Dog Quest: In which a mystery is solved, dog training is hilarious, and I break a bone for the first time in my life

This particular event happened a while ago, but for some reason I simply forgot to post this entry (which I wrote much closer to the event itself). Never let it be said that I am not willing to risk life and limb to train my dog.

But I must tell the story from the beginning, no matter how slowly I am forced to type (please forgive the possibly larger than usual number of amusing typos in this piece – all will be made clear).

In some of my social media feeds, I have remarked upon a certain mystery of dog behaviour. It’s not uncommon that I will go to let the dogs inside (one at a time) on a wet, muddy day, and observe with some resignation that Abby is almost completely covered in mud. On one occasion I went through five towels and two buckets of warm water getting the cement-like coating of wet viscous oozy mud off her legs, chest, belly and tail. It was an adventure, nay, a very odyssey in mud.

Then, sighing with exhaustion (scrubbing down a wriggly adolescent rottweiler is a surprisingly active task), I turned to let Amos in and repeat the process – only to discover that he had the bare minimum of mud on his legs. His belly was clean, in fact, and only his feet needed wiping.

And yet Abby was almost entirely coated in mud.

And I know with some certainty that they are generally inseparable when they are out in the yeard – where Amos goes, Abby goes, usually in that order. How could this be? I concocted a theory that they’d been wrestling, and Amos ended up on top, but it was unsatisfying.

It occurred a few more times, each time no less mystifying, and on the first Saturday of August, we got the answer.

It was cold and miserable and damp. We braved the freezing air with our large and excitable pooches, both myself and Husband clad top to toe in thermals and beanies (I was even wearing fingerless mittens). By the time we arrived at dog training, the rain had stopped, but the verdant sports oval on which we usually train was covered in large muddy puddles. I was never so thankful for my waterproof hiking boots.

The trainer understood that it was cold, and so she kept us moving. I took Amos, as I usually do, while Husband trained with Abby. We were making good progress on our loose lead walking, heels, recalls and general focus, and then the trainer declared that we were going to do some stays.

For those who don’t know, this is simply where you command your dog into a position and expect them to hold it. They’re not allowed to break the position unless you give them a competing command or the release word, no matter what happens – distractions, other dogs, you walking away and abandoning them forever (dog-perspective hyperbole added)- anything. Obviously, you work to the level of your dog (and yourself), and you release them and reward them before they break their position (which they eventually will in most cases, depending on the time they have to stay or the level of the distraction) so that they learn that holding this position is good and will get them treats (or playing, if that is the reward you offer). Then you re-command the position, and you try it again. Most dogs will resist some distractions and not others, so you have to be aware of what your dog will react to.

To start with, we did these stays on the cricket pitch. Amos was doing very well. He was very obedient and focused and generally having fun. I would unclip the lead from itself (it’s a police lead, you can make it longer or shorter depending on where you clip it) to make it longer so I would be able to grab it more easily if he ran off, and then I would step away. I got into the habit of walking back, reclipping the lead, and then walking away again so that he knew that he couldn’t break the position just because I was fiddling with the lead.

Then the trainer declared that we should all move out into the mud, and also told us to lower our expectations because some dogs wouldn’t like dropping in the mud.

This proved to be true. “Drop,” I said to Amos when he was standing over a squelchy puddle.

He looked at me (in, I imagine, horror). I coughed meaningfully (“Ahem!”) and added the hand signal for emphasis.

He reluctantly started to lower himself to the ground. As his belly got closer and closer to the mud, his progress got slower and slower, until he was basically hovering off his elbows above the puddle, his legs shaking with the effort. I continued to look at him expectantly, keeping my hand in the signal position.

With a great grumbly sigh, he dropped his belly in the mud.

“Good boy,” I told him. He huffed.

Then I bent to unclip his lead.

He shot to his feet, for all the world as if saying, “What! I have to stay here?!

