People often ask us how we learned to work with pit bulls. We've had some good teachers: Our husky mix taught us everything we know about preventing dog/dog issues and keeping pack harmony (most pit bulls have nothing on a drivey, ball possessive nordic breed). But some of our most important lessons about animal handling came from this lovely lady.
Pam Hessey is a gifted master falconer who showed us how to convince winged predators that sitting on your wrist was in their best interest - Not easy, considering the alternatives that Mother Nature offers. Tim and I studied under Pam years ago while working downed raptors at a wildlife center. We used falconry equipment and techniques to handle the birds and strengthen their flight muscles. Falconry is more than a cool hunting sport: At its best, it's an amazing art of cooperation, trust and ego-less leadership. True falconers understand that taking a bird from the wild (via permits acquired from Fish and Game after a long and arduous apprenticeship and accreditation process) steals something very precious away from that animal: its freedom. So in return, the bird is offered the exchange of ready meat, meticulous care and a chance to fly and hunt - under the direction of a human teammate who knows how to do magical things, like, flush game out of hidden places. Yum.
Falconers' birds fly free, by the way...they can go AWOL at any time during their hunt. Amazingly, that doesn't happen as often as you'd think. So, why would a raptor choose to put up with a two legged anchor and not disappear into the sky? The answer has everything to with the falconer being very aware of the bird's needs and motivations (food) and staying a respectful, competent handler with a reliable focus. The birds are still very wild, but come around to believe that these huge predators with their leather jesses and pickup trucks and crazy ways are worth accepting. And that's nothing short of a miracle and testament to the ability of humans to motivate our fellow creatures to achieve that zen-like state of mutual cooperation.
Of course pit bulls aren't wild animals, so the line drawn between handling raptors and handling dogs is admittedly rather fuzzy. But I find myself drawing on our lessons learned from the hawks again and again when working the dogs. Dogs want what the raptors wanted from us: A game plan.... A reason to believe that working as a team is in their best interest. Not for the avoidance of pain or an endless parade of treat bribes, but for the pay-off that helps each animal fulfill its destiny. With hawks, that destiny is to succeed in the hunt and survive. And to highly social animals like dogs, surviving involves flourishing as a pack animal, preferably, with a truly awesome leader who'll call the shots and make life enjoyable. Having a great leader is so, well, gratifying! - especially to this intelligent working breed. Pit bulls thrive on it. Most will drop bad habits, even dramatic bouts of leash reactivity when their person finally offers them something better ... direction.
Learning to become a good leader takes some real effort. Without that relationship, many dog owners let their pets make their own decisions, and that's a huge responsibility that dogs just can't handle. They may love their pets completely, but indulge them like children, begging for their compliance. There's nothing sadder than this: "Sit. Sit. Sit. Siiiit. Come'on now. Siiiit." Imagine how confusing it is to a dog to see his human beg! Lacking structure, dogs are more than happy to invent exciting games, like, "Woo! I wanna fence fight and revel in that adrenalin blast - Feels GREAT!" And so shelters fill up with dogs that are rejected simply because they never had a leader to show them the joy of behaving beautifully. It's sad when society demands that dogs should be born already knowing what we want them to do.
One of our greater challenges in teaching new dog handlers is helping them find their inner leader, women especially (and in men, quite often the challenge is toning down their inner dictator. I'll leave that topic for another blog!) In short: remember that your treat bag is not your dog's leader. Your clicker is not your dog's leader. YOU are ... or at least your dog wants you to be. Be fair, be upbeat, be consistent and decisive and clear in your direction, and your dog will fall over backwards to work with you.
Below. The unmistakable glow of a dog who adores her leader. Sally owned by Sheri Cardo, captured by Ali Talley on CGC Day.