Saturday, January 17, 2009

Shut Up and Train Your Dog

With the impending swearing in of the Obama administration, I think there's going to be plenty of talk about promises. Here's my promise to you, Dear Readers: going forward, I will create only targeted, one subject blogs. Can Mr. Obama and I keep our promises? Time will tell. 

In the spirit of getting off on the right foot, I will discuss the topic of feet. Specifically, I recently read a book called "Competative Obedience Training For the Small Dog" which  had some interesting points to make about feet. Small dogs have unique challenges in obedience because they are both small and dogs. Owners often don't even train little dogs because they're portable; if they misbehave they generally get airlifted out of a situation by their humans. When people do get a notion to train their lilliputian wolf cousins if forces them to spend alot of time around human feet. Human feet proportionally are much bigger relative to a small dog than relative to their medium or jumbo size cousins. Can you imagine the chronic fear of being stepped on a little dog must experience? How they must hate being at ground zero forced to evade pedestrian weapons of mass destruction (eg., loafers and stilettos and running shoes and flipflops and boots)? If a little dog chews your Jimmy Choos,  5 out of 9 Supreme Court justices would probably rule it justifiable shoeicide based on self defense. 

Traditionally obedience experts have recommended starting a heeling exercise on the left foot and leaving a dog in a stay from the right foot. Since you are only permitted to give one command in the obedience ring the theory is the foot you start on functions as a secondary cue for what you want the dog to do. Cues are very helpful to dogs who don't speak much humanese but who are used to watching body language. However, most obedience experts don't own small dogs and haven't ever really tried training them. The authors of this small dog training book suggest one puts their small dog at a disadvantage by starting on the left foot because Micro-Fido has to race to catch up with the human stride which is proportionally also much larger for Micro-Fido than for Maxi-Fido. Since obedience judging takes place from the handler's left side, a left foot start automatically looks to the judge like a small dog is lagging. 

I felt quite erudite when I told this to my training instructor, Patrick Nolan of Ponderosa Kennels 
To  make a long story short,  he had a fit. Well as much of a fit as I have ever seen him have which basicallly boiled down to a skeptical look and an quiet mellow patient, "And how's that working for ya?"  One of the reasons I train with Pat Nolan is because he's the only person in my life who ever actually told me "its going to be ok." and I immediately felt calm and actually believed maybe it would be. That is an amazing gift. Retriever trainers work hard to make dogs "steady" ie., still and able to focus until released even with birds flying overhead and guns going off all around. Pat Nolan himself is the personification of steady.  

So we discussed the book and I gave him the name of the authors and he checked them out with some authority I probably should know. The guru said the authors were thoughful trainers which I think helped a bit with my credibility in Pat's eyes but he continued patiently to remind me every time we discussed heeling to "please start heeling with the left foot."  And I will digress to tell you Dear Reader that my credibility probably could not have been much lower given that I came to him practically in tears in the first place with my completely out of control dog-eating terrier who was the boss of me.  Pat's style is to just keep correcting in the hope that eventually by trial and error I might try something differently. The second time this issue came up he told me someone who's name I can't recall but probably should know said they'd never seen a dog heel well in AKC obedience without the owner starting on his/her left foot (I can't remember who that guru was now but rest assured there was a method to Pat's madness).  After that when I clung to my start on the right philosophy I had a smidge of doubt creep in and a bit of hesitation. 

Then, a few days later "Mr. Pat" as I call him to my dog Ivan had to go do some consulting work and so he put us with Miss Linda for our training session.  Miss Linda is a wonderful woman BUT she could scare a Marine Drill Sergeant into wetting his pants, dropping his weapon, and running home to his Mama through the shear strength of her will.  Just imagine what she did to me and my out of control terrier.  In our first conversation she told me she used to go to the Garden (as the Westminster Kennel Club is known to those in the conformation dog show world) but now she prefers to laugh at dog show people on TV.  So you don't need to be particularly imaginative to see where this story is going. The "which foot do you start on for heeling" controversy died with our introduction to Ms. Linda. We now start our heeling on the left foot. ALWAYS. We also leave our dog in a stay from our right. ALWAYS. We do this if it kills us because Ms Linda said so. And so would you, if you met her.  Ms Linda compells us to do things correctly AND she compells us to refer to ourselves in plural-don't ask me why; its one of her many talents,  force of nature that she is. 

