A dog trainer’s reflections on acceptance, cultural change, and letting dogs be dogs. #CAP10
By Kristi Benson Special Correspondent
I had folded myself into the worn fabric of the backseat of our family’s sedan, my school backpack resting heavily against my shin, when I first learned that it was prudent to seal pieces of myself into little boxes. I was homely and knobbly and years from the realization that everyone is, at that age. In the front seat, the conversation was of the patently boring adult-stuff variety and it washed, mostly, over me, as I let myself slip into the hazy state born from the hum of worn tires nibbling away at the familiar and flat small- town prairie streets, the cartographic circulatory system of my childhood. Then, something broke through.
“I’d like to write a letter to the Calgary Herald saying that all homosexuals should be castrated.”
I don’t remember the imagined infraction that some gay man had committed to earn him and all his compatriots this particular treatment (was it holding hands? Or more likely, the crime of simply existing?), but I remember those words with an odd , cold, and persevering clarity. My dad and a colleague of his from work gossiped, casually and mundanely, about removing someone’s body parts, fundamentally altering them, punishing them because of who they loved. A call to terrifying intimate violence uttered in a righteous tone, the words slightly staccato, like a quacking duck. I looked at the back of my dad’s head, unable to parse what I had heard.
My dad was nodding and making awkward but agreeable and agreeing sounds, chummy, and the air in the car turned to dread, and I sucked it in as I breathed, and inside of me it congealed into a dark and heavy liquid metal that flowed nimbly through my gut. The would-be-castrator at large—a professional, a heartily religious man, our neighbor—got out of the car when we stopped at his house. Quack, quack, quack, see you later. I stayed in the backseat, feeling myself made impotent and small, shrinking even more with every rotation of the tires as our car pulled into our own, adjacent driveway.
Dad, dad, dad, you don’t mean you agree with that; you don’t agree, do you?
The endless prairie winds had carried bushels of yellow and brown aspen leaves from our neighbor’s trees to our driveway, and the leaves swirled in little dust devils and settled with damp perseverance behind the windshield wipers. I had never been scared to ask something of my dad before.
Almost 40 years after that terrifying car ride, I found a sort of gentle liberation watching the Canadian sleeper hit Schitt’s Creek, created by the brilliant comedy duo, father and son Eugene and Dan Levy. At that point, I had been paired up with my wife for nearly 20 years and married for the ten years it had been, bittersweetly, legal for us to do so. I had been out as queer since my early twenties and although I have always felt somewhat blessed that I had been born in the 1970s and not born in the 1920s (or hell, the 1950s or even 1960s), I had spent most of my life Either carefully refraining from holding hands or else accepting the risk that I invite random unanswerable violence should I choose to do so. Dan Levy’s character in Schitt’s Creek falls in love with another man, and he does so in an environment absolutely, and sweetly (and purposefully, and imaginarily) remiss of homophobia. Levy created an environment that is as safe as a dream, a cotton-candy world devoid of slick cold metallic dread, a world where dropping my girlfriend’s hand and wiping anxious sweaty palms while pretending to hitch up low-slung and ill-fitting pants couldn’t ‘t be as commonplace as walking past an alley, or getting off the city bus at 8:30 at night when it’s dark and winter and someone—a man, of course—happens to be nearby.
“I thought about her and how we’d built a life for her based on acceptance and kindness first; how we’d built a life based on providing safety for her to be a dog.”
Perhaps unsettled or perennially restless, I have taken a circuitous professional route from anthropologist to cartographer to dog behavior specialist. These days, I have committed myself to helping dogs, or more accurately, to helping people who share their lives with dogs. People hire me to change their dogs or to change their dogs’ behaviour, but training dogs isn’t the majority of what I do. Not even close. The majority of what I do is change people’s minds, or at least do my best to change their minds. And typically, I am trying—with all my gentle smiles and nurturing words and clever comebacks and itemized homework—to make people behave more kindly towards the canines in their condos.
