Queen of the Mulch Pile

April 1, 2007

We have a pretty big back yard, which includes a large area that is fenced off for a mulch pile. The pile was against the far fence, but we recently moved the fence on that side of the yard back another 30′. My husband will be moving the mulch pile to the new corner, so pulled down part of its fencing so he could start taking out the mulch (much of which went to our garden). This project will take several weekends, and so he left the mulch fence down on one side. Yesterday afternoon he finished extending the new fence around the rest of the yard, and it was fun watching Sugar Bear and Déjà Vu explore their new territory.

So this morning I let both of the dogs out and was very amused a bit later to look out the window and see that Déjà had climbed up to the top of the mulch pile and was exploring. As the pile is about 4′ tell, she was up pretty high! I called my kids over to see, and when she noticed us she leapt off of the pile to come charging over. That wasn’t so great for her growing joints, but was rather fun to watch.

I’ve decided to let her have her mulch fun until the entire pile is moved, at which point it will have a nice, secure fence around it again. Of course, if I see her jump off of the top again, we’ll have to secure the pile again sooner. But she’s such a tall girl to begin with, she really is a sight up there – my back yard neighbors even called to comment and make sure she was okay up there. So far Sugar Bear shows no interest in climbing up. I guess at 6 yrs she is getting less adventurous.

As the co-owner and instructor of a dog obedience school for 12 years now, I have helped hundreds (thousands?) of people train their dogs. Some people have been a joy to help while others took a bit more patience, but I have learned something from every owner and every dog. As the trainer of my own dogs, I have had it easy so far. With the exception of a childhood family pet (who was, unfortunately short-lived), I have raised and trained 4 dogs now, and had another for about 6 months who didn’t work out in our home (he was returned to his breeder). The first three I raised were all Rottweilers. The first two were Bear and Teddy (forgive me, please for the cutesy names… but I still love them!). I took both of them through a local obedience school, along with my best friend Susan (and now business partner) and her German Shepherd pup. Back then our instructor taught using what was called a “motivatinal method” and it was indeed kinder than what some other trainers were using at the time… and unfortunately are still using. We knew nothing different, however, and really enjoyed the time training and bonding with our dogs. My male Rottie, Bear, was a very enthusiastic boy. He was also big and strong. I was shown how to effectively use a prong collar to teach him to stay in heel position (or else). We also praised and gave some treats, but force was often used – such as a quick pop on that prong collar – to get the point across to him what I wanted him to do. He would yelp sometimes, then look up at me and eagerly try to figure out what I wanted and we would go on. Bear did eventually earn his Companion Dog title through AKC obedience competition, and seemed to love working with me regardless. Teddy, my Rottie bitch who was 4.5 years younger than Bear, was a much “softer” dog. No prongs for her – the one time I got frustrated and put one on her and gave it a yank to make her stay in heel position was the last time I used one. That sweet girl just laid down in the grass and quit. I will never forget that moment as it was a real eye-opener for me. I thought to myself, “what the hell I am doing?” This was supposed to be fun for us, a way to bond and interact with my dog. She was already well-behaved and obedient enough as a pet – the competition was supposed to be fun. That sunny afternoon I realized that Teddy was no longer having fun. I doubt she ever enjoyed it much at all. We took a break of perhaps 6 months, then I was able to work with her a bit more and finish her CD. We started some training for Open, but at that point I was newly married, starting to have kids, and I lost interest.

Several years passed – Teddy was now about 9 years old. Susan and I were learning about clicker training. We were going to seminars Association of Pet Dog Trainers and even camps. Susan had a new GSD puppy to train – I had really old Bear (he was 13) and Teddy. I decided to try to re-train some behaviors to Teddy using the new (to me) clicker method, using different hand and verbal signals. Would it work for such an old girl? Well, it not only worked, it was amazing. Her previous response to “Heel!” was to slog along at my side. Quite obedient, but not happy. Taught the new way, Teddy was soon dancing along in heel position, eyes on my face and joy in her eyes. I was stunned. The old handsign for down would have her slowly crumple down, hanging her head… it looked like I have beaten her but never had. Taught anew – she plopped instantly to a Sphinx position, head up, shining eyes making contact with mine. I had very mixed feelings during this. Pleasure in understanding why so many trainers were praising this way of teaching dogs behaviors, and guilt at ever having taught her another way. I know that Teddy would have been a different girl if that was all she had known. Instead, her memories included a lot of rough training.. for what.

So, after teaching people to train with clickers for about 3 years, I finally got my own puppy – Sugar Bear. She has never known anything else and is the most amazing dog. I don’t do competition obedience any more, lacking the time and interest. I do hope to do rally someday (still need that time…). Sugar Bear fills her days as a family pet, a demo dog for my obedience school, as a therapy dog for sick kids, and an occasional visitor to schools where she help me teach kids about dog safety. She has quite a repertoire of tricks, favorites being “lick your chops,” getting me a tissue when I sneeze, and finding my son or daughter when they hide (she knows which one to look for by name). She is an absolute joy to have around the house – she never chews anything inappropriate, gets into the trash, or steals a pig ear from the open box of them (she waits for me to give her one). She even plays nicely with our cat. She has loved every person she has ever met.

So… then we decide to get another puppy. This one would belong to my daughter Sara, who will turn 13 next week, and be a companion for Sugar. We want a less powerful dog for her, and ultimately decide upon a Borzoi. Déjà Vu joined our family last summer and has certainly stirred things up! With my help, Sara trained her in the basics, taking her through my school’s beginner course. Housetraining went well – and it was much more fun having someone else be responsible for cleaning up the inevitable accidents! Sara started the pup in our Level 2 course, as well… and then dropped out. As a rowdy teenager, Déjà became much more of a challenge and having the class at 8:00pm on a school night was just too much for Sara. We have continued to work with her at home, of course, and they will be starting Level 2 again in a few months – Sara will have a friend with her own puppy in the class which will make it much more enjoyable for her. The challenges are still there, however. ALL of my previous dogs, and the vast majority with whom I work, are extremely food motivated. That makes the initial training so much easier! Of course, after a behavior is taught we “wean” them off of the constant treats just as we stop needing the clicker. Reinforcements at that point are simply much more variable, including praise, petting, the door being opened, a ball being thrown, and yes, still a goody to eat at times. So anyway, this dog is not nearly as food motivated. In a quiet, familiar place she is happy to learn something new for a treat, but with other dogs around… no way. She will clamp her mouth shut and turn her head away, no matter how amazing the treat! So, I figured with were going to have to work the harder way. If food wasn’t motivation enough, and I knew toys wouldn’t be for her… what was? The answer: playtime with other dogs. It works, but darn – it is so much slower! First off, I have to have someone else’s dog aroubnd as Sugar Bear doesn’t count for this. Today was the first day we really had a chance (i.e. made the arrangements) to have another puppy friend over. This was a friend she had met several times before and who was a graduate of our classes – a beautiful labradoodle named Casey. As I was also hosting a small party for my son, I couldn’t get much training in, but was pleased with what we did. Déjà was able to focus on me and respond to already-known signals for attention, sit, down, stay, etc. She and Casey would both respond, and I gave them each a treat for doing so. This was an improvement on previous efforts! I will have to arrange another puppy play date, however, before I find if I can hold her attention to teach her something new. At the very least, I need her to be able to really focus on me and hold steady – we have entered her in her first dog show at the end of April. Wish us luck!

Well, if anyone has read this far, thank you. I welcome any comments you might have. Although I consider myelf a pretty experienced obedience instructor, I am still learning (and hope I never stop).