Monday, September 5, 2011

The bully

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In junior high, I was bullied. 

"Emily" (a name I've chosen out of the blue) was a typical "mean girl". She was the most popular girl in school. She was the captain of the ringette, baseball and track and field teams. She always wore the latest teen fashions (at the time, Club Monaco sweatshirts). And she had a following of other "mean girls" who did her every bidding and wanted to be just like her.

Emily made it her mission to make my life a living hell. I could write a book about all the mean things she did to me. Like the time that she convinced the guy I had a major crush on to ask me to the junior high dance, and then to dance with every other girl except for me. I spent that entire night hiding - and crying - in the girl's washroom, with echoes of cruel laughter ringing in my ears. In fact, I spent most of the seventh grade hiding in the girl's room...

There is no doubt about it, being the victim of a bully sucks. A lot.

So you can imagine how devastated I was to find out that my dog can be a bit of a bully himself.

When you are the owner of an Aussie shepherd-border collie mix, it is tempting to make excuses for some of your dog's less-than-preferred behaviours. He is, after all, bred to herd. So of course he stampedes into the middle of a pack of dogs, runs loops around all of them, bites at their necks, barks like a maniac, and bum-checks them into submission. He's simply doing his job, telling everyone where to be, what to do, and when to do it.

It's also delusional - and extremely irresponsible - to think like this.

I quickly realized that the Beast was not acting like a normal, happy-go-lucky herding dog. He was actually making it his job to find the weakest dog in the herd, and to torment the shit out of it. He would bark, nip, bum check, and bark some more, pulling out every weapon is his domineering arsenal to completely isolate one poor puppy, and to draw attention to the fact that he had the upper hand.

He was the canine version of Emily. 

And I was in no mood to put up with it. 

It is hard work to train a dog, but it is especially hard work to train him while he is in a dog park, surrounded by temptation in the form of toys, smells, and other dogs. He isn't necessarily interested in listening to a thing that you have to say when he is so focused on, say, constantly nipping another dog. So we weren't having an awful lot of success getting the Beast to play nice with others. In fact, every trip to the dog park left us feeling demoralized from spending way too much time yelling commands like "Beast! Off!" or "Beast! No barking!" to absolutely no avail. It was hard to want to come back with our hyperactive, domineering, bullying jerk.

But consistency is key, so we faithfully went back to the dog park every Sunday, resolved to get through to the Beast one way or another. And then, fate intervened - in the form of a slightly aggressive dog.

The Beast was orchestrating his typical dog park game, barking and running circles around all the puppies until they all stood in the centre of the park. Whenever one would try to escape, he would bark and nip at it until it came back to the herd. But one dog just would not listen to him, and the Beast was getting increasingly agitated. His barking got more and more insistent, almost desperate. I stepped forward with the leash, calling him to me, ready to put him on a time out. But before I could get to him, he nipped at the other dog's neck, and...

... well, she threw the gloves off. 

There was no warning growl, no warning snarl to tell the Beast to back off. No - she went straight in for the kill, baring her very sharp teeth and aiming straight for his neck. The Beast had no choice but to defend himself. Within seconds, we were witnessing a full-blown dog fight. And it was NOT a game.

If you have never seen a dog fight, take my word for it when I say that it is a very scary thing. There is not a damn thing that you can do to get your dog's attention when he has a set of jaws clamped down on him. I was absolutely paralyzed, futilely repeating his name over and over again, panic taking over my every faculty.

Hubby, thankfully, was moved to immediate action, as was the other dog's owner. Both reached down to grab and pull these new arch-enemies off of one another. After a few seconds, all parties retreated to their separate corners, where anxious humans examined their dogs for injury. Luckily, no canine wounds could be found. Unluckily, hubby bled all the way out of the dog park, and all the way to the walk-in clinic where he received a just-in-case tetanus shot... (As for me, I self-medicated my anxiety with a large glass of wine when I got home...)

It was tempting to never return to the park again. But we knew that this was not an option. The Beast still needed to learn how to play nice. So he needed to go back to the scene of his crime. 

There was a noticeable difference in the Beast's approach to the park. He didn't burst through the gate in his normal, frantic way, leaping into the middle of the pack with a great, big "I'M HE-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-R-E!!!!!!!" Well, at least not totally. He exploded into the park, but hit the brakes about 2 meters away from the other dogs. Keeping this respectful distance, some of the braver dogs started to approach him for a sniff. And he did something that I had never seen him do before. He turned around and let one of the dogs sniff his bum. The ultimate sign of sweet, beautiful, perfect submission.

It lasted for about five seconds before he bolted away, beckoning with his loud, shrill bark, telling everyone where they should be and what they should be doing...

But it's gotten better. Visit by visit, he's become less and less of a jerk. 

His days of exploding into the park seem to be behind him. In fact, he waits for me to move forward - and even to urge him on - before he jumps into a group of dogs. And for now, the one-note cacophony of barking is no more. He barks once. If he gets interest, he hops into the middle of a game of chase or a rousing wrestling match. If he gets no interest, he actually turns around and walks away, rather than pestering the dog until it would rather jump in front of a moving bus than stand there at his mercy. 

He has actually learned how to play nice. I hardly recognize him. Neither do the humans who have witnessed him tormenting their dogs on Sundays past...

I also know that I hadn't a damn thing to do with the Beast learning this important life lesson. Dogs learn best from their own kind. Stripped of human emotions - like anger, frustration, and panic - dogs can communicate far more effectively with one another than we can with them. They teach each other clear and concise rules, boundaries and limitations. It is why doggy socialization is so very important. 

Of course, a sharp set of teeth help move the lesson along...

Who would have thought I would be grateful to another bully for putting my Beast in his place...