Ice ambles directly towards me and blocks my path. Absurdly, I repeat a refrain to him, “Ice Ice baby” that has me sounding like a refugee from bad music land. He crosses me with his body, sits and leans. His head rises above my waist. He weighs 160 pounds, and he will have some of the treats he knows that I carry in my pocket. When I offer one flat in my hand, he slobbers them up, leaning so hard on me now that when I move, he tumbles over in a slow motion of white fur. He is as gentle as a good child.
Other resident dogs greet me as I make my way to the kennels. Nic, the brindled Pit, another host of Great Pyrenees, and Sophie, a grey older Pit with the permanent disposition of a puppy, all wriggles, all sliding yearning to get closer to the hands that touch her.
These might be one best case scenario of dogs being dogs as we want them – their devotion and supplication arriving in waves. I’ve worked to train my dog. I’ve fiddled with the dog-mechanism to try to produce these virtues plus obedience with fitful results. Others produce astonishments. Two days ago I saw one friend’s Border Collie respond to her commands as if they were linked by mind; Nancy and Til moved in unison, as if Til was the supreme example of that latest piece of brain research that shows our minds making decisions before we actually act – Til anticipates as if inhabiting an extraordinary realm of consciousness. Another friend, a professional dog trainer, enters home after home and meets dogs who have become strangers within families, sometimes threatening strangers, and week after week, in case after case, Elaine leaves behind a renewed harmony, owners and animals living in peace, often a joyful peace.
So, I think that my suggestion of a ‘dog-mechanism’ is the wrong metaphor. They can be trained and taught, as we also can, but they are no more purely malleable machines than we are. Cause and effect is not a pristine operating system, and the dog is not an arrangement of gears, computer chips, pulleys and designed, manipulated, electrical impulses. I think this can best be seen in those dogs that have been brutalized. If machines, the assaults inflicted upon them should break them and turn them savage. Smash the flywheel and the machine will catch you, me, another in its gears and chew us up. Sometimes this does happen. We have all seen the stories. Most of us have seen dogs that would rip us apart if given the chance. However, the variables that contribute to dog bites of human beings are vast and often so complex as to not yield one definitive explanation.
In The Lost Dogs, Jim Gorant’s infuriating, compassionate book on the fighting dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s Virginia home, the team of evaluators agreed that a 10% recovery rate for the 49 dogs that had been found there would be the best they could hope to achieve. They hoped that 5 dogs might be psychologically and temperamentally capable of being adopted to a normal home. Most doubted they could achieve even 10%. Considering the reality of what happened at Bad Newz Kennels, so sickening that the images create vengeance dreams in me, I thought 10% sounded optimistic.
Lucus, a Vick Dog, in June of 2011 after healing and placement (note the scars)
Forty seven were saved, a 96% reclamation rate.* Some of those 47 were dogs that were used as bait, leashed so they could not escape, duct tape rolled around their jaws so that they could not defend themselves, and then beset by other dogs. Some were covered by scars from fighting and beatings. All of them had been kept in howling kennels saturated with the scent of fear and anxiety, an environment that seemed intent on replicating a circle of Hell. And yet, 47 pit bulls, the most reviled animal in America with a reputation for innate viciousness, machines unable to be reprogrammed, emerged from Bad Newz Kennels and after healing, training, fostering and compassion, were placed in homes or sanctuaries. No matter the sins done to them, they had not replied automatically. Cause broke down. Something trumped its rule.
One more story.
Alaska is an Alaskan Malamute, small for his size, black and white. He came to this refuge carrying a grievous wound to his right side. Much of his fur was gone and the red scarred meat of scabs covered a huge swath of his shoulder and hindquarters. The vet’s preliminary check led him to believe the wound might be evidence of Lupus. Later, police work and further testing revealed that his owner had thrown either acid or boiling water on him.
None of the volunteers knew this when he arrived. He looked awful, but he was an eager boy, a licker of hands, happy to walk, unaggressive, unafraid. As a machine and therefore as a resident of the strict laws of cause and effect, he should have been a cowering, fearful animal, a snapper at hands, a fear-biter, as distrustful of men as could be imagined. Instead, he remained sweet and energetic, eager to run and so responsive to human beings that within a few weeks of his healing he was adopted.
This is not a purely material world. Nor is this a life where linearity necessarily holds true, where A leads straight to B. Sometimes grace intervenes in the form of decent men and women. Sometimes mysteries shift into our sight and show us a trace of the inner complexities creatures other than us may contain. Dogs may also share with us the redemptive gift.