Sunday, July 13, 2008

Trouble at the run, baptism at the river.

We keep hearing of late about how dogs have us humans right where they want us, have painstakingly programmed us across millennia to do their bidding, and give us whatsoever their doggy hearts desire. Last week, at the Rocky Run, occurred an unpleasant demonstration that this grand project is still very far from completed.

On an otherwise pleasant evening, people having fun with their pooches saw two men with two large dogs that appeared to be pit bull mixed with something larger (quite possibly mastiff). They were using the grassy area between the run and the New York State Psychiatric Institute--not too close to the run, but more than close enough for people to see what they were doing.

The dogs were apparently brought in an SUV, in crates. They were not there to have fun, or to socialize. They were there to be trained to fight other dogs. Various nasty techniques were being applied to trigger aggressive responses. It wasn't just the dogs who were being trained--one of the men seemed to be giving the other one tips on how to get the desired behavior.

I heard about all of this second hand--somebody called 911, but if the police ever showed, it was after the men had left with the dogs, and nobody inside the run stayed long enough to see if a squad car ever came. Hopefully this won't be a regular event, but if you see anything like this in future, don't hesitate for a moment to call and report it.

911, as you probably already know, is a bit of a crap shoot when it comes to getting a rapid response (understatement much?)--you might want to try dialing the 33rd Precinct directly. The general switchboard number is (212) 927-3200. As I've mentioned in the past, our run manager has been told by officers of the 33rd that crime in the area around the run has declined significantly since its founding--so hopefully a call from concerned citizens at the run would be well-received. They may, understandably, be more concerned with other crimes, but even a single warning would likely discourage any further visits from somebody engaged in dogfighting, which is illegal in all 50 states, and a felony in most of them.

The worst case scenario, of course, would be somebody like that using the run itself to train dogs to fight, perverting the spirit of a place that is intended to encourage dogs to learn how to be social and friendly with each other--an instinct that runs deeper in them than any other--deeper than the natural aggressive and predatory instincts that those men were trying to overstimulate in their dogs.

Organized dogfighting, with pit bulls or any other breed, is itself a perversion of a dog's true nature. Dogs love to playfight, but see fighting in earnest as a grim duty, not recreation. No dog wants to fight for the sake of fighting, no matter how carefully its bloodlines have been selected for violent tendencies. Dogs fight when they think they have to, and their natural instinct is to use their social skills to avoid potentially fatal or crippling conflicts whenever possible. The conditioning a fighting dog goes through serves to trick him or her into battle mode, when battle is only called for to entertain the jaded tastes of onlookers. If this were not the case, the 'training' exercises those men were inflicting on their dogs would be unnecessary.

A dog, no less than a child, has got to be carefully taught to hate, as Rodgers & Hammerstein might say. It's a simple matter of conditioning, with dogs or men. In many ways, it's much harder to condition a dog to a life of violence. They don't go in much for religion and politics for one thing, and the tremendous significance of minuscule genetic differences within their species tends to be lost on them. I'm being a mite sarcastic there, but it's a fact that we humans can use our social networks to encourage violent behavior if we so choose--you have to de-socialize a dog to get a real champion fighter. But a dog who can't be part of any social grouping has been deprived of all that makes him a dog--their nature is to resist such conditioning. Those who try to breed and train dogs to ignore this part of their hardwiring inevitably run up against the fact that their pupils still reflexively need and want each other. In the long and not entirely happy history of the relationship between our species, this 'training' constitutes the ultimate betrayal on our part.

Yesterday, at the dog beach, some of us saw a good illustration of a dog who just couldn't get with the program. We were not entirely happy to see a man bring a large muscular pit bull to the beach on a chain. We have a number of dogs in our informal swim group who could be categorized as pits or pit mixes, but this dog, as you can see, was clearly of the type that is bred for fighting--even his ears had been altered so as to give an opponent less of a target. And his owner clearly didn't trust him offleash.

The man was a neighbor of one member of our group--through him, we learned that this impressive animal had been found wandering the streets. When you see a dog like that as a stray or in a shelter, it very often means that his former owner had tried and failed to make a fighter out of him, and finally turned him loose in disgust at the dog's perceived weakness. These are the lucky ones--many others who fail to fight on command are simply killed. The ones who succeed in becoming conditioned fighters are allowed to live (and breed)--these are the really unlucky ones.

The dog had probably never gone swimming in his life, and had almost certainly never had a chance to play with other dogs--but he viewed the group with great interest, and no sign of fear or aggressiveness.

Most of the dogs went nowhere near our visitors, but Max for some reason felt moved to come over and perform the normal doggy greeting. Maybe I should have discouraged him, but I made a snap decision to trust his instincts. The pit was a little dominant (you can see him bristling slightly), but otherwise polite--a less seasoned diplomat than Max might have gotten into trouble (it probably helped that Max is neutered). I called Max away as soon as they were done saying hello. I want my diplomat to have a long distinguished career.

The man took his dog away for a while, then returned--and started gently bathing him in the river.

It may not have been the first time--it did have a certain ritualistic feel to it, or maybe I'm just reading too much into an attempt to keep a canine companion from smelling up an overcramped domicile. Maybe this is the only kind of bath the dog ever gets--he certainly acceded to it more willingly than your average pooch tends to do.

The man may have been a wee tad borracho (at 8am in the morning), and he was no trainer, but I couldn't help but be moved by the tenderness he showed, and the pleasure and closeness the two were undeniably sharing. Whether the guy knew what he was doing or not, he was treating his friend better drunk than anyone else had ever done sober.

So I guess that's where I'll leave the story--I may never know how it ends. We hear so often about pit bulls being violent, with dogs or people, because they were trained the wrong way, or not trained at all. I have my problems with the people who breed these dogs, I can't abide the subculture that keeps them as fighters and macho status symbols--but I'm frequently moved by the way they keep going against type, moving instinctively back to the life they were meant to live. These are the real champions, and their fight is our fight. They don't want to be violent. And we don't have to be. Their nature--our choice.

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