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A Lesson in Listening to Your Dog

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This weekend I took Maybelle along with me to visit some friends who live about an hour away. She’s an ideal doggy-house guest. She’s quiet and mellow, and friendly. We even took her along to some very loud boat races, where she was more or less well-behaved, except for the few times she caught a glimpse of other dogs. Then she went into full on “I wanna sniff ’em, I wanna sniff ’em” mode, which results in jumping and barking and twisting and generally going berserk.

I’ve been working with a trainer on this, but so far we’ve just been doing attention getting exercises that seem to be pretty useless in the face of Level 10 nuttiness. On day two of our day at the races, one of my friends — who at this point was practically in love with Maybelle — intervened. I was sitting in a chair and holding her leash. When she started barking he stuck a leg up in front of her face and gave her a (possibly) patented Dog Whisperer “shhhhhttttt.” She was so caught off guard she sat right down and kept a quiet eye on the dog passing by.

This got me thinking: I have no idea how her former owners went about training her but it was pretty clear someone had. She doesn’t rush out of the door in front of me, and knew most of her basic obedience when I brought her home. I figured it was worth trying  training the Dog Whisperer way. So when I headed out on our walk this afternoon, I took my treats but I was determined not to use them as a distraction.

We soon encountered one of our normal obstacles. This is a dog whose fence is right up against our walking path. It barks from a fair distance away, and Maybelle cannot see it. The dog is a low level trigger. She is able to walk by it without too much drama, maybe just a whine and a quickened step. Today was no different.

But then we came to a house where I knew there was a small dog, with an invisible fence. It isn’t usually outside. Today, though, before we could see it, we heard it, barking from its deck. I “shhhttt-ed” Maybelle, and though a new barking dog would usually elicit a reaction, today she walked relatively calmly by. We went for a while after that without seeing much of anything by way of distracting dogs–just a few barking in the distance–so I decided to go the slightly longer way home.

I can usually count on at least a few dogs on that route — some of which are absolutely nuts. Yes, we very quickly found a couple of lab mixes who were barking up a storm and damn near trampling each other. May’s excitement was slightly more elevated when walking by them but nothing compared to how she’d reacted to the dogs at the races (who could not have cared less about her).

We were clearly making progress.

Those dogs were on the opposite side of the street, but then we walked by a home where they appear to be breeding pitbulls (don’t even get me started on that). Mama was outside with a puppy right at the fence, but they were pretty quiet. May saw them, perked up, got a “shhhttt” and then turned back to the sidewalk and kept on walking.

Normally, even if she was able to contain her excitement for one set of dogs, by the next one she’d be ready to explode–even if the next dog was just a disembodied voice coming from inside a house. But not today… today, we made it through a walk without ever using a treat as a distraction or a reward.

I can’t say for sure whether this will work with higher level distractions. We encountered a few squirrels today, which she almost always sees before I do, but “shhhttt” appeared to be powerless against those fuzzy-tailed varmints. I think this is because she almost always sees them before I do and is “off and running” so to speak before I can get a “shhhttt” in edge wise.

Her former owner may have been a Dog Whisperer disciple, or maybe the technique just works well enough to get us through a walk drama-free, but I know one thing: when my dog tells me what works  to make her a calmer, happier dog, I’m going to listen.

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About TheresaMC

Basically, I'm a reader and a writer, just trying to negotiate the changing world of publishing.

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