Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Man Trains Dog, or Vice Versa

dinger does snoopy imitation
If it was good enough for Snoopy ...
Training dogs for years essentially boiled down to whapping a disobedient pooch with a rolled-up newspaper. For several reasons, this is no longer true:
  • Most people today get their news online rather than on newsprint.
  • No one wants to do hurt their pooch let alone their expensive digital devices.
  • Modern theories on “positive” dog training insist there are no bad pups only lazy and inconsistent owners.
I know this because I’ve been up to my eye teeth for weeks in books, videos and Pup-peroni trying to mold our latest family member into a model canine citizen.

dinger chews a nylabone
The Dinger
Dinger is a 50-pound, 9-month-old American Staffordshire terrier mix (formal Latin breed name -- cutieus pootieus muttmaximus). Li'l Diva came up with his name, baseball slang for a home run, before we even found him. This proved ... interesting.

Unlike our last dog search, which consisted of me spending several months interviewing/being interviewed by multiple wackadoo breeders (not you, Dr. Sara, thanks for being kind, sane and the foster mom of Murphy), this process consisted of my wife and daughter scouring the internet, looking at photos of rescue dogs for two weeks. Their only criteria: finding a pup that looked like a "Dinger." My job then became narrowing down their choices in hope of selecting one that wouldn't resent being named Dinger and rip our throats out while we slept. 

Of the three puppies I’ve brought up in as many decades, Dinger is by far my star pupil. In other words, for once I’ve trained the dog more than he’s trained me.

But give him time.

I consider this a victory given my near total lack of pet handling experience as a child. No dogs, no cats, no hamsters. Just a few goldfish in plastic bags won at carnivals that didn’t survive the night and a matchbox-sized turtle who went belly up in a plastic wash basin. When adopting Dinger, I made sure not to list these as references.

My Love, on the other hand, grew up with animals aplenty; however, that has proved of little help. The pets of her childhood, I have discovered, were let out at sunrise and let in at sunset, left to learn their manners on Nebraska street corners and sneak the occasional Lucky Strike behind a grain silo. Hence, My Love’s contributions to training our dogs over the years has been mostly passive aggressive. She’ll regale me with the impossibly amazing things her friends’ and co-workers’ pets do, the implication being I should forget about “down” or “stay” and work on commands like “set up an offshore tax shelter.”

Our first dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Kiner, was taught using “positive punishment.” He received treats and praise for doing good things but doing bad one meant a tug on the leash known as a “corrective jerk,” the catch being the leash was attached to a metal prong collar which, honestly, looked like a medieval torture device. “It’s not really as bad as it looks,” said the person who recommended the collar to me. And it wasn’t to Kiner, who would tear through the house looking for me when he heard the jingle of someone removing the collar from its storage hook by the garage door. That sound, to his furry ears, meant outdoor adventure ahead.

When I walked Murphy, our next Lab, into his first training class wearing Kiner’s old prong collar, the instructor almost fainted. In the previous 10 years, scientific studies had shown that only jerks used the corrective jerk because it did long-tern harm to a dog’s neck and spine. Now, “clicker training” was in. Dog does something good, you click, then you give the pup a treat. Good, click, treat. Good, click, treat. Dog, joins, Weight Watchers.

Murphy, during his 13 years of life, actually did most of the correcting. No, dad – this is the way we are walking today, he'd say via telepathy at the street corner, accompanied by a hard stop until we turned the way he wanted to go. Yo, pops – you shorted me on kibble this morning, he'd say with those big hungry eyes as he placed his head in my lap while I tried to work. Once when he misbehaved early on, I got flustered and gave him an old-school, quick tap on the muzzle with my finger. He promptly leaped up and bopped me right back in schnoz. It never happened again.

Luckily for us, Dinger came to us sort of pre-primed. After going through two foster families before he got to us, he had a fair mastery of sit, heel and potty training. No one used jerks or clickers from what we know, just a lot of patience, love and understanding. And obviously a boatload of treats because, like you and me, a dog needs a paycheck for a job well done.

Now, excuse me while I run the boy outside real quick. I’d hate for there to be an accident because that would be my fault and I'd have to hit myself with a rolled-up newspaper again.


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