Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Dog Named Blitz - Chapter Four: "Dog Training, Sir!" Part 1

I apologize to the Blitz fans for my lack of posts in a long time.  Look for a more steady stream from here on in.

For background on this serial, please click here. You can also start at the previous section

Blitz and I headed into the entire dog training business as complete rookies, neither of us knowing how it would all turn out. I read dog training books and was making slow progress. The “sit” butt thump ahead of dinner or breakfast was a good example where progress was evident, and we worked on other things as well.

One of the earliest lessons was introduction of loud noises. This is a critical component for any gun dog training, as fear of loud noises can literally ruin a great retriever. It is a malady that seasoned trainers abhor as it is nearly impossible to train out of the dog that experiences it. And, unfortunately, I had first hand experience with a dog that was fearful of loud noises.

When I was in junior high, my dad brought home a beautiful Irish Setter named Ginger that a moving friend needed to give to a new home. She was a beautiful dog and a fetching fool, but when it came to loud noises she was an absolute psycho. Thunderstorms were the worst, and often we found the dog sitting on the back of the tank of the downstairs toilet, shivering in fear. While a sixty pound dog perched on the back of a toilet tank seems impossible, the feat appeared minor compared to the laundry room incident. My brother and I had returned home to an empty house in the middle of a terrible thundershower, and we knew that Ginger would be out of her mind. We looked for her in her usual spots and even some unusual ones, but could not find the dog. We then performed a top-to-bottom search throughout the house, calling her name and listening for her. Finally, we heard a whimpering coming from the laundry room, but a cursory check showed no Ginger. Our search continued, as did the crying, so we returned to the laundry room as that seemed the source of the sound. On a subsequent trip back, we were shocked to find a red tail sticking out from under the washing machine. Evidently the dog had literally lifted a full size washing machine and got into the limited space between the washer motor and the floor. How she did it is still a mystery. Since dad had plans on making her a hunting dog, her time with us was quite limited. The "surprise" puppy she delivered didn't help things, either.

The goal in introducing the loud noises to a dog is start very slowly, and combine it with something that is pleasurable. Hence, when we started, I’d put Blitz and her full dinner bowl on one side of the yard (it didn't get any more pleasurable for her than that), and with a starting pistol I headed to the other side of the yard and fired off a couple of rounds. Over the course of two weeks I closed the distance between Blitz and me to the point where I was shooting immediately over her head as she gulped down her kibble. Given the "speed record attempt" with which she ate, I’d wager that I could have stood over her on day one – nothing got between that dog and filling up the tank – but the consequences of something going wrong were so high that it wasn’t worth taking the chance.

While I experienced success in this training arena, not all of my efforts were so successful. One hot day I decided to take my pup for her first swimming lesson. I had all of the necessary prerequisites in place: a hot day, a shallow approach, and a confident dog that loved to fetch. We drove to our duck camp and headed down to the landing for the inaugural swimming lesson, and things were absolutely perfect. Blitz was first wary and curious about the water, but as I got ankle-deep she quickly followed me in. There she romped and played; finding out that water was refreshing and really, really fun! I soon took things to a new level, and waded out beyond where she could touch. She responded by whimpering for about a half of a second, but moving toward me and ultimately swimming like a big dog. What a moment! I made up a song about swimming like a big dog, Blitz splashed about, gaining confidence by the minute, and the two of us had ourselves one big wet dog party. I continued to up the ante, and introduced a puppy dummy for her to fetch - first on the land, then in the water where she could touch, then our further where she had to swim. Blitz responded with confidence, gusto, and desire, and I felt like this whole dog training thing was pretty darn easy.

That's when my overconfidence got to me.

I had reached a point where I was tossing the dummy 15-20 yards in the water, and the dog retrieving splendidly. I made the decision to take the dog the entire way, and get her to fetch by jumping off of the dock just like the big dogs do in the long jumping contest. I got Blitz to sit about 5 yards behind me on the dock while I stood at the end. I teased her with the dummy, and tossed it off of the end into the water below. Blitz took off like a shot, got airborne, hit the water, and immediately sank to the bottom of the lake. I instantly hit the deck, reached down and hauled the dog back onto the dock by the scruff of her neck. She was coughing and shivering in fear, and I was kicking the crud out of myself for being so stupid. To that point we had experienced the perfect training session, and I had absolutely ruined it, and potentially turned my dog off to water completely. As it turns out, she did not ultimately fear water, but she was always hesitant to jump into the water from an elevated position like from a dock or a boat. She was that way the remainder of her life.

Beyond sit, swimming, noise introduction and other minor lessons, the only other thing which got a lot of training attention was the "come" command. This is first introduced with the dog on a lead, with the command of "come" given simultaneously with a pulling of the dog toward you via the lead. This training went pretty well, and Blitz graduated to responding to the command without the use of the lead. This afforded her more off-lead liberties out in the yard, but unfortunately, once those liberties were granted, it was clear that her previous behavior had been a ruse. Once in the back yard with bunnies, neighbor kids, squirrels, and copious amounts of grass to eat, responding to the "come" command became completely optional. When in one of her rebellious states she might acknowledge you by looking up, but if that happened she delivered one of two messages. The first was the "play stupid" where she'd give a look that said "Are you talking to me?" The second was much more malevolent, and that one translated to "Screw you, pal - I'm eating some really tasty grass here." Ultimately getting her back into the house once one of these episodes had been invoked was nearly impossible, and her patience with persisting these disobedient episodes was tireless.

Given my training failures and her occasional but total mutiny, it was clear that if this dog was going to get trained, I'd need to enlist some serious help.

To go to the next chapter, click here

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