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That is not a bad dog - that's a splendid dog
Smithsonian, April 1992

What really drew Hearne into the pit bull wars was a dog named Bandit, condemned to death in Connecticut as "vicious," and labeled by the local press as "Public Enemy Number One."

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NOT SINCE MARK TWAIN remarked that the difference between a dog and a man is that a dog never bites the hand that feeds him has the domestic dog, including the much maligned pit bull, had so provocative a champion as the fierce, fortyish animal trainer named Victoria Elizabeth Hearne.

Besides being a celebrated trainer, Hearne is a critically admired poet, novelist and (a few years back) author of a remarkable book called Adam's Task. In it, despite a tendency toward literary digression (at the drop of a hat she cites Xenophon, Plato or Ludwig Wittgenstein), Hearne bore enchanting witness to the intelligence, character and loyalty of dogs, and the possibilities of two-way communication between dogs and humans through formal training. Presented with considerable intellectual armor, these views put her at odds with all sorts of people: those who hold that dogs are mere creatures of stimulus and response, as well as legions of others (Hearne refers to them as "hu-maniacs") who have convinced themselves that animal training is cruel, that exercising physical authority over a dog or horse is the moral equivalent of fascism.

It is Hearne's dedication to the plight of pit bulls, however, that has made her anathema to enforcers of animal-control"Jekyll-Hyde syndrome" laws. After being called in as an expert at many dog (and owner) hearings, after reading lurid newspaper accounts of dog attacks and checking up on the actual facts, she found herself defending pit bulls, deploring both their condemnation as a breed and the overkill of canine-control laws being put in place to deal with "dangerous" dogs generally. Most of the charges against pit bulls and other dogs that are indiscriminately lumped with them she found false, and said so in the New York Times and Harper's. The breed is not afflicted with "Jekyll-Hyde syndrome," which, however gentle the dogs may seem, is supposed to make them a kind of furry time bomb ready to go off in the bosom of the family. The pit bull is not specially endowed with "double jaws" that allow it to bear down with its teeth for a more or less interminable bite at the oft-claimed pressure of 20,000 pounds per square inch.

What really drew Hearne into the pit bull wars was a dog named Bandit, condemned to death in Connecticut as "vicious," and labeled by the local press as "Public Enemy Number One." That battle is the subject of Hearne's latest book, which has launched her on the lecture circuit. Appropriately entitled Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog, it describes with partisan zeal how Bandit and Vicki and their friends struggled free, or almost free, from the coils of Connecticut's Canine Control Division.

Since meeting Bandit, Hearne has had telephone threats against her own dogs and has even needed police protection. She has been called an "intellectual redneck" and, a yet unkinder cut, the "Camille Paglia of canine politics." Of course Hearne has also become known as the "pit bull lady" and has been described both as the Joan of Arc and the Portia of pit bulls. She vastly prefers the latter: "Saint Joan was burned. Portia won her case with wit, and got to marry the fellow, too."

Dead set against "bribers" and "cooers"

Hearne herself is no slouch at brisk (though sometimes ill-advised) invective. More males than females are bitten by dogs, a fact that she attributes to the male need to dominate, "despicable pseudomacho twerp"rather than listen, as well as to "damage done by testosterone." She dismisses a canine-control operative as a "despicable little pseudo-macho twerp." Plainly, any inquiring male reporter, especially a sentimentalist with a golden retriever, approaches such a subject with some caution.

If you want to see Vicki Hearne these days, you must journey past New Haven, Connecticut, to Westbrook, and turn left till you get to Silver Trails Animal Inn, owned by Vicki's friends and benefactors George and Lillian Bernard. The front office is small, cluttered with useful stuff like combs and flea sprays for sale, and the occasional mat emblazoned with the command "Smooch Your Pooch Today" - although Hearne has made it clear that she cannot abide the "bribers" and "cooers" of the dog-ownership world. Controlling a dog through bribery, she believes, stunts its intellectual and imaginative growth. Instead of concentrating on achievement, "all he thinks about is 'dog biscuit.' "

I am not a cooer. But my golden knows me for the briber I am, so it is with some trepidation that I push open another door in search of Ms. Hearne. Once inside, I am confronted by a woman in what looks like an all-purpose Winston Churchill suit giving a dog a bath in a big blue wall tub. I have associated unflappable yet intenseVicki Hearne so thoroughly with Bandit, with pit bulls and with the bull breeds in general that it is almost a shock to find her keeping company with a young Airedale. As we talk she gently brushes and soaps him, then administers a rinse-down with a flexible shower head.

