my intended solution—is some cool version of Flash the Border collie. Flash, super biddable, versatile and ready to work for a whisper and a whistle—I was going to get young Flash, train him or her up to be an agility star, a Freestyle dancing partner, a walking advertisement for my dog trainerly skill. Flash and I were going to go everywhere together with nary a leash in sight. Flash was going to be my constant companion, a cheerful confident brainiac of a dog adored by all, with not a behavior glitch to his or her name. Yup.
But Flash hadn’t shown up at the shelter yet. These two little girls… hmmm. Border/Jack/Heeler ranch mutt… hmmm. That’s not a bad mix, enough herding dog to have Flash potential. The average Cattle dog is an edgier, tougher nut than the average Border collie, but they’re smart, fast, versatile and loyal dogs and I like the breed on the whole very much. Although Flash in theory is ideal, really, what hooks me more than anything is—I like smart dogs. Clever, even naughty dogs that make me laugh at their antics. The only issue I seriously didn’t want to mess with was predatory drive, because I have cats, want a mostly off-leash dog and predatory/hunt drive is so ferociously hard to modify. That dash of what looked like Jack Russell gave me some pause. But Cattle dog/herding ranch dog mix? Oh, yeah.
I ended up fostering both pups for a bit, until one of them found a home. But I knew where my heart was falling. That white-and-speckled gray-face girl. Tinker, I named her, from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I couldn’t wait for her sis to—as it turned out—go to Oregon Humane’s adoption program in Portland, so that Tinker and I could begin bonding as a pair.
They say “love is blind,” but I don’t think so. It’s only blind if we’re in love with our expectations at the expense of reality. By the time Tinker was 5 months old, I was stupid in love but I also knew something wasn’t going in the hoped-for Flash Direction. The tells were alarming to a pet owner but pretty damned funny to a behavior geek: they’re often called “Fixed Action Patterns” or “FAPs” for short. These are hard-wired behaviors that spring, like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed and loaded with no training or learning at all. They’re—experts get fussy about what words we should use, but you’ll get the idea—innate, instinctive, often selective bred for and can be powerful as sin.
I got the I-must-bury-the-bone business; lots of dogs do that, no problem. But the climbing? I never taught Tinker to get up in chairs, scamper up the steps of the cat tree or pose on the dining room table. She wanted up, any up she could get, and she was damned good at it. Then, there was the very strong and un-Flashlike activity cycle: no constant, ready-for-action motion for Tinker. Early mornings were moderately interesting, daytime for sleeping, but the real Tinker came out at night. Her keenness was palpable: time to work. Oh, boy. And her nose… oh my stars, the nose on this dog. Combined, clever behavior detective that I am, it came out: let’s go out at night, track with our noses and climb trees. That’s not Flash. That’s not herding dog. That’s… well, I said rude words as a dread suspicion started to rise: had I, somehow, someway, gotten myself into a Coonhound mix?
Not exactly, it turned out. With the encouragement of friends at the shelter, I sent off for Tinker’s DNA test. I was still expecting some ranch herding mix like Border, Jack and Heeler, but I was also anticipating the Wild Card: Treeing Walker Coonhound, maybe Pointer? When the results came back two weeks later, I have to say, I was floored. On one side, not unexpectedly—no detectable breeds at all. My guess is, since Tinker looked so different from her sister, that that would be Mum the ranch mutt, a little of everything tossed in the canine melting pot generations ago. So, 50% of mutt. It was the other side—the what I’m assuming is the Stud side. Not a mutt, oh no. Papa was a 100% pure-bred Catahoula Leopard Dog.
Catahoula Leopard Dog? My Tinker? Not a delightful stew of known ingredients with that pesky Wild Card for spice? A combination of All (Dad) and Nothing (Mum.) 50% Catahoula, the only breed detected in the mix. Of course in hindsight, it made total sense.
All or Nothing, that’s my girl.
