Discussing dog breeds, dog-adoption, and the human-canine connection.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Training by owner adaptation.

Gracie the bullheaded Bull Terrier

Training a terrier can be a little like filling a big bucket with a teaspoon of water at a time. It can be done but it is rather time consuming and often a little frustrating; particularly if one is tripping over a dog on the way to the bucket. Basically, if you want to fill a bucket, use a huge bowl; if you want to be a serious dog trainer, get a Retriever, Shepherd, Poodle, or Boarder Collie. In fact, I recently watched a TV news story about a Boarder Collie who has a bigger vocabulary than some of my former freshmen English students. If you want to be a happy dog trainer, avoid terriers.

I'm a perverse person. I like a well trained dog AND I like terriers. This is an oxymoron, like being a gourmet food lover who is addicted to Big Macs. Basically its just wrong. My two loves do not go together. Thanks to Gracie the English Bull Terrier though, I've had a breakthrough. I realize I've been going about training all the wrong way. My perspective has been wrong and I now see the light. Allow me a little space to explain.

To not make too fine a point of it, Bull Terriers are stubborn, opinionated, tough, funny, ignorant little entertainers who only want to learn what is useful to them. Useful knowledge to a Bull Terrier is 1) where can they get food, 2) where is a comfortable place to sleep, 3) if you can't eat it can you play with it until you destroy it - then eat it?

I'm a person. In my opinion dog's who are well socialized should learn things like 1) don't eat anything that isn't food; better yet, that isn't food I gave you to eat, 2) attempt to learn the basic commands like "get off," the command you hear when you try to sleep on top of me, 3) not everything is edible so "drop it" don't swallow it!  Rubber, by the way, is not supposed to be one of the basic food groups.

I think Gracie would argue in fact, that I can be a real nudge, just fussing and complaining. In fact, she caused me to have a real insight this past week. Gracie, I realized, knows allot of things. The commands I have been giving her are the problem. I realized this one evening when we were headed inside from the yard. In the past I've tried to convince Gracie to sit and wait at the door; Gracie prefers to push the door open with her solid wedge head. Neither Jenny or Lil will push the door open so when we're all outside, it can get a little crowded waiting around the door to get in. As I was trying to wade through the dogs to get to the door, I was suddenly struck by the obvious - Gracie had been right all along! Instead of having her wait, I said, "Gracie, open the door." Gracie went ahead and pushed the door open and everyone could go in.

In a flash I realized that I had been going about communicating with Gracie all wrong. I need to label what she does do and give her treats for it! I don't mean the natural things that a dog will do. For example, the way Gracie learned to "sit" on command was for me to get a treat, and hold it at the location that would naturally lead to a sit. That's basic training and not at all what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about being a little more imaginative. For example, what would be a quick, pithy phrase to accompany her new habit - thank you Lil for teaching your elder - of standing like a gopher near the kitchen counter and eyeing up what is up there, and grabbing off anything that is paper and shredible. "Get it" is too generic. I also need  shorter commands to apply for "jump over the gate, race upstairs and eat cat food" and "jump in the window and bark at the neighbor for closing a car door."

Lil, the growing bad influence

If I adopt a different point of view I can now see that leaving cat food out too long only means it will likely go stale and the cats won't eat stale cat food anyway. And the neighbors, while they might be perfectly nice people, should never be allowed to forget that I do have a very alert watch dog. She might be bribeable with dog biscuits, but she will still bark a warning before she stops to eat.

Baby Gracie

Honestly, when she was a puppy there was absolutely no warning that she was going to grow up to be a person trainer. She seemed reasonably happy to go with the flow. She had no immediate complaints.

Then she realized this was her forever home. And she realized that if she was going to be living here forever some things would have to change.
I could list all the things Gracie would have liked to have changed but really they can be summarized by one general rule; Gracie wants to rule the world.

Giving the nieghbors much needed supervision

Gracie would like you to know that you should not be worried about her plans to eventually dominate the world. She promises to be a benevolent tyrant. She also would like you to know that any objections you might have at this point to being ruled by her will eventually evaporate. You just have to reach the point where you do what I did; change your point of view. Accept that Gracie is right. Learn to love what Gracie does.

