Americans love pets. We have more pets per household than perhaps any other nation in the entire world. We also have more irresponsible pet owners, proportionately speaking, than most countries as well. Part of the cause may be attributed to good old American-style reactionism ("You can't tell ME what to do! This is a FREE country!") but much of it is due to sheer lack of awareness that owning a pet imposes a substantially high level of responsibility on individuals who acquire a pet. One of the best ways to eliminate rampant animal cruelty in our country is to increase awareness of the need to lead responsible lives, both for own own sakes and that of our pets'.
I was standing on the steps of the Capitol yesterday, taking in the lovely Spring-like weather (read: breezes full of pollen and allergen-laden particulate air pollution) for a moment or two when I noticed a colleague standing nearby. My friend was wearing a late 1800s western outfit that included a vest, pants held up by braces, a string tie and a brown bowler-type derby of the sort favored by bankers in the American West of the late 19th Century.
‘Greg’ was waiting for a tour group to arrive, since as one of the California State Treasury Vault personnel it was part of his job to conduct tours through the historic underground bunker that has been the secure repository for state valuables since the ‘Gold Rush’ years. With his sandy mustache, ginger colored hair and State Marshal badge on his belt, he looked very convincing; one could easily imagine him standing there, shotgun cradled in his arms and Colt six-shooter on his hip, nervously waiting for the arrival of the daily Wells Fargo stage bearing valuables from San Francisco to be stored in the vault.
At any rate, as we waited there for the group of 6th graders’ bus to pull into view, we began chatting about various things, one of them being the near daily ‘bread & circuses’ events that begin to take place in front of the west steps of the State Capitol as the warm weather political ‘silly season’ begins yet anew. For those who aren’t privy to the daily agendas of most state capitols, let me explain that the ‘Silly Season’ is so named because as the weather warms up, the political activist groups begin to appear with clockwork regularity, protesting their various issues and causes and conducting floridly effusive demonstrations. Yesterday it was a Planned Parenthood ‘faire’ on one side of the street that divides the State Capitol Building from the State Treasury Building, while a counter-protest group of ‘Right to Lifers’ held forth in cacaphonous disarray on the other. Not long before that, it was a local ‘Tea Party’ activist group, and several days before that a large ‘Save the Schools’ rally held by teachers and students who all seem to think that money grows on trees (if they yell loud enough, one would assume from watching them, the money will fall off the trees and into their state-funded education and student subsidy programs). So routine has the custom become of scheduling protests and demonstrations of all types on the Capitol’s west steps in this time of severe budget constraints that hardly a day goes by without some sort of bizarre rally providing coincidental entertainment for all of us who actually work in the Capitol. In effect, this practice seems to serve the same purpose that the historic ‘bread and circuses’ of ancient Rome did, by providing diversional outlets for the disgruntled masses to work off all their frustrations, and although that may be the actual net gain from all the hoopla, the noisy goofiness that attends these ‘events’ quickly becomes an irritating pain in the pahootie for minor state bureaucrats like myself and my pal Greg.
As Greg and I continued to chat, workers were setting up pavilions for yet another protest rally of some sort and nearby, out in the street, the usual daily fleet of school busses were pulling up to disgorge hundreds of students taking ‘state government’ field trips to the Capitol. The cumulative effect of all this seething mass of bodies coming, going and (in the case of rallies) screaming over loudspeaker systems (between music sets by yet another truly wretched glorified local garage band), amounted to the raw ingredients of a potential nervous breakdown for the more sensitive souls among us. All of this noisy craziness prompted me to reflect on how California has progressively become, over the course of the past five decades, the home of more disenchanted, semi-detached-from-reality fringers than could be found anywhere else in the entire nation. With its favorable climate drawing thousands of professional homeless people, wheelchair ridden lawyers who make a living by suing small businesses over their lack of federally mandated disabled access facilities, and just about every yahoo, whacko, substance abuser, red-neck racist, gay marriage advocate, neo-Nazi and 1%er being drawn to the state like flies to raw meat, the State of California has today truly become that fabled, semi-mythical ‘Land of Fruits & Fairies’ that the rest of America has long suspected us of being (self-fulfilling prophecy?).
