Tuesday, May 31, 2016

when eugenics succeeds.

Dog breeds are weird.

Humans have had a fair bit of trouble trying to classify our differences. At its most benign, doing so cloaks bigotry in the language of science, giving a false veneer of impartiality to our natural tendency to dehumanize others based on cultural differences. And, of course, once you've convinced yourself--using only the finest scientific analysis, obviously--that you know what "superior" and "inferior" look like, the logical next step is to start selectively breeding for human traits. As you do this, you can, naturally, assume that God is on your side.

This is eugenics, which has caused suffering ranging from forced sterilization, to genocide, to the various Khan Noonien Singh crises. It's bad stuff.

All this stuff that we correctly abhor with humans, though, we very successfully do with domesticated animals. For the fully-urbanized 90% of us who didn't grow up around farms, dogs are the best example of this. (Cats aren't quite domesticated, nor are most of them carefully bred.) And the breed of dog matters, even more than I thought.

I first encountered this when I lived with a girlfriend and her family and their two Old English Sheepdogs. The younger one was dumb as a post, but at one point my girlfriend referred to the older one's "herding certification." I asked if they'd taught him herding, and she said no, that's what they're bred for, and by and large you can just turn them loose on a bunch of sheep or flightless ducks or whatever, and they'll do their herding thing.

My parents' dog could only be described as "deep yellow, even the eyes," and while he was friendly and patient like a Lab, his temperament was really sui generis, since you could not get him to chase or play, for love or money. He was easy to narrate, and any attempt at playing Fetch always had him looking at you with a distinct "Why are you throwing that ball? Are you going to get the ball? I'm not getting the ball. I'm going to sit here, where I'm comfortable and not moving" kind of gaze.

My brother had a pair of Springer Spaniels, because Reasons™ (I was not a fan), and true to breed, they grew out of their Puppy Phase after a decade or so.

Then, in our dog search, we met Luca, a curious small dog reported as half Italian Greyhound (never heard of it) and half Tibetan Spaniel (never heard of it). Greyhounds are "sight-hounds," which means they basically can't smell all that well and they were bred to track things visually. I'd never spent time with such a thing, but we went on a walk with Luca, and sure enough, he was all eyes, constantly looking around, only rarely stopping for a sniff.

So Leela, as best anyone can tell, is some majority of Jack Russell Terrier, then some Beagle, and then some Chihuahua. She has a Beagle's tail, ears, and articulated wailing that can sound like human syllables, but most conspicuous is the Jack Russell, because when she plays with something floppy, like her stuffed gorilla, she looks just like this:

And she runs around like this, on the rare occasions she plays:

And she sleeps exactly like this:

On the Beagle end of things, besides the tail and the face, she gets her piteous wailing:

To say nothing of keeping the head down and following a scent, conceivably into the road or running off somewhere they can't find their way back from.

My friend Jess told me a little bit about prey drive a while back, but mostly in the context of how her dog is a bit of a challenge to work with. I didn't know that the energy of working dogs--and their need to work somehow, or else destroy your house out of boredom--actually comes from breeding to emphasize different aspects of prey drive. Herding dogs have a genetic drive to herd things. Leela has a genetic drive to grab something rodent-sized and shake it to break its neck.

Think about how remarkable this is. All our experience with humans tells us that every population of Homo sapiens has more or less the same distribution of innate abilities, and while there are still plenty of people who will say "Oh, you adopted your daughter from China! I bet she'll be good at math," the number keeps shrinking.

With dogs, though, this is an actual thing. The most freakish of greyhounds won't out-smell a normal beagle, and you cannot reasonably expect a purebred Labrador Retriever not to be eager to please, kinda dopey in their enthusiasm (hiding other kinds of intelligence), and really excited to chase things.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

all dog, all the time.

For various reasons, just as Anna is the primary parent for J, I'm the primary parent for Leela, which mostly means I'm the Feeder, the Trainer, and the Scary Gender. All at once! She tracks my movements a lot, partly because we're pals, but--and this is inseparable where training is concerned--I give her food. I'm not sure if she's always hungry, but the shelter says she spent time as a stray, so it may just be a survival-mode "eat everything you can while it's available" thing. She tracks my movements pretty carefully, when not doing her Beagleshark patrols, back and forth across the house looking for food dropped on the floor.

