Thursday, April 24, 2008

Training Day.

(Do what you will with this information, but if you don't read the blog right before this one, this blog will make very little sense.)

We arrived on the first day and I was heartened to see that the other dogs weren’t reading Isabel Allende’s latest novel or in any way indicating their insane superiority to my furry beast. In fact, all the dogs seemed a little over-excited and not a single owner was demonstrating control over their dog. There were ten dogs in the class and within minutes I had learned all of their names because we had all used them, in the sibilant whispers of a convention of librarians:

“Buster, down!”

“Andrew, quit it.”

“Lavinia, leave that chair alone. You’re not even male...”

The teacher entered and the dogs instantly fell into some canine version of shame. Instinctively, they knew she was a) The teacher and b) British. Without ever having seen Mary Poppins, all dogs understand that certain British women are to be adored, feared and obeyed. In bell-like tones, we were told what would be expected of our dogs during the Canine Good Citizenship Test. She then told us what was expected of us in the upcoming weeks; bribes. Lots and lots of bribes.

I reached into my purse, hoping this was her forthright way of letting us know that a subtly-placed twenty in her palm would make her forget all about looking for a decent loose-leash walk, but I was looking to bribe the wrong life-form. In the beginning, we were told, every single thing the dog would do would be rewarded with dog treats. Later, as they understood what was being demanded of them, we would dial back on the treats and hope that some combination of habit and pack-mentality would keep them from shouting at squirrels. But for now, she said, shaking a drum of what looked like large scabs, we needed to come up and get a big handful of incentive.

Of course, my dog the Dauphin can’t eat the cheap treats, because it makes him itchy. I raced to the car and huzzah! There was a bag of his favorite dog treats in the trunk!

[I’m not that organized. They slipped out of the bag when I last went to the pet store. They had been drifting aimlessly in there for weeks. But every time I would remember to grab them, I would open the trunk and they would be hiding behind something and I would think “Oh, I must have taken them in.” Days later, I would open the trunk someplace far from home and there would be the bag of treats, smirking at me.]

[And it did occur to me that if I had put them in the passenger seat, I might have remembered to take them in. But it only occurred to me about ninety seconds ago. And if I had thought of it then, I wouldn’t have had them when I needed them, and he would have eaten cheap treats, and then he would have scratched, and then I wouldn’t have slept, so I think we’re all pretty happy I’m as vague as I am.]

I brought the bag back in, ripping it open as I entered the training room. As I have mentioned before, my nose isn’t the model of utility, but I’m guessing from the canine heads snapping around and gazing at the bag and the Schnauzer who tried to become a dangling earring for me that they smelled pretty powerful. I looked down at the bag and found I had brought in dried salmon strips. I looked down at my dog; he was on his hind legs, his eyes locked on mine, his front paws in something unnervingly close to prayer. It seemed if I was looking for a motivational tool, I had a hit.

The process of teaching “Heel” was fairly simple. Get the dog into the position you want, sing out “Heel!” and take off at a slightly slower than usual clip. Right in front of their nose, you have a handful of treats, which keeps them exactly where you want them. If they move out of position, the lovely food bits go away until you place the dog back into position and head off again. You walk with them for no more than a minute or two at a time to start. I placed two strips in my hand, assuming that would hold us for the duration. Thirty-eight seconds later, having inhaled the fishy splendor, my dog lunged off to finally settle some long-running feud with an Afghan he had never met before. On the next walk, I tried four strips, which lasted thirty-four seconds; he might not be learning “Heel” but he was certainly learning “Bolt your food”.

At this rate, he was going to go through two insanely-expensive bag of treats each class, which would be financially taxing. Besides, that much rich fish in a night was going to lead to Quinn finding out if dogs can safely take Pepto-Bismol. Covertly, I started shredding the salmon down into small bits. Another walk, another inhalation; I shredded into even smaller bits. By the fifth attempt at heel, he was starting to get the idea and I had discovered I could, using only two halfway-manicured thumbnails, break down dried fish to the atomic level. The dog didn’t care, as long as the stink kept coming.

However, I began to notice something. Fish strips can be taken neatly and politely by even the most enthusiastic dog. Fish particles can only be eaten by sticking your tongue into the palm and licking out all those delectable morsels. My hands were now covered in a bumpy paste of dried salmon and dog saliva which dried quickly, leaving a paste not until stucco. Each practice would add a little more to my hand; I now appeared to have been potting plants before class. Although, had I been potting plants, I would have smelled, at worst, pleasingly of the earth. My smell was beginning to count as a distraction to the other dogs.

Finally, we were done. I breathed a sigh of relief; whatever we did next, we still had half a bag of salmony goodness and it couldn’t be any worse than the mitten of salmon I had created. The teacher spoke.

