Saturday, January 4, 2014

Going to the Dogs

My dog adventures are great fun, full of new experiences, lots of food for thought, and making me let go of concepts and preconceived notions I didn't even know I had.

Brockle continues to amaze me with his terrifying intelligence, deep devotion, determination to guard me from all of my woes, and his high, high energy. He is also about twenty kinds of butt-head.

A classic example is happening right now. He wants the dog bed next to my chair. It's currently occupied by my daughter's 10-month-old Swiss Mountain Dog. He is not allowed to bully or harass the other dogs in the house. So, he's sitting on her head. He will keep this up, backing his hairy butt onto her and the bed, until she moves.

Another favorite is how he gets me away from the computer and out back to play or to feed the pack. I won't acknowledge the dogs if they bug me. They don't get fed, let out, nothing, unless they are being quiet. It works well enough, but, being the space-cadet I am, I've been known to lose track of the time and forget them.  When Brockle has had enough, he wakes up Snocone. Snocone is our vague, sweet, Mill Dog. She is a Maltese, a whopping six pounds of gentle fluffy kindness. She also has to pee the second she wakes up. Life jammed in a cat carrier having litter after litter of puppies didn't do much for her bladder control. Brockle knows I will pick her up and take her outside as soon as she gets up. Once I'm up and out, he also knows I'll feed them or play with them. A quiet nose poke in Snocone's belly gets him exactly what he wants.
The rotter.

HMT (Heavy Metal Trainer) continues to help me on the road to getting and keeping control of my boy. His enthusiasm and confidence in who we can become buoys me up when I doubt my ability, and his feel and timing while handling a dog just lights me up. I want the same feel with a dog that I have with a horse, watching HMT and his equally talented wife work a dog, well, it's got me all fired up.

When I decided I needed professional help with Brockle I knew I wanted to explore Positive Reinforcement Training, and I also held firmly to my belief that dogs needed firm boundaries. HMT turned out to be exactly the right combination.

It took me a little to get on board. I was (am still) very quiet with my dogs. I'll give them a squinty eyed smile when they're good and an ear scratch. I had never used treats, because my dog training experience came from my Dad, a solid hunting dog trainer, who doesn't want his dogs to equate doing their job (retrieving dead ducks) with eating. I always followed his logic, just because that's how we did it.

Enter HMT.

"Hi Brockle!" He bellows, and the treats begin to flow."What a good dog! What a great dog! How are you today?"

Brockle adores him.

HMT wants dogs to feel life with their handler is the best party on the planet. He keeps things short, to the point, and each step forward is met with wild enthusiasm and plenty of goodies.

He immediately took me to task for my miserly approach to rewards.

"I want to see big smiles, total body petting and up the volume on that praise. Quit being so stingy with those treats!"

My face almost cracked with all that smiling.

He is just as clear with correction. HMT  is comfortable using a prong or e-collar, when used correctly and  if it's necessary. A dog needs to understand he has to obey. It's how we keep them safe. The key is to be fair with a correction. It needs to be to the point, brief, and correctly timed.

Brockle's dog aggression was nipped quickly and efficiently by making him understand "Leave it!" means just that. Right now, this very second, he needs to stop what he's doing and come to me. Period. After all, I'm where the party is.
It took some time in the prong collar to make Brockle understand the importance of the "Leave It" command
and again for "Off!" Not nagging at him, not picking, not engaging the collar at all until he was one step into ignoring me. Then the repercussions were swift, followed by an immediate, "Good leave it!" and another shower of treats.

He wasn't traumatized, he has never tucked his tail, cringed or tried to bolt when he's been corrected. He did pitch a few screaming temper tantrums, looking straight into my eyes, jumping up and down, careful not to hit the end of the leash, yet telling me exactly how he felt about me and that freaking collar. However, he has begun to listen. The eternal treat shower has eased, instead, he works like a maniac for the bounce of a tennis ball. I save treats for learning new maneuvers. It's awesome. Brockle isn't perfect. We still have set backs. But he hasn't needed a prong induced correction in months and he's making huge leaps forward in obedience and protection work, both on and off leash.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how their doggy minds work. I have read quite a few books on speaking "dog," reading their body language and cleaning up our communication by seeing things from the dog's point of view.