Airedales tend to be what trainers call "hard dogs," meaning dogs that are often hard to train, but once trained are unflappable yet intense at whatever work or play they do. Airedales also turn out to be Hearne's favorite dogs, partly because they are big terriers and she has a weakness for terriers. German shepherds, she has noted, especially those trained to be "alert" to misdeeds, can be ruined by having to sit by and do nothing about someone, like a malefactor, who is flagrantly out of place. Hearne describes shepherds as "experts in the game of 'What's wrong with this picture?'" Airedales take a sportier approach to life. As long as there is work in view in which they will be able to show off their skills, they are happy.

True pit bulls are a sort of terrier, their formal American Kennel Club (AKC) title being American Staffordshire terriers, not to be confused with bull terriers like the female dog who plays Spuds MacKenzie (a male) on TV, or with mug-faced bulldogs like Yale mascot Handsome Dan. Along with many officially "vicious" dogs in recent years, Bandit had been "... no terrier in this guy ..."loosely described as a pit bull, but when Hearne met him she instantly saw that he was an American bulldog, probably of murky antecedents but clearly with immense dignity. "Even in the most bulldoggy [pit bulls]," she writes about that first encounter, "there is something - a sprightliness in the stance, some suggestian of the possibilities of tap dancing and vaudeville, same impish gleam of the eye - to suggest the terrier." And she adds, "There was no terrier in this guy, [only] stalwartness."

The wet Airedale is named Texas. When he's rinsed down he's supposed to get his collar put on. But when he dodges, instead of the high-level discipline one has been led by her detractors to believe that she would employ, all Hearne says-in a chirpy, low-key but upbeat clarinet tone is "Texas, that's not how to do it." Texas obediently puts his head forward in the proper way and is lifted down to the floor. "Kennel up," she says in the same voice. He zips into an anteroom where there is a row of wire kennels, pops into one, spins around and puts his nose forward as if to leave again. She clangs the wire door and expertly hooks a hot-air tube to the cage so he won't catch cold.

Texas is full of vim and vigor, a young dog impatient to move faster, and he is more of a natural cutup, and in some ways sloppier, than Hearne normally permits. "I feel about him," she says "the way Twain described somebody: 'He'll be president some day - if they don't hang him first.' "

Next door to Texas, and now released, is Drummer, a much larger Airedale she uses for obedience and search-and-rescue trials. Hearne feels that people and dogs have songs to sing - yes, she does talk that way. One of Drummer's songs, I learn, is "I am Drummer, King of the Kennel." But he has been known to lapse into more plaintive lays, among them: "Vicki, I am Drummer. We're a team. Why are you doing things with that crazy little dog Texas? He couldn't find a bear in a telephone booth."

Texas may one day push him, but Drummer is her number one public dog. The "heels" and "sits" he does are just warm-up exercises for advanced work, like a ballet dancer limbering up at the bar. She tries to keep such commands to a minimum, even in the formal training of a new dog. "Telling a dog to aptly and splendidly climbablesit," she says, "becomes boring for the dog, and for you. The difference between commanding a dog to sit and commanding him to retrieve or negotiate obstacles is like the difference between requiring mannerly behavior in a classroom and commanding the students to draw a picture or write a poem. The picture or the poem belongs to the artist, no matter who commissioned it, and some dogs are more insistent on this aspect than others."

When she first met Bandit she did not know what work he would be good at, what song he had to sing. It turned out that he sang for obstacles to be surmounted - boulders, high tractor seats, even ladders "and all else," she writes, that is "aptly and splendidly climbable." But that knowledge came only near the end of Bandit's story, an illuminating case history in the pit bull wars and a moral tale - as all classic dog stories should be.