I want to take a moment to be smug that he’d realised that when I unclipped the lead he was going to be staying put for a while, and it’s true that I did laugh, and got him back into his drop. I also took out a large piece of cheese from the treat pouch and showed it to him. “You’ll get this,” I said, “if you can hold that drop.” I’m not sure how much of that he’d understood, but I’ve tried this tactic before (usually when administering medicine or doing some other unpleasant thing) so I wouldn’t be surprised if he picked up the gist of it. If I take out a treat, set it aside, and then ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do, he usually glances at the treat and then behaves himself. It is not so much positive reinforcement as blatant bribery, and honestly, it’s not what I would normally do except that I was lowering my standards a bit for this exercise.

So, we’ve established that Amos can hold a drop, even in the mud, even though he hates it.

Meanwhile, I looked over at Abby, happily flopped all over a puddle, gazing up at Husband, delighted with herself and everything around her.

“Winter and summer puppies,” the trainer explained. Puppies born in winter get exposed to mud when they are very small, therefore mud is a normal part of life. Puppies born in summer don’t get that experience. By the time they get to experience mud, they’re well past their most impressionable stage of life, and now mud is weird and disturbing and why is the ground soft and wet this makes no sense euwwww.

And I did the mental maths. Amos was born in December (almost the height of austral summer). Abby was born in March, meaning that mud would have hit when she was about eight weeks old – easily within those crucial first twelve weeks in which puppies are developing their impressions of the world. Mud, for Abby, is normal, and apparently awesome.

And the mystery was solved.

I now know why Abby will come inside covered in mud, and why Amos will be almost pristine. He will actively avoid mud, while Abby will squelch around, giving precisely zero fucks about it.

Having happily solved this mystery, we continued with training (he did get the cheese in the end). The session continued as usual, and towards the end of the hour we found ourselves on the playground at the end of the oval to practice more stays, and mix them up with recall.

This can be tricky, and has caused us problems before. We’re aware that Amos’s recall is below what would be expected at this stage (although it’s rapidly improved over the last few months with some hard work), so we always practiced recalls by putting Amos in a command, then walking away and calling him, and praising him enormously for coming to us. This wasn’t a perfect way to do it, since in the real world, when you recall your dog, they’re probably distracted by something, not focused intently on you and quivering with anticipation. We’ve also been practising more with distractions lately.

The real problem with this approach is that, when your dog is in a stay, they’ll start assuming that you’re going to recall them, and they’ll start anticipating that, and thinking, “Well, why wait around? I might as well just cut out the middle step and head over there right now,” wherein they break their stay and gallop over to you (occasionally getting distracted en route and running off to play. Ask me how I know).

So I did what you’re supposed to do. I got Amos to drop, and I walked away from him, and sometimes I called him to me, and sometimes I walked back to him and released him, and sometimes I walked back to him and away again. I mixed it up, and he was doing really well.

And then, for some reason – still not sure why – I was walking away from him and I heard the trainer say, “Amos is up,” which means he’s broken his drop. I turned and my dog was galloping towards me at full pelt. All 40 kgs (88 lbs for those of you not in the metric system) of him, on maximum Amos-speed, and that would have been okay, except he got distracted by a very fuzzy and adorable blue heeler puppy and started to head over there to say hello.

I instinctively grabbed for the lead as he went flying past me.

This turns out, in retrospect, to be one of the least sensible notions I have ever had. The police lead is thick leather with solid steel clips, and instead of getting a good grip on the lead (my plan was to move with him and pull gently so that neither of us fell over or got yanked too hard), it slammed across the middle finger of my left hand and I felt a tiny crack and then burning pain, and I let the whole thing go and snatched my hand to my chest. Meanwhile Amos had slowed and been reclaimed by the trainer, whom he was happily sniffing at.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

At this point Amos turned to me and started sniffing at me instead. “I’m fine,” I said (I thought I was), “I’ve just got leash burn. Whew. That… really hurts. Wow. That is quite painful.” (very precise and calm speech is one of the ways I deal with pain)

I was still pumped on adrenaline and I wanted to give Amos a “win” before I stopped the exercise, so I put him in a drop, and walked away from him, and then back to him, and then away again, and then recalled him, told him he was a very good boy and gave him a treat. He held his position and then recalled perfectly.