It has helped me enormously, and given me a background reference to draw from while I study my own pack at home and the dogs at our weekly Schutzhund practice (oh yeah, we're that cool). I watch the dance of submission and dominance between them, and as long as there is no violence, they can have at it.

I dance the same dance with Brockle. He is a great big bossy pants. My ever faithful, ever aggrieved rat terrier, Charlie, tried to warn me. He likes to point it out periodically. Because of my reading, watching, listening and thinking, I understand Brockle's habit of draping his head over my chest when I'm lying down, then, when I raise my hand to pet him, curling his giant wonking alligator head over my arm and crushing it against him is not a "hug" but a statement over who's in charge. But it isn't a constant with us.

When I'm stressed he guards me against everything. He lays on the floor, in front of my couch or chair, lengthwise, facing out, his back touching my feet or the chair.
He stands the same way, just touching my knees, when people approach, or other dogs go by, if I'm really having a bad day he will attempt to body block the stove, the sinkful of dishes...

I was told (NOT by HMT), he was being too dominant. He was essentially hoarding me. Except, when I'm in a better place, he isn't the same. He's relaxed, teasing, begging to play. I think Brockle understands my need for personal space.

When I met Brockle at our local pound, he convinced me we needed each other with his direct gaze -- head up, straight into my eyes, without flinching, or looking away. He made this contact with me after I finally convinced the volunteer to quit showing me how he would sit, lay down and shake, over and over again. I sat back, without trying to touch or talk to him, just to watch and see who he was. He was friendly and calm, greeted both Kidlette and I with more nose action than I like, but amiable enough. A few nervous laps around the room and he came over to me. Zap! We made that slightly unnerving, deep eye contact and he didn't let go. He sat down, still staring deep into my black heart, and wagged his tail slowly from side to side. After a few hours of this (OK, probably 30 seconds) he lay down at my feet, and that was that. No more volunteer, no more Kidlette, just me.

From my reading, and a drive evaluation we did on him, this behavior is typical of a highly dominant dog. He was demanding I get him the hell out of there. He claimed me when he lay at my feet. He wasn't trying to talk to me, he was telling me how things were going to be. If I go by the book, he is the dog the pet coordinator tried to warn me off of. He really was the couch eating, twice returned, Camp Bow Wow failure they tried to save me from.

Here's the thing. Some of this information rings true. Within our pack, Brockle wants to run the show. He does not respond to direction coming from anyone but me. His focus on me is so strong, HMT has found it quicker to teach me to teach him. Normally he would demonstrate a new behavior with the dog, then turn him over. Brockle really likes HMT, he thinks he's the bees knees, but he becomes anxious, continually checking back with me and trying to meet my gaze, when he's working with him. He never shifts his focus.

BUT. He will obey other people once he understands it's what I want. He loooovvvveees obedience work. He understands I don't want him to crowd people who come in our door, and doesn't, unlike the other miscreants in our house, who need to be reminded again and again. He doesn't chase or bother geese, goats, cattle, horses or chickens, because I told him not to. He doesn't trip, crowd or rush past me. The same goes for my husband, but not Kidlette. Kidlette is steady on her feet, he treats her like a sibling.

Brockle wants, very much, to not only make me happy, but to help me. He leans into me and braces to help me out of my chair or off the floor. He guides me up and down stairs, always ready to help me balance. He intuits my moods to the point of not eating when I'm sad, teasing me into a walk when I'm grumpy and laying perfectly still for hours on the days when I have nothing left. This is not a dog who is trying to tell me what to do.