Once upon a time Bandit belonged to a courtly man named Lamon Redd, 76 years old, a retired steelworker who lived on the rents from rooms in his house and an identical one beside it, on Henry Street in Stamford, Connecticut. What Bandit mostly did was sit on the front stoop beside Redd and keep track of the neighborhood. A time came when the girlfriend of a tenant, coming in after midnight, stepped on Bandit in the dark and got a nip from him. But Bandit had no real trouble until the steamy July day in 1987 when one of Redd's male renters was set upon by the outraged mother of a girl he had been quarreling with. She chased him down the driveway between the two houses, yelling and hitting at him with a broom. The drive was Bandit's responsibility: besides, the young man often fed him and took him for walks. Bandit bit the woman.

For centuries under common law, dogs have been allowed a bite or two if the bite occurs in the defense of master or property, or after the dog has been flagrantly tormented. In most places they still are. But because of the public terror of pit bulls generated since the mid-1980s, in a number of localities (whole states like Washington, Ohio and Connecticut, counties like San Mateo in California, cities like Los Angeles) canine-control departments have been granted largely unchallengeable authority to take whatever measures they deem necessary to deal with "vicious" dogs, and enormous leeway in deciding if a dog is dangerous in the first place. In some extreme cases, a single unsubstantiated complaint that a dog "approached" a child in a "threatening" way can result in the death of the dog or the punishment that now fell on Lamon Redd.

Bandit was taken away. To get his dog back and to keep him from being destroyed, Redd was told, he would have to build a chain link fence around his property, six feet high, and (though Bandit had lived indoors) put a doghouse in his yard. Many dog owners, already intimidated, can't comply with such demands. But in the weeks that Bandit stayed on death row in the pound, Redd spent $4,000 to have the work done.

Whether or not the dog was teased or beaten while he was in custody, as Vicki Hearne suspects, is open to question. But once back in Henry Street he forgot his manners and relieved himself on the stoop, something he'd never done before. The second time this happened, Redd "whupped him and whupped him." And finally Bandit bit his master in the whupping hand, 16 stitches' worth. This occurred inside the fence and was no danger to the public. But the Stamford Canine Control Division heard, picked up the dog and ordered him put down.

Bandit stands accused

Redd blamed himself: "He notified me - 'grrrr, grrrr' - but I kept whupping him." So Redd hired a lawyer. In November 1987, Vicki Hearne got involved in the case, first as an expert in dog behavior, then as a plaintiff. Canine Control took the position that Bandit was a biter and a vicious dog. He must be put down. Vicki argued that Bandit, on the record, basically was not a bad dog but a "splendid" dog who could be safely restored to his owner and society by training.

After an appeal hearing upheld the original disposal order, Bandit seemed marked for death. But at a further hearing, over bitter protest by Canine Control, a Superior Court judge gave Vicki Hearne custody of Bandit and three months to work with him to see if he could be trained. If he failed he was a dead dog.

In "How to Say 'Fetch!'" one of the remarkable chapters in Adam's Task, Hearne notes that one task the biblical Adam had was to name the animals, and suggests that a dog's mind and sense of responsibility expand as his name is linked to ignoring fleas on Mount Everest commands he can follow. It is the task of every dog trainer and dog owner to expand that dog's name, and sense of what he is, through coherent commands. "Coherence" is one of her touchstone words, for it denotes what dogs need more than anything else and what is notably lacking in the modern world.  A dog consistently called Bandit knows that he is Bandit. If he has been taught to sit properly, enduring distractions that a trainer introduces, his name and his sense of himself get broader. Now his name is "Bandit Sit," and he thinks of himself in some way that resembles the anthropomorphic phrase "I am Bandit who sits in majesty, ignoring robins and squirrels the way Mount Everest ignores fleas." And so on, through "fetch" and other character-building intellectual challenges. It was by just this kind of hard work that Bandit began acquiring a bigger name for himself.