And then I started to feel slightly dizzy. The pain wasn’t going away like it would with leash burn. “I’m just going to go sit down,” I said, and took my dog over to the edge of the playground and sat on the platform at the base of the flying fox. Amos continued to sniff at me. While I sat there trying to catch my breath, I looked at my hand and noticed that the middle finger of my left hand was rotated, some ten to fifteen degrees clockwise of how it normally sat. “That’s not right,” I mumbled. “That knuckle is supposed to be in a different spot. I’m sure of it.” And then I started to feel nauseous.

To cut a long story short (too late), the trainer walked Amos back to the car for me while Husband brought Abby, and I got dropped off at the Emergency Department of our local hospital, where they gave me two Panadeine Forte (I do love codeine. It makes me fuzzy and happy and high and unlike many people I get no anxiety or nausea from it) to deal with the nauseating pain.

The eventual X-Ray confirmed that I’d broken my finger. A spiral fracture, with some quite noticeable rotation.

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So. What did we learn from this?

Grabbing the lead was a stupid idea. Even a dog 10 kgs lighter than Amos could have done considerable damage at that velocity, particularly with that lead (we deliberately chose that strength of lead based on trainer recommendations and the fact that when it comes to a gallivanting rottweiler, cheap plastic clips such as you find on most leads just do not give you peace of mind. They can easily snap, and then your dog can head out into traffic, and it all goes downhill from there).

Furthermore, I knew that there was a critical mass of dogs and interesting people here (me, Husband, the trainers), all of whom Amos loves or is just curious about. He wasn’t going to go far. I didn’t simply recall him, which would have been ideal (and probably would have worked, given how focused he was), and I didn’t wait for him to stop and sniff the puppy at which point I could safely pick up the lead, tell him “Leave!” and return to the exercise. If all else failed, and he bounced away, determined to lead me on a merry chase, I could have done the number one thing guaranteed to get him to come back to me: run away from him.

Then he would have made the happy playful dog switch to “Oh! I’m chasing you now? Fun!” and chased me, and then I could easily have caught him. I have done this many times and it has never failed.

There were so many better things I could have done. In fact, even if I’d succeeded in grabbing the lead, I might not have been able to prevent myself falling over, which would have resulted in Amos getting a nastier correction than he deserved via my body weight added to his velocity. So I have learned my lesson!

The fun addendum to the story is that dogs seem to be able to smell inflammation markers or something like that (well, they can smell cancer, inflammation isn’t too much of a stretch), and Amos was very snuggly and concerned about my wellbeing over the next few days (he’s still rather clingy). The cuteness is some consolation for the injury.

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“Why do you want me dead? What did I ever do to you?” , or, A Personal Experience Based Guide to the Fallacious Appeal to Nature

I admit I don’t always have the greatest amount of patience when it comes to encountering the appeal to nature. A great deal has been written concerning this most common of human logical errors. In case you’re not familiar with the term, the appeal to nature is the generalised assumption that something that is natural (term poorly defined) is always going to be better (term poorly defined – better for physical health? For mental health? For long-term job security? For basic rhythm? For syncopated rhythm and a 3/4 time signature?) than something that is unnatural (term poorly defined).

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not just a scientist – I’m a marine biologist. I have a deep love for the natural world. I love bushwalking. I love watching David Attenborough documentaries. I am a fan of the carefully-researched-for-appropriate-ethical-practices eco-tourism par excellence. I am quite happy to spend several hours underwater with a tank of air (although for reasons of not wanting to die, I’ll have to take a few breaks throughout that period). I am sometimes slack on my slacktivism, but I do care, and nature is important.

