Monday, March 25, 2013

Talking With Dogs

As I am moving back into my role as teacher, not only through the upcoming Tricks class at Borderhauss Kennels but as a certified CATCH trainer mentor, I'm realizing how much nonverbal actions and consequences go into my daily routines.  My thoughts are constantly on reinforcing behaviors that I like, eliminating ones I don't like.  There are very few random treats I give my dogs.  I am in the mode of thinking that no cookie goes wasted.  I am, in essence, a training machine.

Til and Ms. Rip hanging out at Cindy's house.
While this might seem kind of sad, it puts communication on a whole new level.  I have had to reassess this, too, because now that I have my first border collie, I realize that I haven't made full use of the wonderful cognitive skills in dogs.  I no longer use the grunts and broken English reminiscent of an old Tarzan movie.  I use full sentences.  "Til, Nikita stole your toy and hid it in her cage.  You can find it in there.  Go get it out and bring it to me."

And he does.

I am talking to the border collie much more than I have to others, and the overflow extends to other dogs around him.

A few weeks ago, in house sitting for my friend Cindy while she was away, and caring for her two dogs, I was back to Square One.  The dogs, a Labrador named Nikita and a spaniel mix named Maggie, are both "amateurs" when it comes to the ever evolving "Bailey Method".  Nikita especially is completely clueless.  She is a big, tan, smiling, good-natured oaf, awkward and pushy in her affections.

I hold up a cookie.  "Sit," I tell her.  I KNOW she knows this cue.  She just stands there grinning, ears flattened, whipping her tail back and forth.

At this point, I have another revelation that with rescue dogs, and dogs who have been randomly reinforced, it is better not to talk.  Their lives are filled with meaningless noise.  They tune it out.  So I revert back to my old nonverbal ways and simply hold the cookie back over her head.  She sits. I toss the cookie and she clumsily snaps at it.

With Nikita I would be back to Tarzan Talk for a little while, using the barest of verbiage, while she begins to grasp all over again that language really does have meaning, and to listen intently for more complex instructions.  As she got to know me, she would eventually start to pay more attention.

Perhaps even more importantly, I would have to learn how to listen to her.

Dogs have a more difficult time, I think, when they are trying to tell us what's going on.  They are usually limited to body language and it comes out in something akin to a game of charades.  "Timmy fell down the well?" is a joke -- sort of.

I just finished a stint at the Reading Pet Expo in Pennsylvania, where Til and I performed our freestyle frisbee routine.  Luckily for me, Til is very adept at catching, which compensates for my lame throwing abilities. Add to this the fact that our routine is usually performed amidst the agility course, with the equipment providing a number of obstacles. During one of our shows yesterday, the frisbee fell down inside one of the hollow jump columns, which is about waist high and barrel shaped.  The audience erupted into laughter, but because I had pitched it from behind the high jump, I couldn't see where it had landed.  When I looked around the high jump, I saw Til running tight circles around the column -- clearly indicating where it was.

I don't think I could do that again if I tried!

Yesterday morning, while I was sitting on the hotel bed putting my shoes on, little Estephar the Chihuahua decided to attack me.  We were running late for the show, but I started wrestling with her anyway.  Til came over, picked up one of my shoes, and plopped it into my lap.

That time, again, the message was unmistakable.

As my friend Susan said, "At least there is one mature and responsible member in this family."

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