I decided last week I would train my dog Mindy to pick up her toys and put them away in the toy basket. She seemed to think this was unfair as she is not the only one to get them out of the basket. Every day, like some kind of spastic flamenco dancer, I have to side step around a plethora of roly-poly treat dispensers, squeaky toss rings, sole-scratching Nyla bones and tattered animals with missing limbs just to make my way out of the bathroom and into the living room. One time, I got locked inside the bathroom because a rubber fetch stick was lodged against the door by it’s unmovable relationship with the wood floor. I hardened my resolve to finally do something about these hazardous conditions before one of the humans in the Hobbit House met their demise via an unfortunate encounter with a Kong.
I consulted my dog training book. The authors of this book don’t actually know my dog, so I felt had to adapt whatever methods divulged in the book to the temperament and cunning of my own pet. I had previously used their training program to bring a modicum of civility to the behavior of my rescue mutt. Inside my house, with all the doors and windows closed, Mindy will give me her full attention when there are treats in my hand. We were able to accomplish most of the basic commands with lots of bribery and cajoling. We played the cute little games in the book’s last chapter for reinforcing the learning. She became accustomed to her crate and standing by the door when she needed to go use the backyard facilities. She obeys commands under the most rigid of circumstances–namely, closing our house up like a tomb in a sort of sensory deprivation situation. Then my husband built a jumping frame such as used for agility training.
We moved our educational efforts to the outside. We have a chain-link fence around our back yard, which is great for thwarting any escape attempts. Not so good for distractions. I started with just walking around while attempting to keep her attention on me. Even with dangling foodie enticements, Mindy was unable to stay with me for long. It was just too exciting out there in the great outdoors. We have dogs on both sides of our home. Maggie, to the east, is a favored friend who often comes over to play. When they are both out in their own yards, the whine fest begins at the fence. On the west side, separated by a driveway is Jasper and company. Mostly Jasper. Mindy does not even give a glance to the other dogs in that yard. Nothing else exists when Jasper is out. It is a classic case of obsession manifesting in maniacal barking for his attention when he’s out or doggedly waiting for him to come out.
We had to plan our jump training for when no other dogs were within sniffing distance. I believe it is an activity Mindy enjoys, then bores of. Much like fetch. I’ve pretty much given up on fetch. She gets very excited when I grab the red ball and toss it out into the yard, resulting in an immediate dash towards that target. Then…nothing. What’s that? Bring it back to you? Hell no, Oh look! Jasper! I need to find the training book for the highly-distractable, immune-to-bribery dog. I still often have to go and get her when I want her to come inside from the backyard.
Back indoors, our only difficulty lies with the behavior of other dog owners. They seem to have a propensity for walking their pooches past our house at all hours of the day. Not only do we know exactly when this is happening, but we can also make predictions about which dog it is that is so rudely passing our house, by the strength and intensity of the ensuing outburst. So far, black dog with white paws elicits the most strenuous of responses. Although, the appearance of Mike from Boston, our mailman, is high up there on the reaction scale. We needed to find a way to get the beast within to calm down. My first attempt resulted in being bitten by a seemingly demonic cur. I made the mistake of grabbing Mindy to pull her away from the glass storm door in the middle of a barking frenzy. I still have the mark on my right calf. I needed to find a solution for breaking her out of the maniacal mad-dog reflex every time some creature (animal or human) moved outside our house.
So, I invented “Chill!” Chill has to come after a series of commands which Mindy already has a pretty good grip on. Off! Sit! Down! Roll over! Chill! It’s the kind of choreography that took a while for her to learn. And I must say, she is most resistant during any attempt to drag her away from that which drives her to pandemonium. I no longer try to touch her when she’s off in mad-dog land. I close the doors and blinds and start with standing over her for the Off command. After she’s rolled over, she must lay her head on the floor and stop barking to achieve the proper chill. She can do it, but staying there is another matter. I am usually tempted to join her on the floor for a quiet 30 second rest in order to keep her mollified. She’s no dummy, she knows that dog she spotted is moving up the street and she will be missing the chance to give a few more snarls of warning. Once she’s down, we keep her there until everyone has gone past sighting distance. Every dog owner in the neighborhood strolls past with their pooch during dinner cooking time. I usually get fed up with the constant distraction and put poor Mindy in her crate to “Chill” until the food is on the table. She’s very attentive to me when the house is closed up and food is on the table.
Given Mindy’s high distractibility and stubbornness, I had to strategize ways in which I might teach her some more useful commands such as picking up her toys. I have seen enough dog acts on America’s Got Talent to know that this trick is entirely possible… in a closed vacuum, with high quality tidbits and a few belly rubs. For me, not her. I needed encouragement. The wisdom imparted by the dog training book was to break it down into simple steps and build on each one until the task is learned. So, I started with teaching Mindy the name of four of her favorite toys. I would say, “Where’s the ball?” And if she went to the ball, I’d give her a treat. She already knew this trick. So I said the name of each of the other toys until she would go sit next to them. It went so well.
Next, once she could identify each toy by sitting next to it, I withheld the treat until I put the toy in the basket. She liked this game so much, when I put the toss ring into the basket, she reached in, grabbed it and tossed it back onto the floor. Then she sat impatiently next to the basket waiting for me to put the toy back in and hand her a treat. Cheeky mongrel. I felt she had pretty much absorbed the rules of the game and was smart enough to keep it going as long as there were yummy crunchy things involved. I packed it up for the day and wondered who was training whom.
Next day, we ran through the same task but instead of just giving her a treat, I made her come to the basket where I put the toy and receive the yummy from inside the basket. I must say my dog learns quickly and is much smarter than the humans who serve her. After a few rounds of that, she understood she had to go to the basket where the toy she had identified had been placed in order to get a treat. Armed with this insight, she began rummaging around in the basket for treats, moving any toys in her way out of the basket to find her reward. How was I to dissuade her from this notion? At that moment I wondered if it was more trouble than it was worth. I’d been picking up toys and putting them in the basket for the last three days and Mindy was having a great time, which is a reward in itself, I guess.
As I looked at the array of chewed up articles, meant to entertain that little rascal, so carelessly strewn on the living room floor, and the rascal herself, head deep in the basket rooting for treats, I realized I had trained my dog to do the exact opposite of what I had intended. When she gave up the basket diving and began nuzzling my hand for more treats, I asked her who was going to pick up this mess. It might take weeks to accomplish our goal…make that MY goal. Mindy’s goals are limited to barking and eating.
I need a plan B. I can get her to identify the toy and pick it up. Getting her to actually put it in the basket seems akin to instructing her to perform complicated mathematic equations. Maybe an accomplice would help. Maybe a professional dog trainer. The problem is that I am the only one who wants to teach the dog this trick. The third inhabitant of the Hobbit House is a habitual toy scatterer himself. How might I train both of them at the same time? As of this writing, the solution to this problem remains enigmatic. But I love a good puzzle, so I will continue working out a more strategic method for clearing the decks and ensuring the health and safety of all who reside within my walls. In the meantime, I pick up doggie toys three times a day and watch episodes of Cesar Milan while I try to absorb some of that dog whispering charm that I may unleash it on my own recalcitrant pet.
I’ll keep you posted,