Dogs and their behavior

Apparently, someone got on the wrong side of Major in Delaware over the past few days and got bit, nipped, whatever for it. Someone actually had the audacity to ask whether Major was going to be euthanized for this behavior. It’s time to have a little talk about the rights of dogs and the holiness of their spaces. Pay attention. This might help you understand a little more about Joe and Jill Biden and their shepherds.

First the dogs, Champ and Major. Champ has been around for a long time and obviously is very well known by the Bidens. Major is a rescue dog, a lot younger, and hence, not as knowable as a dog who has been around for some time. The Bidens play with them on the White House lawn, they romp and do assorted dog things, then they go in the house. Dogs like familiar things, familiar places, familiar people. You can’t always tell what they are going to do when those circumstances change. With a big dog, say a shepherd or a Labrador retriever, things can go off track pretty quickly when circumstances change. We mostly don’t notice that unless we watch them.

And if you have a dog, you should well be watching it.

My own dog is a 40 pound, 11 year old cross between a beagle and some kind of terrier (Some would say Pit Bull, but that description has so much bad vibe attached to it, we just always go for the terrier part.) The ears define her as a beagle, and the behavior. She loves to hunt, to dig things out. To chase. All those hunting dog things. I bought her because she was way the smartest dog in the pen at the store in Evanston. She would open the door on her cage at night, walk to the swinging doors and jump on them to get them to open, then go and raid the snacks and bones, returning some of them to her pen for the night. There was something in her eyes when I looked at her. I lay down on the floor at the store and she worked her way out of the pen, bounced through the swinging doors and stopped and put herself right beside me on the floor. My wife and I agreed we had to have her.

And so we did.

Despite all that intelligence and sweetness, she also bites.

Not everyone and not always but enough so you want to warn people she is not as kind as she looks. For almost everyone, the answer to the question “Can I pet her?” is a firm “No.” She seems almost meek when we’re walking her around the neighborhood. She is good with the kids who live on either side of us, and that’s nice thing to see. She treats our grandchildren as trusted friends, offering her belly to scratch and a handy lick any time they show up. But that is not for everyone. Strangers draw out an impressive aggression in her. Let a delivery guy show up and she is immediately ballistic, up against the window and barking and I have no doubt she would bite if they tried to enter the house.

I don’t know why, other than that she does not know them.

I would never consider her a “bad” dog or a candidate for the vets’ solution because my thought is she is just doing what a dog does given the stimulus that gets inside her space. She is my fifth dog in the 50 years of our marriage. Some of them were just as kind as could be. One of them was crazy as an outhouse rat and totally unpredictable. If you came into the house with hair over your eyes or a hat pulled down, for some reason, she was on you. I don’t blame her for that. A dog can only do what a dog can do, and that’s a lot of good and some bad, no matter the dog.

Rip Van Winkle was my most gentle dog, a lab something mix who weighed about 60 pounds and was about up to your waist when he sat in front of you. I would never have thought of him as even mildly rough until I exposed him to one of those things that sets a dog off. We were in the back yard on a summer afternoon and I thought we could do some roughhousing. I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans and sandals. I got down on all fours and leaned toward the ground in what I viewed as an invitation to play. Rip came to life so quickly I was almost frightened. That’s when I learned how hard a dog can play when you go down to its level. He ripped my t-shirt off and bit me near the waist, not a real hard bite but hard enough that I could feel his jaws vibrating to get more of a purchase on my waistline. Then he let go of me and ran in a couple of circles and came back on, this time grabbing my pant leg and biting so hard I bled through my jeans. He ripped the jeans away and then came on even harder, biting and scratching at my leg.

I had enough sense left to stand up and shout “stop” and, good dog that he was, he stopped. Some iodine cleaned up the wounds and the jeans were tossed. He was, once again, my best friend, learning on me when he sat beside me in the living room. I was not angry about this at all. But I was intrigued. What had I done that called forth that kind of aggression? A little bit of reading about the way dogs read signs and I concluded Rip thought he was doing exactly what I wanted him to do, play with me like I was a dog, too. That’s what he did, and that’s how rough dogs can be when they are playing.

It was a good lesson for me, and probably for everyone else, too. No matter how fond you are of your friend, just beneath the hair there is still a dog, an animal in most cases that responds to the same stimuli that kept dogs alive for centuries.

I have decided it was my job to know that, with all my dogs and with my current dog, too. I don’t expect her to behave like a human. I expect her to be a total dog, with all that implies. I still love her, but I am aware that she has sensors and instincts that control a part of her I can’t know or see. I respect them.

A couple of summers ago, I was working in my garage when she chased a rabbit through the doorway and cornered it in the front of the room. One bite on the neck and it was dead. I picked it up and removed it so she would not try to eat it. For weeks after that day, she never came into the garage without visiting that corner, sniffing and looking at something that was still alive in her dog universe. I thought that was remarkable, and proof beyond question that she lives in her own world.

You can visit it, and even be a treasured guest, but you have to know where the boundaries are.

7 thoughts on “Dogs and their behavior

  1. Yes, this is something that should be sent out far and wide! Thank you (from someone who had a dog that nipped your Rip on the butt once, as I recall).

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  2. Great thoughts, Charlie. And a German Shepherd is not a dog you try to pet unless he knows you and you know him.

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  3. Excellent observations and whatever you do respect all dogs as unknowns and act accordingly.

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  4. I have a dog that is temperamentally shy, and very attached to me. He growls at my husband when he hugs or kisses me. Weirdly, he also barks very aggressively when anyone carries something past him–like a bag, or sometimes, even me with my purse. He has never gotten used to my daughter, and barks at her like she is an intruder about 3 times a week. We’ve had him since he was 10 weeks old, and so I know he was never mistreated. He remains a canine mystery, and much loved. By me, anyway1

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