As an aside (see I'm already breaking my promises-hopefully Mr. Obama can do better), my first encounter with Ms Linda and the crew of characters affiliated with Mr. Pat was on a warm summer day at Lily Pons when we took Ivan for his first evaluation by Mr Pat who graciously agreed that Ivan might be an interesting "project" and who promised he would not suggest I neuter my dog. We showed up early and there was a guy there with a labrador retriever and a truck and a weedwacker preparing to work on property around the retriever training ponds so the humans could walk and the dogs could run without becoming ensnared in the midsummer jungle that grows anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic summer. I told the dude what I was doing there and asked his dog if she was going to be a retriever when she grew up. He said "oh, she's a Master Hunter."  Faux pas #1. That dog could do more work faster than a bumblebee on a kilo of cocaine; apparently she was just there so she wouldn't grow rusty and I mistook her for an amateur.  Winning friends is obviously not my strong suit. 

Fortunately it started getting muggy so I waited in the car while the owner of the Master Hunter worked and tinkered with his weedwacker which refused to start. Finally  someone pulled up in a truck, seems like it was an F150 but perhaps I'm just embellishing because an F150 is most believable. All I could see of the driver was an arm out the window and then I heard the voice from which emanated a half of a conversation in which Mr. Owner of the retriever and broken weedwacker attempted to explain his travails. The voice dressed him down for not caring for the weedwacker better.  Oddly I could hear the voice in the truck but not the dude outside of the truck. The conversation from the truck went like this...

"How long have you had this weedwacker? That long and you've never cleaned it? People like you don't deserve to have power tools. I could probably fix it for you but I'd need to go get my tools..." 

Its not really worth retelling the rest of the conversation,  but needless to say from the truck emerged Ms Linda in all her bigger than life splendor. I don't know how tall she is but she seemed 10 feet tall. I don't recall what happened to the weedwhacker because moments later Mr. Pat arrived in the dog truck which literally is a giant silver truck towing a huge silver kennel on wheels filled with dogs of every shape and size but mostly labs and goldens. The dirt road into Lily Pons is hidden from the ponds themselves by trees so all we could hear was this noise that sounded like a flock of snow geese about to descend. Closer and closer it came and then I realized that's actually dogs coming up the road and then he pulled up and lets just say the word  "cacophony" exists to explain the sounds that come from dogtrucks. I never really saw Ms. Linda again that day (though I figured that weedwhacker would be whacking dandelions in short order if she had anything to say about it). 

So imagine my trepidation when we got assigned to work with Ms. Linda about 6 weeks later and it turned out Ms Linda was the woman who had taken the weedwhacker dude to the woodshop. And as another aside, despite his role in this story I have come to know that the weedwacker dude (wish I knew his name) is actually quite a competent individual (or he wouldn't own a Master Hunter and be a protege of Mr. Pat Nolan). 
So, the first thing Ms Linda said when she met with me was that we should be alot farther along in our training given how long I'd been training using Mr. Pat's methods. Then she told me Ivan didn't respect me and I need to "tell" him to do things. Apparently I had been "requesting" not "telling" and dogs routinely deny requests whereas they frequently comply when you tell them what to do.  Who knew dealing with dogs was the direct opposite of dealing with federal government administrative assistants? 

Then Ms Linda said basically I should shut the hell up and train my dog. Actually she said it nicely and probably didn't say "hell"; I don't mean at all to imply she's anything but professional. But as she pointed out, a dog doesn't really have an incentive to listen if he doesn't understand 99.5% of what you say to him; by quitting my incessant chatter and cajoling the words I would be saying to my dog would only be words he understood and his incentive to listen would increase dramatically. I also realize that I had fallen into a horrible habit of chattering and encouraging and cajoling without realizing it. I had always thought of this as a way to keep him happy. Its now obvious that what I was doing was constantly begging for his attention. I was so insecure about my right to ask him to do anything without it being fun and exciting that I used an endless stream of happy talk "praise" which completely defeated its own purpose. Of course I shut up immediately as anyone in their right mind would when faced with Ms. Linda telling and not requesting. 