I can only guess, but based on the daughter’s behavior, somewhere out there is or was a really good working Catahoula stud. With the nose, the hunt drive, the eagerness to climb trees, tackle bears, blow through fences and catch feral pigs. To go out late at night with headlamps and nerve and traipse through the piney woods in quest of raccoons. Judging by his daughter, that Catahoula boy is or can also be a total doll, a mellow lazy lay-about. Until the sun goes down and a switch gets thrown in some lower-down primal section of brain. Then, I’ll bet he is or was amazing at his job. His daughter is amazing, and that had to come from somewhere.
There are millions of lovely, wonderful pet dogs in this country that haven’t been selectively bred—or at least not in a very long time—for any particular working purpose. They may or may not come with a few glimmering echoes of their ancestral jobs as herders, hunters, varmint killers, fighters or pullers. Many of them retain the flavor, sometimes a strong flavor, of what we usually refer to as breedtendencies; many others, though, have as their strongest flavor the robust starch of just good plain old-fashioned Dog. They chew a little, pee a little, chase a ball a little, drive us crazy a little and then turn two or three years old and arrive at a routine of mutually agreeable activities that work on both leash ends. They might enjoy this-or-that, but they can take it in small doses or leave it for a less problematic substitute without major sacrifice to their souls.
That was my Fox: a lovely gentleman who liked to chase and herd, but who really had no strong commitment to what he chased or herded: squeaky toys and flocks of puppies met his needs just fine. He passed his herding instinct test on sheep, but he was just as happy with a soccer ball. His FAPs were real and with enough reinforcement, I suppose could have gathered enough steam to propel him on those tracks. It was simpler, though, to nudge his tendencies into other, more convenient tracks: squeaky hedgehogs, agility and tug toys in the living room. Many dogs with FAPs or breed tendencies are like that—the behaviors are mild enough or wrapped in a biddable package so that we tend to regard them as part of the charm of having that breed. They’re endearing little foibles that make our breed special and recognizable, or even give them an advantage in the dog sports of our choice: obedience, agility, recreational herding or carting or scent work. They’re tendencies. They’re not purpose-bred freight trains running on rails and crushing everything in their path.
Now, there’s a simple common-sense rule in dog training: weak behaviors are easier to modify than powerful ones. Of course they are: it’s usually as straight-forward as picking a more preferred behavior and building it into a mighty oak via rewards. The old unwanted behavior is avoided or managed, isolated from all hints of reinforcement nutrition until it withers in barren soil. The desired new behavior, lavished with care, blossoms and steals all sunlight from the old. Since weak behaviors are weak, they haven’t yet become deeply rooted by a strong reward history and it’s not hard to find bigger, bolder rewards to grow something else more appealing. It’s why most behaviors in most puppies are easy to increase or decrease: puppy simply hasn’t been alive long enough for her little seedling behaviors to have become mighty oaks. Nourish the good behaviors and starve out the weedy ones; done correctly, puppy’s behavior garden will flourish in all the right ways.
Not always, though. Some pups come not just with certain seedlings, but with a certain kind of soil. The whole point of selective breeding is to pick the animals that express the desired behaviors most strongly. And the easiest way biologically to get strong, reliable behaviors is to select animals that have them hard-wired into the animal’s very own internal seeking system: they do them not because they are externally rewarded but because they are internally rewarding. And for real world working dogs in real world jobs, the internal rewarding has to be powerful enough to overcome all other desires—often even all other fears. A good cow dog is smart enough to avoid most kicks but also gutty enough to carry on in the face of very real risks. If the fear of getting kicked stopped them, they couldn’t do their jobs. Instead, nipping at the heels of something that outweighs them by a literal ton feels good to their internal seeking systems, so good that they’ll take on bulls the size of minivans with fearless gusto.
