Appetite for dog training

Of Moose and Men

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2007

There’s an old saying, “If you get to thinking you’re important, try telling someone else’s dog what to do.” I experienced 14 years of daily practical application of that adage with Mrs. Poynor’s dog, Philbert. It wasn’t a simple matter of Philbert not liking me. He would have had to actually acknowledge my existence in order for him not to like me. To Phil, I was a nonentity, unworthy of even passing recognition.

The dog relished displaying his disdain for me whenever Mrs. Poynor would ask me to call him back into the house.

“Phil, here boy!” I would start out with friendly enthusiasm. “C’mon, buddy, c’mon Phil. Come here, Phil ... be a good boy. That’s it, c’mon now. Here, boy, come here. Philly! Come! Garpsnappit you worthless mutt! GET IN HERE!”

The best response I could hope for would be a dismissive glance over his shoulder as he moseyed off in whatever direction his nose took him. At that point, patience at an end, I would charge out the door spewing invectives of the most vile sort. Neighborhood mothers would cover their children’s ears. The retired sailor next door would blush. Slime Beast would slink off for cover. The paint on the trim of the house blistered under the verbal barrage. All the while, the object of my wrath was totally unaffected and nonchalant.

Failing to verbally retrieve the dog, I would endeavor to chase him down. Phil would lead me on a couple of laps around the yard, dodging me deftly, then dash into the house to seek shelter at Mrs. Poynor’s feet.

“Thank you, dear,” she would say. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“He’s sticking his tongue out at me!” I would sputter in strangled rage.

“Don’t be silly. He’s panting, dear.”

Phil was the only dog I’ve ever met that could pant with his mouth closed, with his tongue sticking straight out.

When we got Micro-Watt, it was mutually decided that a puppy obedience school was in order, and that both of us would attend with him. By doing that, in theory, Micro-Watt would behave for both of us. The goal being to eliminate some of the vein-popping aggravation I experienced with his predecessor.

At the first class the instructor explained the technique she employs is referred to as “positive reinforcement.” The idea being the puppy is rewarded with a treat every time it does what it’s supposed to.

My experience in training dogs involves Labradors. In my experience, Labs are so eager to please, little bribery is necessary. I was somewhat skeptical of the “positive reinforcement” upon hearing the explanation, and two things crossed my mind. The first was that after months of feeding our pup a snack every time he did something right, we’d have to change his name to Mega-Watt. We wouldn’t walk him, we’d roll him. The up side to that is that he’d never be able to outrun me. The second was that I was going to get mighty tired of carrying around a pocketful of bacon bits for 14, or so, years.

I kept the first thought to myself, but asked about the second.

“The snacks are only a temporary thing,” the instructor explained, “we will ultimately use a sound to reward good behavior.”

At that, she held up and demonstrated a clicker. You know the kind. It was the kind of noisemaker evil aunts and uncles made sure you got in your Christmas stocking every year. They were intended not so much as a gift for you, the child, but as a means of getting even for some perceived wrong your mother or father had perpetrated upon them in their own childhoods.

“When your puppy does something right,” the instructor continued, passing out the little noisemakers to everyone, “use your clicker, then give him a snack to begin developing the association. Tonight being the first night, we will work on just getting your puppy to remain calm on the leash and look at you. Use their name to get their attention, then click and snack when you get their attention. From there, we will build on puppy coming to you from a distance when called.”

Even though most 3- to 5-month-old puppies have the attention span of a gnat, and being on a leash is tantamount to puppy purgatory, the response to the treat thing was positive. There was a constant staccato of clickers serving as testimony to the effectiveness of gastronomic bribery.

As I stood on the edge of the class, watching Mrs. Poynor take her turn stuffing bacon bits down Micro-Watt’s craw as fast as he could look at her, I listened to the incessant din of clickers. I found myself thinking it was a good thing my father wasn’t there.

We have several more classes before graduation. The plan is, Micro-Watt will not only come to both of us when called, but also sit, stay and walk at heel. We’ll see. My advice to all you readers out there is to buy stock in bacon bits.

A.E. Poynor is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai.

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