Friday, September 11, 2009

Finding Your Inner Ahab

I was in High School the last time I read Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" but it's Machiavellian central character Captain Ahab still finds his way into the conversations I have with many dog owners. This usually happens when the dog owner finds themselves crossing the the intersection from the learning part of a lesson to the obedience part. e.g. A dog has demonstrated an understanding of a particular command, "Tess Down, Tess Stay" but when Tess is confronted with a compelling distraction, say a doorbell or sitting down to dinner, Tess no longer stays. Since these are worthwhile goals they require time and patience, sometimes more than the dog owner counted on going in. That's when I'll say, "You've got to find your inner Ahab". Admittedly, Captain Ahab is a flawed literary reference since his relentless pursuit of the white whale ends with only Ishmael to tell the tale; most everyone gets the point I'm trying to make though, so flawed or not, Ahab stays.

I've been kicking this post around in my head for a few weeks following a lesson with two litter mates that I'm working with (2009 Has been the year of the litter mates, I've worked with three so far.) These two are female Golden Retriever puppies that live with two couples who are close friends. They get together to socialize, the puppies get together to play and slobber on one another for as long as they can. I'm told by their owners this can go on...indefinitely. An untapped form of renewable energy? Perhaps,...I digress. We had scheduled a door training lesson where the puppies would be taught to respond to a doorbell by going to a designated place in the home where they lie down and stay until they're released. It's fun and it frequently redefines the dog owner's sense of what their dogs are capable of. That didn't happen. Instead, we began where we'd left off the prior lesson with both dogs facing each other from across an expanse of yard. Their owners instruct them to "down" then "stay". They then leave their dogs to greet each other, return to their dogs and release them to play with each other. The point is simple; while many dogs are motivated by food rewards, anything a dog finds rewarding can be mitigated to advance a certain behavior. It'd had been a tough nut the first time around but before the lesson ended they'd done it twice. This time around it should have been easier but both couples admitted they hadn't practiced with the week prior being the most hot/humid one of the summer (the weather that night was no different) I didn't want to move onto the next rung in our hierarchical ladder until the puppies had nailed this one. Frustration ensued. I cycled the husbands and wives in and out like players in a soccer game to try and keep them "fresh" but the puppies had dug in, appearing to have "forgotten" everything their owners had taught them. Of course they hadn't, they simply had plans of their own.

Anyone who's participated in competition obedience will tell you that dogs have good days and bad days. During my brief dalliance with competition I was taken by how far dog owners were willing to travel in pursuit of a companion dog certificate. There are different levels of competition ranging from novice through utility (I'm referring to AKC or ASCA sponsored events) The dog owners that compete in these venues pour a remarkable amount of time, money and other resources into training for them and still, sometimes,..."This is the heel off leash test are you ready?", the handler responds, "Ready!", the judge instructs, "Forward!" At this point the handler walks forward in a straight line with their dog at their heel, theory anyway. I recall a dog owner competing in the middle of the pack, an open competition. She and her dog would've successfully competed in several other legs, (A leg is one of three competitions required to receive a CD) to test at the "Open" level, yet as the handler walked forward, her English Bulldog hung back to check out the cute Brittney Spaniel walking by just outside the ring. Understandable, have you seen these dogs? They're quite captivating, the sirens of the dog world. So why all this exposition? Why burden you with this tedious anecdote? Because it illustrates a critical point. One that I try to emphasize to dog owners before they ever sign on; sometimes there's some heavy lifting involved and you when it is, you have to be prepared to do it if you're going to be successful in the long run.

Back to the puppies. Whenever it's possible to coach from the sidelines I want the dog owners in the thick of it. I want those successful advances to have happened between the dogs and their owners. Those moments foster confidence and make the lessons more rewarding. Sometimes though, and this was one of those times, I have to step in and litigate my argument. When Daniel says to Mister Miyage, "What does all this wax on wax off crap have to do with Karate?" Mister Miyage starts throwing punches and kicks to make his point. (From Melville to Pat Morita, are you still with me?) So, for the next 15 minutes, I took over for one of the two couples. Each time the puppy broke stay, I recalled Ahab, "From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned whale!"
Alright, so that's entirely too melodramatic. Just the same I'd resolved to be more stubborn than this Golden puppy. I was determined to illustrate to her owners that this was not a cognitive issue but an obedience issue and that she'd eventually comply without resorting to aversive techniques. It was muggy, I needed a squeegee to keep the sweat off my forehead and this puppy wasn't cutting me any slack. Nevertheless, this was a behavioral "tunnel". Which is to say that it had an entrance and an exit and while the proverbial "light at the end" was not yet in sight, I knew it was ahead if I remained patient. Finally, the puppy capitulated. Giving me both a "down" and a "stay" without repeated requests for her to do so. I walked to mid field, greeted the other dog owner and returned to release her to play with her sister. Joy and rapture! It's all that either dog wanted and we'd held it in front of them until they gave us what we wanted. There's nothing arbitrary about "stay". A solid "stay" behavior can mean the difference between being safe and being dead. Any animal control officer will tell you how frequently they've had to recover the remains of a dog that had run out the front door of their home or an open gate to the back yard etc. only to be struck by a car.

It's perfectly reasonable to wonder whether there are better, more expeditious ways to achieve certain training goals. To that end, every field of endeavor either evolves or falls prey to attrition. Advances in medicine, engineering, etc. are made all the time and yet most of us still buy cars, fly in airplanes, and see our doctors. Training dog owners is no different. With each epiphany, either realized or learned, I'll inevitably think of a dog owner I'd worked with and want to do it all over again equipped with this new knowledge. And then there are times that aren't all that complicated. These are the scenarios that don't call for pragmatism or the next big advance in dog training; they call for patience and resolve. If you want a perfect dog that doesn't bark, try to eat your lunch, poop or pee where they're not supposed to, always stays and never ever bites or growls. Try a Gund, I understand they're quite life-like. If you've got a real dog however, you've got put your time in and sometimes that means finding your inner Ahab.