Hearne's training program is based on the assumption that dogs are far quicker than humans at keeping track of the world as it affects them. That and joy in partnership, she feels, are their main motivations. Her aim is to put the animal into situations where it knows what to do and does it, not as a conditioned reflex but because it has made a decision to do so. Otherwise the dog isn't really trained. With Bandit, as with other dogs, she began with three weeks of rambling around at Silver Trails, never giving a command, attached to him by a 20-foot longe (pronounced LUNGE) line. Whenever he'd dash on ahead, she'd head the other way suddenly, with her whole body, and bring him up short.

This continued until he knew he could count on her to do it keeping track of what she was doing and began to watch her carefully. In three weeks he was walking companionably beside her, with no pulling and in something like the "heel" position. Why? Because it was close and "a good position from which to keep track of what I was doing," she explains. Besides, as they walked together, the feeling of comradeship grew. Then she taught him what she calls the grammar of their language education, the traditional commands: "sit, stay, down, come, stand stay, down stay and OK," carefully positioning him each time until she was sure he knew what was wanted. Though her aim always is off-lead control, the grammar has to be taught on-lead. She regards "OK" as the most important command because it releases a dog temporarily from work or unleashes it for something it wants, yet reminds the dog that work is formal.

Rewards were smiles, hugs, praise, but no tidbits!  And no "punishment," in which she includes anything done in anger - nagging, shouting, jerking a dog around and, of course, beating - which can ruin a dog. She distinguishes between punishment, which she hates, and reinforced commands, which she uses sparingly but thinks crucial. A "sharp, two-handed jerk of the training lead performed impersonally is a command," she says. Even doing that (an action that can look pretty choky to a sentimental bystander) can be a disaster unless the dog knows what it is expected to do. Most biting, she feels, "is a response to incoherent authority."

Bandit had had some training, and she found him to be one of the smartest dogs she'd ever met. With every dog, including Bandit, the great training breakthrough occurs when the dog realizes that, in fact, it's not the leash that is controlling where he is but his decision about how to deal with it. To make this clear, in the final stages of lead training she uses a hundred feet of very light line (a fishing line will sometimes do) and, after a number of commands, walks ahead of the dog and drops the lead for him to see.

Flying tennis balls did not distract him

Bandit had no zeal for retrieving and, perhaps because of that, turned out to be a Rock of Gibraltar on the "stand stay" routine. Flying tennis balls and other things introduced to distract him, which would have driven a terrier or a retriever wild, he simply disdained. Yet he doggedly learned to fetch all sorts of things, especially when they were put in high-up and hard-to-get-to places. At his favorite command, "up," he would relentlessly, joyfully, scramble up onto tractor seats and great boulders. He even learned to climb a ten-foot aluminum ladder into Hearne's barn.

Just before the three-month grace period was up, Bandit went with Vicki to a park where a number of dogs were gathered to be evaluated by judges from the American Temperament high marks from the judges Testing Society, a group that assesses the stability or character of dogs. Children and assorted other distractions were around, and the judges did weird things to Bandit, like leaping out from behind a barrier, shoving an open umbrella in his face, wearing sheets over their heads, shouting and waving their arms. One fired off a gun. Bandit was properly imperturbable and got high marks.

The court order had called for an evaluation by Canine Control. Vicki suggested a crowded day at the New Haven town green, a place with plenty of activity to stir up an inveterate biter. Canine Control wanted to test Bandit without Vicki present "by recreating the [original] situation," says state Canine Control director Frank Intino. She felt the dog had been teased and beaten in their custody before, so she refused. Because the case was by then famous, they agreed to let Bandit live without giving him any evaluation. But in Connecticut he could not go in public without a muzzle, and he could not go back to his old master, Lamon Redd.

These days Bandit lives in custody with Vicki and her husband, Robert Tragesser, a philosophy professor at Barnard who happily has grown philosophic about dogs. Also in residence in a smallish house filled with books and computers are three "terribly black tie..." cats and seven dogs, including two pit bulls, two Airedales, a Border collie and a Plott hound. She reports that Bandit lets himself be thoroughly browbeaten by a pit bull bitch named Annie - who wants what she wants when she wants it and has been known to interrupt Hearne by jumping on the computer keyboard. Bandit, by contrast, whom Hearne describes as "terribly black tie," waits politely, except when, if his need is truly pressing, he heads off to enlist Tragesser's aid in stirring her into a walk.

