|Cute But E-ville
" 'Bad' is a human concept," I overheard someone say at a dog park. "Dogs aren't being bad, they're just being dogs."
Why, then, did my terrier just flee down an embankment carrying a rock the size of a canned ham? Because he knew that I couldn't catch him. He'd done the calculations: within four feet of me, stay; five feet or more, run like a drunken monkey.
Like the countless times before, Kiley was being bad — purposefully, joyously bad.
Dog lovers will argue that every dog is good if it's trained properly. But from the time my 10-week-old puppy picked a fight with a 50-pound pit bull I haven't been able to find a training method proper enough.
He has stripped the fur off a cat's tail, chewed through seven phone cords and howled so loudly when I left him alone that the neighbors across the street complained. He has stolen food off a toddler's plate and urinated on dinner guests — twice.
He has intercepted a stranger's Frisbee in midair and refused to give it back until it was punctured, dented and torn. He buried his toys in the fireplace. He leapt onto a counter and ate a pound of walnut fudge — then eliminated it all over the living-room carpet.
He doesn't come when I call, or stop when I command. His grating personality earned him the nicknames Devil Dog, Rat Bastard and How'd You Like My Foot Up Your Butt.
"He's not just evil," says one friend a little too gleefully, "he's e-ville."
I've sought advice from dog books, breeders, obedience trainers, behaviorists, a bad-dog support group and even a pet psychic. I've tried praise and encouragement; tough-love and dominance; dog-pack language and people language; lavishing attention and withholding attention.
Yet for every bad behavior I've managed to curb, a worse one pops up. At 6 years old, my dog is no better behaved than he was six years ago.
To be sure, part of this is breed. Kiley is a textbook example of the difficult Jack Russell: 23 pounds of muscle, with a barrel chest and a Napoleon complex that would challenge, well, Napoleon. His hunting instinct is so acute he barked at a drawing of a cat on the side of a truck for a minute straight.
But he's also difficult by terrier standards, with a range of neuroses that can make life in public problematic. He challenges garbage trucks, newspaper stands and nearly every dog that crosses his path. He barks, yelps and whines if I'm out of his sight. He obsesses over rocks, which he'll swab, lick, scratch and drag in backward circles until his paws bleed.
At obedience school he excelled only at being the model for the misbehaving dog. After six weeks of classes and hours of homework, Kiley still refused to sit, stay, lie down, or hold his bladder.
"Nobody flunks," the instructor assured me on graduation day. Kiley got a diploma and his picture taken.
"Does this mean we can go to the intermediate level?" I asked.
She paused, then shook her head. "No."
For a while I wondered if Kiley had a learning disability. That theory evaporated when he learned to "sit" in a single take. I'd used a piece of cheese.
I began packing treats in my pockets when we visited the dog park. Rather than picking up a rock and running away from me, the treats would persuade him to run to me. But Kiley didn't run at all. Instead, he fixated on my pockets, jumping, pawing and barking until all the treats were gone.
People tolerate him, but few like him.
"He's a brat," said my sister.
"He's spoiled," said Mrs. Eng from the corner store.
"He's lonely," said a pet psychic. "He misses you when you're gone during the day."
I was relieved, a few years ago, to learn that the dot-com I was joining allowed dogs in the office. No more agonized howls when I closed the door in the morning; no more gap-toothed window blinds, which he'd destroyed watching me leave the driveway.
His first week at work, though, he marked the potted plants, defecated on my boss' Persian carpet, vomited on a power strip and rode a computer technician's leg. Within a few months, the company's dog policy was quietly revoked.
"He's got dominance issues," said a woman as we watched Kiley try to mount a Great Dane at the off-leash park. I spilled my frustrations — Kiley's demanding behavior, his aggression, his stubbornness.
"He thinks he's the alpha dog," she said. "Feed him after you eat, not before. Make sure you're the first out the door so he's got to follow. If he gets aggressive lay him on his back until he stops struggling. You'll hear it. He'll let out a long sigh then he'll relax."
This was tough love in dog language. But Kiley would not submit; in fact he became aggressive. I would order him off the couch; he wouldn't budge. I would nudge him, he would growl, then bark, then snarl, then snap. After one of our countless power struggles, I gave up. I couldn't crack the dog code. He'd outplayed, outwitted and outlasted me.
"No, no, no," an animal behaviorist said when I described that failed training. You're not a dog, she told me. Make him learn your language.
I tried her suggestions, which included a passive-aggressive form of training called "earned petting." That is, I was to ignore his demands for attention and acts of defiance and communicate with him only on my terms, rewarding him with affection when he responded to one of my commands.
I failed on the first night. When Kiley jumped onto the dinner table and ran off with a stick of butter, I had to chase him. That butter would end up on my carpet one way or another.
Who, me, bad? Nah. I'm just doing what comes naturally. Did you know my forebears were bred to hunt foxes in England?
I recalled an article about Moose, the dog who played Eddie on "Frasier." Before he'd found fame, he was by all accounts an awful dog. He had once swung from a horse's tail, dug a hole through a wall and terrorized the neighbors' cats. His family gladly gave him up to an animal trainer who saw promise in his personality.
So I called Moose's current owner, trainer Mathilde DeCagney, partly to commiserate but also to find out if Kiley can ever be reformed.
After some probing questions, she came to a swift conclusion.
"That dog has nothing wrong with him," she said, her French accent softening her sharp words. "It's all you."
I winced, but I knew she was right. She listed the reasons: Kiley is a working dog without a job; he's a social dog without enough companionship; he's a smart dog without enough mental stimulation; and he's a hyper dog without enough exercise.
I had designed a life around an average dog, one content to sleep while I'm at work, one happy with a daily walk and weekend trips to the dog park.
Kiley is not, and never will be that dog.
Like Charlie Babbitt, the brother in "Rain Man," I must change my lifestyle to accommodate him — his eccentricities, his desperate need for attention and stimulation, his odd obsessions, his pugilism. Or I've got to give him to someone with a lifestyle that suits his needs, a rancher, perhaps, or an equestrian.
I recently visited my sister, who lives next to a horse stable. I was curious if Kiley would be intimidated by a creature that big. He approached one slowly, lifting his face in greeting. The two animals sniffed nose to nose when suddenly the horse jerked his head up and reared back. My sister grabbed his snout to examine it.
"Shirleen!" she shouted. "Kiley bit him!"