J is adapting to her, and she to him. She licked his hand this morning, and he was so grossed out he had to leave the morning snuggle to wash it; on the other hand, this morning I coined the name "Beagleshark," which made him laugh, and then he was singing "Beagle, Beagle, Beagle, Beagle" in the bathroom, an honor reserved for things he likes. And he started out the day saying "Hi" when she was 10 feet away from him, and now says "Hi, Leela" when she's more like 5 feet. And, while it's difficult to gauge these things in doggy brains, she seems to have stopped sniffing at his feet, which he doesn't like.

I'm getting the hang of dog training, at least for a relatively uncomplicated case like Leela: she's pretty bright, and if she's not exactly eager to please, her apprehension makes her attentive, which is useful enough. She knows her name well enough that today I actually interrupted her progress toward exploring a new room. We've been doing some "Sit," and experimenting with "Up" and "Down": I used "Down" to get her off a bench at the dog park, and realized that if she can learn those as "move up/down one level from where you are" that they then have applications beyond getting her on or off the furniture.

It's a good time to be on leave from work.

I'm still worried about her getting bored and seeming to be unable to really have fun: as much for her happiness as the fact she can't be left unsupervised, lest she destroy things. A friend pointed out it will take some weeks for her to really settle in to this being home, and that seems very wise.

She is very much like everyone else in the household: traumatized, dealing with it as best she can, and healing. Last night we watched the first-ever episode of Doctor Who, and when men (not women) started talking on-screen, she got all rigid and started growling and barking. (She has the cutest growl, which you might expect from a dog with a head the size of a Little League baseball.) I took her to the back of the room and soothed her as best I could, and she never really relaxed, but she did stop shaking and barking.

Tonight, we watched the second episode, and voilá! Not only no growling, but the TV barely got her attention.

It's nice to provide a safe space.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

so this happened.

This is Leela. We adopted her from Pets In Need on Monday night. She's supposedly 2 years old, she's definitely 13 pounds, and she looks like either a Beagle or a Jack Russell Terrier, depending on the angle. (If you get to hear her mournful wailing of sadness, it is clear she is part Beagle.)

We've been talking about this for months, and I've met some dogs, but finding Leela herself was rather sudden, so we're a bit overwhelmed today. While she is not not-mellow, exactly, she does turn out to have more energy than she displayed in the shelter, and no well-established toy or chewing habits, which wasn't one thing or another until she chewed through the cable (luckily not the 120VAC side) of Anna's MacBook Pro power supply. So she can't be unsupervised even in the dining room/living room area that we've gated off from the bathrooms: she clearly gets bored, but she also doesn't like to play, and there's no great signal that she's bored. Maybe we get a Pack 'n Play for dogs and confine her to a smaller area when we need to. It's a little stressful right now.

She was clearly abused at some point: she often shrinks from me putting her harness on or picking her up (which has to happen all the time because she won't jump in or out of the car right now), and she'll shrink from anyone who looms over her too closely. Last night she was growling whenever the stereo played something too much like talking; tonight we were watching the first-ever episode of Doctor Who, and she got rock-stiff and growled and barked, and could barely be induced not to. The 3 of us here know something about being wounded and being triggered, so we have a lot of empathy for her. We trust she will have empathy for us, once we're all less focused on freaking out.

This is all new to me. I knew my parents' dog, but really I got to know him after Mom had socialized him properly, got him to stop jumping on people, got him to respond to his name if he felt like it. Before I can train Leela in basic-sounding things like "sit," I have to teach her her name, because a dog can't listen to you if you don't get her attention first. Luckily we started obedience classes last night, and the instructor covered it (besides Leela, a couple of the 5-month olds were none too responsive to their names either). Leela is beyond food-motivated, so we worked on it at the park today, and eventually she got it pretty well. At home I built on that and mostly taught her "down" as applied to putting her front legs on the couch. She wasn't even crabby that I don't give her a treat when I call her name. (She may not remember, exactly? Doggy brains are not like our brains.)

Anyway. Lots of stuff like that. It's a shock to the system.

Though it is certainly the fuzziest, snuggliest shock to the system I've ever had.