Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dog Psycho-logy 101

Over the years we have always attempted to train our dogs, Cisco, Pancho, O’Malley and now Fergus. O’Malley, apparently hailing from a long lineage of bad boy stock, inspired me to enroll him in dog obedience school. After dutifully paying a considerable sum at the time, I signed an agreement that if my dog disrupted the class for more than “X” number of minutes at any given time, I would remove him to the back of the field. When I finally realized that I was spending 75% of each class at the back of the field staring at blades of grass, I collected what shreds of dignity I had remaining and dropped out. Eight or nine years later O’Malley was controllable.

After deciding I couldn’t be quite as patient with Fergus, I decided to bring the canine behavioral academy to the house and hire a dog trainer one-on-one. I just wanted a few basics----coming when called, no jumping on visitors, no digging, coming when called again. That still left lots of room for creativity in his life. In an effort to be a responsible parent, I bought the proper collar, harness, leash, replacing all the perfectly good ones we already had. I kept telling myself that if they did the magic trick it would all be worth it.

When we are out walking or hiking and I call his name, I started noticing that the first thing Fergus does is look in the direction opposite me. I imagine he’s asking “What doesn’t she want me doing or where doesn’t she want me going?” He be right. So, before he would lower himself to actually come to me, he would have to check out all his options. It was humiliating to know that I was the object of last resort.

All good dog training teaches us that repeating a command you can’t enforce is useless, so standing out there yelling “Fergus, come” 15 times only made me madder. I thought maybe whistling could help out, but I can’t whistle no matter what contortions I put my lips through, and most regular whistles sound obnoxious on a trail. Luckily I came across a wooden whistle that sounds like a train, resonant and mellow, and started working with the lad. A couple toots, a reward upon coming. Slowly but surely, he began to follow me like the Pied Piper.

When Fergus turned six months, we decided to let him use O’Malley’s doggie door, giving him control over his own comings and goings in and out of the house. And, freedom for us, no longer having to constantly let him in and out. But, he refused to go through the door on his own. The sound of the slapping flap threatened him. So, I would have to crawl through the little alcove and out the doggie door, enticing him with doggie cookies all the way. Doug would stand on the other side calling him. In and out we practiced this for a week until one day we heard the flap slap and Fergus appeared inside unprompted. Within a few days, he was happily cruising in and out probably a hundred times a day.

Another dilemma I struggled with was teaching him to “kennel up” into the back of the pickup. He just outright refused. He sat and grew rigid when I raised up his front paws and lifted up his hind end. This nonsense had to stop, as the pup is tipping the scales at 70 pounds these days. It’s certainly not that he can’t leap---he’s a jumper extraordinaire. He just couldn’t make the connection---if he gets in the pickup he gets to go on a hike! We tried throwing dog cookies, his favorite “babies” and me sitting up there calling him. Nothing worked.

Then we realized that Cisco taught Pancho, and Pancho taught O’Malley all these essential canine street smarts. Fergus only has us, so it got us thinking…finally. We took him to a trailhead and waited for somebody with a dog to happen by. Bingo! The first dog we see runs over and jumps in the back of the pickup, and guess who immediately follows? None other than Fergus the fearful. We try it a few more times to reinforce it and we’re getting there.

Here’s what I think about dog training: The best way to train your dog is to find another dog. I can read all the books, buy all the gadgets, but maybe all I needed was a $0.25 whistle and 30 seconds with a dog. And lots of love and patience. And acceptance that the tiny lawn patch will have to wait for a more mature Fergus.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps Fergus can teach Ajax to "kennel up" as I am still lifting his 100+ lb rear end into my Subaru! -Anna

Anonymous said...

I think that Fergus is going to a be a big temptation to those la-ti-da French poodles...a big American stud like him! Whooppee...there's going to fun in Fance this summer! HA!

Luke thinks you are good dog "parents" really put so much energy and care into making Fergus "the best he can be". I have a friend with 8 dachshunds, most of which she has had for several years...and they are still not totally house-broken...your way is so much better!

I was talking to Carolyn the day and telling her how much I'd like to come and visit you in France...and she said she'd love to come with me...maybe we'll both have our lives in better order by 2009! Something to look forward to...or not...depending on your viewpoint! HA!