Gracie supervising this blog

Perhaps, just perhaps, you live with a few canines who would like to start their own awesome oligarchy. Gracie is willing to negotiate with them. She's all for the maintaining of strong territories and is willing to consider a series of small fiefdoms. Please respond here and Gracie assures you, she will consider all applications equally for potential potentates in other districts.

Gracie lays on computer and couch at same time = terrier multi-tasking

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What our Dog Photos Cannot Show.

Wills - Minature Schnauzer

This is a picture of my beloved little Schnauzer, Wills, with my beloved little nephew. The photo was taken shortly before Wills death. The snapshot in and of itself is nothing special. As a reminder of my life with Wills though, it is an important picture.

I find that impromptu photos of our dogs are great personal reminders for us. These pictures though, often do not act as adequate messengers for translating who our companions were; other people looking at the picture cannot see all the things that made a particular dog amazing. As a result, the picture may appear to be of a dog that is nothing special. I am reminded for example, of a photo I once saw of my Mom, two younger sisters and myself, when my sisters and I were all under six years old. There was a very average looking, a little under medium sized, medium hair, brown and black dog with a white chest in the photo.  I didn't recognize the dog.

When I asked my mom who the dog was and she told me, I was shocked. She claimed that the dog in the picture was my own highly prized childhood companion, Champ. Now in my memory, Champ is a very large, very beautiful Collie mix; we were fairly devoted to each other throughout my early childhood. Champ is even the center of my earliest memory, the one memory I have of life before my first sister was born.

Champ and I were young "back in the day"; kids rode bikes without helmets or adult supervision; we were allowed to run out and play in the woods around the house, to rig up our own ramshackle "forts" and inherited old pots and pans for play cooking. No plastic or rubber factory made kitchen sets especially designed for children. No plastic pretend food. Our imaginations had whatever we could find outside to work with and the occasional cast-off, real item like an old chipped dish. Imaginations had a lot of work to do on a daily basis and Champ was beside me as we moved from ancient castles, to shipwrecks, mansions, jungles, and barren plains. He saved me from monsters and mean girls, and was a steadfast fellow no matter what kind of crises, imagined or real, threatened me.

This wasn't an idyllic world. The kids I grew up with fought, sometimes with words, sometimes with fists. Feelings and bodies were hurt, people cried and said mean things. Through it all Champ was by my side and when the world was too much, it was Champ's thick hair that soaked up my childhood tears of frustration and sorrow. Champ was amazing because he was my friend and I was his. There was no camera or photographer around to capture this relationship. The one faded snapshot in which Champ does appear cannot begin to show who he was to me in real life.

I believe that many of us have known dogs like Champ. Special, intelligent, beautiful dogs who - if others saw only a snapshot of them - would not look like who they really were. Maybe that is why some of us now spend time and money trying to capture a better likeness of our dogs through professional portraits, or even hire painters or other artists to portray our dogs; someone who through artistic license can show a little more of the inner spirit that is apparent to us but not necessarily to a quick camera shot.

I think that is why some of us also like to read stories about dogs. We want to read about the relationship that a snapshot alone cannot show. We want written icons that remind us of what is special and valued in our own relationships with our canine companions. A well written dog story contains reflections of what is lovable about so many of our dogs - the unique relationship that we enjoy with them. The best dog stories seem to reflect that when a person and a dog befriend each other, they each seem to be better versions of themselves because of the relationship.

If anyone has a favorite dog story or picture they would like to share, I would love to hear/see them. In the days to come, I hope to add more photos here. For while a photo may be incomplete, it is still a touchstone, a reminder of a special individual who touched our lives. I would love to hear about the dogs that your pictures may not be able to fully capture.

Eclipse's Gabby's Sweet Gilbert - German Shepherd

Ruby the Collie-Labrador visiting

Gilbert - my favorite senior Beagle

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Traveling without Dogs

Sometimes we can take our pets with us when we go someplace.
And sometimes we just cannot.

I am currently away from home at a conference. I am missing my puppies a large amount. Everyday I phone home and talk to my parents who are puppy-sitting Jenny and Lil. (Gracie is staying with her friends at Pet Sitters.)

