Training Deposits

Our dogs bring us so much joy. Who else in this world wiggles when you open the front door after being gone for TWO. WHOLE. MINUTES? And, our beloved canines, remind us how important laughing and playing, walking through the forest preserves or snuggling on a chilly, wetwinter’s day are to our own replenishing needs, like no other being.

So, why, do we persist in making hefty withdrawals from our relationship and training bank without spending the time and energy making the appropriate deposits? Cues like “leave it”, “off”, “come” and simple attention are four of the biggest overused, under-trained words we see in the dog-human communication repository. “Come” could absolutely save your dog’s life one day. Why leave it to chance that your precious pooch will respond when he is racing towards the street, after your uncle accidentally left the door open? Here are two easy ways to make sure your fido fund does not go into overdraft mode.

Talk less. Remember the boy who cried wolf?  Well, if you are thrumming “leave it, leave it, leave it” every two steps on your walk; your dog will learn to tune out the sound of your voice. Sometimes, folks do not even realize they are yammering on and on. If the only words your dog EVER turns her head to, are “treat” and “toy”;  stop every block and assess what you are doing. If you are speaking to your dog ONLY when you think he is being naughty, chances are, he or she is learning to gain your attention by badly behaving. Or, those words that you continually utter, mean nothing because every time you say “leave it”, your dog is doing something different. Dogs learn by pairing the cue with the actual desired behavior. And, it is ridiculously unfair to expect our dogs to understand what “leave it” means when we shout it only during the following scenarios: he is lifting his leg on our neighbor’s flower bed; she is pulling on leash to get to her doggie best friend, as quickly as possible; or, he is enjoying a lack afternoon snack of your favorite pair of shoes.

If you were exhibiting any of the above behaviors and I just stood there, and said, “yamete” over and over again; without helping you actually stop what you are doing. Would you ever learn what “yamete” means?

Repeat after me, there is no such thing as “trained”. We call it training, and not pixie dust, for a reason. If you spend time, ANY time, working on cues with your dog; he or she is getting practice listening to you. And, don’t we all want our dogs to listen? So, once you complete a class or formal, private training sessions, keep up the momentum.  And, not just on walks, when your dog is over-stimulated. Your dog’s reliability will get VERY rusty, VERY quickly if you do not sustain some sort of training practice for behaviors that are important to you; AND critical for your fur babe’s safety. Carve out five to ten minutes a day. And, practice behaviors your dog knows very well. Then, add a new behavior every one to three weeks. Or, refine more complex behaviors. Mental stimulation is just as important as physical exercise.

And, your stock will surely increase with a little less chatter and a tad more practice.

Machine Mindset

Words like “fix”, “stop”, “guaranteed” and “instantly” can be synonymous with dog behavior and training. But, as trainers who have studied and carefully watch our canine counterparts’ behavior; we often cringe when we see those words. Dogs are unbelievably intelligent, highly individual in their motivation and thresholds for stress or distraction; and also deeply emotional. And, what complicates whether or not they actually listen, when the stakes are high, often boils down to the human; and his or her communication capabilities, the amount and quality of the training deposits he or she has made in the desired response and their understanding of whether or not their furry friend is past the point of no return.

We all want our dogs to listen and often, in urban environments like downtown Chicago; paying attention is downright imperative for our pups’ safety. Here are two easy ways to help your dog learn to LOVE listening to you.

Be more engaging in daily interactions. Often, when folks decide they need to began a formal training routine with their dogs, they become SO serious, ALL the time. They push their dogs off the couch, they start shouting “SIT” before they make their dog’s dinner or start yanking on the leash at every street corner. That sounds miserable.  When I play fetch with Gavin, I do not stand there like a robot, mindlessly tossing the ball for him; then, looking down at my phone while he tears after his toy only to tower over him barking “DROP IT DROP IT DROP IT“.  My time with my dog is precious.

