For nearly four years, I’ve been learning to herd sheep with my demented border collie Orson. We’ve herded with trainers and at trials. Now, we herd daily at my own farm in upstate New York, where I have 20 sheep and a couple of donkeys.
For most of that time, our encounters with sheep have begun the same way. Orson ignores me and the sheep, and races over to gobble down a mouthful of sheep poop or donkey dung while I yell at him to stop, alternately pleading or screaming. “No,” I bellow. Or sometimes, “Leave it!” Or “Drop it!” Or my favorite (you often hear this accusation at dog trials): “You’re not listening to me!”
In theory, I understand that the proper training response to Orson’s poop-eating is to ignore it. It’s perfectly natural for a dog, especially a working breed with predatory instincts, to eat animal feces. To a dog, feces are aromatic and tasty and often stuffed with nutrients. Anyway, the more I yell, the more I reinforce the behavior, so the longer it continues. Dogs don’t really differentiate between good attention and bad attention; they just like attention, perhaps more than anything except food. So I know—again in theory—that if I ignore Orson and move onto something else—like actually herding sheep—he will eventually lose interest and find some other way to annoy me and draw my notice. Yet I continued to yell.
When I took Orson to our first shepherding trainer, she watched with growing disapproval as I yelled at the dog to come, lie down, get back. When she’d finally heard enough, she interrupted the training session and confronted me outside the sheep pen. “If you want to have a better dog,” she announced with some contempt, “you will just have to be a better human.” It was a surprising but obvious truth, and it began to change almost everything about the way I perceived and treated my dogs. Still, it has taken me an awfully long time to put the theory into practice.
In the years since Orson entered my life, a rescue of sorts, we’ve had hundreds of encounters with sheep and their droppings. But a cold day this past March—which will live in my dogcentric memory forever—marked the first time I was actually able to say nothing and simply look away when he began his foul eating. I managed silence the next day, too, and it got easier after that. Now, three months later, Orson rarely shows any interest in sheep or donkey leavings.
I’ve heard a similar tale from Sarah, a Web designer in Truro, Mass., who lives with her yellow Lab, Lucy, near busy Route 6, which splits Cape Cod. Because of the traffic, Lucy’s very life may depend on a reliable “recall”—coming when summoned. So, for more years than Sarah can remember, she screamed at Lucy to come. She tried a choke chain and an electronic shock collar. She tried “Come!” and “Come here!” and built up to “You better come right here now!” Her neighbors, she jokes, probably thought the dog’s name was Lucy Come Here.
Last year, after Sarah read a book on positive-reinforcement training, she bought a sack of frozen meatballs at the supermarket. Whenever Lucy turned to her or came, she littered the ground with meatballs and also showered Lucy with praise. The dog turns on a dime now, she reports, and never even glances at Route 6.
“It was so simple,” Sarah says. “It was all about me, not her. It was about my not stopping to think, about my frustration.” The yelling was also, she eventually realized, the way her mother had tried to teach her things. It hadn’t worked then, either.
Why is it so hard for us to see that our dogs are not responsible for what they do, that we are? Why did it take me nearly four years to realize that Orson’s poop-snacking had little to do with his supposed rebelliousness and stubbornness, everything to do with my impatience?
Even though I knew the best way to get him to stop a behavior I found revolting, I couldn’t manage to use it. The dog never was the problem, as Sarah discovered. The problem was me. On the day I was finally able to turn away from Orson’s eating, I realized that this dog had indeed made me a better human being, more patient, more levelheaded, less angry.
If you listen, you’ll hear people complain about their dogs all the time. Woody is stubborn. Belle is devious. Dane is jealous and spiteful. But the truth is our dogs are mirrors of our own strengths and shortcomings. They’re devoid of most of the traits with which we credit them. They are complex but largely instinctive animals. They desperately need to be shown what we expect of them. Understanding this is critical, the foundation on which we build our lives with our dogs.
Donald, a San Francisco marketing executive, has been warring with his cairn terrier for five years over the damage the dog does to their immaculate home whenever she’s left alone. Madonna peed on the furniture, chewed carpets, shredded towels.
Like many people with neurotic dogs, Donald always believed that confining pets in crates was cruel, so he never used one for Madonna. Instead, he endured thousands of dollars in damage “and endless screaming, punishment, tension, and yelling”—until a trainer showed him how to acclimate the dog to a cozy plastic crate when he went out, ending the suffering of both.
“I will never really be able to say why it took me so long to see this,” he told me. “She was just being a dog. I, on the other hand, was being an a——. Now that I get that, I hope I am less of one.” Almost surely, he is.
Having a good dog doesn’t mean you are a good human. But working to have a better dog can make you a better human. Training them more positively can make us less angry. Understanding their ritualistic, sometimes limited ways of learning, can make us more patient. Helping them work through their problems can ease our frustration. They can help us understand the true meaning of responsibility—that it’s easy to acquire to acquire a pet, but sometimes tough to do right by it. And they can show us how to step out of our lives, and really love something else.
For years, I deluded myself into thinking I had rescued Orson from a cruel fate and given him the opportunity to fulfill his border collie destiny. Only recently—more calm, more patient—have I come to understand just who has rescued whom