Skip to content


by on November 4, 2022


by Marco M. Pardi

Man is the only creature that knows nothing and can learn nothing without being taught. He cannot speak nor walk nor eat; in short, he can do nothing at the prompting of nature – but yell.” Pliny the Elder. 1st Century CE.

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” George Bernard Shaw

All comments are welcome and will receive a reply. All previous posts are open for comment.

Curious about the picture? I will try to be brief. Maybe. In the Fall of 1962 I had been handling a military working dog for about 17 months based at Wheelus Air Field, east of Tripoli, Libya. The air field was the weapons training, storage and development center for the Air Forces in Europe and Africa. The dogs were called “Sentry Dogs”, a military euphemism to not upset the locals. They were Attack Dogs. They did not sniff out explosives or drugs; their one mission was to detect and destroy all human life except that of their handler. They could not be rehabilitated and adopted at the end of their service; they were “euthanized” – killed. Becoming a handler was strictly voluntary; no one could be assigned to such duty as the 90 to 115 pound dogs were life threatening, as were the scrub desert areas and distant stations we worked, alone, only at night. The K-9 Unit was the “tip of the spear” in base defense.

The night after I first landed on base, as I was being shown to my K-9 living quarters, we passed an open room where I saw two handlers, one with a large turban-like bandage on his head and the other, shirtless, with a large bandage on his abdomen. I had a moment of joy; I was in the right place. But, it turned out “Tom” had just displayed a picture of his wife and “Bill” had said Tom’s dog was better looking. As the two seasoned handlers engaged “Bill” bit off the entire top half of “Tom’s” left ear while “Tom” bit a large chunk out of “Bill’s” abdomen. Oh, well. In the next room there was only one handler, his roommate “Pedro” being in the base hospital. Dressing for his midnight shift “Pedro” had borrowed a pair of his roommate’s fatigue pants. Unfortunately, they had not been washed, and carried the roommate’s scent. As “Pedro” entered his dog’s darkened kennel the dog all but castrated him before other handlers could dive in and subdue the dog, themselves getting bitten in the process. The dog was fine, but “Pedro” was reassigned after “recovery”.

I had been given my choice of five available dogs. The moment we made eye contact I knew my dog, as I’m sure he knew his human. Yet, the kennel master told me I would not be able to “get in on him” in less than 30 days. I sat outside his kennel and talked with him, and in three days I was able to enter his kennel, lock the door behind me, and leave with only a minor bite. He thought I had tripped him when I hadn’t. After bandages and shots at the hospital I came right back into his kennel. We talked.

Then, ready to begin our relationship, we embarked on our rotations of six nights work and three nights off, hunting “penetrators” from as far away as Egypt on the east and Algeria on the west, with a substantial number from various Libyan tribes seeking to seize control of the country. The King had fled to France and Qaddafi had yet to seize power. The takfiris (Islamic extremists) were there, but not yet out in the open.

The three off days included training sessions, mostly repetitive and difficult in the 120+ degree summers. From the first day I took issue with the harsh and cruel methods employed in training. For example, I refused to use a “spike choke chain”. I refused to slam my dog against a hurdle he wouldn’t jump. I said that using a padded sleeve to encourage a dog to bite was a sure way of getting a dog killed as it trained the dog to go after the sleeve and not the unprotected parts of the man. In fact we did abandon the use of the sleeve, putting a muzzle on the dogs and having them attack unpadded volunteer handlers (illegal by USAF standards, but lives depended on it). I did that often.

In my constant refusals of harsh methods I pointed out the unnecessary dangers to the handlers. During one session a handler using a spike choke chain tried to force his dog to sit on the hot sand. From over 10 feet away I heard the bones crunch as the dog leaped up and crushed the man’s right wrist. Permanently disabled, the Unit unnecessarily lost another handler. But my gadfly persona infuriated the training master to the point where the Unit Chief intervened and suggested we stage a “Dog Show” for the entire base, pitting my training methods against the training master’s. My dog and I were alone against the 19 other teams which qualified for the contest. So, the trophy you see in the picture above. Our 1st Place finish was many points ahead of Second Place.

