Saturday, March 29, 2014

Living With Dogs: A Sense of Order

We used to joke that one of the jobs our old German Shepherd Dog, Oka, had taken upon himself,
Oka herding his ball
was to break up any disputes – real or imagined – between the cats. One of our cats tends to bully the others, pushing them out of their favorite sunbathing spots and persisting in playing “wrestle” when they very clearly are not interested. Both are usually accompanied by hisses and yowls and small furred bodies moving very quickly. Oka would immediately place his very considerable (90 lbs) bulk between them. We imagined him saying, “Break it up! Break it up! Move along now…”
Oka, like all dogs, had a very firm notion of what was good, orderly behavior and what was not to be allowed. Dogs are strongly oriented to routine, which is one of the things makes them so trainable. They make very specific associations (leash = walkies; vet’s office = horrible things happening to doggies; “Sit!” spoken in front of the refrigerator = sit in front of the refrigerator and no place else). We monkeys like to interpret this as our dogs having fixed ideas about the Way Things Should Be.
Oka’s Rules (as interpreted by his resident monkeys) included:
  • Cats shall not hiss at one another. Cats have razor blades on their feet and must not be closely approached.
  • Deborah must be accompanied to and from the laundry area in the garage.
  • The sole redeeming value of company is that the Evil Laser Bug comes out to play (therefore, Oka hung out in the living room, patiently watching the carpet for the first sign of the red dot.)
  • The blue horse ball must be herded and barked at (see photo).
  • Bodies of water deeper than a couple of inches are evil.
Tajji and Shakir
DSCN1683Although of the same breed, Tajji has a different temperament and background. She’s only mildly interested in cat sparring and has shown no inclination to interfere. On the other hand, she has very strong opinions on her responsibility to keep an eye on her monkeys at all times. She’s willing to put up with one of us being behind a closed door if she can see the other. We found out very early that if only one of us was at home and if we closed but did not lock a door, for example a bathroom door, she would nose the door open. She can’t manage round door knobs, but she clearly knows how to push with paws and body weight. She will peek into the room and, having ascertained that the monkey within is not in distress, quietly withdraw. This has happened far too often to be an accident. We believe it was part of her training. So her list might read:
  • Monkeys must be monitored for well-being.
  • A monkey behind a closed door must be checked on; a monkey that is unstable (I recently sprained an ankle) is clearly in need of assistance and requires a dog.
  • Any monkey-not-of-family coming to the door must be barked at as loudly as possible.
  • Cats are interesting and play fun games.
  • Bodies of water deeper than a couple of inches must be jumped in with much happy splashing.
In turns out that despite her excellent seeing eye dog training, Tajji lacks many of the skills of a family/companion dog, including the ability to walk calmly past other dogs, whether they are barking furiously from the sanctuary of their own fenced yards or on leashes on their own walks. When she’s excited, she’s not capable of responding to verbal commands or hand signals. She needs our help in learning to calm herself, and we’ve begun the process by building on her foundational clicker training (click = tasty treat, classical conditioning) with a relaxation protocol. This is a series of distraction tasks in which the dog is asked to sit quietly for increasing lengths of time while her monkey does various things: standing there, counting out loud, taking a few steps forward, backward, or sideways, clapping, jogging in place… At first, we practice in a quiet, familiar place, but as we go on, we’ll add distractions. Eventually we’ll enroll her in a “Reactive Rover” class where she’ll have graduated contacts with other dogs while remaining calm and focused on her monkeys. That should give us the basis for working with her on our neighborhood walks.

(One of the very cool things about these two pictures is you can see how similar in appearance the two dogs are. Oka was a large GSD at 90 lbs, and Tajji is about 65-70, but despite all their similarities, they are very different fur-people.)

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