So far Lil has been playing in the sandbox and yard with my six year old nephew during the day. She has dug holes in my parent's yard, chewed up a watering can, and broken a fruit bush. Hmm. I wonder how long Labrador puppies will be welcome visitors. Meanwhile, Jenny is looking for me and spending time in the room I slept in the night I dropped them off.

When I travel without my dogs I find it makes me even more vigilant for the sight of dogs. I've been seeing a lot of small dogs -- terriers and chihuahuas, a French Bulldog. I've seen young street people with a few Pit bulls, and one young woman with a Kelpie mix. And I've seen some working Labrador guide dogs. Overall though, being in the heart of a city where dogs are a little uncommon, I'm getting even more dog lonely.

But another thing I think about is the life of city dogs. The city I am in is not without green spaces, however, I'm right downtown and there is more cement that a dog has to tread than one will find in other places in the city. So while there are parks that the city dogs can visit, they have to spend a lot of time pacing the pavement to get to those green spaces.

A dogs quality of life is fairly dependent on the person(s) the dog lives with. A dog can be loved, cared for, socialized, and have a good quality of life in a range of geographic locations. While some individual dogs and a few breeds are more and less suited to city life, overall it is not being in or out of a city which determines a dog's quality of life. Quality of life has a lot more to do with how a dog is treated and how their needs are seen to by their people. Having lived in a more urban area once myself though, I am reminded how much I am able to enjoy with my dogs now that we are in a more rural location. Just having the dogs I do is something I would not have done in the city.

A Labrador puppy, for example, is not a puppy I personally would own in the city. I would argue though, that in many ways a city dog owner has to be more devoted and intentional than a rural dog owner. When I lived in a city I had to make a point of walking my dogs multiple times a day. Now, in the rural setting I am in, I can be lazy and not walk the dogs any further than around our yard. The dogs still need walks but it is easier to give into the temptation to not provide them.

Where we geographically live with our dogs is more a matter of personal preference I am arguing, than a naturally "better" place to live with dogs. There are some breeds that are more suited to some climates than others and some breeds that require a much more intentional, devoted owner in some situations than others. A sheep farmer for example, is in an easier position to provide the stimulation and exercise that a Boarder Collie requires but that hardly means that only sheep farmers should own Boarder Collies, or that sheep farmers make the best Boarder Collie owners. I think you get the idea.

Kelpie Puppy

I would be interested in hearing the stories and opinions of others. Where have you lived with dogs? Do you think you have a breed of dog that is better suited to some locations than others? Do you think you could provide what your dog needs regardless of where you could potentially live? Would you only live in certain kinds of places precisely because of your dogs?

Personally, I do choose to live in greener places for my own quality of life. The dogs I currently live with are able to appreciate some perks related to where we live too. I don't think though that they are any happier or leading any fuller lives than the dogs I owned when I lived in a city. I do believe that living with a dog is a little easier for me in a rural setting than in the city. I am interested in hearing what you think!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pet Friends: Encouraging Socilization Amongst Animals

For many of us, our pets are also our friends. Our pets however, also need other animal friends. Dogs in particular are genetically predisposed to need the company of other dogs -- it's a pack animal thing.
While it is not necessary to own more than one dog (although I do believe many dogs appreciate not being only members of a family-pack) it is important to allow our canine friends the opportunity to have other canine friends.

Beagle buddies

Jenny and her friends Ruby and Gus for example, can meet up on a trail, run and have fun. Public areas where dog friendly dogs and humans hang out is a good source of animal interaction. This is also a place where dogs can meet and make friends; people can then meet and arrange to walk their pups at the same time on certain days.

Jenny, Gus, and Ruby

Or a more informal arrangement is possible; if you walk in the same pet friendly area at around the same time of day during a week, you will find yourself running into fellow repeat users of the space. In Vancouver for example, on a nice weekend my sister and I used to make a point of heading over to the North Shore and a very pet friendly beach. Our friend would tag along with her very socially oriented Springer Spaniel while Bonny the Schnauzer would also accompany us. Bonny would ignore everyone, unless she saw a male dog peeing - then she would run over to pee over top of his marking. (She really was an interesting if somewhat dominant personality.) The Springer had the option of happily greeting everyone, dog and person. Fortunately, you tend to run into other dog loving people in dog parks.