I just don’t happen to think that that nature is there to help me personally. As glorious as nature is, it’s glorious in a terribly chaotic and amoral way; or, to put it another way:

Study evolution for five minutes and you quickly realise that Nature Is A Douche.

And as a consequence of this, the “appeal to nature” is pretty easy to knock over.

When the home birthing crowd start crowing about how medical intervention in childbirth is unnecessary because women have been doing it for millennia, just point out maternal and neonatal mortality rates over recorded history, i.e., say, “Yes! We’ve been doing it for millennia. We’ve also been dying the whole freaking time.

When people start blathering about chemicals as ingredients in food, it’s a quick moment only to point out that water is a chemical. As is oxygen. And sugar. And, alright, every molecular structure ever. This is how we define chemicals: “a distinct compound or substance.” Then people say, “I mean unnatural chemicals. That didn’t come from nature.” And then you have to point out that all chemicals ultimately came from this poorly defined concept of nature. Even if the end product was synthesised under laboratory conditions, the ingredients were no doubt extracted and refined from natural resources. Or perhaps the ingredients were synthesised from other ingredients extracted and refined from natural resources… and then we quickly run into definitional problems. Yes, to a certain extent, that’s a naive argument from the other end as well – but we really need to address why some additives could be a problem without saying “They’re unnatural!” because that misses the point entirely.

But that’s all fine. Really. It’s when we start to get into the anti-vaccine, anti-medications-especially-antibiotics crowd that I start to take the whole thing very personally indeed.

And I start to ask, why do you want me dead?

When I was about eighteen months old, my mother noticed that I was having difficulty breathing. I don’t have any more details about how the rest of that day went because she flatly refuses to talk about it. My mother loves drama, so this is very telling. My father gets very grim as well, and my father doesn’t generally do grim, as a concept. He runs the emotional gamut from jolly to furious, but grim is not in his repertoire. The memory of that day still apparently scares them both shitless.

This is because I nearly died.

Here’s how: we have a little flap of flesh in our throats that stops us from inhaling our food. It divides your oesophagus (stomach tube) from your trachea (breathing tube) and is called the epiglottis. When functioning correctly, it’s a nifty little structure. Mine was swelling up and blocking my throat, essentially choking me, and it wasn’t just doing this for shits and giggles. In 95% of cases, this response (epiglottitis) is caused by a bacterial disease called Haemophilus influenzae B. Surgical medical intervention was required to stop me from essentially choking on my own throat.

This particular disease has a high mortality rate in children. If epiglottitis is not caught in time, it is generally lethal. Then a vaccine was developed, and in 1993, it became part of the regular schedule of vaccines for infants in Australia. Then – and this may shock you – children stopped dying from it. There was a 95% reduction in reported infections, meaning that less children died from epiglottitis and other resulting complications like meningitis and pneumonia.

I know. Colour me stunned. If there had been a vaccine when I was a baby, I wouldn’t have nearly died. And if I hadn’t had surgical medical intervention as a choking infant, I would have died. Guaranteed. To paraphrase Dr House, “Oxygen is so important to a developing brain, don’t you think?”

So when people talk about how bad and evil and poisonous vaccines are, I want to ask them if they prefer that doctors have to cut into the throat of an 18 month old infant to save their life, or, if they’re really not a fan of that level of medical intervention, if they wouldn’t perhaps prefer the aforementioned infant to choke to fucking death.

And then I want to say, “So that infant was me. Why do you want me dead?”

Not long after that, I developed juvenile asthma – I never actually suffered a wheezing attack and was always able to get the minimal air in, but my asthma attacks presented as severe coughing fits and often led the way to secondary lung infections. Bronchitis episodes were scattered regularly throughout my childhood, and were best treated with antibiotics. Without these, I would quite likely have ended up with scarring in my lungs. There’s a lot that I wouldn’t have been able to do, not the least of which is SCUBA diving.