This kind of gutsy enthusiasm is a goes-without-saying in most predators that tackle large game: zebras don’t lie down for lions or elk for wolves. Prey animals fight for their lives with tooth and claw, hooves and horns, and if the lions and tigers and bears couldn’t take it, they’d starve. In that, big-game predators act like extreme sports enthusiasts: no pain, no gain adrenaline junkies. The act of hunting floods them with all kinds of arousing chemicals that make it possible for them to override fear, or ignore in the heat of the moment the inevitable kicks, body slams and goring. It amounts to an addiction, in this case an addiction essential to fitness and survival. Which is why behaviors rooted in the soil of predation can be so very, very hard to change: there are precious few, sometimes no, external rewards that trump the adrenaline junkie buzz of the Hunting Rush.
In herding dogs, the problem was solved, or mostly solved, at the selective breeding level by co-selecting for a second trait: biddability. Herders not only needed Flash to be an internally-rewarded fool for rounding up stock—they also needed him to stop on a dime when asked. The dogs that herded like crazy but kept going until the sheep were exhausted or driven over a cliff didn’t make the cut; nor did the dogs that didn’t herd at all. It took both traits to make for an outstanding stock dog: herd and stop at my command. That’s what makes Flash so very alluring to a trainer: a powerfully installed work ethic combined with a powerfully installed pre-disposition to take direction. My darling Corgi had both on a milder, less intense scale: he was always keen to work and always willing to listen.
Which brings me back to Tinker, who is not and never will be Flash. She is, in many ways, the anti-Flash. Unlike a herding dog, Tinker’s Catahoula job description goes something like this: 1) Dog, go git me a critter. When you find it, run it up a tree. Then stay there and yell your fool head off till I come pull you off. 2) Dog, go find me a hog. When you find it, grab aholt and don’t let go, never mind if it kicks or hollers or bites you, you keep a grip till I git there and pull you off. 3) Dog, go track me down a critter, and don’t let nothin’ stop you. Not briars nor bobwire nor the Devil Himself. You git that nose down and go, girl.
So Tinker’s Rules for Success seem to be:
Work independently (amazing intelligence but taking direction not important)
Look everywhere and stick your nose into everything (insatiable curiosity)
Forget listening, the humans aren’t going to be there to tell you (words not important when hunting)
“Stop” is not in my vocabulary until a human has me physically by the collar; then I’m all done (insane arousal/immediate off-switch)
Never back down from a feisty animal (any sign of fight or aggression shall be met with a like response)
If something’s in the way, climb it, knock it down or go through it (stay on task and let the chips fall…)
Now, at this point I could point out that Tinker isn’t always in Raccoon Mode and when she’s not on a Hunting Rush, she’s chock-full of all manner of virtues. But I won’t say it. It’s untrue in this sense: it completely misses the point. Tinker’s behaviors when she is in Raccoon Mode aren’t vices. Some of them may be inconvenient to me (and the raccoons, though my local family seems to enjoy pouring their own fuel on the fire) but they aren’t a behavior problem. They are an expression of who-knows how many years of selective breeding to be exactly what they are: hard-wired into her internal seeking system, a boundless Rush that lights her up like nothing else on earth.
There’s a Pop Culture myth when it comes to our dogs that we face a choice—some would say a constant battle—between Total Domination or Dangerous Anarchy. Which is weird, because none of our other treasured long-term relationships are framed in those terms, not if they’re healthy and vibrant and joyful. Truly healthy relationships seem to me to float in the middle, a nurturing and fluid exchange with neither Domination nor Anarchy in play. So I need to be crystal clear: “surrendering to” or “embracing” Tinker’s inner hunter doesn’t mean throwing up my hands, tossing out our long leash and letting her run amok at her every whim. It means finding a balance in our choices not between Domination and Anarchy, but between Safety and Joy.
Like us, Tinker didn’t get to pick her parents or her genes: she got dealt the hand she was dealt. Her FAP’s and hunting behaviors aren’t a choice she made, any more than she chose to be a dog. Brain hard-wiring is brain hard-wiring, not a lack of will or willful disobedience. Tinker came loaded for raccoon and bear: a less appealing load in our modern world, perhaps, but no less powerful than Flash’s herding drive. It’s not her fault she was adopted by an owner who has no practical use for her very fine talents. I like to believe, though, that it was her good fortune to land in the lap of a guardian who is coming, however slowly, to understand and appreciate them.
