Saturday, December 19, 2015

Franta, the Other Dog and Me

Warning! If you don't like dogs, I'm not sure you'll like what I write here.  If you are a dog lover, as I am, you'll understand where I am coming from and where I am heading almost immediately.

The dog is a natural companion for the human race.  I'm convinced that for as long a humans live on this planet, dogs will live side by side with them.

I'm also convinced that dogs reflect our hearts and minds. When we are nervous our dogs are nervous.  When we are relaxed our dogs are are relaxed.  They instinctively like some people more than other people.

Much has been written on the subject of dog behavior and in fact the school of thought on dog training has undergone a remarkable evolution.  The old school of thought was based on negative ereinforcement.  One example is the use of the choke chain collar.  Pull the choke collar often and hard enough and the dog will start to behave differently so as to avoid the unpleasantry of the choke. 

Nowadays training is based on positive reinforcement and the dynamics of the relationship between the dog and the owner.  The system is reward based.  Reward desirable behavior with treats and praise. Save the special treats your dog loves only for special occasions and especially good behavior.

Training also focuses on the handler. If you are nervous your dog will be nervous.  If your dog runs on the neighbor's grass and barks at every passer-by on the street it's most certainly because the owner never taught the dog to do differently. I can't count the number of books I've read and TV shows I've watched where the lesson of the day was - "If you want to change the dog's behavior you must start with your own behavior."

The other modern wisdom is that dogs are inherently pack animals.  They look to us as our leaders and the will follow our cues. I think this is also true. But that theory has certain limits, and this is where my story begins and ends.

Well - OK.  Enough with training theories. I have a nasty habit when I write of leading my reader on a long and winding road until I reach the conclusion.  This time I will do differently!  I'll start with the end, go in a circle.

The End

My dog Franta was attacked! The other dog meant business.  He was seriously angry.  The story might have ended very badly. The other owner and I pulled the dogs apart. Both dogs walked away, largely unhurt.

Franta was certainly the loser.  I knew it and he knew it. But I kept a stiff upper lip.  I remained calm and steadfast with an almost matter of fact, business as usual demeanor.  I worried that if started coddling him and comforting him I would re-enforce Franta's feelings of nervousness and insecurity.  The sooner we returned to business as usual, the better, I felt.  I wanted him to just put it behind and move on.

I didn't realise it until I got home, but he had five bites along his back and hind quarters. Poor Franta!  When we got home he crawled under the table and basically stayed there for the rest of the day.

To be on the safe side I took him to Vetpoint, our local vet.  They give fantastic basic care at reasonable prices and are open long hours. Franta knows them well and stops there willingly during our daily walks.  But still, a visit to the vet is not his favorite activity and this particular trip added immensely to his trauma.  The vet took out an electric razor and removed some hair around each bite found.  Franta was shaking with fear.  Each bite was cleaned with topical disinfectant and that was clearly painless, for which I am thankful.  Finally, Franta got an injection of a form of enroxcil,  a broad spectrum antibiotic.  He had an allergic reaction to that and within an hour we were back at the vet to get an antihistimine. Again, more trauma for all concerned.  My wife and I sat with Franta for the better part of 3 hours while the reaction subsided.

Warning!!! Don't treat allergic reactions to antibiotics lightly. They can in fact be fatal both in animals and in humans if you don't respond quickly enough with the right treatment.  Never lose sight of this fact.

Conventional wisdom is that when you start administering antibiotics you should continue the full course of dosage. If there is an infection the infection may return if the antibiotics are discontinued.  If there is no infection, then no harm done by stopping the antibiotics.  In Franta's case the topical areas around the bites looked kind of nasty.  The vet suggested we return in 24 hours to reasses the situation.

The next day Franta was looking and feeling better. We, did a bunch of our own independent research and called Vet|Nemo, a specialist vet we go to when we need higher level care. The doctors at VetNemo invested in state-of-the-art technology.  Once they treated a scratched cornea and removed a dirt particle on Franta's eye with a laser pen.  Then they fitted him with a contact lens that we wore for two weeks without a problem. He was in and out the clinic in 15 minutes we paid something on the order of $100, which was a fraction of the the cost we would have paid had had we opted for anesthesia and a dull blade.

We returned to our local vet for the followup the next day and opted to continue a course of antibiotics and this time the vet used a form of amoxicillin. Franta tolerated that well and we continued a program of daily visits for the next seven days.  Each visit set us back a whopping $5 and with each day Franta was better.

All's Well that Ends Well

Today Franta is right as rain.  He still has a few of the battle scars, but pretty much they are healed.  He is his normal, happy go lucky self.  He's no less confident around other dogs, though he's a bit more...shall we say....respectful and even perhaps aloof.

Franta and I are certainly wiser and more experienced.  A lesson or two was learned the hard way.  Are you curious?  Read on!

