The list of impossible problems
Bunny is a wonderful dog. Please don’t argue with me. And these are his problems.
No 10: Settling
The transition from excitement to relaxation, from tail up to tail down, from alert level 5 to alert level 1, that is the problem. It sometimes takes him a second to get up and get going and be out of control. That’s easy. But cooling off takes time. We have some routines to help him. Feeding him helps. Seeing me settling down helps. As long as I’m up and walking around, all kinds of interesting things could happen, potentially. He also has his own routines. One of them is to go and get a ball, walk around with the ball in his mouth, then lie down, bury the ball under his belly, and start suckling on his bed. It takes a few minutes, and then it’s over, except that he is going to guard the ball and the shape he made in his bed for a while longer (see no 3). Don’t go near that imaginary thing.
No 9: Opining
He has a lot of opinions and is not shy of expressing them. “Let’s go there. Now there. Let’s do that. Let’s stay here. Give me that. Don’t come near me. Let me be.” Sometimes I agree with him. Sometimes I don’t mind. But often I have a different take because, let’s be honest, dogs can ask for unreasonable things. Things that make sense in that very moment, but not much beyond that. And occasionally I can’t be convinced. He wants left, I want right, and that’s it. We stand there, in a dog-human stand-off, until I eventually decide to pull him my way. This always feels like a stupid way to resolve an argument, by being the person on the other end of the leash, by being stronger than he is, at least in that moment. But what can you do.
No 8: Leash pulling
It just takes a lot of convincing to get him to walk at normal walking speed. His way of expressing his contempt for being slow is to pull on the leash. Most of the time he does not really pull. In fact, when I want him to pull, he refuses. He nudges, he pushes, he stretches the limits, he gets to the end of the leash and just keeps going. If it’s up to him, he is always up front, always way ahead, and it does not matter how long the leash is. Two metres is too short. Five metres is too short. Ten is sometimes okay, but often enough too short.
No 7: Sniffing
An obsessive sniffer. A compulsive sniffer. Tying in nicely with no. 1, the prey drive, and no. 5 the scavenging. Empirical studies have shown that left to his own devices he walks at most for a minute before he has to sniff again. Of course that depends. Some smells only take a few seconds, others just a whiff, but sometimes he has to wallow, he inhales the air, until the entire smell is inside him. And then again. He is tender and gentle at some smells, angry and upset at others. By the way, when there is absolutely nothing to sniff, when the path is boring as hell, then he just tries walks faster (see no. 8) to get out of this stretch onto new smells.
No 6: Lack of focus
Focus on me, that is. If we could solve this problem, a lot of the others would magically go away. It is the key to happiness. I understand that it is tricky for him to understand that paying attention to me, looking at me, listening to me is the path to happiness — because in a specific moment, it usually isn’t. The happiness I provide usually works over longer time windows, sometimes a minute, sometimes hours. It is more a general mood, knowing that I am the center of the world, and not the cat, the stain of pee, or the jogger. But in the moment, the one single moment that the dog is interested in, anything can be more interesting than me.
No 5: Scavenging
One of the nice things about my dog is that he does not eat things off the table. But anything on the ground is his, and if it is edible, he’ll eat it. Or at least try it. This includes dirt, grass, sand, seaweed, leaves, trash, excrements, plastic bags that smell like food. Most of it comes out again, one way or another. It is the kind of problem that may one day cause his premature death, when he eventually eats something his robust digestive system can’t handle. Scavenging couples nicely with no. 1, the prey drive, (if something on the ground moves) and with no. 3, the resource guarding (if something is too big to swallow immediately), creating an amorphous, untrackable superproblem.
No 4: Aggression towards humans
This one sounds bad, but it happens so rarely that it’s almost not worth mentioning. The pattern is pretty vague: mostly elderly men, perhaps with a specific smell, often people in work clothes. Maybe this triggers a bad memory, or reminds him of a childhood trauma. In any case, he instantly goes after these kind of people. Over all, this has happened perhaps 10 times, sometimes nothing for months. He has not bitten, but he snaps and growls likes he means it. Better not to try it out.
No 3: Resource guarding
Guarding whatever is valuable in this moment, aggressively. This could be food or toys, the most obvious resources that dogs tend to have. But it can also be a shape in his bed (see no. 10), a puddle of vomit (or as Bunny calls it: food), a place where there once was a puddle of vomit, an empty place where there once was something else valuable, but not anymore. A plastic bag that once contained food. A plastic bag that actually contains food and was eaten by him a week earlier. It can also be me. I’m a resource he is guarding. It makes a lot of sense, until his guarding instincts are in the way of being happy. And he knows it. He knows that it’s in the way. But he can’t snap out of it. Resource guarding leads to growling, to snapping, and occasionally he is hitting me with his mouth. Don’t give him anything he might treasure, if you are not prepared to get it away from him again.
No 2: Dog-dog reactivity
Nowadays he is only mildly curious about a half of all dogs and just moderately curious about another third. It is the remaining few that get him riled up. Mostly males, tall individuals, dogs that walk around like the own the place — with other words, dogs like him. If he gets to meet these dogs, it will be a very stiff affair, everybody trying to appear taller and stronger. Most dogs don’t stand that for very long. Benign curiosity is expressed by whining. The problem begins when he does not whine. His hair raise up, the ears are erect, the legs straight, the tail way up. That’s when it’s time to get away. He is teetering on the brink of a Special Bunny Freakout (see no. 1).
No 1: Prey drive
Prey drive is a nice feature in a dog, like, when you are living in a post-apocalyptic world and have to catch squirrels and rabbits and weasels. But it’s a nightmare in a pet. Malamutes are known for their strong prey drive — in the Alaskan summers, so the story goes, they were let go to feed themselves in the tundra, and only the ones that were able to do that came back the following winter. My dog stalks and waits and searches everywhere for prey. He takes off after anything that runs away, ignoring the training, the context, the leash, or the person at the other end of the leash. Unfulfilled prey drive can get him to one of his Special Bunny Freakouts — lunging as hard as he can in random directions, over and over again, while screaming at the top of his lungs. Controlling him in that kind of situation is one of the truly remarkable athletic feats of our time. It feels like climbing an overhanging boulder, while the boulder is jumping around.
Why is my Malamute doing all that? He can’t help it and it’s not his fault. At least six of the ten problems, among them four of the top five, are part of what makes him a Malamute, part of his job requirements. His ancestors were made to fight polar bears, to hunt seals, to scavenge for food if times are bad, to think independently, and go long distances without tiring. If you mess with their genes, if you breed them with contempt, if you give them to the wrong people, if you forgo training and socialisation, and if you don’t work with them, their primitive urges remain primitive. They become nightmarish pets. Dogs: You get what you put in.
Bunny’s problems are our problems. He is one of many. We don’t deserve these dogs.