I mentioned this to Greg, as we spotted a suspicious gaggle of elementary school age students weaving an uncertain line across the street. “Why is it”, I asked Greg, “that despite the fact that we (California) are the most economically powerful, influential and culturally innovative state in America, our State Capitol (Sacramento) has all the intellectual alacrity and wise prescience of a hick Texas border town? Why are we cursed with so much rampant social ignorance and lack of broad-minded common sense and so little urban refinement, despite our being the seat of state?”
Although I was waxing serious, as I invariably do in all things I focus on, Greg was having none of it and I noticed a subtle twinkle in his eye as he explained the reason for all this no-brainer activity that passes for daily life in Californica (sic): “It’s the water”, he said.
“Huh…?!” Totally nonplussed, I stopped in mid sentence, in an effort to understand his meaning.
“You know, the water. It’s contaminated with mercury. There was so much mining activity throughout the state since gold was discovered in 1849 that all that mercury used to leech the stuff from the ore ended up accumulating in the state’s stream beds and waterways. After nearly 163 years of gold mining in California, there’s so much loose mercury out there in the drinking water that it’s pretty clear that everyone in the state is suffering from the advanced effects of mercury poisoning.” By now the twinkle had turned into a pronounced grin, but I had to admit it WAS a very amusing explanation for why virtually everyone in this thoroughly screwed-up state seems to go around acting as if they were born with congenital methamphetamine addiction.
At this point you’re probably beginning to lose patience and are already asking yourself “OK, so Californians are all more or less certifiable; what does this have to do with ‘Water Dogs’”? Good question and I’m glad you asked that, since I am getting to it right now.
I am, as anyone who has followed some of the subjects I have touched upon in my writing knows, a ‘dog person’. That is, I have a particular affection for dogs as companions, lacking any human offspring to waste my time catering to. Unlike children, dogs never turn on you and say they hate you for this or that perceived fault, they don’t nickel and dime you to death as preadolescents, nor do they hit you up for college money and/or a fancy set of wheels as they grow older. Problems relating to the onset of canine puberty are handled deftly with a ‘snip-snip’ job at the local vet’s (try that with your kids!) and the intangible benefits are too numerous to even contemplate (especially in winter, when you find a couple of big furry bodies at your feet, helping to keep your own ‘puppies’ toasty warm). All dogs demand from us is the opportunity to constantly prove their undying loyalty and affection to a fault (provided, of course, that a few treats are occasionally offered up, here and there). In my particular case, I have a special fondness for ‘Lupus’ dogs, those breeds of Northern Spitz origins that are most closely related to their wolfish ancestral forebears of some 10,000 years ago (the chronological splitting off of domestic dogs from their Lupine ancestors, as nearly as it may be reckoned). Of these northern working breeds that fall under the ‘Northern Spitz’ class, my favorite breed is that of the Siberian Husky, although there have also been a few Alaskan Malamutes under my roof and sharing my home over the past three or four decades.
Siberians are, as amazingly few people seem to know, extremely ‘high maintenance’ dogs that demand human companions who can and will meet their rather substantial exercise requirements and be able to cope with certain mildly adverse characteristics and traits that the breed are noted for (these include a tendency to be mischievously clever, passionate diggers, dedicated escape artists, keen jumpers, and highly destructive chewers). But when one considers that the breed was originally developed hundreds of years ago by the Siberian Chukchi people to be strong working companions, capable of prodigious feats of survival in the extreme cold and highly energetic sled pullers, these transitional effects (from pure northern working dogs into domestic urban companions) become a bit more understandable and may be successfully dealt with by ordinary working families who have taken the trouble to research the breed before acquiring a Siberian Husky dog.
For myself, having been an early and ardent admirer of Nobel Prize winning Austrian animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz, I am most fond of the breed because of their remarkably congruent natural traits with those of their wolfish ancestors. Wolves have always fascinated me, not least for their remarkable social attributes and ‘pack nature’. As a born collectivist who has socialist tendencies, it simply seems apt (to me) that the world of wolves is a complexly developed one in which all the members of a pack interact in a specific behavioral and complex social hierarchy that most humans could themselves learn much from!