In our next lesson with Ms Linda she addressed the "which foot to lead with in a heel controversy". Both Ms. Linda and Mr. Pat have owned and trained small dogs which helped me feel comfortable with the resolution.  I also learned from this that  training instructors all have different styles. Unlike Mr Pat, Ms. Linda wasn't about to let me go on making my own mistakes. She took the lead, and it wasn't so much what she said as how she demonstrated the difference with Ivan that sold me. The upshot is if you shut up and start on the left you give the dog a verbal command AND a leg to follow, as if by magic the dogs performance improved 110%.  Even though he wasn't looking at her, he was heeling like Lassie and even taking responsibility for maintaining a loose lead. 

They say every dog needs a job. In this case the job can't be much clearer. The dog's job is to follow your left leg until it stops moving; where it goes, he goes.  The dog can't glue himself to your right leg so if you start on your right, however well intentioned, you put your dog regardless of his size at a terrible disadvantage. The verbal command "heel" tells the dog "I'm starting now and so should you"  but the left leg shows the dog where he's to go. If you start on the right he doesn't know which way to go until the second step is taken which potentially puts him even further behind than he might be if you starting on your left foot.

Conversely by always leaving in a stay from the right foot the dog unequivocally knows not to leave with you. Its very simple. It has not been easy for me to adopt this consistency but I've never had a dog heel the way Ivan does now. 

"Big deal" you say.  Maybe you think heeling is only for police dogs and rigid AKC obedience fanatics who feel the need to maintain discipline and control because they get off on being the boss of helpless furry critters. Maybe you like some in the animal rights world that heeling is cruel and obnoxious way to assert superiority over a helpless animal and all dogs should be free of the shackles of ownernship such as leashes and heeling. Or maybe you think you don't have time to have a well trained dog even if you feel like it would be nice some day.  Maybe you think only smart breeds like border collies or biddable dogs like shelties can heel. Maybe you think small dogs don't need this since they can be toted around like a fashion accessory. 

First lets address the toting issue. I have a friend who has the #1 Scottish Terrier in Flyball. She does not believe in carrying small dogs anywhere. I have learned from all this dog aggression business that carrying is a form of restraint and carrying a small terrier especially encourages reflexive lunging forward. By carrying some dogs or just picking them up you actually enhance their aggression.  Also a small dog being carried is a target for any dog on the ground. Working a heel with a small dog puts him/her on equal footing if not equal stature with other dogs.   

Also for general training skeptics it might be worth asking yourself how many times you've chosen to (or been forced to) leave Max or Lucy or Fifi or Old Roy home because they'd jerk your arm off walking past mailboxes and other dogs and children with ice cream cones. Ask yourself why you got a dog in the first place if you weren't going to give him a basic education.  Rest assured training will open alot of doors for your dog.  Far from putting him in a rigid little box of militant drilling and drudgery, a dog that can walk on a loose lead will expand where he can go and what he can do.  State fairs, picnics, ballgames; you name it if the health department permits it your heeling dog can go along as a member of the family if he/she can walk on a lead under control. A tight lead again promotes pulling. A lose lead promotes responsibility. I recently took Ivan to a wine tasting event with attended by about 50 other dogs. My historically dog aggressive terrier was the model of self restraint. And we both had a great time. Shutting up helped. Learning to heel helped. Maintaining a lose lead helped. Starting on the left meant I probably didn't even need to tell him to heel. He just knew "follow the left leg and you won't have any trouble". 

So in the immortal words of Ms Linda, "Shut up and train your dog." Go ahead.  Even whether he's little or big but especially if he's little. You can do it. Just go out for a walk. And remember tell him to "heel", and start out on your left foot! 

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