I can communicate with my dog. A little skepticism? No, I really mean communicate. A twitch of the tail, a furrowed eye brow, a turned head, all combine into a recognizable form that we would call a sentence. Sure, I have to fill in the occasional adverb or adjective, and at a minimum, I upgrade verbs and nouns with better synonyms but nothing more. Well, maybe I go a little overboard when I apply tone and inflection into the words I feel coming from my dog, but I do have to admit things got a little out of hand recently. It all started after the house next door was sold.
Can you believe how dumb some people can be? My new next door neighbors are a household of diminished mental capacity individuals. I'm trying to be polite. What is my proof you ask? After settling in, cutting down every tree in sight, and installing a pool, they went out and bought a rabbit to keep in their yard. Not a dog, not even an ungrateful, arrogant cat, but a dumb rabbit. You can tell a lot about a person's intelligence from the pets they keep. Dog owners, in general, seem to be nice people, but what can you say about a rabbit owner. Personally I think they have deep emotional problems as mainfested by their remote attachment to a feral creature. So when a whole houseful of people owns a single rabbit, we have the potential of dysfunctional neighborhood blight.
The rabbit also suffers from diminished mental capacity, probably by association. I am not an expert in animal or people IQ, but anybody who installs a rabbit hutch right up against a wood fence, with no wire or mesh, on the other side of which reside five rabbit-drooling Chow Chows, cannot be intelligent. And the rabbit's proof of diminished capacity? The dumb bunny tries to burrow its way under the fence. Into our yard. Into the jaws of death.
I found out about the rabbit when my five year old male Chow Chow, Pan Tu, attempted to spend the remainder of his waking life in the far corner of the yard, an area by the way he never visits. On one particular day, I observed him standing perfectly still, his eyes focused on a spot on the ground, right at the bottom of the six foot cedar privacy fence. The fence has small gaps between the boards that vary between one eighth to one quarter inch. Occasionally, Pan Tu would lift his head and look back at the house where I stood at the patio door. It is at times like this that I can communicate with my dog.
"Hey, Dave, come out here and help me get to the other side of the fence. There's a rabbit over there!" Pan Tu was yelling. At least that was my interpretation. My written job description as pack alpha does not require me to take down fences for lazy Chows. I have other dogs, with whom I also can communicate, though at a lesser level, and they too were fascinated with the rabbit. Fascinated, but not obsessed. They'd spend a few minutes at the fence, patrolling and inspecting, sniffing and pawing, but after a while, they'd give up in frustration and head off for more exciting adventures like chasing squirrels. By the way, Pavlov was wrong. Pavlov, an eminent scientist in the 1800's, conducted a series of experiments with dogs and bells, and allegedly proved that if you ring a bell every time you feed a dog, the dog will begin to salivate whenever it hears the bell, whether it was time to eat or not. Pavlov called this a conditioned response. Repeat a behavior pattern endlessly and reward the correct response with a positive treat or praise, while punishing an incorrect response, and eventually the desired behavior becomes ingrained. By the way, this happens to be the basis for all dog training and child rearing.
Though some Pavlovian trainers (and parents) used terms like positive reinforcement instead of leash corrections, it's all based on the same principle.
I've developed an opposing theory of learned behavior called Dave's First Law of Dog Ownership. Here it is in proper scientific theory form. If a dog chases a squirrel every day and never catches one, the dog learns nothing! I've conducted thousands of scientific observations from my patio deck, and I have never seen a dog come close to catching a squirrel. If Pavlov was right, eventually the dogs would look at the squirrel, do some type of canine sigh, and turn away. I have never witnessed such behavior. Every squirrel sighting is exactly the same. One dog sees the squirrel, communicates the location, bearing, size and other target acquisition information to the other dogs in the yard and the race is on. Nature clearly favors the squirrel and until a dog learns how to climb a tree by running around the tree truck, as it climbs, then all the squirrels in our part of the world are perfectly safe. Whether it is squirrels or rabbits, I think Pavlov was wrong and I set out to prove otherwise. I decided to modify Pan Tu's rabbit-obsessive behavior with rational, logical arguments. It was time for a heart to heart, human to dog talk. I put on my coat and strolled to the back of the yard where Pan Tu was still staring at the bottom of the fence.
"Dave," there was excitement in Pan Tu's voice, "there's a rabbit on the other side of the fence and I'm going to get him as soon as he finishes digging a hole under the fence. Stand here and wait with me."
I couldn't believe the rabbit was so stupid that it was trying to dig into our yard which meant sure death. I stood on my toes and peeked over the fence. There it was, digging a hole under the fence! I knelt down and looked through the cracks, my eye right up to the board. The rabbit came up to the fence and put its nose near my eye. I pulled back not sure whether this rabbit was fearless, or dumber than even I thought possible. Little did I know, at that time that I was wrong on both counts.
"Did you see that rabbit? I'm going to get it."
"No, you're not Pan Tu, it's not politically correct to be a hunter these days. I don't want PETA throwing blood and rabbit skins on our front porch. You'll have to leave that rabbit alone."
I could see Pan Tu was obsessed with this rabbit and that logical, rational arguments would be ineffective. He needed therapy and fast. Still, I didn't want to resort to Pavlov's method of repetitious reward and punishment Instead I opted for my home grown progressive therapy program for Pan Tu.
On Saturday morning, I led Pan Tu into the family room and placed him in a sit-stay in front of the television.
"Your therapy will consist of a series of video training exercises," I said. "Pay particular attention to the obsession of the lead actor, named Elmer Fudd, with a certain rabbit, and the futility of his endeavor. You'll see that the rabbit, called Bugs Bunny, always wins."