And it’s even possible that, again, I would be dead.

When I was fifteen, I began to present symptoms of a very unpleasant condition called hidradenitis suppurativa. It’s a pretty unattractive thing, so don’t click the link unless you have a really strong tolerance for pus. It’s a poorly understood autoimmune condition with a genetic component, and I have perhaps the mildest possible presentation of it.

This means I am only hospitalised for it – on average – once every two years. And I probably need medical treatment for it in a GP clinic about – rough guesstimate – once a year. Regardless of whether I end up being surgically treated or whether we can avoid this with the application of copious amounts of broad-spectrum antibiotics supplied in pills the size of which would send your average donkey wandering off for a large glass of water, intervention of some sort is ultimately required.

It’s not a lethal condition. Really, it isn’t. It can be excruciatingly painful, really exhausting (a massive infection site puts a drain on the immune system), extremely gross, and quite embarrassing to deal with, but it won’t kill you… not now, anyway.

However, the main symptom is abscess formation. If an abscess is untreated, then it could burst outwardly and leak infected pus everywhere – which is painful and gross, but manageable – or it could break internally and then you end up with septicaemia, a.k.a. sepsis, i.e. blood poisoning, and you die in considerable pain.

Wow. Guess we hate those evil antibiotics. Guess those bastards are just sooooo bad to have because they’re unnatural. Guess I should have just taken some fucking echinacea.

And died of sepsis.

Here’s another one! A few years ago, I managed to slip on a wet floor, go flying through the air, and land spectacularly on my back. It was hilarious and sore and a bit embarrassing, but I wasn’t worried until the next afternoon when I started peeing blood and passing out.

Lo and behold, someone (who may have been me) thumped their kidney, busted something, and ended up with a kidney infection. I spent the night in hospital on intravenous antibiotics and heavy painkillers, vowing never again to run across a wet kitchen floor, no matter how much I might want to get the shampoo from the shopping bag and then get back in the shower.

But a kidney infection without antibiotics? Why, it’s your old pal sepsis again!

I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve been on antibiotics for a condition that might otherwise have killed me, but it’s at least fifteen.

I don’t have a genetic predisposition to any of these things other than the HS. They were just bad freaking luck. They couldn’t be prevented with echinacea, St Johns wort, or a few more gallons of breastmilk. This is real shit that happens, and before we had the antibiotics and other various medications, we died from these things. We died in large numbers, and we died in pain.

People who subscribe to these appeals to nature and natural treatment seem to believe that none of these bad things could ever happen to them, because they’re just so very healthy. These diseases don’t happen to them, or anyone down the street. No-one gets sick. No-one needs antibiotics or vaccines, according to them, because they’re so healthy.

I assure you, measles can cause encephalitis in very healthy people, and then they are not healthy anymore. There’s a cause and effect problem here: you are healthy because you lack disease. You don’t lack disease because you’re so healthy. It’s the wrong way around. It’s true that there are some less robust pathogens that are opportunistic and will only really get on board if you’re immunocompromised or a little bit run down, but we don’t vaccinate against those. Measles, pertussis (whooping cough), chicken pox – these are not those diseases. Those can and will kill formerly healthy adults, children and babies, no matter how much breastmilk was provided in childhood.

I’m here now because of these unnatural interventions. I’m here, and I’m relatively healthy. I like to go to gym five or six days a week. I do weights. I run (admittedly not well). I swim. I SCUBA dive. I’m an active person in spite of all those things I’ve been through, and it’s due solely to the wide availability of basic medical care.

Nature is a beautiful, amoral killing machine. It is not better for us. It’s been trying to kill us for a very long time, and we’ve been simultaneously trying to thwart it. So when I run into someone who doesn’t believe in vaccinations or antibiotics, I take it personally. I want to know what I ever did to them, and why they want me dead.

And if they don’t want me dead, and they don’t want other people who get sick to die, maybe a little more thought is in order.