Rob's Soapbox Archives

May 31st, 2010

NOT KNOWING WHAT WE CAN'T KNOW

A recent conversation with a friend spurned this admittedly philosophical, yet poignant column.

“How do you know that Shep (referring by name to my German Shepherd) would protect you or save your life if he was placed in that situation?” asked my friend.

“How do you know he wouldn’t,” I responded, before listing of a series of behaviors, commands and incidents of the past few years which have made me confident in my dog’s ability to rise to any occasion he has been trained to handle.

The real response I should have given my friend was either “I don’t,” or “perhaps he already has,” thus illustrating that we don’t know what we can’t know.

I have two dogs, both shepherds; Shep, who just turned five and his adopted rescue-dog younger sister (or girlfriend, we can’t tell), Nellie. While Nellie is a wonderful dog and super sweet, it is Shep who leads the way, by design, and Nellie simply mimics what he does. If Shep is snarling, barking and enraged, so is Nellie; if Shep is playful, happy and frolicking, so is Nellie. He leads, she follows, so it is up to Shep to set the tone.

Having raised Shep from the age of 16 weeks, he is a product of my vision. While my wife played a major role in his unique training, she would be the first to acknowledge that I exclusively designed the dog that we love so much today. We trained him my way, with a very clear goal in mind; create the best, happiest companion dog possible, while instilling in him his primary objective; be ever vigilant. Ever vigilant is the official creed of the breed and exactly what I wanted in Shep; enjoy your life, but always be alert and ready to dive into action.

My friend, aware of Shep’s training and upbringing has always wondered how such a sweet German Shepherd would or could be capable of also protecting or attacking. My friend is not much of a dog guy and has clearly never spent a lot of time around police dogs, who he envisions are all one chromosome away from being Cujo.

The incidents I cited of a few rare and unnecessary scares at the house over the past few years failed to impress my friend; oh sure, Shep clearly amped up and was ready to bolt into action one night when some kids were pranking our house, having targeted the wrong address but tennis balls thrown on a driveway are hardly, said my friend, the equivalent of burglars in the kitchen. Fair enough.

I showed my friend how on command I could turn Shep from a sleeping horse into a fire breathing dragon. Still not impressed.

I told him the stories of training I still do with Shep once per month where I leap out of bed at midnight, grab a handgun and immediately head to the main rooms of the house in search of potential intruders, with Shep leading the way barking, snarling and searching, all on the command of only one single word, given when he was dead asleep. Friend, not impressed…just theory, he said. This is, after all, he pointed out, a dog afraid of vacuum cleaners, as they all are. Who’s to say he would rise to the occasion of an intruder?

Finally I got to my friend when I said, in response to the question ““How do you know that Shep would protect you or save your life if he was placed in that situation,” when  I responded, “perhaps he has.” This is where the pain of not being able to know what we can and will never know haunts all humans.

On a normal day at Williams Manor, Shep barks a half dozen times at one of the entry points (front door, back door, side garage doors, etc.). Our usual M.O. is to let him bark it out for a few moments, give him the stop command and then praise him for being vigilant. Sometimes, we check out what he is barking at to validate the idea that if he alerts us, we’ll pay attention…usually, he’s barking at the UPS man or even a bird. Idiot.

But; there have been times when he has not only barked, but alarm barked; that’s his serious “hey someone is here and you better tell me what to do” bark. It’s the one the UPS and Fed Ex guys know all too well. The Fed Ex guy won’t even wait at the front door for me to open it, fearing Shep might eat him. He rings the bell, then waits at the bottom of my driveway for me.

In 9 out of 10 instances when Shep alarm barks, we find someone who belongs on our property, on our property. The landscape crew, for example, who have finally stopped crapping themselves when 100 pounds of Shepherd lunges at the back door at their very sight. Hehehehe. But I digress.

Rarely, though, upon investigating the alarm bark, we find no one in sight and nothing to explain the paranoia; no deliveries, no flyers on the door, no people anywhere to be seen. While it is human nature to shrug it off as canine stupidity, who is to say that Shep didn’t scare off a pending home invasion? How are we to ever know that at least once, in all of these years of his annoying barking, that he didn’t send the exact message he’s trained to send; get off my property or I will attack you; go burglarize some other home.

It is not an implausible idea; Upon moving into the neighborhood a few years ago, the most talked about story at the time was how our neighborhood’s private security company had apprehended two teenagers who had broken into a home; even though we live in a low-crime, upper class, gated community, crime happens; I would think the middle of the day, when our neighborhood is so quiet you can hear pin drop and I seem to be the only person home in the entire community, would be a great time for mischief. Perhaps somewhere along the way a random burglar-to-be approached my front door with break-in tools and then heard the snarling rage of Shep and his little helper and decided to quickly head elsewhere.

There is no way to know. We may never know if Shep has perhaps already saved our home or even our lives by scaring the living hell out of someone who meant to do us or our property harm. The odds are that he hasn’t; that our home has never been in any sort of danger; but my friend wanted to know how we prove something we can’t know until the actual moment arises; how, I asked, do we not know that the moment hasn’t already risen and he has passed the test?

We don’t; and that’s what drives humanity crazy today. We are a people that demands to know and have everything right now.

I have the luxury of having grown up in the transitional period of the 70s; before cell phones and microwaves and a host of other technological advancements now found in every American household were available. If you wanted a pizza in 1978, you waited until the pizza joint opened, drove to Round Table, ordered it and waited for it; or in the best case scenario, you preheated an oven and cooked a frozen pizza that would be ready 30 minutes later. Today, you microwave anything immediately or tell someone to deliver you what you want in 30 minutes or less or it’s free.

When we want answers, we text; just think about how maddening it is when you text a friend and they don’t immediately respond; an endless array of thoughts swarm through our heads; what are they doing? Why haven’t they answered? Are they typing me an answer right now? Are they in a movie? Why didn’t they invite me or at least tell me they were going to a movie so that I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a hold of them?

Everything has to happen and be had and be answered immediately and fully. When it doesn’t work out that way, we tap our finger incessantly, check to see if our cell phone has a signal and occasionally even send a second text asking if the first one was received; a not so subtle sign of true desperation.

We have become so self-involved and self important that the very idea that there is an entire world of nearly 7 billion happening out there has escaped us. We demand that we know and get and have what we want right now, all the time. Laptops on vacations, cell phones in the bedroom, facebook at work, Droids on the beach and Ipads at baseball games only begin to scratch the surface of our desperate need to always be in touch.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not making a stunningly stupid statement similar to President Obama’s recent proclamation that “information is a distraction.”  Rather, I am suggesting not that we shouldn’t be seeking answers instead we should be seeking patience, humility and an acceptance that there are plenty of things we can’t and maybe shouldn’t know.

Plenty of women died after 50 years of what they believed was a storybook marriage having never known their husband cheated on them; would they actually have been better off knowing? Many of us did things as kids that our parents never knew; do they actually need to know everything? What of all of the things our parents did before we were born? Do we actually have a need or even a right to know them all? What of the things that would  shock or disappoint us? Why must we know everything. I, I am proud to say, don’t know why so many feel the need to know so much.

Take a break; recognize that you don’t need to know everything and you don’t need to get the answers that you do need right now. Try not looking at your facebook page today or taking your cell phone with you when you leave the house tonight. You might be amazed at what you suddenly notice. You may even learn something you weren’t seeking to know. Imagine that.