These wolfish characteristics simply do not exist to such a profound extent in so many other domestic breeds of dogs, although that is neither a criticism nor a fault of non-Spitz type dogs, and although I love all dogs (especially mixed-breed ‘mutts’, whose ‘Heinz-57’ genetics have generally conferred marvelous temperaments and personalities on them), I keep Siberians because they so much remind me of the wolves that I admire as wild creatures. I should note here that I am not an advocate of attempts to breed wolf-dog hybrids, since such ‘experiments’ are potentially as dangerous (for a number of reasons) as trying to cook up methamphetamines on a home kitchen range. Those who do try to create wolf-dog hybrids are generally about as clueless as anyone could possibly be about what these genetic combinations can produce. It’s the canine equivalent of putting a teenaged backyard bottle-rocket lighter in charge of the NASA Mars mission, in a certain sense, since the personality traits that amateur wolf/dog breeding efforts typically produce are notoriously unstable and potentially dangerous. That said, I am content enough to have my thoroughly domesticated Siberian dogs at my side to constantly (and pleasantly) remind me about what it is that I so admire in wild wolves.
As I’ve already observed, Siberian dogs require LOTS of attention and have many needs that must be met if they are to be kept in an ordinary domestic household. Their exercise needs alone are monumental (compared to other breeds) and if you consider the fact that the breed was intended originally for sustained load carrying through bitter cold, it becomes a bit easier to understand their inordinate need for exercise. Siberian owners have a saying that ‘A well-exercised Siberian is a happy, contented and well-mannered dog.’ What should be apparent, but may not be, is the obverse admonishment: ‘A poorly exercised Siberian is an energetic, slightly manic, hyper-active dog that has difficulty remaining calm and tranquil for long.” When Siberians are not exercised religiously, they tend to be destructive chewers of just about anything within reach and whole houses have occasionally been trashed by neglected Sibs while their owners are out. Other expressions of inadequate exercise levels take form in backyard digging marathons that can soon turn a beautiful garden into a virtual lunar crater, undeterable efforts to dig out from under the fence, or attempts to nudge the house door open and escape when one’s attention is elsewhere. One other breed characteristic that is not widely known by those unfamiliar with the Siberian Husky is a tendency to regard all smaller animals (especially cats, squirrels, chipmunks and similarly small critters) as instinctual prey. Given the Sib’s origins in the wild and their wolfish ancestry, Siberians have a deeply sublimated ‘prey instinct’ that may remain hidden until a cat or kitten springs into view; when that happens, something ‘clicks’ deep inside the Siberian archipallium (or ‘primitive brain’) and an ancestral memory instantly transforms into physical predatory behavior. A typical Siberian owner calmly walking his dog is often totally flummoxed when his enthusiastic, eager canine partner suddenly undergoes an unexpected Jekyl/Hyde change and charges full tilt towards whatever small animal has had the misfortune to cross paths with him.
All of the foregoing observations, of course, simply constitute cautionary advice for the unwary and unsavvy who may have happened to catch a movie like ‘Snow Dogs’, ‘Iron Will’, ‘Eight Below’, ‘Snow Buddies’, etc., all of which star Siberian Huskies, and have decided that it would be great to have such a naturally gorgeous dog of their own to show off on a leash, in public. Regrettably, far too many people who end up with huskies seem to be among those ‘mercury afflicted’ Californians that I began these paragraphs by referencing and buy a dog on a largely superficial whim, only to quickly discover the mandatory obligations and responsibilities that come with being a good Siberian Husky owner. The result of this ignorant obliviousness is often a sad one, with neglected or mistreated Siberians ending up in animal control facilities, where they may be marked for termination (almost always unfairly) as ‘overly aggressive’ and ‘potentially dangerous’ dogs.
The one positive ray of light shining over this sad state of affairs is the existence of a number of dog rescue groups that specialise in a particular breed’s rescue and retrieval. ‘NORSLED’, a Northern California Sled Dog Rescue group that I associate with is one such excellent organisation, working to save Siberians, Samoyeds, Alaskan Malamutes and all sled dogs of the Northern Spitz type from these sad and all-too-common circumstances. All of my own Siberians, save one we had from puppyhood onwards, came from NorSled and although there are many challenges that often must be met in taking these dogs in as ‘fosters’ and getting them eventually settled into new (and hopefully) permanent homes, the returns and rewards of doing so are simply too vast to easily enumerate here.