You may have noticed above that I said I talked “with” my dog, not to my dog. That’s my point (Oh, he finally got to it). There is a distinct difference. But I had not come suddenly to that realization by holding eye contact for the first time with the dog I had selected. Since just before age 5 I had been exposed to dogs and horses and in each case the dog or horse was older than me (Let’s not go down the “dog years” rabbit hole). I did not know the details, but I sensed that each dog and each horse had learned from a broad scope of experiences I could only begin to understand. I sensed they had a wisdom they might share with me. I also sensed that they were capable of doing so only if I learned how to receive it. Thus, my interest in ethology.

As years passed and I experienced more interactions, read science literature especially in ethology, and thought deeply about my learning I became that 18 year old sitting outside a chain link gate talking with a dog who could rip me to shreds in seconds. I had learned: Dogs are predators. They rely on particular senses in order to detect prey, feed, and survive. Dogs hear differently from humans, doing better particularly in the high frequency range. With very low volume sounds they tie with humans in the common ranges and exceed humans in the upper ranges. Dogs process sound differently. They can discriminate pitch in a far wider range than can humans. They can categorize sounds easily, and they can discriminate differences in human languages. For example, my mother had a very shrill and haranguing voice. While vocally praising the handsomeness of one of my Siberian Huskies she reached for him. He bit her. For the Husky, all the information was in the shrill tone. And, while sitting outside my attack dog’s kennel reading a book aloud to him to accustom him to my voice I noticed he was moving around. Turned out that whenever I said, Sit, Down, Watch, or similar words he reacted as if to commands he had learned from previous handlers. But I was not using a “command voice”. My tone was simply reading aloud.

So how do dogs and horses compare to humans? Dogs have roughly 40 times the number of olfactory sensors than humans have. These sensors are of a greater variety, enabling the dog to detect a far greater range of scents than humans can. They can detect week old finger prints and scents 40 feet underground.

A dog is very near sighted, and sees colors as does a person with red – green color blindness. But their nose and ears more than compensate for vision.

Horses are prey animals. They rely on particular senses to detect predators and to inform them of the location of food and water, mates, and friends. Their sense of smell is thousands of times more powerful and sensitive than that of humans. Their forward vision is less efficient than peripheral or rearward vision; their vision is mainly to escape predators. Whether riding or simply standing with a horse, the key to their communication is the position and movement of their ears. And, as you ride they are watching you; their rearward vision is superb. So, watch their ears to determine what they are telling you.

Of course, we can’t stop without citing comparative facial expressions. People are often quick to ascribe meaning to dog expressions, and less so to horses. But, horses display 17 clearly distinct facial expressions (Yes, that horse was sneering at you. Get some riding lessons). And dogs display 16 clearly distinct facial expressions. (Caution must prevail when assuming a Husky is smiling. This mistake is also made regarding other mammals such as porpoises). And, according to research at Ohio State University, humans display 21 clearly distinct facial expressions. We aren’t really that much ahead.

Handling an Attack Dog at night provides lessons far beyond merely staying alive. I quickly learned that watching my dog’s movements was far more important than staring into the darkness. Once I understood that I realized that my dog was always communicating with me, not just to me. By watching him I could quickly determine if one or several persons were out there, in which direction they were moving (if they were) and at what pace. His silent movements, or stillness, communicated his assessment of the nature of the threat, its imminence and its severity. His life and my life were intertwined. From then on, in every other way, whether by the silent hand signals I used or by the tone of voice I employed I sought to bring him into the communication, not just subject him to it. That was the crucial difference between my way of handling the dog and the “training” employed by all the other handlers, those following instructions from the “training master”. I interacted with a person, albeit somewhat different from myself; the others handled furry mechanical objects not greatly different from the various firearms we carried. (We did like to say, A dog is the only gun that can shoot around corners.)

