20 Months


Many (many, many) years ago (1975, I think) someone had the novel idea that a dog could be taught to ring a bell. Sounded like fun, so I gave it a try with a 7 month old Giant Schnauzer named Panda. The only way I could think of to get her to interact with the big brass cowbell I had was to smear a little wiener on it.

I smeared, she licked, I praised. I smeared, she licked, I praised. The third time I smeared and she licked, she licked hard enough to make the bell ring. I got hysterical, jumping around, whomping her on the side, and telling her how wonderful she was.

After this display, I smeared weiner juice again, and sat back hoping that she would eventually figure out that it was the sound I wanted.

Panda had other plans. She didn't lick the bell. She looked at me. I encouraged her to lick it again. I showed her the meat juice on the bell. She stared at me. Then she turned to the bell, lifted one Giant paw, and whacked the bell into next week. Then she looked at me again.

If nothing in the training philosophy I was exposed to had allowed me to use food to teach the dog to do anything, be VERY sure that nothing in that philosophy would acknowledge, let alone account for, a dog thinking. I didn't understand WHY it happened, but to this day I remember that I was so overwhelmed with astonishment, so gobsmacked, so amazed, that I started to cry.

Panda at that point had 2 legs on her CD, was a finished Champion, and was my first homebred Giant Schnauzer. A week after she asked me if I wanted her to make the bell ring, she was hit by a car while walking beside me through a farmyard and broke her back. For three months as she recovered she rang her bell with her paw to tell me she needed to relieve herself. She went on to be the first Giant bitch with a Utility degree, a scent hurdle racing champion, the lead dog on my competitive sled dog team, and my heart dog. People I had never met called her a Renaissance dog, but for all she did, all she was, and all the amazing storing I have about her, the one moment that defined her for me for all time was when she asked me that question.

I have a better philosophy of my relationship with other animals now, but witnessing that moment of clear thought and communication still makes me cry.

I have never in my life successfully taught a dog to put a paw over her muzzle. This is a really cute trick, but I have failed with every dog I've ever had. To prove the point, here's a post I wrote in 2000 about trying to teach this trick to another Giant.

"Had a bit of a set-back this morning. I've been out of town with my Service Dog for nearly three weeks, and left my poor Giant Schnauzer at home with daddy. She's telling me she feels very neglected (then nudges my arm for pets and climbs on the couch uninvited - both things *I* don't let her do, so I don't think daddy's been QUITE as mean as she tells me he was), so I decided to teach her a new trick this morning. I've been thinking about getting her to "hide her eyes" or "salute" for some time now - she's a very pawnipulative dog, and this should come pretty easily to her. Background - this dog spent her first year going to dog shows every weekend and being a star, and was taught to totally accept any body manipulations that happen to her. I can (if I could bend down that far) lift her off the ground by the back legs, roll her over and back on a table, hang half of her off a table and she will just lie there. Training - the common way of teaching hide your eyes is to put a bit of Scotch tape on the dog's nose and click the paw-scrape as the dog tries to get it off. So I put the tape on her nose and waited, clicker and treats in hand. She backed up. She barked. She played dead. I took the tape off. I put a large yellow Post-It note on her nose and waited. She backed up. She whispered. She retrieved two things (not easy with a large yellow Post-It note on your nose!). I took the Post-It note off her nose. I lifted her eyebrows and pasted a large yellow Post-It note over each of her eyes and waited, clicker and treats in hand. She backed up. She wagged her tail. She went sniffing around the room and picked up four more things and brought them proudly to me. She spun to the left. I took the large yellow Post-It notes off her eyes and gave her the treats. I went grocery shopping."

I've spent the last three days trying to teach Stitch to put her paw over her eyes. I wasn't successful. My "thinker" wore out, so I asked on the Training Levels list for ideas on how to teach it. I got some dandy answers, but the one I started with tonight was to have her lying on her side. I'd taught her to duck her head to get a treat under her elbow. And I'd taught her to target my hand with her paw. From these I was getting her turning her head in a particularly cute manner, and a really good Sieg Heil salute, but no inclination to curl her paw back toward her nose.

When in doubt, try shaping. I get her lying on her side and I start clicking any motion of her paw. I click for a tiny twitch. Then I click for a full motion. Then I click for scraping the floor. Then I put my hand above her nose - which previously has resulted in the straight-legged salute - and she curls her paw over her nose, holding it there waiting for the click.

For holy cow. I LOVE THIS STUFF!

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Back to reality. Stitch's stitches come out, so we go to the dog park to burn off a little steam. WOW, huge improvement in partnership since our last visit. I've got a pocket full of kibble, and she's stopping in for a piece frequently. I usually feel like she'll get tired eventually and come back so we can go home. This time she loses me a couple of times as she goes pelting across the park to see someone new, but she quickly remembers me and comes back to check in. It's MUCH easier to be relaxed with a dog who occasionally lets her enthusiasm overcome her brain than it is when you're starting to think about needed a lasso to catch the sucker. Not that she was ever trying to avoid me, she was just busy running around and I wasn't part of the team.

