Friday, May 29, 2009

Organizing Puppy Training

As I may have mentioned, a couple of months ago my spouse and I pulled a couple of half-Golden (or, since we know almost nothing of their mother, perhaps I should say Goldish rather than Golden) puppies out from under a pile of old fence at our new house. The world has not exactly been beating down our door to adopt them, though there have been a couple of nibbles. There are a lot of homeless dogs out there right now, not to mention homeless people.

Now, of course, the pups are almost four months old. Gone are the days of the growling little monster and the catatonically terrified heap of fuzz. That, in fact, lasted about as long as it took me to dish up a little yogurt. The little tykes are now quite sweet. They are crate trained. They have at least a vague grasp of useful words like Sit, Down, and Let's Go. They've proven themselves to have some talents worth developing. Bruce is a natural for putting his nose down and following a trail. His sister is born to do tricks.

Aside from a few cautious ventures onto well-scrubbed floors and around our biggish yard, though, they haven't been out much. I wanted to keep them close to home until I was fairly sure their vaccines had taken. However, 2-4 months is a lovely time for them to learn all those basic useful words mentioned. Lots of praise, lots of cheese, and lots of chicken have given these little tykes the idea that words can relate to actions. It's a good concept and far easier to build in a puppy than in an adult dog. Wanda is learning "Bump!" too, as she is small enough that she'll never hurt anyone by jumping up on purpose, and having that in her repertoire leaves open the possibility of Hearing Ear or other assistance work. She's a nice size for it and exceedingly smart.

However, the vaccines should be in there by now, doing the job, and it's time to start some real work for them. We'll be going more places soon, learning that there are a lot of people in the world and not all of them smell or look the same. We'll be learning that there are dogs other than the big German Shepherds these two are now used to, and that there's more than one cat in the world. And hopefully along with this we're going to learn that "Sit" still means the same thing even in a crowd. Dogs can be very context-dependant. It's why I don't care for collar-yank training, actually -- if the dog learns that "Sit" means "I'm going to yank up on your collar and shove down on your rear" then he doesn't learn what to do off-leash and out of reach, and his handler doesn't learn how to correct the error in translation, either. Too, a physical correction if the dog has genuinely forgotten (and quick, how well do you remember what you learned in third-grade social studies?) doesn't improve memory. It just makes the handler look unreasonable.

If everything settles in as it should, then when we reach that teenagerish stage when the puppies start wondering "What happens if I don't?" we'll still have communication. That's a big conceptual leap, the idea of disobedience, and in some fields (scent work, for instance) a concept the dog really needs to have. Humans can be really, really wrong about what the nose can and cannot determine. A dog who's sure the world comes to an end if he disobeys can fail to communicate all sorts of things, such as that the drugs really aren't in that locker or that the person really is up that tree, just because the handler is so certain of being right. The teenagerish age is when my dogs learn a whole new set of useful words: Today, All the Way, and What Was That. In order, that means to do it faster, completely, and less creatively.

Did you notice an option not yet mentioned? I do use "No." It's for chewing electrical cables. It's for being about to knock down something very heavy or otherwise dangerous. It's for actually doing something that could be lethal to the dog. If I'm not chanting it constantly, they know this is the Never Ever word. If I say it for getting up from a sit, either they discount the word or I've created unnecessary anxiety. "Phooey" works fine for small mistakes, and who among us is perfect?

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