I’m sure every reader has at one time or another heard someone, probably a parent, say, “Don’t use that tone of voice with me.” Yes, we are each sensitive to the various tones of human speech. But it turns out that dogs, horses, and probably a lot of other non-humans are far more sensitive to tone than we are. We increasingly live in a world in which we can issue voice commands to objects and obtain an immediate result; Alexa, play Santana’s Abraxas. On Star, call Home. And when we use that tone of voice as, Satan, get your chew toy, we are speaking as if to an object, not to a remarkably sentient companion.

So that’s my message: Untrain yourself from the confines of seeing everything non-human as merely objects to be manipulated, often through force. That horse may one day kick you half way across the pasture; that dog may some day take a chunk out of you. If you treat them as objects they will tire of your abuse, and until you untrain yourself you may never know why.

But let’s hope you never have a need to earn the patch below.


From → Uncategorized

  1. Tilly permalink

    An excellent post Marco. Thanks for sharing the story of you and your canine partner! There are no words to describe that special connection between canine and human. There’s a joke in our house, which is not really such a joke after all- my spouse always says that if our house was on fire I’d step over his prone body to carry my dog to safety! He understands that special connection, and he’s fine being my #2. Besides, he knows I’d come back and drag him to safety if I could!


  2. Thank you, Tilly. Yes, I well understand the priorities. I confess that when I read of car accidents or house fires, etc. that involve non-human partners I first search for news of you know who.


  3. (Name withheld)

    Wow. That was amazing, Marco.
    A masterclass…didn’t want it to end so soon!

    Missy has trained me well. I must pay more attention to how she does it.


  4. Thank you. Let’s see if Missy points out anything I overlooked.


  5. Mike Stamm permalink

    Absolutely fascinating, and very thoughtful and thought-provoking. I’ve never dealt with a dog entirely on my own–my younger brother is the “dog person” in our family, and the last time I was close to a horse was when I was 11 or 12–over a half century ago. This essay is full of important information conveyed in a clear and exceptionally useful manner.


    • Thank you so much, Mike. I sincerely hope readers will forward this piece to anyone they feel might benefit from it.


  6. Julie permalink

    Hi Marco, I appreciate you sharing your experiences and great insight . The Canine unit was fortunate to have you forging better training methods and I hope they took on board your skills to train others. You have a great gift with animals being able to read them so well, Julie 🙏💓


    • Thank you, Julie. Indeed, the training master was relieved from duty and, later, discharged from the Air Force.

      As you well understand, relating well to non-humans is often accompanied by great sadness.


  7. William Boyd permalink

    Wow. Quite an overwhelming essay. I’ll forward to my brother Mike out in Florissant (near St. Louis), a dog-lover who only months ago lost his buddy Sparky. BB


  8. William Boyd permalink

    What was the term we might have learned back in the ’60s? Grok, right? You gained so much from your various environments. Thanks for this fine essay.


    • Yes, Valentine Smith, the Stranger in a Strange Land. I read most of Heinlein’s works and actually met a group in St. Louis that was trying to put Grok into practice – partially.


  9. Dana permalink

    Marco, this is so interesting! The inclusion of your trophy and patch photos makes this post all the more meaningful. Your K-9 was so fortunate to be in your care, and undoubtedly the same applies to the reverse.

    You’ve mentioned experience with dogs before, but it’s wonderful to read this in greater detail. Although I do not currently live with a canine companion, I would trust you with any of mine. And I trust very few people to properly handle dogs in my care.

    There is so much we can learn just from silently observing them. I’ve directly rehabilitated four dogs with extreme separation anxiety, and have indirectly helped many others. Your dog is destroying the house when you’re away? That isn’t “boredom.” It’s anxiety and likely due to something humans in the home are doing wrong, or what previous humans did. Long, drawn out goodbyes and overly excited greetings at the door are just some of the things many do that are not always healthy for dogs.