We give Paw-On-The-Nose another session. It takes her seconds to remember what we were working on. I've given up on getting her to sit and put a paw over her nose - not because it seems impossible now, because it doesn't, but because she's come up with something cuter. She lies down, tucks her nose down between the floor and her chest, and uses BOTH paws to cover her face. I've started adding the cue - Hide Your Eyes!

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Service Dogs - so useful. They save you so much time, they save you so much energy. Dear little Tats.

I take my Service Dog out to the car. Drive over to the gas tanks, get out, put fuel in the car. Just as I'm finishing up, I hear that lovely little clunk-Beep noise indicating that my Service Dog has tried to get the keys out of the ignition and has put a tooth on the LOCK button on the keychain.

So now I'm writing in her blog and waiting for a tow truck. It occurs to me that pushing the UNlock button on the keychain might be a useful skill, but unfortunately I have neglected to teach that to her. And NOW seems a trifle late, barn-door wise, if you catch my drift.

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I've been mucking out the guest room/fibre storage/junk room. I have four huge bags of garbage to burn. I go to the front door, wrestle it open, and go out on the stoop. It occurs to me that it's a beautiful day and Stitch is feeling better so I could go back to hunting her down as she runs around the yard, so I leave the door open. She comes to the door. I ask her to Sit. I give her our Zen cue - No! - and then ask her to Stay. I wrestle two garbage bags out to the burning barrel, light them, and go back into the house. Stitch remains Sitting, relaxed, cheerful. We have a HUGE party, running around the house, getting schnoogies. I take the second load of bags out and again she Stays until I come back. Holy cow!

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We have a full weekend. Friday we drive 4 hours, then take a private agility lesson. I think I want to work on ways to speed me up so I'm not always late on my cues on course, but the expert has us working on directional cues, cued turns, and object discrimination. It occurs to me that if I wasn't paying attention, I could easily decide that the lesson was useless since she didn't APPEAR to address my concerns about slowness at all, when in fact she has given me EXACTLY the tools I need to be a handler good enough to drive this little racecar. We have a lot of work to do this summer!

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Saturday we attend an advanced Rally clinic. I thought I'd give Stitch a bit of Heeling practise, and then use Scuba the rest of the day, but I'm thrilled to see that Stitch can handle almost everything. She has some trouble with the moving drop - she understands the cue, but the pull of staying with me is too strong for her to do more than hit the ground and pop back up to my side. Good pup! She's trying really hard. She peters out about 3 PM, and, as my friend points out, "when she's gone, she's GONE". I stand in line waiting for our turn at a mini course, thinking "she's had it, I should go sit down" and "Nah, she can do one more short set" and at that point I learn that when she's gone, she's GONE and there's no point in trying to pretend she's not. She still did everything, but she was lagging and just looked out of it.

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Sunday there are two CARO Rally trials. Stitch and Scuba are both in Novice B. The trial secretary has kindly put Scuba near the head of the line and Stitch at the end, so I have plenty of time between them and I get to do the first run with Scuba, which means I don't have to think TOO much about the dog and can concentrate on doing the course. I screw up Scuba several times, but manage to pull through for a 197 out of 200 - which tells me she could pull off a perfect score if her handler knew anything about Rally.

I'm a bit nervous about Stitch having drifted off yesterday afternoon so I don't give her any breakfast, thinking she'll be working for it during the day and she'll be sharper if she's a bit hungry. Another mistake. She appears to be a low-bloodsugar dog, as she's still laggy and seems to have difficulty concentrating on what we're doing. She gives it an excellent try, though, and pulls in a surprising 194. My friend confirms my opinion that she appears tired and distracted, so in the couple of hours between runs, I give her breakfast and then just sit in various places around the building working quietly on watching me and getting faster and more confident.

Scuba's second run is EXCELLENT. I have high hopes for it. I can't imagine how it could have been better. I don't make any mistakes, I have slowed down and I have time to read each sign to make sure I know exactly what we're supposed to do at each station, and Scuba is bang on, eager, sharp, enthusiastic, precise, and pretty. And yes, she gets a 200. The run was my real reward, though, it was one of those times when you feel that it couldn't have been better and you were privileged to have been in attendance.

Stitch is feeling MUCH better but not yet super. As my friend puts it, she's doing everything, but you get the feeling that it's hard work. She's trying too hard to pay attention and stay with the program. So I'm not happy with that yet. Still, I remember to reward her frequently, read the signs, give her a decent time, and get everything done. With a superb sense of the dramatic, the secretary leaves her score until last - and she's pulled off a 200 as well!

Dang, this is one hot little dog. It makes my fingers tingle just thinking about how easy it would be to mess her up!

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Home again, I leave the front door open with the dogs in the front hall as I unload the car. It takes a while. Finally Stitch makes a dash for the cats. I say "Are you out of your MIND?" and she aborts and returns to the front hall. It wasn't her previous ee hah mad dash, more like a question: "Hey, ma, I'm chasing the cats. Are you watching? Are you going to say anything?" and when I did say something, she nodded her head and returned. She spent the rest of the time sitting on the front step where she could see me better - technically wrong but actually really great because it's MUCH easier for her to resist temptation from inside the house than from the step. We're obviously making progress.