Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Doggie School

September 2010, Santa Cruz, CA
I recently received the unutterably sad news that my mom's dog Sam has cancer, and is not long for this world.  Sam is a very special dog who came in to my life at a time when I really needed some unconditional adoration, which he provided in spades.  He has been my mother's companion since 1999, faithfully following her from room to room throughout the day, bringing his toys to her when he senses she is low, and barking his fool head off at pretty much everything.

I know all too very well that Death is a part of Life. But no matter how old I get, I will never understand the whole notion, I will never be OK with Absence after such loving Presence. In tribute to a Very Good Dog, here is an essay I wrote shortly after we acquired Sam, an adult adoptee from the SPCA:

Doggie School

I hate dogs that jump on people; I hate it when dogs drag their owners behind them on walks. I guess you could say that I really don’t like dogs that don’t exhibit people-like behavior.  After all, if I had a best friend that jumped on me and licked my face all the time, I’m not sure how long that friendship would last.  Some years ago while I was living in Santa Cruz, CA with my mom, we got a dog (ostensibly for my mom), and all of our dog-owner issues had to come out in the open and be dealt with.  To do so, we signed up for a series of classes in positive reinforcement dog training.  I went to the training with our new dog, an SPCA adult adoptee named Sam, as the handler, and my mom came along as a witness.  We learned, Sam and me and my mom, some very important lessons about life.  These are lessons that we manage to remember about 75% of the time.

Sam came to us with issues.  Sam is a blond dog, with yellow eyes lined with what appears to be dark kohl.  Sammie always has his make-up on, just like some of the guys who work at CafĂ© Pergolese near downtown.  The vet told us that Sam is a mixed breed, part Golden Retriever and part Border Collie, and therein lie the roots of his doggie issues.  A Border Collie is especially bred to have obsessive-compulsive and controlling tendencies; a Golden Retriever is bred to look good while retrieving things.  Imagine the above characteristics coupled with a loving, exuberantly affectionate personality, and you are imagining Sam.  I am not a particularly doggie person, having, in my adult years, switched to cats for my pet needs; Sam, however, has charmed me, wooed me and wholeheartedly wedged himself into my heart.  As I’ve said before, Sam has issues though – as do I -- so for guidance in resolving them, we turned to a trained professional.

At the time, Pat Miller owned and operated Peaceable Paws, a training program in Santa Cruz County that used positive reinforcement to train dogs rather than trying to break the dog’s spirit with force or violence.  We learned about Pat through the Santa Cruz SPCA when we adopted Sam.  He was picked up in Bonny Doon, and had been at the SPCA for just hours when we saw him first; he came home with us two weeks later, and started Doggie School shortly thereafter.

In very short order, we learned that our experience with an adult adoptee from the SPCA is not unique; many people adopting adult pets experience moderate to severe cases of adjustment trauma.  I liken adopting an adult dog from the SPCA to adopting a troubled and excitable adolescent-- you know they need something, and a lot of it, you just don’t know what it is.  Just as when adopting a child, when you adopt an adult animal – or any animal, for that matter -- you must have a firm commitment to sticking it out through the adjustment period.
At our first class -- the one we were asked to attend without our dogs -- we learned about Peaceable Paws training philosophy.  Pat explained that her method isn’t about having the best-trained dog in the class; rather, it is to be happy with our own dog’s progress – radically different outcomes, and understanding the difference is one of the keys to Pat’s method.  Her philosophy toward training became my creed to live by for the next six weeks, both in relationship to Sam and in relationship to the rest of my life.  I liked the idea of not measuring our evolution by that of others – as they say in twelve step programs, we shouldn’t judge our insides by somebody else’s outsides -- I liked the idea of just being pleased with my – and Sam’s -- progress.  Gee…maybe there is something to this positive reinforcement, after all!

At our first class together, Sam and I were positioned inside the training ring near one of several gates.  The dogs that bark the most are always given these positions; this made it easy for me to remove Sam from the scene when the excitement proved too much for him.  Let me just say that Sammie and I spent more time outside the gate than inside it during that first class.  My mom’s job was to stay inside the gate and take notes on what Pat was saying, since I couldn’t hear her voice over all the barking.