The usual state of affairs that obtains among humans selecting dogs as pets is that little or no rational thought precedes the acquisition. Instead of rationally arriving at a decision to acquire a dog as a pet and then researching the breeds carefully so as to determine which breeds may be most compatible with a particular human personality or lifestyle, the norm is more often a spontaneously reactive (and emotional) one. A dog is usually selected for very superficial reasons and in the case of Siberian Huskies (and other husky type dogs), the breed’s stunningly good looks are the predominating catalyst that typically inspires the process. If I had a penny for each time a passer-by made a gratuitous comment (such as, ‘How beautiful your dogs are!’) about the inherent attractiveness of my husky type dogs, I’d be sharing an executive office with Donald Trump or Warren Buffett. That single characteristic is typically the only consideration they focus on, of course, since it is such an obvious and ‘right-there-in-your-face’ quality. I wish I had the time and opportunity to give each of these well-wishers a three hour lecture right there, on the spot, about all that is required of the Siberian owner; but real life simply doesn’t afford such opportunities and so I simply nod affably, mutter an automatic ‘thank you’ and hope fervently that they aren’t moved to acquire one of their own without adequate prior preparation.
In my many articles and other writings, one of my recurring themes has been the remarkable incidence of what I perhaps unfairly term ‘stupid behavior’ in individuals who are not really that clod-like, but people who could behave appropriate to circumstances if they just made an occasional small effort to reflect intelligently on their lives and analyse the consequences of their potential interactions with others. I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion, over time and hard pressed to explain things otherwise, that ‘intelligent reflection’ is largely a cultivated habit, something that is acquired through deliberate, conscious effort to broaden one’s awareness and perceptions. How otherwise to explain acts of what would be readily interpreted as sheer stupidity in someone known to be mentally deficit, but largely unfathomable in someone who is actually possessed of not-insignificant intelligence.
My observations gathered in 65 years of cooperative living with others have moved me to feel that whereas most of our daily interactions with others are reactive and largely unthinking, circumstances could and would be different if just a bit of effort were made to lead people into managing their natural powers of reflective reasoning more adroitly in their daily affairs. This certainly would have beneficial results in terms of making people better pet owners, at least, and perhaps we would have better and far more suitable dog/owner pairings than we seem to have now.
In my own residential neighborhood I have the unusual advantage of being the ‘neighborhood watch’ coordinator for the three or four blocks that comprise the area. In this capacity I have better awareness of who the people in my neighborhood are than most would and accordingly I know who among us have dogs and who don’t. While there doesn’t seem to be any readily identifiable associative logic behind these families and their selected dogs, a few things do become clear. One of them is that far too many people end up with inappropriate dogs (such as Pit Bulls, who have hazardous potentials inherent in their archetypal genetic make-up, as a breed originally bred for fighting) simply out of an exaggerated fear of petty crime. To use the example of the Pit Bull, far too often people acquire this breed out of a need to appear ‘tough’ or ‘bad’ (using the black idiomatic context). Pit Bull owners, who uniformly and reflexively defend their dogs against all aspersions of being ‘dangerous’ without a second thought, feel that having a Pit Bull around somehow constitutes definitive protection against criminal intrusions by others. They feel that the breed’s ‘rep’ for fierceness will work towards that end just as effectively as any real or overt physical menacing quality the dog may have. Interestingly, many Pit Bull owners tend to be (at least in my experience) part of that ‘mercury afflicted’ group already alluded to in that they completely fail to foresee the antisocial potentials that Pit Bull dogs possess in their basic make-up. To them, their own personal Pit Bulls are simply loving family pets that they will assiduously defend to their dying days as being ‘perfectly harmless’ (how many times have I heard the oft repeated: “…just wonderful puppies at heart, really!”) and totally incapable of any of those ‘nasty incidents that you read about in the newspapers, involving Pit Bull attacks’. This is called ‘denial’, which is not evidence of stupidity but merely a sign of misperceptivity.
