Friday, December 30, 2011

Playing Pigmalion

There is a lot to learn about the stray and feral dogs in Detroit like Shawn, the 6-8 month old female shepherd mix rescued from a junkyard this week. The animal rescue community has a want to shelter and protect these dogs. The dogs have a need to be understood as a species. These wants and needs rarely get met without conflict and compromise.

What is significant from a behavioral perspective is that these dogs do not 'need' rescuing. They are doing what dogs do -- surviving. They have found a source of food and have ample shelter in abandoned lots and buildings. It is our human need to keep them away from cars and unscrupulous people that pushes us to "rescue". It's important to view from the dog's perspective that we are taking them from a world they know and are successful at navigating and putting them in a world they know very little about with a set of seemingly unnecessary rules.

In some cases, exposing a stray who has spent years on the street to the daily life of a socialized companion is a comedy of errors. It can be a series of misadventures and comedy like Dr. Henry Higgins teaching Eliza Doolittle proper manners and speaking skills in the musical My Fair Lady.

In other cases, it is a long and difficult journey full of frustration and fear. And sadly, in some cases, the dog is incapable of adapting to our world. In our effort to "rescue", we have created a terrorized creature who is unable to interact with its environment. The decision must then be made: is it more humane to let an animal live in abject fear or opt for euthanasia?

Shawn's Journey is a Facebook page that Shawn's foster created to chronicle Shawn's transition from "junkyard dog" to wherever this journey takes her. Occasionally, you will see my behavior and training notes in the comments on this page to help others understand the science and methodology behind Shawn's training plan.

This is the real story behind rehabilitating dogs like Shawn, the repetition, patience, tedious progression, and series of little victories that signal a breakthrough.

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