Monday, March 05, 2012

Training the Trainer

2½ months ago I wrote about our family's acquisition of a new puppy. Our pup is now 4½ months old. Our 10-lb bundle of white fluff has grown to a robust and muscular 31-lb powerhouse. Our research says that this breed can reach 35 lbs. He's well on his way.

Our dog is still quite fond of snuggling, being petted and scratched, etc. But only on his terms. He's got to be in a mellow mood (which is relatively often). He also has his extremely frisky moods. Sometimes (particularly after coming home from a walk) he likes doing what the kids call "the puppy dash." During these episodes he will run at tremendous speed for up to two minutes, making incredibly tight cornering maneuvers (except on tile). Then he will run to his bowl and lap up lots of water.

Having spent plenty on buying and outfitting the pup, I was somewhat dismayed when my wife announced that we'd be spending more money for a six-week puppy training course. I was flabbergasted when I was told that all family members needed to attend the class. But I dutifully went along.

It became clear within the first few minutes of the first class period that the purpose of the course was more to train the puppy's trainers than it was to train the puppy. We did the training during the week at home. By the time we completed the course, I was well convinced of its value. We and our dog had learned some important basic skills that have already made life with our dog far smoother than would otherwise have been the case.

Our pup is a pretty smart critter. He catches on quite easily. We have learned the importance of consistency in handling him. We're far from perfect, but I'm relatively pleased with our progress.

One problem occurred because I had to miss one week of the puppy training class due to another commitment. The other family members brought me up to speed, and I figured that was good enough. But it turned out that I missed out on some critically important instruction that led to weeks of frustration.

The way I understood leash training was that we were all going to work on having the dog walk on our right side. The importance of getting the dog to walk directly to the right of the walker's right leg was emphasized. Since then I have taken our dog on many walks. I implemented my understanding of how this was to work, thinking that walks would become increasingly easy with time.

But Friday afternoon I was frustrated. Rather than getting better, walks seemed to be getting worse. My strong pup was regularly straining at the leash. While I am strong enough to hold him back, the same is not true of our younger children.

So I finally resorted to our society's most significant source of enlightenment—the Internet. (Yes, it is also our society's greatest source of misinformation, lies, and mental filth. Hence the need to develop strong internal filters.)

I read through a variety of pages and watched a few videos about dog walking. They all made it sound and look so easy. Finally it got through my thick skull that I had been keeping the leash looped around the wrong wrist and had been delivering food treats with the wrong hand.

I thought the leash should be around my right wrist when it needed to be around my left wrist. I was to hold the treats in my right hand rather than my left hand. I was also supposed to let the leash drape over my right hand when necessary and I was only to deliver each treat at the outside seam of my right pant leg.

I was also to stop and refuse to move if the dog was about to make the leash taut. I was to reward the dog and begin to walk again as soon as he relaxed the tension on the leash, but he could only get his treat if he got it by the side of my right leg.

In other words, my dog wasn't misbehaving. He simply had a lousy trainer. I had been inadvertently teaching him to strain at the leash and to walk ahead of me.

Some of the websites said that consistently using the correct walking method with even a seasoned dog will produce positive results within days. Consequently I set out on Saturday's walk determined to try the walking techniques I had learned from the Internet the previous evening.

The first block was a little rough. But things improved after that. Yesterday morning I took the dog out again between church duties. It didn't take him long to recognize that pulling at the leash didn't get him where he wanted to go and that treats came only when he was walking in the right spot.

I am looking forward to walking the dog again this evening so that we can continue our progress together. In fact, I am going to insist that the whole family go on a walk this evening so that each can be trained to properly walk the dog. Leash training, like all dog training, works best when everyone in the dog's 'pack' does it the same way.

While humans are far more psychologically complex than dogs, I wonder how often what I perceive to be the misbehavior of my children can simply be chalked up to the fact that I have trained them to respond in such a manner. Maybe being a better 'trainer' can make family life smoother too.

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