As class progressed, I could feel myself growing envious of the other dog owners – their dogs all seemed to do so much better than Sam did.  There was Duke, a gigantic German Shepherd puppy, who lolled on his back and napped through most classes; little Daisy, a sweetly demure female Boxer puppy whose snaky little tail stayed curled under her for the first couple of weeks; the little polka dot Dalmatian mix who bellied up and peed on herself every time another dog approached.   I kept reminding myself of Pat’s class creed – and tried to be happy with Sam’s progress.  He hadn’t, after all, killed another dog in his frenzy on the end of his rope; he’d just bucked like a bronco, and gnashed his teeth.

During that first class, we learned some of the reasons we were struggling with Sam.  Sam, because he is a special dog, has not one main problem, but two.  First, he is what is called ‘leash aggressive’ and second, he is a ‘dominant dog.’  A leash aggressive dog is one that is only truly aggressive (snarling, lunging, barking, and yanking) toward other dogs if s/he has a leash on.  Being a dominant dog is being – or trying to be -- the Alpha male in any gathering.  This means that Sam is prone to snarling and growling at other dogs in order to assert his dominance.  These features, combined with his aforementioned obsessive-compulsive tendencies, make for a Very Challenging Beast.  

At the end of class, one of our fellow students, attending with his wife and another gigantic puppy (this one a Bull Mastiff, still recovering from the surgical removal of rocks he’d eaten), approached.   He told me he thought I’d done a great job of hanging in there from outside the gate – he said that he would have left if his dog had acted like Sam.  It was a little embarrassing – I was, after all, being complimented for dealing so well with such a bad dog.  Backhanded or not, it was a compliment I grabbed with both hands – I’m not proud.  Besides, if my fellow student was happy with our progress, why shouldn’t I be?
We all left the training ring with homework for our pets, and Pat telling us that she would know how much we’d worked with them immediately upon seeing us the next week.  I dutifully went through the required homework assignments with Sam, although spending far less than the amount of time recommended in the training manual given to us.  I did, however, make a real effort to work with him for at least 20 minutes every day.  Even after working only that much, Sam showed real improvement in just one week.  In fact, Sam was so improved by the next class that several people remarked on it; they commended me for the huge amount of work I must have done with him in order to achieve these near-miraculous results.  I finally had to admit it: it wasn’t me.  Like the rest of us here in California, it’s the cheese.
You see, besides learning to be happy with my own progress and not trying to be the best-trained dog in the class, the other key to understanding Peaceable Paws is finding out which treat Sam liked best.   You need to know which treat your dog prefers because you will be giving a little tiny piece of it to him every time he does the thing you’ve asked him to do.  If you want him to do the right thing, you must discover which thing he will do it for.   

Pat suggested Rollover (a compressed tube of dog food wrapped up to look like salami), or bologna or hot dogs as possibilities; what we chose wasn’t important, what mattered was that we figure out how to give Sam whatever he needs to stay attentive.  Sam really, really likes cheese.  Cheddar cheese.  In fact, you might even say that Sam is a Cheeseophile*.  He will do pretty much anything you ask him to do for a piece of cheese.  Is that bribery?  You bet! Isn't bribery cheating?  You bet!  If your dog does what you want your dog to do, who cares?
We finished the entire six weeks of class and Sam even managed to graduate with honors in two categories, the first being the ‘Off’ category, (where the dog is asked to ignore something really tempting) and secondly, the ‘Touch’ category, where the dog touches what you ask him to touch when you ask him to touch it.  In spite of his wonderful showing during graduation exams, Sam is not yet perfect.  He obeys verbal commands much of the time now, which is a vast improvement from before he went to school.  Before he went to school, he would run away from me in public, and glance over his shoulder and shrug as he sped off, with a look on his face that begged the question, ‘who is that crazy lady and why is she yelling at me?’  He has learned hand signals for simple commands, like down or stay; he has learned the difference between ‘ball’ and ‘squeaky bone,’ learning to touch ball with his nose when you say ‘ball’ and to touch his squeaky bone when you say ‘bone.’   

He still chases the cat and barks a little too much; he goes ballistic if a skateboarder whips past us on our walk – skate boarders who have been known to accuse me of training him to do that on purpose.  But Sam sits when we say sit, he stays when we say stay; he lays downs when we say down.  He only jumps on some people now, not all, and he doesn’t drag my mom behind him on their walks – Mom has learned to walk a little faster, Sam has learned to walk a little more slowly.  None of us is the best-trained dog in the class, but we are happy with our progress.  All three of us learned some important lessons about life, and we remember them.  About 75% of the time.

If you break down "cheeseophile," you have "cheese" and "phile," and as we all know "phile" is merely a fancy-boy way of saying "lover of," or "enthusiast."