The Beginning

This is Franta. He's a mut from the shelter, about 7 years old.  I say he closest in appearance and temperment to a Small Munsterlander.

I'm not sure what the attacking dog is.  It's not so relevant.  On the other hand, this is not the first time another dog took a stab at Franta.  Therefore, Franta tends to be careful around other dogs.

He developed a strategy, thanks to my good training, I must say.  If he encounters another dog on the street and it looks like the meeting will not go well he keeps a safe distance from the other dog.  I also taught Franta the command -  "Ignore" or "Run Away."  When I tell Franta to Ignore and he is on leash he knows to quickly pass the other dog by and move on.   If he is off leash and I tell him to Ignore or Run Away he keeps a safe distance from the other dog. Mostly he uses his own good instinct.  I only give him the command if I want to express to him my own personal doubts.

I also taught him the command "Kamaradit" or "Say Hello!"  That tells Franta the other dog looks pretty harmless and he should greet nicely.

Maybe it's not so important to me what kind of breed the attacking dog is, but Franta takes no chances.  Like many other dogs he's had some unpleasant encounters along the way.  In Franta's mind all brown labrador retrievers are to be avoided.  Also on Franta's bad list are  large black furry dogs and rotweiler/doberman combinations.

Franta likes to create his own brand of mischief that in fact I have tried hard to deter him from. He has a game I call "fence chase."  The game goes something like this.  Find a dog minding his own business in his own front yard.  The fence of course is a safe barrier for both dogs, which is what Franta wants.  I think usually Franta initiates the ensuing game of chase back and forth along the fence. I know it's a game for Franta, but I don't think the other dog always knows it's a game and certainly it's not a good recipe for a quiet peaceful day in the neighborhood.

I've worked hard to get Franta to kick the fence chase habit.  He's getting the message, but he is mischievious and OK I admit it....I have not trained him well enough.

Once Franta and I were out walking in the neighborhood and he spotted one of his supposed fence chase playmates.  Franta and I were out on a Sunday stroll and this dog, a German Shepherd, was, to Franta's surprise, not behind the fence, but also out on his Sunday afternoon stroll and also, I believe, off leash.

Franta froze stifff and went into his hunting dog poise.  He saw this dog maybe twenty or thirty meters away and Franta was staring in disbelief, tail up, body stretch out, focused on what lay ahead.

Then Franta looked at me and started wimpering and took an immediate left up a side street.  No doubt about it.  Franta was not going to press his luck. Clearly, Franta had no interest in meeting this dog without the presence of a fence.

The Middle

Prague is full of dog lovers.  They go to the park, their dogs meet, run around a play happily.  Rarely if ever there is a bad outcome.  One dog will growl or snarl at another and both will immediately keep their respectful distances.  That's what the professionals call - socialisation.  Dogs learn how to behave around other dogs by simply being around other dogs in an open space like a park.  Often they develop a sort of commraderie, with one dog leading the way, sniffing out a trail, writing and reading what some people I know call p-mail and the other dog determined to sniff  a p-mail or anything and everything that interested the first dog.

This is not the case in many other Czech towns, however.  Brno, a city to the south of Prague, has leash laws.  Dog owners are expected to keep their dog on a leash.  A dog may roam freely provided the dog wears a cage over the snout.  This way nobody's dog will bite someone or someone else's dog.

The unfortunate result is that dogs are poorly socialised.  They are nervous whenever they approach another dog.  The cage over their snout clearly doesn't boost their sense of security. I won't put a cage on Franta's snout if I let him walk free.  I know Franta well enough to know he won't attack. If Franta were attacked I want Franta to be able to defend himself.

If you walk your dog without a leash and snout cage and another dog owner sees you the person looks at you like you are some kind of anti-social, misbehaved outlaw.  Which, in fact, in that situation you are.

So What Happened?

I think the the attaching dog looked something like this:

Franta and I were having a pleasant, uneventful walk, when we spotted a newly built dog park.  The soon to be attacker and his owner were enjoying the obstacle course. The dog was gleefully running up and down the ramp, jumping through the tire, following his owner's lead. Franta watched, seemingly fascinated.

Franta looked at me as he approached the fence.  "No," I told him. "Let's go."  But by then it was too late.  The other dog saw Franta and approached the fence, quite cautiously, in fact.  From my point about five meters away, I saw what looked to be a polite, uneventful greeting any two dogs meeting outdoors might have.

Then, suddenly, things took a big turn for the worse.  Both dogs were barking and growling.  And then it happened.  The dog that looked so happy and care free in the park was practically drooling.  He was barking ferociously and baring his teeth.  Then, suddenly, he found the gap between the gate and the ground just large enough to crawl through.

Before I could get there, he pounced on Franta.  He was angry and Franta was clearly frightened. Franta didn't even try and engage the other dog.  He turned an ran.  And every time he ran the other dog ran after him and pounced on top of him.