When Lil’ Big Head sits and waits for his ball, I smile, and actually look at him when I tell him he’s a good boy. And when I toss the ball, I do so in a different direction so I keep him guessing; and interested in watching me. And, without fail, EVERY time he runs back to me, I look at him and cheer, “there’s my good boy, yay!” Sometimes, as he’s running back to me, I run away to get him to chase me or hide behind a tree to make it FUN for him to find me (PLEASE, only do activities like this in an enclosed area). And, when he drops the ball, I see the glitter gaze in his eyes. Sometimes I have him do tricks before I throw the ball again and sometimes I toss it for him because he dropped it quickly. But, I ALWAYS praise him for running to me and I am always as engaged with him as he is with me.

When a person walks past the fence, MOST people laugh at Gavin as he jiggles and shows off his balls; racing back and forth or stopping, expectantly, if he thinks they might want to pet or even talk to him. But, there are folks who clearly are afraid of Lil’ Big Head. And, I want to be respectful of my neighbors. So, I call Gavin away when I see someone walking faster, looking down and crossing their arms over their chest. And, EVERY TIME, he races back to my side. Not because I am a drill sergeant; but because Gavin wants to. He has learned that running to me is fun, good things happen and we practice game-like versions of “come” often.

All dogs need an outlet that’s all their own. Being a city dog is a lot of work. And, most dogs struggle, even become frustrated if their only version of exercise is restrained leash walking.

TEN-HUT! Walk in a straight line. Get your nose out of the neighbor’s flowers, soldier! STOP goosing people. DROP THAT!

Ahhhh! So much pressure. And, for most of us, the goal of the walk is to release pent up energy; not to add so much tension that our four-legged family members need to rip up a pillow the instant we walk in the door. Games like hide ‘n’ seek, the muffin pan game, teaching MOVEMENT tricks, even good bones and chews (proactively, of course, not AFTER your dog has nipped you) can give dogs an outlet that allows them to “just be a dog” for a few moments; and can go a long way in making your words matter, later, when you need them most.

Gavin does not love his walks. But, he has learned to LIKE them because we play fetch at the end of most strolls or we do jumping tricks when we get home; if one of our haunts is otherwise occupied. And, once a week, I let him kill a squeaky toy, he never eats pieces and parts. But, because I let him have something that makes him SO HAPPY, he gives me what I want, relaxing walks.

Smell the Flowers

phpsyyskxAMTwo days before Christmas, I could feel every jagged rock under my boot as I tried to catch my breath. My nephew, Isaac, was racing ahead, his long legs moved so effortlessly up the steep incline. And, Gavin’s eyes were as bright as mine surely were years before at the sight of presents; but, for fluttering leaves, squirrels springing from limb to limb and trees, glorious trees. My brother, Chris and I were chatting about dating and marveling at the unseasonably warm weather. It was 60 degrees in December, and my sweet Lil’ Big Head was the only one in our foursome sporting a sweatshirt.

When we reached the peak, the sight of downtown Lancaster stretched out before us, we all stopped to take it in. We conquered a hill. Together. And, we were sharing a moment that none of us felt compelled to post, tweet or hashtag. I joined Isaac while he searched through rocks: glittery pastel pIMG_9831ink clumps; deep grey, slate discs with white marble-like streaks running through them; and large, sandy pieces of gritty pebble that were as smooth as window glass on the other side. I enjoyed the rush of finding a treasure in the dirt. And, waited with anticipation, to see if my discovery ranked high enough for Isaac to ask for my help digging through dry soil with our fingers so he could take an archealogical memento in his pocket. Gavin, as always, was attached to my hip and more than happy to join in the fun by sniffing out every speck that Isaac or I pointed to with our growing-more-grimy hands.

Isaac bounced up from his crouched, mining position and charged over the mossy slopes to show Chris all of our gems; and I watched my nephew’s eyes radiate with joy and pride when his father, my brother inspected every stone like each was the most precious item he has ever touched. We took turns pointing out hearts, they were everywhere as we descended the Midwest’s version of a mountain. And Gavin, showed off his best scrunchie-face, wiggle-jiggle, tail-whack-in-the-butt dance for every other two-legged creature who chose fresh air over mall music that day.

IMG_9830As we all often do when another year passes, I am reflecting on the past 365 days and thinking about who I want to be and how I want to spend my time in the next twelve months. And, for me; spending a day immersed and absorbing nature with my wanna-be monkey, Gavin and two of my favorite dudes in the world; laughing so hard I was snorting and spitting at my mother’s horribly crass; but, obliviously innocent drawing of a cactus during a game of Pictionary and looking into the eyes of my beautiful group of friends who surrounded me on my birthday; some sniffling and sneezing through the toast, and some who rolled into town earlier than planned JUST to join us for dinner. But, all of them, by my side for more than 15 years. Those are my resolutions. I want to be there, REALLY be there; the way my nephew, my Finn, my Gavin and dear, grey-faced, chocolate Buddy instinctively have always know how to be.IMG_9826

I am blessed to know Buddy because of my family’s dearest friend, Lynn, who lived with and helped care for my stepfather in his final months. She is a gem, an inspiration and one of those people who reminds me of how important it is to listen with my ears, eyes and whole heart when someone I love is speaking. May we all reach out to the Lynns in our world more often, may we be moved to pick up a phone rather than comment online when a friend is in need; and may we all learn from our dogs, who stop to smell the flowers whenever the mood strikes them.

The Scenic Route

Gavin enjoying the scenery at Gompers ParkClosure. I was not sure there was going to be an official end and even less convinced it would give me the warm fuzzy, sky seems brighter, birds chirping louder and more joyous feeling that I was hoping would wash over me. But, I drove 400 miles, my GPS guiding me through small towns and gorgeous landscapes that trumped the straight shot of dingy highway; filled with speeding semi trucks that I had taken for the past 15 years from Ohio. And, I needed it. I yearned not to be on auto pilot and experience the thrill of a road trip; like I did so many times as a little girl, next to my Nanny who always stopped for smiley face pancakes. She knew they were my favorite. I was craving the time to cry and reflect on my amazing grandmother’s life, to mourn for myself and who she was to me; even if I was a bit grumpy about the fact that I came home to Chicago a day earlier than I had planned to attend court for the dogs who attacked Gavin and I.

As I stood in line, waiting for my bag to be scanned; I knew the last place I wanted to be was standing behind someone who could very likely have been the guardian of the dogs who attacked us. The intense security system gave me no sense of relief; the Chicago court house is a dismal, weird place to be on a Monday afternoon. It was almost time. I was about to see the man who neglected to keep his dogs in the yard and who changed what walks were to me, meditation with my dog. Hopefully, not forever. I envisioned a Judge Judy episode, I was not ready. My heart had so much fight in it, for my Gavin. But, I was tired, sad, and certain I shared the same misplaced look that I saw in the faces surrounding me. Everyone turned their head, then immediately went back to staring into space or tapping their heel when my name was called.

The prosecutor seemed surprised when I told her one of the dogs bit both Gavin and I, many times. And, that the whole experience was frighteningly brutal. I could feel the fury stirring in every ounce of my body when she pronounced that the police officer who took our report neglected to put the word “bite” ANYWHERE on the citations. How was that possible? She saw Gavin’s battered body, she remarked on the growing purple bulge on my left hand. And, rather than standing at a podium pleading my case, the lawyers in the tiny room who seemed overwhelmed and extremely overworked had no more to say, but, for me to take a seat again. And, wait.

Then, I watched him, the man, walk in to meet the same trying-to-be pleasant, young woman I just spoke to. I could barely look at him; I thought I would want to berate him. But, instead, I was afraid of him and could not bring myself to look into his eyes; and I am not sure why he scared me so much. He seemed young, nervous, and his head hung repentantly low. The prosecutor sent him back to standby on the long, bulky wooden benches and called me in. It was like some of sort of ping pong game. Though, without the fun. She said the attacker’s guardian did not mention anything about inflicted bites. Well, duh, a button down shirt and dress slacks are not the sole ingredients for a person to be painfully honest. She further shared, that the situation was more complex because the tall, dark haired man who cared enough to attend the hearing was guardian to only one of the dogs, his sister was a no show. And, because I still had no idea which dog ferociously charged and wounded us; I would need to take yet another day off the following week to assure her citation was not tossed out.

