Thursday, January 7, 2016

Obedience 101

When Debby, Trooper and I arrived at Unleashed in Evanston last night for Beginning Obedience class, Puppy Kindergarten was still going on. The noise was, um, deafening. Not so much yips and yaps from the pups but the screams from their unhinged owners.

When that was over and the Obedience students arrived, din turned to bedlam. A dozen new dogs barked and growled, leaped and twisted, lunged and plunged, all but dislocating their owners’ shoulders. 

“This is not going to work,” Debby and I told each other in dismay. Even Trooper jerked at his leash and added his voice to the noise. He is a sociable dog and just wanted to join in.

Within five minutes Meghan, the head trainer, had everybody settled down. Two huge and utterly out-of-control dogs had been banished to the penalty box behind the arena until they chose to behave. The rest wriggled and whined at their owners’ feet.

Speaking of which, Trooper, having already had several months of hearing-dog training at Dogs for the Deaf, clearly displayed the best deportment. Before the other dogs had quieted, he sat calmly and gave me his full attention as I did Meghan.

Before long Debby and I realized that this University of Michigan graduate knew her stuff. Soon she had everyone working with their dogs doing “puppy push-ups,” getting the subjects to stand and lie in unison with the treats dangled in front of their noses.

“Say ‘yes!’ in a happy voice every time your dog does a job right,” she said. “Then give a treat.”

That made sense and went along with Trooper’s previous training.

“But don’t give too many treats,” she said. “Only when your dog struggles in a task. The dog has to know it’s a reward for a job well done.”

Guiltily I realized that in the last month I’d overdone the treats, giving them to Trooper willy-nilly as bribes rather than as enticements. I had been treating him lavishly, the way a lobbyist does a congressman.

We learned the “look” command, getting the dogs’ attention by having them meet their owners’ gaze, then the “touch” command, enticing them to sniff treats trapped between two fingers, followed by “sit” and, if they performed as we hid the treats behind our backs, a “yes!” and the final giving of the treat.

“Make your dog work for the treat,” Meghan said.

Soon we’ll be working on what Trooper really needs, heeling properly during our walks and doing his sit-stays for more than thirty seconds. He does behave well in public but chooses to stand rather than lie for several minutes, and stays down only when bored.

Then it was time for Advanced Obedience class. As the Beginners filed out, snuffling and yapping and wiggling and giving each other big goodbyes, the Advanced students stood behind the gate in aloof dignity, like judges watching miscreants led from the dock.

That gave me courage.

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