The victory of Vicki and Bandit is edged with sadness. Lamon Redd, grown older, has come to feel that Vicki has stolen his dog. Vicki regrets that Redd and Bandit have lost each other. She also frets that, because of the muzzle, Bandit cannot compete in obedience trials in Connecticut where, she knows from long experience, he would certainly achieve the title of "Companion Dog Excellent."

Not every dog in trouble can get three months of attention from a celebrated trainer, particularly not one who is also so articulate and cantankerous in pursuit of what she takes to be justice. Hearne has always been troubled by the gap that exists between the language and knowledge of dog training and the unknowing yet patronizing attitudes of animal behaviorists and psychologists in the academic world. Like many other trainers, she uses morally loaded words like "courage," "comradeship," "commitment," even "nobility."

To some - by no means all - scientists, such language smacks of (good grief!) anthropomorphism. If dogs are merely creatures of instinct and conditioned reflex, how can you speak of them as having thoughts and emotions? "Heroic" dogs clearly don't literally say, "If I jump into these rapids to save this baby I may drown" - and then jump at their own peril. Yet anyone who knows dogs well has seen them undergo brief moments of indecision of that kind, and then, having made the equivalent of a moral decision, launch into a courageous act, apparently as a result of something more intricate than contrary pulls of blindly opposed instincts.

Human attitudes toward dogs and dog training, the two things that concern Hearne most, are clearly crucial in dealing with dog biting, and with the plight of dogs and dog owners in the United States. Because of sloppy and greedy breeding methods, all kinds of dogs are sometimes less stable than dogs of their breed used to be; there is such a thing in dogdom, for example, as "spaniel rage." But as most dogs still are reasonable, they usually bite out of fear, often the result of the way they have been treated, especially from age 5 weeks to 9 weeks. What affects them most, however, is how they have been trained or not trained.

Because of fear of crime in cities, there are more poorly inflexible and intimidating machinery trained big dogs, whose bites are likely to cause enough damage to produce demonizing headlines. Dog bites can be dreadful, traumatic, occasionally deadly. And obviously there are now a number of really bad guys with really dangerous dogs around. The new canine-control laws seem mainly designed to deal with such worst-case scenarios. But mandating cyclone fences, slapping felony charges on owners, and killing dogs, though encouraging some sort of owner responsibility, won't cure the problem. Meanwhile, inflexible and intimidating machinery is in place, often producing a good deal of unnecessary litigation, owner anguish and canine death.

Because of Bandit, news of dogs and owners in trouble reaches Vicki Hearne every day. She has some 40 dog clients and is committed to a heavy training schedule in the afternoon. So these days, in order to have time to write, she gets up at 4 A,M. and works undisturbed until 8. About 9, her fax machine stirs to life and her phone begins to ring. With their dogs at death's door, bewildered people are getting in touch with her from all over the country, and even from places like Norway, England and Singapore, where some breeds of dogs have recently been banned.

Hearne is a collector of horror stories: dogs whose teeth were pulled so they could stay alive; a well­trained pit bull shot by police while dutifully in the "sit" position. In England, a woman who had agreed to have her dog put down did so, and then on her way home committed suicide in her car. A schoolgirl in Norway, where pit bulls have not only been banned as a breed but labeled "bastard" dogs, was taunted by schoolmates, and her dog-trainer mother threatened by toughs because she has so far refused to get rid of their well-mannered beast. Hearne researched the dog's antecedents in the United States and sent an affidavit that the "bastard" dog had proper bloodlines going back to the turn of the century. In California, after pit bull panic set in, hundreds of pit bull terrier owners - in fear of arrest, attack or lawsuit - turned in their dogs at animal shelters, asking to have their pets destroyed.

Hearne recently traveled on the West Coast to promote her book and address dog groups in the San Francisco area. In California some of the harshest terms of the pit bull scare laws have been modified. Dogs generally no longer stand Colombian drug dealers and young toughs accused of viciousness simply because of their breed. In some places, too, the review panel for accused dogs no longer includes the canine-control people who grabbed the dog in the first place. Even so, Hearne found many dogs in unnecessary trouble and owners in distress. In an unprecedented coalition, owners have got together to provide, via hot line, the names of lawyers who will take dog cases, as well as a list of nationally known dog-behavior experts qualified to evaluate individual dogs. "A lot of people wanted these laws," says Hearne. "They thought it would all be about Colombian drug dealers and young toughs who feed their dogs gunpowder and fight them, not Aunt Millie's high-strung golden in the suburbs."