Of course, it could be like that old movie canard—you know, the one about the coal miner dad who wants his son to be a boxer, but all the kid wants to do is dance or play the violin, except in our case, the kid wants to box and I want the ballet. At least, I thought I wanted Flash, with his nifty weave poles and nimble-footed Freestyle moves. Maybe an obedience title instead of teeth marks in the board fence, thanks to Ms. or Mr. Raccoon snarling on the other side. A Really Reliable Recall would be nice, or an off-leash walk in the woods that didn’t run the real and embarrassing risk of a treed bear, Tinker circling at the top of her lungs and me in hysterics trying to pull her off.
Instead, Tinker has graciously humored me about agility. She can uncork a gorgeous run of power and speed that takes my breath away; or she can sit on the start line and contemplate her navel with Zen-like serenity and no interest at all in moving. I suspect she thinks Freestyle is mighty weird, but she’ll amble through it willingly enough if I keep the music to her speed—the stately theme of Jurassic Park seems to suit her and she makes a pretty good dinosaur. The trouble is, my T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed. She wants to hunt.
Is there a way to take the hunting dog out of her? Maybe, but I won’t do it, certainly not by force. I would no more demand that than I would ask Tiger Woods to abandon golf, Adele not to sing, or my amazingly artistic nieces to give up dance and poetry. When Tinker is on her hunting game, her whole being moves to that music. She is powerful, headstrong, glorious, a force of nature. She’s beautiful and alive and fierce with joy. To take that from her for my own convenience would be to fail both her and myself as a guardian and a trainer.
Agility and Freestyle and Obedience are and always were my gigs, my goals, not hers. We’ll still train for them. I’ll continue to look for ways to channel some of that ferocious hunting drive into my preferred sports, to motivate her more effectively, to get that hunt drive under some modicum of stimulus control and build a Recall that’s bear-proof. Sometimes chasing rainbows, we don’t reach the gold but we have a hell of a good time trying; maybe a lucky penny lands in our pocket along the way. In the end, though, when all is said and done, Tinker isn’t here to feed my ego. She doesn’t need titles. She doesn’t need to be Flash. For me, Tinker needs two things and two things only.
First, Tinker needs to be safe, and the bears and raccoons and other critters around her need to be kept safe. Second, Tinker needs to be happy. And that means finding opportunities—safe, creative opportunities--for her to express her preferred behaviors often enough to keep her soul fires burning. Including her hunting behaviors.
There are plenty of folks and I’m sure plenty of trainers who would be full of suggestions and advice of what I can do to “fix” her, to train away or suppress her hunting behaviors, to get her to “listen” to me more or “obey” me better, to turn her into something closer to the Flash of my former dreams. The underlying assumption being that super-biddable work-a-holic Flash would be a better dog, a better performer, a better walking advertisement, and the more Tinker could be like him, the more successful we would be.
Except, I’m not in love with my dreams, my expectations. I’m in love with a dog, a unique individual living being, and the goal isn’t for Tinker to become my fantasy Flash. The goal is for Tinker to be Tinker—the best Tinker she can be. And for me to become both a better trainer and a better person, the best way I can find. Forcing her, making her be more like my expectations gets me more of me. I already have plenty of me. I want her to be more of her.
What Tinker has taught me is that if I insist on getting what I expect, what I think I want, I will never have anything bigger than the box of my own making. Safer, certainly, with none of the surprise and possible horror of the unforeseen. But also none of the amazing unforeseen highs, the surprises that delight, the places I would never have thought to go to on my own. Tinker pushes me outside my own box, my own notions of what a dog should be and could be. Most of all, Tinker brings me joy because she is, wittily, independently, some would say stubbornly, so very Tinker. Her own dog, her own soul, her own being, shared with me.
She cannot read this; I can only hope she knows, on some doggy level, how much I love her, all of her. Three years gone by on a wind, from that speckled, gray-faced puppy to my big brave strapping girl.
Okay, Tinker! Git it! (means I love you.) Git it!