Highs and lows: Stories from our morning

Deep in clover
Deep in clover, deep in thought.

A few highs and lows from my morning with Pyrrha.

HIGH: Squirrels, the most delightful of temptations

So, we’ve discovered the one thing that gets Pyrrha really, really excited: SQUIRRELS. Birds are mildly exciting, cats are very interesting, but SQUIRRELS, OMG, SQUIRRELS. She just loses her mind for them. I love it, of course, because it’s an opportunity to get to see her act like a normal dog. If she spots a squirrel, our gentle, slow walker TAKES OFF like a rocket (and nearly dislocates my shoulder). She jumps in the air, she lets out these adorable, frustrated barks. I’ve even seen her try and climb a grove of trees to try to get to a squirrel. Of course, she’s never even come close to one, but it is perfectly endearing to watch her try.

HIGH: A fondness for beagle-shaped dogs

This morning on our walk, for the first time, Pyrrha expressed a desire to actually run up and meet a dog on leash! A man was walking his beagle mix past us, and I drew Pyrrha off to the side of the walk to let them pass. Instead of her normal tail-tucking, hackles-raising display, she rushed forward to greet the dog and gave a play bow. No snarling at all! The dogs sniffed and Pyrrha was all happy wags (not slow, threatened wags). As the beagle mix and his human walked off, Pyrrha let out an excited, playful bark, with her tail wagging vigorously, as if to say, “Where are you going? Come back and play with me! I’m not even scared of you!” So, that was encouraging.

I say that she likes “beagle-shaped dogs,” because the few dogs that she hasn’t shown any fear of have been beagles or small hound mixes. (Lucy, the dog she met off leash, was a small hound mix.) Not sure why this is, but it’s a good trend to recognize.

LOW: Training mistakes

I just got my copies of Control Unleashed, by Leslie McDevitt, and On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas. These are two books that I’ve been waiting to read for a long time now and both have been repeatedly recommended to me, as the new guardian of a shy dog. I’ve only read a handful of pages in each, but so far, they’re both great.

After reading the first 20 pages of Control Unleashed last night, I decided it may be good for Pyrrha to learn how to target. Pat Miller recommends teaching them to just touch an open and extended palm with their noses as a first step.

This morning, I pick up the clicker from Pyrrha’s basket and then go cut up a treat into many small pieces. I put the clicker and treats in one hand and call Pyrrha. Big mistake. Why, you ask? Because as soon as she spots the clicker–this strange object–she bolts. Pyrrha is now very susceptible to bribery, probably because of my errors. I tried to pair delicious things with scary events (such as grooming, ear cleaning), like all the books told me to, but Pyrrha gets herself into such a state that she will refuse treats in the moment and try to get away. Now, if I ever approach her with a treat or an object that’s unfamiliar, she immediately assumes I’m trying to bribe her into doing something scary and terrible and runs away. So, that’s problem #1.

Problem #2 is that I still tried to teach her “touch” after she ran away. Clearly, I should have stopped and tried again later. But I was frustrated. And that was problem #3. It was such a simple, non-threatening request! At least it was in my mind. To Pyrrha, the extended palm in her face, even when there were treats nearby, was alarming and too much for her to handle. I should have stopped and walked away. Instead, I tried a few more times, and then finally accepted that she wasn’t going to get it and so I put the treats down and left the room.

I left the house very disheartened this morning, but it was a good reminder that I really have to start at ground zero with this dog. She is not going to learn like a “normal” dog is going to learn and seemingly non-scary things–like extended palms or concealed little plastic objects–will frighten her. I mentioned this to my boss, a fellow crazy dog lady, and she recommended that I maybe try to teach Pyrrha to “look at me” first, instead of targeting a palm; this could be less intimidating to teach.

Anyway. I’m trying not to feel too dejected. She’s harder to train that I expected, and Pat Miller makes it sound so easy in her book! But Pyrrha is not an easy dog. This is the one thing I know.

And so we move back to square one.

Review and discussion of clicker training

Clicker Training for Dogs.

Among crazy dog people like myself, Karen Pryor is a household name. For the unfamiliar, Pryor is largely credited with spurring on the clicker training wave for household pets, especially dogs. Pryor, a respected scientist and researcher, began with a career in marine mammal biology and behavior. As she trained dolphins with clickers, she observed that the positive reinforcement principles behind this method of training would work brilliantly with dogs, cats, and other household animals. Her pioneering work in the positive training field has revolutionized much of dog training philosophy today.