Due to a very human quirk that ascribes humanness to everything around us, dogs are seen as moral and misbehaving, rather than just doing normal dog things in normal dog ways. Getting the short end of the stick because of this misunderstanding means that dogs often get much more than the short end of the stick. They are frequently harmed, emotionally and physically, in the name of training. It is one of the saddest and most hollowing aspects of my work: an unkind and unsafe environment exists for many dogs, to change their perceived misbehaviour. Dogs are regularly yelled at, electrically shocked, and physically assaulted because they do things which are as natural to them as breathing and laughing, swatting a mosquito, or eating toast is to us. As natural as holding hands might be to us, were we to live in a beautiful and perfect fairy-tale land.
|Photo: Hajai Photo/Shutterstock|
A while back, I was riding in the car, in the front seat this time. The snow-covered prairies slid past the passenger-side window, wheat stubble poking through the wind-crusted and polished white surface. I glanced into the backseat, where two of my dogs rested comfortably. One of them stood up and stretched into a cat-like arch, looking past us and out the windshield. She was languid and lazy and satisfied, and she settled back into a perfect circle, tail covering her nose, groaning in pleasure. I thought about her and how we’d built a life for her based on acceptance and kindness first; how we’d built a life based on providing safety for her to be a dog, as much as that can be humanly possible. I had long ago lost (and grieved) the temptation to see her as quasi-human; to judge her behavior as though it was filled with cryptic messaging to me or as though it was somehow an act against some higher, better order. She is a social carnivore, and she does what she loves doing: sleeping, barking, random and wanton play with her housemates: the very fodder of a dog’s best life.
Lulu being herself, stretching and sighing, is like every one of my clients’ dogs. They all do what they love doing, too, right up to the point where they must put parts of themselves away into boxes, to avoid consequences that can be anywhere from pesky to terrifying; consequences pulled out for supposed misdeeds that can be remarkably unclear, from the dog’s perspective. I do not exaggerate when I say that some of the dogs I have met move through their lives as though their world is a particularly malevolent game of The Floor Is Lava. Each step is carefully considered, and weighed internally: will this be safe for me? Or will there be random, unanswerable violence?
I am always looking for good ways, and efficient ways, to open my dog training clients up to the idea that their dogs are in fact just dogs, not amoral or domineering, and not wrong or pathological. As I watched my own dog snooze in the back seat of the car, hopefully in that hazy state born from the hum of tires across familiar prairie roads, I daydreamed about using a Schitt’s Creek allegory with my clients. “Imagine you could give your dog the feeling of safety and the joyful possibility that David and Patrick have”. Would that create some room for kindness? Would those dogs who must walk across lava be offered some new peace, or even just a few more pieces of furniture to leap carefully onto as they migrate through their lives?
“People hire me to change their dogs or to change their dogs’ behaviour, but training dogs isn’t the majority of what I do. Not even close.”
But my imaginary conversation with an imaginary client wasn’t set in the imaginary hamlet of Schitt’s Creek, where homophobia doesn’t exist. It was in the real imaginary world in my head, where making even the most casual Ew David joke as I sit—alone, homely and knobbly, and in a stranger’s house—could be tantamount to a categorical outing. The familiar dread ebbed and flowed, not imaginary, and not irrational, either.
Maybe one day there won’t be numerous good reasons to keep parts of ourselves in boxes. And maybe one day there won’t be this persistent, and noxious, idea that dogs are committing some kind of moral fraud when they behave like dogs. Things are certainly trending in that direction, on both fronts, much to my relief (and, I assume, much to the general relief of dogs). Until then, I will mostly content myself with other allegories to bring kindness to the lives of my clients’ dogs. I will content myself with giving my own dogs a world where they are free to be dogs and be understood as the creatures they are. And I will content myself to reassemble all my pieces in front of the screen, watching David and Patrick find each other and find love in perennial, joyful, and for now, otherworldly reruns.
Kristi Benson is an honors graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC). She also has gained her PCBC-A credential from the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. She has recently moved to beautiful northern British Columbia, where she will continue to help dog guardians through online teaching and consultations. Kristi is on staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, mostly retired and thoroughly enjoying a good snooze in front of the woodstove.
Contact her through her website and check out her blog, Facebook page, or Twitter for training tips, articles about dogs and training, and more.
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