    The history you wrote about with your K-9 is so fascinating! I’m not surprised you won the contest. Cruel methods do not work with dogs and will not earn their deep trust even if they still exhibit loyalty. And when I see humans with various types of painful-looking collars on their dogs, I nearly always say, “Ever tried a harness?” Sometimes I just can’t maintain silence.

    I’m of the mindset those of us who truly care about the well-being of our furry companions will improve with every one we bring into our lives. I know I still have much to learn about domesticated canines, but every dog is different. Assuming they are rescued, they all have a past as we do. And they all have different needs, challenges, and personalities. What worked for one may not work with the next.

    Dogs will usually tell us what they need, often with their eyes and facial expressions. I always feel those are easier for me to interpret than tail language and other forms of communication. One of my dogs always told me when he was ready for “lights out.” He would make direct eye contact, and then motion his gaze and head toward the lamp. I always blame him for the fact I no longer read in bed. To him, bedtime meant darkness and sleep. Truthfully, he was right, as dogs typically are. They are also great at telling us when we’ve had too much screen time. We should listen to them more about everything in general.

    Thanks for another terrific post, Marco.


    • Thank you, Dana. I often think you would be extremely well suited as a dog trainer or a working staff member at a rescue sanctuary such as Best Friends in Utah. Of course, finances determine much of our lives but one day there may be a way.


    • Thank you so much, Dana. You have consistently proven you are a person who deeply understands non-human companions, and even those living in the wild. And, as I said earlier to Julie, I know that understanding is accompanied at times by deep sadness. I hope you will forward this piece to anyone who may benefit from it, and we understand that when someone benefits the non-humans in their care share that benefit.

      I’m also looking forward to you being able to adopt again.


  10. mkdohle permalink

    Wow Marco, this is a wonderful lesson for me to think about. My dad had a way with dogs and other animals. They loved him, and would simply walk up to be petted. My mother understood this from her experiences with ‘Blitz” our boxer. His intelligence was uncanny. When he died, my mother vowed never to get another dog, so attached was she to him.

    Again thanks for sharing.



    • Thank you, Mark. I am so glad this is meaningful for you. I bet your Dad was a wonderful person. Dogs and horses have a way of judging character. I well understand your mother’s feelings; right by my pc I have pictures of my dogs, including large ones of my dog in Africa.


  11. Marco, it’s always enjoyable when you share stories of your fur babies and other animal companions, and this was certainly no exception. I could tell you many tales about my dog George, but I think instead I will share a story from my childhood.

    My younger brother was afraid of dogs when he was very young, so when he asked for a puppy, my mother was quick to oblige. Penny (a chihuahua/Manchester mix) might have been bought for my brother, but she was always my sister’s dog. Long story short, She taught Penny to bite me on command, and so I was bitten almost every day of her seven year life.

    Needless to say, it took me a while to become a “dog person”, but thanks to George, I have more than made up for it. I can’t imagine my life without him.


    • Thank you, Rose. Wow! We could have used your sister in the Unit. I’ve never felt connected to small dogs, with one exception. Years ago a woman friend had a Yorkshire she named Puddin (get it?). Puddin was extremely affectionate and obviously quite brilliant. I used to wonder how that tiny brain could channel that much intelligence. Sadly, the woman died after scuba diving off Roatan. Never heard what became of Puddin.


  12. From Steve: I enjoyed reading this one. The bond you had with Plato was pretty obvious from the first day we spoke.

    It all comes down to basic respect, no? That is something that we could all stand to try to dig to find for every interaction we have.

    I did also get a good laugh about the dog as a corner navigating bullet.


    • Thank you, Steve. I agree. We should realize that non-humans, to varying degrees, have lifetimes of experiences just as we do and in their world those experiences make sense. However, when we take them out of their world and put them in ours there can be problems, and it’s up to us to understand and rectify them.

      Our dogs were also trained to scramble up a 9′ wall and drop down the other side.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: