Thursday, January 6, 2011

Part 3 of I-don't-know-yet

Looking back it is embarrassing how ignorant I was. I thought I was super dog-savvy… I could identify most breeds and even tell you something about their personality and their history. I had read all of the James Herriot books so many times I could recite portions. And somewhere in my mind I thought about the Border Collies that Herriot wrote about and called simply a “sheepdog.” And I dreamed of the stories he told about the sheepdogs that would follow their master into the local pub and wait patiently under the stool while they drank their pints and swapped stories. What I didn’t think about was the 12 hours of sheep herding that the dog had done that day which tired him out enough to take a nap in the pub. Goodness I was ignorant and had just done something that was incredibly stupid. I bought a dog on a whim. And not just a dog, a high drive Border Collie from a breeder that raised them for cattle. I was bringing her home to a house in the city with a medium sized yard and two little kids. She was unsocialized and I had no idea about her health. Hell, I didn’t even know John’s last name. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
But my ignorance didn’t stop there. Back then I didn’t believe in crates. I didn’t even call them crates; I called them CAGES. And no one that really loved their dog would put them in CAGES, right? But at least I was smart enough to know that she couldn’t run loose in the house while we at work and school, so I penned her in the kitchen using two baby gates. Somehow in my pea-sized brain this was waaaaay better than a cage. We had recently remodeled our house and the kitchen had brand new cabinets and vinyl floors. Really it was a pretty good place to “crate” her. (ha) I would leave her with a few toys and a bowl of water and it always looked the same when I came home. The toys would be moved and some water would be gone, but that was about it. I would always come home and tell her what a good girl she was.
Many months later I was on my hands and knees looking for something that had dropped and I noticed that the bottom edge of the cabinets were rough. Apparently all the days when she was penned in the kitchen she relieved her boredom by chewing on the wood. Some places the wood was shredded, and in others just dimpled. To this day tiny holes from her baby canines and dents from her adolescent ones remain a permanent part of my home. Of course you have to lay on the floor to see them.
I took her to obedience class just for fun. I never expected to compete with her- back then Border Collies were not recognized by the AKC and if they had such a thing as an ILP* , I never knew about it. But it is sort of a shame, because she was really good. She was one of those dogs that watched the handler all the time, staying in perfect heel position even when I tried to trick her. She had several different “finish” methods… the traditional move to heel position on handler’s left, the “around” the back to end up in heel position and she was even working on the “swing”… a move where she would jump into the air, twist around and land in heel position. Frankly, I was not comfortable with the method to teach this at the time which amounted to jerking up on your dog’s choke collar and then stepping into them when they jumped up. Because back then, we didn’t use treats in the training ring. Or toys. We just jerked them around by the neck until that ended up where we wanted and then we said “good dog!” But Murph was forgiving and she went willingly along. And I guess my “good dog!” was enough for her, because she learned quickly despite these archaic training methods.
But even if we had wanted to compete in obedience, there was one other huge obstacle besides her registration-the wretched “stand for examination.” This is where the handler leaves the dog on a stand-stay and the “judge” walks by and gently places their hand on the dog. The dog must stand quietly without moving and allow the examination. For some reason, Murph HATED this. She would stand perfectly still for as long as I asked, until the judge came up. And then she would cower… she would shrink, close her eyes, whine, and do anything except move her feet from the spot she was told to stay. And I felt so bad for her… I could feel her anxiety. And I did what any good mom would do… I comforted her. “Poor Murphy… it’s okay… you’re a good girl… nothing to be afraid of… gooood girl.” And week after week of training this went on, and she got worse and worse.
Then, one night, one of the fellow trainers said something to me that totally changed my relationship with dogs from then on. Something that was absolutely brilliant and at the same time, stunningly obvious. As I sweet-talked her while she shook with fear he said to me “you do realize that you are training her to do that, and that you are rewarding that behavior, don’t you?” What? Training her? Rewarding her? And then I realized, week after week she heard… “blah blah blah Murphy blah blah good girl blah blah good girl” Yikes, I had taught her to behave this way as surely as I had taught her to play dead when I said “bang.” And on that night, my pea-sized brain grew a little and I took on a new role in my dog’s life. Beginning the next week, Murphy had a new no-nonsense handler which didn’t allow that kind of behavior. It took a while to change, but certainly less time than it took to create the problem in the first place. And while I can’t say today that I am a good dog trainer, I am certainly much better thanks to the frank words of a fellow trainer a long time ago.

*Individual Listing Privilege. This is a number issued by the AKC to purebred dogs that do not have registration papers. The owner provides pictures of the dog along with a description of why they believe the dog is a purebred. The AKC then decides to agree or decline the application. In 2004, ILP was replaced by PAL- purebred alternative listing which is essentially the same.

1 comment:

  1. I applaud your honesty. It wasn't too long ago that I was in the same state of ignorance :) "I will NEVER put my dog in a cage!!!" I have learned so much since Emma moved in. However, I admit I still have a long way to go.