We would see some of the same weekend park people each visit; my sister was particularly taken with the "Boxer guys" and I think this is why we ultimately ended up with our Boxer, Keeper. But that's another story. The North Shore was busy enough that we didn't make friends - we went there with friends and the casual atmosphere led to lots of hellos and learning more dog names than people names.

Katie, sweet sister but terrible roomate

Some dogs actually do better playing with each other when they are not living in the same territory. That's how it was for Gracie and her sister Katie. They got along swell playing on neutral territory but things got a little intense once they were sharing a house. It turns out that same age Bull Terriers often have a problem living together, even more so when they are same gender. This is another advantage of doggy play areas. Dogs can socialize and have dog friends, even if they live as only pets at home.

Gracie has another outlet for meeting and making friends. She is a regular visitor at Pet Sitters Plus in Negaunee, MI. The folks there not only treat her like a member of their family, they make sure Gracie gets lots of supervised play with doggie appropriate friends.

English Bulldog

One of Gracie's very best friends is an English Bulldog - Tank. Tank is a little unusual for a Bulldog, in that he has as much energy as a Bull Terrier. He and Gracie have a blast tearing around the outdoor play area of the kennel, chasing and wrestling with each other. They are a similar size (Tank is on the smaller side for a Bulldog) and energy level and neither is easily offended by poor doggy manners. They both lack a well defined sense of personal body space and boundaries and are happy to find another dog who shares their energy level and sense of fun.

They are also supervised while playing, and kept contained, so that their youthful energy and lack of common sense keeps them from getting into trouble, banging into more sensitive animals, and out of potential danger areas like roads and bike paths. This is the kind of super happy senseless play that needs to be contained, not allowed to happen in a busy area. Doggy day care is a great way for either single dogs or dogs like Gracie with rather unique play sensibilities, to socialize and exercise.

Of course, one can keep several dogs at once. This does not mean, however, that all dogs put together will make a happy pack. And just because you live with more than one dog doesn't mean that each dog's individual play and socialization needs are being met.

Jenny for example can get her social needs met in lots of ways. She is a welcome visitor at several family homes and by welcome, I mean the dog that lives in each of these homes is happy to see and play with her.  She can visit the feed stores with me and meet and greet animals there. She can use parks and doggy walking areas. At home though, Jenny can find Gracie, her adopted sister, a little overwhelming. Gracie and Jenny don't always meet each others social and play needs. Jenny tends to be the bossy older sister who wants to squash activity and is a bit of a tattle-tale. She is also more sensitive and has a much more defined sense of personal space than Gracie. She has been known, in fact, to jump up and bark at Gracie for rolling on the floor too close to her - even without touching.

One of the many reasons I chose to add a young Labrador to our family pack was to meet some of the social and play needs of Gracie while not further offending Jenny's sense of well being. People think I'm only joking when I say, "Lil is Gracie's puppy." 

A well bred Labrador should be an easy going dog with an even temperament. This perfectly describes Lil. She is gentle, playful, forgiving, and young. She and Gracie can wrestle and play until both are worn out and collapse and sleep. Lil is also more flexible in her play style and will play in a much slower, gentler fashion with Jenny. She was the right addition to our family-pack because her personality matched the personality of both the older dogs already living there. Plus, she was trainable and intelligent enough to work with the person in the room, who was not interested in adding any new behavior challenges to the mix.

These are a sample of ways to keep one's dog socialized: doggy parks and play areas; doggy day cares; home visits; getting out and about in dog friendly areas; and owning compatible dogs who are also all trained to be good canine citizens. I must note here that dogs learn quickly from each other and will learn bad habits and behaviors as readily as good ones from older doggy mentors. Jenny can be a good role model for teaching a younger dog to come to their name, however, on her naughty days she can also teach, "I'm deaf to all human voices." Adding a new dog to a home where the established dog(s) are not trained will only increase the tension and difficulties in the home.

I welcome your stories of doggy friends, play places, and my favorite - who are your dog's best friends?
Jenny's best buddy is not either of her sisters - it is my parent's very solid, handsome, same age Boxer - Bogart. He and Jenny will happily spend hours just laying in the yard together, sharing sun beams.

Three Boxers