Statistically, at least, we know that that sort of emotionally defensive rhetoric simply isn’t true , for Pit Bulls ranks right up near the top of dog breeds regarded as ‘potentially dangerous’ by organisations that track this sort of data. But then, so are Chihuahuas, interestingly enough. I think it’s safe enough to speculate that the dogs themselves are in truth not half as dangerous as their owners, who are chiefly responsible for maintaining control over them (or not). Anyone who possesses a Pit Bull, regardless of its reputation for ferocity while attacking, has the implied responsibility for seeing to it that their dog NEVER finds itself in a situation wherein it may do serious damage to others (either people or other animals) and yet almost every day one reads about a Pit Bull owner who has somehow allowed his dog to run free (intentionally or unintentionally off a lead), only to have it attack (and sometimes kill) another dog (or person). This to me is a stinging indictment not of the dog or the breed, but of its ignorant owner, and sadly enough California has a large population of both: Pit Bulls and ignorant owners.
In saying this, I am well aware of the fact that some of the statistical groups that track dog aggression and attacks regard husky-type dogs as ‘potentially dangerous’, lumping them in with Pit Bulls, Presa Canario and similar breeds that were specifically bred for their fighting abilities. There is more here than meets the eye, since there are a number of fine differences between energetic working dog breeds and dog breeds developed exclusively for fighting purposes. Huskies are well known for their inherent human compatibility and extremely good natured demeanor around both adults and children, but it is also a known fact that they can turn into predators in the presence of smaller animals (whom they will attack if allowed to do so). Frequently, due to their keen ‘escape artist’ tendencies, huskies do get loose and once free to roam can and do attack any smaller animals that they may come across (most often cats that they may even kill). That doesn’t make them dangerous to humans, however, which is an important distinction that is often either ignored or conveniently overlooked by the stat gatherers who erroneously place husky dogs in the ‘potentially dangerous’ category. In fact, there is not a single known case on record that documents an attack by a pure-bred husky dog against a human being (wolf-husky hybrids, on the other hand, are known for their selectively dangerous and unpredictable behavior and may well attack humans without hesitation in certain situations). Compare that fact against known characteristics of ‘bred-for-fighting’ breeds such as the Pit Bull, wherein fully half or more of the attacks HAVE been directed against human adults and/or children/infants. This is a remarkable distinction, yet as noted above, almost invariably NEVER referenced in the typical discussions centering on aggressive dog breeds.
All right, I think I’ve made my point sufficiently here. Regardless of the breed and regardless of any characteristics the breeds may inherently possess, the blame for any and ALL violently antisocial behavior by dogs MUST be levied against the dogs’ human masters, since it is their abnegation of control responsibility that has permitted acts of that sort to take place.
In my neighborhood, we have a number of dogs, as one might reasonably predict. Included among them are two Siberian Huskies (ours), at least four or five Labrador Retrievers, one or two Golden Retrievers, several mixed-breed mutts, two Pit Bulls (both in one home), five Chihuahuas (also in one home), and several other breeds (Yorkies, a Lhasa Apso or two, three Cocker Spaniels, a Beagle, and a Jack Russell Terrier). Each day, owing to my dogs’ exaggerated requirement for exercise, either I or my wife take both dogs out for several ‘laps’ around the neighborhood (this typically amounts to about 4-5 ‘walks’ every day, from 05:00 AM to 08:00 PM).
As a long-time and quite well experienced husky owner, I know that RULE 1 in the husky manual is never, ever let a husky off his lead in public (or out of an enclosed yard). The reason being that huskies have a poor sense of orientation and once free of physical restraint will immediately run off at a high rate of speed until thoroughly lost and unable to find their way home again. Thus, we take great pains to always have them under positive control (and this means ‘firmly attached to the lead’…not ‘within verbal call back’ distance, as so many incorrectly presume) whenever they are out of the house. On their walks they have been trained to walk side-by-side, almost in the same manner that they would pull a sled, but always on their leads and under direct restraining control.
As we pass around the neighborhood, however, we occasionally come across one or more of our neighbors who have let their own dog (or dogs) out of the house, presuming that the dogs will obediently remain with them there and not wander away. This innocent assumption is quickly dashed to pieces the minute our leashed guys walk into view and in more instances than I care to recall, I or my wife have found ourselves in the unhappy position of having the loose dogs rapidly approach our carefully controlled guys (in some cases trying to attack them)! In most pair-offs, the other dogs stand a good chance of ending up as doggie treats for our guys, since huskies can give as good as they get when put upon, but the idea of our guys doing significant damage to someone precious little yapper (through the other owner’s ignorant carelessness) is still not a happy or comforting thought. In fact, I highly resent having to assume figurative responsibility for BOTH of us simply because the other dog owner isn’t smart enough to understand the potential for calamity implicit in letting his dogs come close enough to mine for them to bite them.