Tougher training and "off-lead" tests

Some attempts have been made by the dog world to provide more dog training. The American Kennel Club, not every dog person's favorite organization (a well-known dog journal runs a regular monthly watch on AKC iniquities), has launched a small national program for dogs and owners called the Canine Good Citizenship Award, thus far notably underfunded.

Needless to say, Hearne agrees about the need for training. Needless to say, she has more exacting ideas about how tough things should be. "The tests are all on-lead," she says. "They ought to be off-lead. And harder, as hard as the AKC Companion Dog obedience test. After all, people deserve some serious guarantee that with a dog around, it isn't going to cause trouble." Since you can't force people to do anything in the United States, she thinks any broad training program needs to provide an incentive. If you and your dog really train, you should be privileged in some way, by having earned the right to move freely in public, perhaps in restaurants or parks. "All Canine Good Citizenship does is give you a piece of paper."

Dogs, well-behaved dogs, used to go into restaurants and stores. In Europe they still do. But the American way is that if any dog misbehaves, all dogs are banned. " 'No Dogs Allowed' signs are up everywhere. They're locked out. There's hardly a They're locked out. place anymore," Hearne says, "where you can go with a dog or train a dog. That's one reason why people don't do it."  She thinks a national campaign might be organized around local groups, with mostly amateur trainers and programs in schools, perhaps with promotional TV coverage to encourage participation. "If you passed the test, and local restaurateurs agreed, your well-trained, street-sound dog could come into a restaurant with you and curl up quietly beside your chair. And people, instead of freaking out, would get used to the idea again of a dog in a restaurant. Local merchants might extend the privilege to the well-trained dog. It would have to be a neighborhood thing."

Earning a privilege through self-discipline and work? Denying the same privilege to those who won't or can't make the same effort? Insisting that "absolute obedience" in a coherent system of instruction "confers nobility, character and dignity?" In all sorts of ways Vicki Hearne is downright subversive. Only occasionally does she insist on the larger application of what she has learned from dogs and dog training, and clearly wants the country to give a thought to: the importance of care and coherence in society, the supreme value of challenge and response. In her way, she is like Merlin in T. H. White's The Sword and the Stone, who tried to teach young Arthur about Man, nature and even politics by letting him briefly be part of the animal world.

Meanwhile, clients keep coming to Silver Trails with their dogs to train, paying, as Hearne wryly puts it, "to let me abuse them." Just before I left, a woman appeared with a little black dog known as a Schipperke, pointy-eared and with forelegs as "I'm afraid he's got your number ..."delicate as a trout rod. The dog's name was Iago. Before Hearne emerged, his owner began giving him "heel" and "sit" commands. Mostly he did as she asked, but in a lackadaisical way.  Vicki took him over with her commanding chirp "Iago, heel," and a firm hand on the chain collar. Iago moved precisely, sat frozen like a piece of porcelain. His pleased owner said, a bit defensively. "He was doing it that way at home this morning."

Said Hearne with only a slightly indulgent smile, ''I'm afraid he's got your number."

Iago's owner replied with spirit, "He'll have to change that."

"No," said Victoria Elizabeth Hearne. "You'll have to change that."

As I left them I thought of Hearne's theory of practically everything: in the Garden of Eden every animal obeyed Man willingly. But we blew it, and after the Fall all the animals lived as they pleased and paid us no heed. Except for dogs, who liked comradeship and loyalty enough to give us another chance. With a little help from their friends, they are still at it.

 

Additional reading:

  • Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog by Vicki Hearne. Harper Collins,1991
  • Adam'sTask:Calling Animals by Name by Vicki Hearne. Knopf, 1986
  • The Covenant of theWild:"Why Animals Chose Domestication  by Stephen Budianski, Morrow, 1992