This tiny little book is basically a pamphlet–I think it’s only 50 pages–but it’s a helpful pamphlet nonetheless. It’s the most basic form of a primer to the principles, methods, and steps to clicker training your dog. So, if you know absolutely nothing about clicker training and think you might want to try it yourself, this little booklet would be a good place to start.

I’ve read a more thorough guide to positive training with a clicker in Pat Miller’s The Power of Positive Dog Training, which I highly recommend, but I did want to read at least something by the founder herself. (I hoped I could get my hands on something more substantial, particularly her oft-cited Don’t Shoot the Dog!, but my public library doesn’t carry a copy and I’ve been buying too many books lately… Someday, I’ll get around to reading it!)

Clicker Training for Dogs reinforced my interest in clicker training, but I admit that I have hesitations. I know that it works wonders and that it’s the most efficient method to reinforce a dog’s behavior. But here’s why I hesitate: I’m not sure how reliable I would be with a clicker. I know that precise timing is everything. I also know that I’d need to have a clicker in hand almost constantly.

So, I’d like to open the floor. I’m curious: Are any of you clicker trainers? Do you have any advice for a novice trainer like myself? Is it something that I would need to do with my dog from the beginning? How did you figure out your timing? Do you have to carry a clicker with you everywhere?

Whew. I really want to do it, but I am anxious about my consistency. And, as you can tell, I have loads of questions. If you have any answers, even some generic advice, I’d love to hear it!

Pup links!

The much-maligned Wallis Simpson, aka Duchess of Windsor, with a cairn terrier. Source: bettyswallow.blogspot.com

A lot of interesting and thought-provoking dog-related links around the Web this week…

Pet-Friendly Apartments Are Lucrative. Are you hearing this, landlords of my town?? Listen closely! (The Bark blog)

“Dog People” Are from Pluto and “Cat People” Are from Jupiter? The summary of a very interesting study on the personalities of professed “dog people” and “cat people.” I was surprised at how many more people are self-professed “dog people” than “cat people.” What do you think? Does the study’s results accurately reflect your side? (Dog Spies)

Investigating Canine Research: Are Our Dogs Spying on Us? A fascinating study from Alexandra Horowitz‘s Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College. The study looks at the ways in which are dogs are watching us–reading our facial cues and listening to the tones of our voices–to get what they want. (Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab)

I Am a Clicker Convert. In a simple video, Kristine and Shiva demonstrate why a clicker really works. (Rescued Insanity)

Conflict Regarding Greeting People. I wonder about this, too. Is it better to let a dog get overexcited when meeting people in public? Or should we avoid those meetings altogether? (A Frame of Mind)

Exercises to Keep Dogs Off of Counters and Tables. I’ve always imagined that this would be a rather difficult behavior to fix. Here are some practical and helpful tips on how to address “counter surfing.” (A Frame of Mind)

Preventing Aggression Over Food. Karen London provides a fresh and helpful perspective on how to avoid food aggression. (The Bark blog)

A Canine Stress Dictionary. A list of common signs and symptoms that may indicate that your dog is totally stressed out. (Whole Dog Journal)

Fruits & Veggies, Oh My! A List of Dog-Friendly Foods. A helpful list of the healthy foods that are safe for dogs to eat. A carrot does sound like a great alternative to a fatty, calorie-packed treat. (The Hydrant)

They’re Leaving Home… I don’t think I’ll ever get over the feeling that Aussie puppies are the most adorable creatures on the planet. Deep down, my heart will always belong to this breed. (Inkwell Aussie News)

Yet More Quteness. A precious litter of GSD puppies at a nearby Virginia kennel. So hard to have self-control… (Blackthorn Working GSDs)

New Hounds in Town. A photo essay on the arrival of 10 recently retired greyhounds getting prepped for adoption. (ShutterHounds)

On the Street: Mulberry St., New York. Every outfit looks better with a dog! (The Sartorialist)

There’s A Dog In the House. Add this to my coffee-table-book wish list! (Dog Milk)

Summer Reading: Top Ten Favorite Dog Books. Some of my favorite dog books are on this list, too! A fun and easy guide to great books about dogs. (City Dog/Country Dog)

Up and Over. So funny. Such gleeful effort! Such hilariously tragic results. (Animals Being Di*ks)