I turned on the TV, set the channel and watched as the Warner Brothers logo appeared on screen, then I left the room. Sometimes it's best if the animal under therapeutic treatment, on his own, comes slowly to the realization that his behavior is destructive. At least that's what I thought. In retrospect, perhaps I should have provided more direct counseling during this period.
At the end of the one hour session, I went back into the room to find a thoughtful Chow still sitting in front of the TV.
"Did you learn any valuable lessons today?" I asked.
Pan Tu looked up at me, and in a perfect imitation of Elmer Fudd's voice he said, "I learned today you have to be berry, berry quiet to catch a wabbitt."
"What did you say?" I asked, only half believing what I had heard.
"There's a wabbitt out there and I'm going to get that wabbitt."
My heart sank. This is not what I wanted him to learn. I wanted him to learn how futile, hopeless, and destructive Fudd's obsession with the rabbit was. I wanted him to learn that Bugs Bunny always won. I wanted him to think of that stupid rabbit on the other side of the fence as Bugs Bunny. Instead my dog was acting and talking like Elmer Fudd.
On Monday, I took a sick day from work. We have a large university in the nearby city, with a world renowned veterinary program. Within that program there is a division dealing with animal behavior. My wife Patti and I met with Dr. Underhill, the top behaviorist at the school.
"Mr. Donahue, we get problems like this all the time from owners like you. Because you had one or two psychology courses in college, you think you're qualified to change or modify your pet's behavior. You've subjected your dog to unsupervised therapy sessions, where the dog identified with the wrong role model and now it suffers from low self esteem and the inability to identify with the winner. You'll have to leave Pan Tu with us for a while, and you will have to break off all contact during that period. Your wife, Patti can visit, but not you."
Pan Tu was gone for quite some time, and every day Patti visited him after work. On direction from Dr. Underhill, she never mentioned how Pan Tu was doing or when he was expected to come home. Each evening I strolled to the back of the yard where Pan Tu once stood staring through the fence. I tried to get a glimpse of that rabbit that had ripped our small family apart. Sometimes I could see the rabbit moving along the fence line, without a care in the world, while my best friend was locked up in a canine funny farm. I wanted to kill that rabbit.
Near the end of the second week, Patti came home with great news. Pan Tu was ready to come home.
"Dr. Underhill wants you to understand that Pan Tu has suffered some permanent personality changes. They had to teach him to adopt a new role model, to develop a positive image, to imagine that he was always in control and that he would always win. He doesn't think he's Elmer Fudd anymore; he acts like Bugs Bunny."
I didn't care, I just wanted my best buddy back.
Less than 20 minutes after Patti left to pick up Pan Tu, the door bell rang. Michelle, the 13-year- old girl from next door, the owner of the hated rabbit, was standing on my front porch. "My rabbit dug a hole under the fence and is in your yard. Can I look for him?" Emotions of anger, hate, and excitement welled up in me. The rabbit was in my yard! Finally I would get a chance to capture the hated creature. We entered through the gate and immediately saw the rabbit in the center of the yard, but each time Michelle approached he would hop off to safety. This went on for almost an hour. I was getting frustrated and angry, and I was worried about what might happen if Patti came home with Pan Tu and the rabbit was still in the yard. I decide to take matters in my own hands.
"Michelle, let's chase it back toward the hole under the fence." The rabbit clearly anticpated this strategy and was having no part of it, successfully evading us at every step. We needed better rabbit chasing equipment. I took two leaf rakes out of my shed and we started to use them to herd the rabbit toward the hole. We forced the bunny to scurry under the fence back into Michelle's yard. I quickly filled the hole with dirt. "There, that solves that problem." But Michelle laughed and pointed to the fence not 10 feet from where we were standing. The rabbit's head popped out of a freshly dug hole. I knew immediately the rabbit couldn't have made an entire new hole that fast and must have had it prepared in advance. I also knew I was not dealing with any ordinary rabbit. The rabbit popped fully into the yard and took off running along the fence line. We chased him and cornered him under my shed. Fortunately, I had placed the shed on two eight-by-eight sleepers so I could keep other critters from nesting under there. We surrounded the shed and got down on our hands and knees in the damp fall leaves. Using the rakes, we tried to force the rabbit into a corner. For an hour, the rabbit toyed with us, always staying just a tad out of our reach or deftly digging holes under the sleepers so it could escape from one side of the shed to the other. My frustration level was increasing with each passing minute as I knew Pan Tu, fresh from his rabbit obession therapy, was getting closer and closer to home. It was in this position, on my hands and knees, wildly sweeping a garden rake back and forth under the shed, that I had my reunion with Pan Tu.
I hadn't heard the car pull up or the door open, I guess because I was so engrossed in catching this rabbit. I had my head half buried under the shed trying to see where the rabbit was when I felt a damp, cold nose on my neck. Patti was walking behind him, smiling in anticipation of seeing a heartwarming homecoming. She was to be disappointed, and in fact she realized immediately there was another big problem for she had heard our first conversation. She quickly pulled out the cellular phone I had given her for Christmas and dialed Dr. Underhill.
"Dr. Underhill, Pat Donahue here. I need an immediate referral for additional therapy. No, Bugs, I mean Pan Tu, is doing just fine. I think I have a bigger problem. Listen to this!" She held the phone down as Pan Tu touched my neck again with his cold nose.
"E . .Eh, What's up doc?" asked Pan Tu. I turned to look at my best friend, and in that moment, lying on the ground, frustrated and angry at my own impotence in catching one silly rabbit, the demon overtook me.
"Shhh! Be berry, berry quiet. There's a wabbit here and I'm going to catch him."
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