19 Months

Stitch and I go out to a book store, a place we've been several times before.

Maybe because she's just come out of season? Maybe it's a full moon? Maybe she's having flashbacks from the giant flying pig? Whatever the reason, she "stresses out".

Fortunately she doesn't stress out in the freaky direction, but her brain simply freezes. And gently. It doesn't show until I ask her to pick up her leash, at which point she stands as she has been standing, absolutely still. I ask her again. She glances up at me as though I have asked her something embarrassing in front of her boyfriend, and remains still. I move her to the other side of the leash and ask her again, pointing down toward it. She wags her tail slightly, apparently relieved to be finally understanding what I want, and lies down.

At this point my own brain kicks in and we go find a place for me to sit down. We spend the next few minutes working Watch, then Sit and Down, and finally move back to Take It. I hold the leash directly in front of her mouth and ask her to Get It. She stares at me for a moment and then moves her bottom jaw slightly. I click and reward, and ask her to Get It. This time her bottom jaw moves and she very gently touches the leash. I click and reward. I ask her again. She takes the leash softly between her lips.

I click and reward, and suddenly she appears in her eyes again. I say hello and she wags her tail and sits. I ask her to Get It and she takes the leash. I click and reward, drop the leash, and she picks it up and hands it to me. We work on it a few more times, pay for my book, and go home.

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Someone on the Training Levels list mentions teaching her dog to close a door, and it occurs to me that Stitch doesn't know she can open her crate door from outside the crate. I decide to shape her to do it. We start with a #450 Furrari plastic crate with the door half open. She's getting MUCH better at shaping - it takes her eight clicks to touch the door with her muzzle, another three to touch it on the inside, and only one more for her to realize that she's going to be clicked for moving the door.

We work another 10 clicks on opening the door. When she gets it all the way open, I close it 3/4 of the way and she starts opening it again. Then I close it all the way - not locked shut, but definitely closed. She works at it for a moment with her soft little nose, and then she makes a mental jump. I've seen Scuba make leaps like this several times - leaps based on understanding the task and not being able to accomplish it without changing what she's doing, but I've never before seen Stitch do it. She understands that she needs to open the door. She can't open the door with her nose as she's been clicked for doing. She problem-solves and she comes up with another solution. She moves her paw up to claw at the door, and at the same time bites the top of the door. The door opens. We have a party. I close the door, and she opens it again. And again. And again. We move to a #350 crate. This door is harder to open. It takes her six clicks to transfer to the second crate, and then she dives right in and opens the door. I'm very proud of the little girl.

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We go to obedience class. We have a "bloody mahvelous" class. We start before class with Watching, giving me her paws, Sit and Down, and retrieving her leash. I'm remembering that she has no clue about how to heel, so I bite off bits of wiener and keep them in my mouth, spitting them at her as we do Chutes-and-Ladders walking while she stares at me. After about five minutes, she's doing so well that I start working on getting her butt under control and back in Heel position by backing up every time she swings it out. She swings it out automatically and I'm getting nowhere, so I stop trying to walk. Instead, I back up, sidestep, and walk one-step left squares, and she begins to remember Heel position while maintaining eye contact. I sit down on a wheeled stool and she does even better. We spend the next half hour getting her to be able to sit in Heel position while I stand up straight. This is VERY difficult for her, she wants to be in front of me. I get a little frustrated and actually use my hand to tuck her tail under and plant her little butt on the floor several times. This isn't a correction and doesn't bother her. Finally I settle on holding the leash behind my back so if she comes forward out of position, she bumps into the leash (limited slip collar, still no correction). Since she can't go forward, she settles on going back, gets her click, and I spit the wiener bit at her. Before long she's able to sit correctly and maintain position. Ee hah! And throughout, the most important thing, she's maintaining eye contact as if her eyes are glued to mine. There's a rank but not aggressive Boxer nearby, but he's not bothering Stitch, Stitch is intent on earning her wiener. We do Recalls, SitStays, DownStays, all excellent. I sit down on the stool again and we practise Front, Swing Finish, and GoBehind Finish. GoBehind isn't great as she tries to end up back in front of me again, but if I follow each GoBehind with a cue to Swing, she looks good.

When we get home, I put the car in the garage and let her out of her crate. She makes a beeline at a dead run for the cat-feeding station by the barn. Knowing that she hit the ground in full flight, I sort of sigh her name, and to my astonishment, she stops in midstride and comes back to me, all happy and excited, then gambols to the house with me, glancing occasionally at the cats but showing no real inclination to start back toward them. A very successful evening. We have to pick a trick for next week - I pick putting her paw over her nose. Maybe the cue will be "Did you vote Liberal?"

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My husband's out of the country for a month. This is an annual month when I clean out the closets, sew, and tidy up all the annoying little things that I've been ignoring all year.

Which brings me to an annoying little thing that I've been ignoring for 18 months. Way back in an early blog entry, I talked about Stitch's adventures finding recycled cat food and running under farm machinery to enjoy it. As the months wear on, she demonstrates something I've never had before - she's a dog who absolutely requires exercise or she explodes. She has a certain number of calories she has to use up in a day, and she WILL use them up, if not running in the yard, then running in the house. If not playing with Scuba, then playing with my socks, my shoes, my pant legs. As the winter wears on and I'm not feeling well enough to have been concentrating on her aerobic needs, she's getting worse. You can tell which couch I've been sitting on because there's always a small mountain of stuff she's accumulated from around the house and brought me - pens, books, pop cans (full and empty), gloves, boots, grocery bags, dog brushes - the list goes on.

So I arrive at my annual cleanup month with a dog who is a bit over the top energywise, who knows there are many better things to do in the farmyard than stick with me, and who has no greater joy than chasing the feral cats in the yard.