In one instance, as I was passing through the neighborhood in the evening (as it grew dark), an older Dalmatian dog belonging to a kindly older retired (and disabled) women living nearby suddenly dashed out of her house and attacked my two guys. Since I had had a glass of wine with dinner before taking them out, I was somewhat less prepared for this possibility than usual and in trying to keep my dogs from hurting the attacking Dalmatian in the growing dark, I lost my balance and fell, giving the Dalmatian the chance to bite me on my leg in the resulting fracas. The woman was, as would be expected, profusely apologetic, but that doesn’t compensate for the fact that this was a totally preventable incident had she merely been more aware of the potential hazard of having her dog being next to her while she stood there, absently holding the door wide open. Another simple case of ‘circumstantial ignorance’ that should never have occurred.
Just yesterday, an even worse situation developed as I was walking my guys around the block. In the course of walking down a side street nearby, the three of us passed by the open garage of a house wherein lives an American fellow in his late 30s, along with his Australian wife and their teenage son. Before I had a chance to realise what was happening, two large Pit Bulls dashed out of his open garage and attacked my two guys. Normally capable of fighting off just about every other dog, even huskies are often outmatched by a Pit Bull (or two) in full attack mode. The fighting was immediate and ferocious, with my guys severely disadvantaged by my trying futilely to hold them back on their leads. The two Pit Bulls attacked almost as if cooperatively and before I knew what was happening, one of them had my younger 3 year old female bitch (shown in the picture that accompanies this article) on her back, trying to rip out her throat. Fortunately, I use a pronged ‘pinch collar’ to control my dogs while on leads and the bulky, pronged collar acted to prevent the Pit Bull from being able to get a good grip. In the span of a minute, the owner of the Pit Bulls had run out of the garage and finally managed to wrestle his dog off my girl, while his son and he together got them both under control before any serious injury had been sustained on either side. Although left a bit shaky by the suddenness and violence of this unanticipated melee, I found that neither of my guys had suffered any bites and we returned home…highly pissed off, but at least fully intact and safe from the possible unhappy outcome of this encounter, had it remained unchecked. Fortunately, it had been me walking the guys and not my 98 pound (Chinese) wife!
The fellow in question who has these Pit Bulls is a very pleasant person, not at all an ignorant lout or emotionally reactive person of low intelligence, but despite that fact, he failed completely to understand the potentially serious danger that any Pit Bull presents when running uncontrolled and free of any direct physical constraint. Despite all this, and knowing that he was probably as flummoxed as I was when this incident occurred, it constitutes yet another perfect example of ‘circumstantial ignorance’ and a total failure to perceive the greater and broader range of possibilities inherent in our daily interactions with others. His failure to make absolutely certain that his dogs were under active control, given the breed’s notorious potential for inflicting serious harm, can be neither excused nor rationalised away. Yet it serves as simply another recurring example of how oblivious even reasonably intelligent people are to the need to factor the presence and actions of others into their daily surroundings.
As much as I hate to say it, this has simply been the final straw in terms of my patience and ability to overlook such things. From this point on, I won’t hesitate to carry a container of MACE and keep it directly at hand for instant use, should any further moments like this occur. It is sad that things have to come down to this, but I simply cannot afford to be responsible for myself and others simultaneously, all the time. If they can’t take the trouble to restrain their dogs, then I shall have no compunctions about using whatever it takes to keep my own (leash restrained) dogs safe from others' own ignorant lack of broader awareness.
This anecdotal extract from my own life doesn’t necessarily reflect on my undiminished love for all dogs, Pit Bulls or not, but it bespeaks highly of a growing sense of frustration for the daily abnegation of responsibility that increasingly characterises life in this crazy state we all share I like to call Californica (sic).
Mercury in the water? Yeah, maybe! But more likely ‘water on the brain’….