It's all sort of a blur now.  I remember running toward the two dogs.  I saw Franta running certainly toward me, then away from me, then toward me.  And then the next thing I know both dogs were right in front of me.  By that time the other owner had also joined the fray. He couldn't seem to catch either dog.  Luckily I managed to  grab the attacker by the scruff of his neck and pulled him off Franta, long enough for the other owner to take control off his dog.

The Calm After the Storm

Now apart, both dogs started to settle down almost immediately.  I stood between Franta and the other dog like the referee at a boxing match.  I created basically a no-dogs land - a buffer zone of about 3 meters between the two dogs.

It's amazing how quickly dogs become calm when there is a meter or two of distance between them.  The other owner apologised profusely.  He was quite angry at his dog.  He explained to me that his dog had been attacked in the past and was frightened and defensive around other dogs.  I suppose this dog's idea of a good defense is to strike pre-emptively.

I don't discount the possibility that Franta actually provoked the other dog through the fence. Franta may have thought his favorite fence chase game was about to start. He certainly hadn't expected the other dog  would crawl under the fence and attack.

Franta was visibly shaken but appeared otherwise unhurt.  I decided it was best we went home, which we did.  It was only after we got home that the reality of what happened began to set in.

Reality Sets In

Firstly I noticed Franta was bleeding - not a lot, but enough that I could find places where the other dog had gotten a hold of Franta and actually pierced the skin.  Second, I realised how traumatic the experience was for Franta.  He crawled under a table and wouldn't come out for the better part of the afternoon.

My wife was furious with me.  Franta means the world to her and I put her pride and joy, her friend, her good smart Franta into harms way. She tried to be as understanding and calm as possible, but I can tell she was seething. I think she'd be devastated if something terrible happened to him and I think she'd be even more devastated if that something were the direct result of my actions.

Finally, when I told my wife what happened I realised how preventable the whole situation in fact was. It was a disaster waiting to happen, I should have seen it coming, and I should have, could have, avoided it.

We were in Brno, a place where I know dogs generally are more nervous, less well socialised. There was Franta on one side of a fence and a nervous dog on the other side of the fence.  Whenever Franta and I go for a walk in our neighborhood I make a point of keeping Franta from playing his fence game.  Before he even can start to play that game I tell him No or a I walk him in a different direction.  So what went wrong this time?

Situational Awareness

First, I didn't generalise the problem of the fences.  In the neighborhood the fence is either accompanied by a hedge or constructed from wood planks that make it difficult for the dogs to actually see each other well. Also in the neighborhood there is no gap between the fence and the ground.  I can't recall seeing a dog in our neighborhood escape from the yard. Homeowners in our neighborhood are especially alert to the possibility their dog will find a gap so any gaps are quickly repaired. Third,  I didn't see the gap.  If I saw the gap, I didn't expect the other dog would go on the offensive.

In retrospect I now understand the problem. There's something that air-traffic controllers speak of called "situational awareness."  This is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. More simply, it's knowing what is going on around you.

Air traffic controllers are trained to be alert to the relative positions of the aircraft in their space at all times.  They never ignore the aircraft in their sector.  They know where each aircraft is, but they are not tracking each and every aircraft per se.  Instead, they are watching gaps. When they look at their screens they instantly know if the gap between two points of light is closing too quickly or not.  In short, they understand and are sensitive to everything that is going on around them at all times.

I'm a credit manager.  I can spot a good credit from a bad credit a mile away.  That's my job.  That's what I do.  So naturally, when I am doing my job I'm watching every gap. My success as a bond manager depends vitally not so much on spotting what is going right, but rather on being vigilant for what can go wrong and making the appropriate change of course.

But when I go out with Franta I'm not so alert.  Going out with Franta is something I do to relax, unwind, and take a break from looking at what can go wrong. And therein lies the problem.

The Morals of the Story

When we take our blessings for granted, when we allow ourselves to become complacent, when we stop looking out at the world around us, we risk losing the things most dear to us and that make our lives most meaningful.

Franta seems to have put the tragedy behind him.  He's maybe a bit more careful around other dogs, but he enjoys meeting them - especially the females!

Franta passed by two fences in our neighborhood last week when we were out on our walk.  He didn't stop to play the chase game. Just goes to show you....

  • Never reinforce a dog's sense of fear.
  • A fearful dog becomes an attacking dog or a neurotic dog who can't enjoy the pleasures of relating to his or hear own kind.
  • Don't get complacent or drop your guard when you are out walking with your dog! Enjoy the walk, yes, but don't lose sight of the situation around you.
  •  Be proactive and present in life. Know where you are, what is happening around you and look out for what can happen next.
  • Stay calm.  Use your head.  Ask questions.  Do some research.  We live in a world where answers are far more available to us than ever before.
  • It's a dog eat dog world out there and we are all wearing dog biscuit underwear.....
  • Experience is a great teacher AND.....
  • You can teach an old dog new tricks.

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