After more waiting and more watching and more wishing that I was anywhere but sitting in that court room; I was called in one last time. The prosecutor told me she was going to enforce the $340 ticket to the gentleman. But, she was not going to pursue any financial reimbursement for my medical bills, Gavin’s veterinary care nor any of my lost wages. I thought for a second about looking into the bills on my own. But, decided that the risk of giving my address and phone number to the people who I reported to the police and pursued dangerous dog labels for their barbarians was not worth it to me. Despite the pain of it all, I was so touched that all my clients who I had to reschedule their sessions during the whole ordeal were so lovely and supportive; true dog lovers are the best!

A few days later, remarkably jittery, I dialed the number of the inspector who came to the house to take our Dangerous Dog Report after me stalking Animal Care and Control for days; to the point I was sure I was on a “Do Not Pick Up” list posted in everyone’s work space. I could not imagine what his job is like nor the horrors he sees every day but he kindly informed me that due to the severity of Gavin’s attack, he did deem both dogs as dangerous. And, five days later, I received copies of the letters with detailed regulations requiring both brother and sister to comply so those dogs NEVER get out of their yard again.

And, I felt peace, for the first time in over a month.

It has now been five months since we were attacked and I was pulling onto my street on the most amazing 70 degree Monday in November; beaming with excitement that a couple of hours unexpectedly freed up in my day and I was going to enjoy a long walk with Gavin. The sun was shining so beautifully through the rustling leaves, just like the morning we were attacked when I saw HIM. THE GUY. His unconcerned face is etched in my mind forever and even at a distance; the breed, the gait, the size of the dog was undeniably recognizable. As I rounded the corner, I was certain it was them and the muzzle on the dog’s face did not ease the nausea bubbling in my belly as I watched the leash dangle, so casually from his hand. The human was not looking over his shoulder, overtly aware of any dogs within blocks of where he was walking; he looked so mellow that I was nervous to take Gavin outside. So, we waited.

When I finally mustered the courage to enjoy the gorgeous day, I took Gavin to Gompers Park; our pictesque walk that happened to also be as far as possible from where I knew the attacker and his person were headed. Though my heart was racing like a sleek sports car and I was chanting to myself, “don’t let him ruin your walk”; I was heading to my sanctuary. I had re-fueled my spirit for five years along the winding paved path that surrounded the Chicago River; marveling at the trees, chuckling at squirrels and listening to birds chirp in unison and with such harmony that it always stripped the tension of traffic, technology and sometimes, the very emotional situations that I am brought in to help make better. Exiting the park, I have always felt taller, my heart lighter, and my compassion and intuition restored for those who need me most. We sat in our typical spot, Gavin acting like less of a twirp about not being able to chase trees anymore. And me, thinking of the church bells that I heard once, and only once, when Finn whispered his last breath in the very place I was sitting upon a mound of leaves I hand raked into a makeshift seat cushion so my pants would stay dry.

As I sat next to Lil’ Big Head, feeling his tail whack my spine with delight whenever he spotted a person; wiggling and play growling and bowing as they laughed at the ridiculous way he holds both Chuck-It balls sideways in his mouth, at all times. I was so at peace. Though worry propelled me in the direction I chose to walk Lil’ Big Head; I was overcome with appreciation for the time I was given that afternoon and the calm that enveloped me knowing there was nowhere else I would have rather been than listening to the sun-bleached leaves crunch under Gavin’s paws as he dove for his balls, over and over again. And, I looked around at the marvelous color cornucopia of leaves: honey-crisp apple, chartreuse, deep maroon dipped in neon green that punctuated the lone, almost naked tree; with one leaf flickering, holding tightly onto a branch that has obviously been beaten, battered and survived many storms over the years. The sun’s rays toasted my sunscreened cheeks so much that I felt tears begin to gush down my face. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded me that I could not help but think of my Finn, Jim, Nanny; three spectacular beings who have shaped my life and will always matter so much to me. Three enormous losses, three years in a row. I was not sure if I was crying because I missed them terribly or if I was grateful that they were in my life, or both. But, I needed the release as much as my soul was thirsty to drink in the fresh air. And, when Gavin and I started the lingering road home, I felt safe again. Hopefully, for a long time.