“Now, we’re going to work on meeting a stranger without reacting. Put your dog in a sit, and wait. Our volunteers will come around, ask to pet your dog, pet the dog, and then shake your hand.”

Aghast, I stared down at my hand. A few flakes of salmon fell off on the floor. I tried rubbing my hand on my jeans, but it only seemed to annoy the salmon particules and reawaken the fragrance. Several dogs around me grew distracted. Grimly, I put the dog into sit and awaited my Gentleman Caller. He walked up, asked to pet the dog, and then petted the dog. The dog, stupefied on salmon, ignored the man brilliantly. He then went to shake my hand. I put it out while indicating with my eyes that I didn’t actually know this hand, we just carpooled. Upon sight of my hand, he first daintily tried shaking only the fingertips. Having found dried fish there as well, he manfully squared his shoulders and shook my hand. He then asked the teacher for a bathroom break. Four volunteers and four bathroom breaks later, the class mercifully ended. The teacher sent us home with homework. I dashed for the door, eager to drive home with all four windows open and a car-deodorizer hanging from my neck but I heard her final words.

“Remember; keep using food motivation during practice this week. If what you used worked, keep using it.”

Every day for a week, I would grab the salmon-bag from the odor-proof box in which I hid it and, holding it at arms’ length, I would say bleakly, “We meet again”. The dog would prance and the salmon would smirk.

Two weeks have passed. I now bring dried chicken strips, which are slightly less effective motivation but are considerably less pungent. I’m not as popular with the other dogs, but at least the other owners don’t vote to put me next to the open window and the neighborhood colony of feral cats has stopped trying to mug me.

We're all learning.


Blogger Kristen Gill, Marketing Manager said...

Gosh, I love your blogs about dogs.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Kristen Gill, Marketing Manager said...

or, should I say, I love it when you blog about YOUR dog in particular. Not sure a general blog about dogs would be so funny...I shared your "meathead" blog with many friends. It killed me!

8:03 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm so glad you're doing this training! And I, too, love your posts about your dog.

And BTW, dogs can take Pepto Bismol. I keep the tablets on hand for after Sebastian has the bones form beef ribs. It keeps us all happy!

9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, this brings back memories! If your dog's stomach can, um, stomach hot dogs, one of the best training treats I ever used was hot dog jerky . . . Take a hot dog, slice it lengthwise into quarters and then slice each quarter into tiny little slices. Lay them out on a paper towel, put them in the microwave, and cook for 1-2 minutes until the moisture is gone but they're not burned (that's the tricky part). They don't go bad, they apparently smell delicious, you can get something like 72 treats per hot dog, and they're quick and easy. And since the pieces are small enough, even if you go through an entire batch at once, it's still, well ONE hot dog.

And, hey, there's always tuna! It comes in a bag, smells as good as salmon, but is cheaper and easier to break into pieces...

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and it is ok to give dogs pepto- but i recommend a syringe (like you give babies meds with) or else trying to put it in your dogs mouth with a regular tablespoon is just like herding cats- it runs out all over and your dog (and surrounding kitchen) look like the wedding scene right out of 'Steel Magnolias'- where her colors are Blush and Bashful.

9:03 AM  
Blogger tenacious knitter said...

I love your writing! but you make it hard to read your blog in my quiet office - I'm creating a laugh-cough to mask my need to giggle.

It's great that you're doing this. My sister wants to do this with her dog who loves all people (a bit too vigorously), but he's not food motivated. Can you imagine? I might have to suggest the salmon.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Quinn, clearly you have never been to a librarian convention! Here's a wee taste of the un-whispered enthusiasm...

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love this post! Glad to read that Canine Good Citizenship is not unlike ordinary puppy training. My two are woefully lacking at "sit" "lay" and loose leash walking and cannot "stay" to save their lives or make me look good for maybe one minute. If relieving themselves in class were a lesson they'd be tops!

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dog who was not very motivated by food, loved freeze dried liver. It didn't smell and was dry. Cut up turkey hot dogs worked for my other dog, who unfortunately, could never pass the CGC test. She could never get past her distrust of strangers.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Narya said...

My Friend had a cat (who is now lounging in front of the Great Radiator in the Sky). Friend received a bottle opener as a gift that, when you used it, sounded out Homer Simpson doing one of his "Mmmmm . . . beer . . ." and some glugging noises. Friend's cat came running the first time, so Friend reinforced it with treats (of course! who wouldn't want to keep that happening!). it was a wonderful sight to see a cat running to Homer.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if I can apply some of these techniques with my 7 y.o. daughter to keep her with me when we're out and about. I'm thinking of sort of M&M dispenser instead of fish...

11:37 PM  
Blogger Lene Andersen said...

Laughed until I cried. Salmon paste, the Dauphin, the Schnauzer dangling earring... Wonderful.

5:46 PM  

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