I don't think we give dogs enough credit. I think they understand us so much more than the dog psychology books say. They have spent the last 32,000 years reading us, figuring us out and trying to make us happy. I'm guessing they get us way beyond us getting them. You can't convince me they don't understand our hugs are affection, not an attempt to be the "big dog." Why else would they so eagerly crowd into our embrace? They accept our weird quirks, and don't care if we won't smell their butts or lick their teeth. They love us anyway.

I also wonder if they laugh at our crude attempts to speak "dog." I bet we're shouting, or have huge speech impediments, or both. We probably just crack them up.


MichelleL said... do have a "type" don't you? Dog, horse, wombat, what have you, scratch the surface and they are very similar. I think you draw these strong personalities to you like the proverbial moth to the flame. My theory is because you can be just as strong and it gives them the balance they are craving.

Another great post. Thank you.

mugwump said...

MichelleL - Um... yes...I've been told Brockle is Sonita. When my mother met Sonita (she's a total non-horse person) she said, "Why Janet, she's a girl Mort."

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

"I don't think we give dogs enough credit." Heck yeah, but make that animals in general. If only I had the reserves of patience that my critters show me. If only...

This post reminds me of the dolphins' parting line in Hitchhiker's Guide - "So long, and thanks for all the fish!"

LadyFarrier said...

"Underestimate" is the understatement of the year :) So far!

I had a Heeler who could analyze the situation and find the loop hole every time. Every time. She even knew colors and if you didn't specify all the colors of blankets, she'd dig one out that you hadn't mentioned. Brockle sounds like one of those.

Austen Gage said...

This post struck a chord with me, as Brockle reminds me of my own Big Black Dog (Siberian husky/shepherd mix). My dog chose me at the pound (my husband said "We can't take that home! That's a wolf!"), and has been distinctly mine ever since. He is dominant, willful and protective. But, he is also unfailingly polite, outrageously smart, hilarious, and incredibly tuned into my moods and needs. His dedication to me is stunning. While perfectly accepting of others petting, feeding, walking or even watching him for extended periods, I find I must constantly remind people that he will never act like he is fully comfortable with them, or reliably listen to their commands.

My partnership with this dog is almost terrifying at times, but it's a gift I am constantly grateful to have been given. He has taught me more than any other animal about training and loyalty. Plus, he's downright gorgeous. :)

Thanks for writing so much about dog training and the dog mind. I really love all of it.

Because everyone likes photos:

Peanut said...

What a fascinating post. It surprised me at first that Brockle would protect you from anything that might cause stress, but it makes total sense.

I have been dogless for a couple of years since both of my old dogs passed away. It is not a permanent condition, and I would love to know which (if any) books about dog training you like the most?

I think that I had a 'Brockle' as a teenager, but I was too unaware and ignorant to realize what was under the surface - I loved him.

mugwump said...

peanut - it surprised me too...

austen gage - beautiful dog!

Robin said...

Wow, does that picture of Brockle ever scream "Belgian Shepherd" to me. The coat color is all wrong and the tail set is a little high, but the head/face esp. make me thing he has Belgian in him. And the intelligiance and energy levels you talk about. he is beautiful.

mugwump said...

Thanks Robin - The current theory is one of the Belgian Shepherd types and Borzoi. Not as crazy a mix as one might think, there is a rising population of do -it - yourselfers trying to breed sport dogs around here. Which of course means some interesting mixes have been showing up at shelters and rescues. I love him to death, but I'm not sure creating a dog that likes to fight and bite, and runs faster than my horses, was a good idea.

Whywudyabreedit said...

Wow, great post! I have been away for a while. It is awesome to hear of all of your progress with Brockle. He sounds like an amazing handfull of a dog. Your assessment of his "handling" of you sounds right on to me.

Sounds like he pegged you from the start;

Brockle: I get you, and I can help you. Now I need you to get me the hell out of here! If you do I'll meet you half way =)

...well something like that =)

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