And to my horror I realize that I've been studiously training her to think this way for her entire life.

What brought this so suddenly to my attention? She killed a duck. Duck ran, Stitch ran on top of her, I plodded along through the snow trying to catch either one of them. Plucked to death on the run. Yuck.

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This is really difficult for me. The duck died for my sins.

Stitch never goes out in the front yard without a leash on. When she does manage to get out the door, she takes off after the cats at a dead run. There's no possibility she'll ever catch one, but she has a great time trying (it never occurred to me that she'd be a danger to a 20-lb duck). She has SUCH a good time that she does an occasional bunny-hop spy leap.

She's not going anywhere, I tell myself. The yard is a fairly secure environment, and at any rate, she's not escaping, she's just joyfully chasing cats. She dropped her tail and ran at the Portuguese Water Dog Specialty in Maryland. And at a local agility trial last weekend, she and I managed to hold on by our toenails. So she's not running away, she's just running. She'll be right back. Right after she finishes plucking the duck.

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In a recent post on a list, Morgan Spector said "Bob Bailey articulated three criteria for applying punishments, and I endorse them: (1) the behavior must pose a danger to the physical health or safety of people or other animals, (2) the behavior must be suppressed across a broad spectrum, i.e., it must never occur, and (3) the behavior cannot be resolved through counter-conditioning."

(1) Well, clearly her behavior now poses a danger to both other animals and to herself. The duck incident very strongly brought home to me that if this running happens in the wrong place, Stitch is going to get smeared on a road.

(2) Yes, the behavior must stop. It must NEVER occur.

(3) Can the behavior be resolved through counter-conditioning? I truly believe it can. I also truly believe that, as things stand with Stitch's enjoyment and physical need to run, and with my physical condition and growing hysteria over the situation, I've reached the point where I don't think *I* can resolve it. Between managing it and ignoring it, I truly have tried many ways of getting rid of it. I've succeeded in convincing her that when she's on a leash, she is completely under control and wouldn't even THINK of tightening the leash or, really, even think about thinking of the cats. And when she's not on leash, she's free to chase them. I've also succeeded in convincing myself that it really is almost under control and not that bad. Except for the duck.

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I decide I'm going to correct the behaviour. This is not a decision I'm taking lightly. Scuba's nearly 10 years old and I've never used positive punishment on her. Still, after several days of pondering the situation, I'm convinced it needs to be done. I'm going to have to be careful to use it correctly and balance it well so she learns what I need her to learn and nothing else.

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I work through several different scenarios and decide on a technique I used to use very successfully on every dog I raised. I call it the Stalker technique. Since it's obvious that a large, old, disabled woman can't begin to actually catch a young, athletic dog, I need to catch her mentally rather than physically. And mentally, of course, is the problem. She spots the cats and she turns off her come-to-mommy brain.

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The plan, then, is not to try to catch her, but just to "hunt her down". She takes off, and I start walking towards her, muttering any nasty thing I can think of in a moderately-loud, deep, angry voice - but NOT yelling. When I get close to where she is, she decides to see if there are any cats over THERE. She runs over there, and I don't try to catch her, but just keep walking and swearing. She chases phantom cats around the yard for nearly 10 minutes with me walking toward her the whole time. The first couple of minutes, she's oblivious to me, but after that, she appears to be pretending to have a good time to convince me that nothing bad is happening. She's lowered her tail from running-dropped to unhappy-dropped, she's not spy-hopping, and she's glancing back at me over her shoulder frequently. I've resorted to reciting nursery rhymes in a crabby voice, but I'm still talking, and I'm still walking after her. I understand the Apache used to walk down wild horses - this may be as close as I ever get to that.

Finally she can't stand all this bad language any more. After running around me several times, she finally creeps up to me and lies down. I walk up to her still talking, give her a poke on the side of her neck with two fingers accompanied by a louder bark, turn, and walk away.

She cavorts around me in relief, giving me her whole repertoire of calming behaviours. I ignore her. We go in the house.

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The next morning, I put her entire breakfast in my pocket and take her favourite soccer ball with me when I open the front door. Once again, she runs toward the barn, and once again I start stalking and snarling. Three minutes this time, and she's crouching on the front porch apologizing. Once again I poke her and bark once, then I tease her a bit with her ball and then toss it (AWAY from the barn). She can't believe her good fortune. Can she possibly be outside without a leash on and I'm not upset with her? We play ball for several minutes, with me also paying her for bringing the ball back with her kibble, then she heads for the barn again, but this time she comes right back when she hears me start my hunting song. I toss the ball another couple of times, and we head back in the house. This is the most fun we've ever had in the main yard.

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On the third morning, she runs to the barn when I open the door, but instead of a hell-bent-for-leather dash, it's more of a checking-things-out run. She checks behind the tree as well, then comes right back. Once again, she gets a poke, then we play ball. She heads out for the barn again in the middle of the session, but turns around and comes back when I call her.

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So far, I'm happy with my decision and my planning. The dashing behaviour is definitely diminishing, and I'm countering the punishment successfully by giving her something fun to do when she's NOT dashing. Tomorrow she's having surgery, so for the next week I'll be reinforcing the recall in the house before we go back to eliminating that initial flight.

LOOKING BACK A LIFETIME LATER: The absolute best thing I did over Stitch's lifetime to prevent the dashing was to give up. I finally decided to keep her on leash when we we're out in the front yard. I kept her on leash for at least six months. That took the pressure off me, which took the pressure off her. Then, because I was no longer annoyed every time I left the house, I started rewarding her for walking with me out the door on leash. Six month later, when I forgot the leash, she had forgotten the dash.