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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Who's the boss?

Indian summer sun pulled K and me out the door like a gravitational field this morning. The warm air brushed my face, with nary a hint of the cold bite of winter. Just two weeks ago, I lamented that the season of dirt trails might have closed until next spring, after more than 3' of snow swamped them. But, the warm air has melted the snow and dried the dirt so that many trails are in perfect condition. All in all, today was a day to be seized. A day to enjoy with my chocolate best friend.
I spotted an airplane flying over the mountains, and I remembered the first time that I saw the Rocky Mountains from a plane. I was utterly enthralled. Then, on my first drive through Colorado, I declared that I had to live in the Colorado mountains. My dream has come true!
K was bursting with high energy, like yesterday, but much more controlled. We mellowly rolled through the forest and pushed through some snow drifts. We stopped in the sun to feel its soft touch on our faces.
As we negotiated a snowy section of trail, K started getting too far ahead because slogging through oatmeal-like mush is a slow proposition on a mountain bike. I asked her to 'sit' about 20 yards ahead of me so that I could catch up.
One of the skills that I insist on with my off-leash dogs is a distant 'sit' or 'down'. Actually, prior to K, I always used a distant down, meaning that my dog needed to drop into a down where ever she was when I told her to. However, to my surprise, it wasn't easy to teach K to do this skill - she'd hear the cue, stop and look around, and act nervous but never actually drop into a down. I'd walk over to her to insist that she do a down, and then she would.

After months of making little progress, I started to wonder if K was nervous about dropping into a down in the forest. Her glances into the forest and shifting eyes seemed to suggest that fear was the problem. So, I decided to change my tradition for K and work on a distant 'sit'. Oh, what a difference! Very rapidly, she mastered a fast sit in a variety of situations. Now, we sometimes even use a distant 'stand', as she did for this zoomed-in photo.
Who's the boss? Well, in this case, you could say that K and I collaborated to figure out a behavior that would serve my purpose of holding her in one spot while not putting her into a scary position. Our compromise is that she sits or stands at a distance but I don't insist on a distant down because it scares her.

Today, as I watched K in her distant sit, waiting for her slow-poke human, I started thinking about R, and how he's started collaborating with me to find happy compromises. The most recent example involved him going into his crate. Usually, I get a frozen kong from the freezer, and R scampers into his crate, whimpering with excitement, to receive his kong.

However, one day recently, R ran to the crate entrance and skidded to a halt without entering. He looked into the crate and looked at me. As I stood there confused, he repeated that gesture, pointedly looking into the crate and then looking expectantly at me. After a couple of repeats of his gesture, it dawned on me that something might be awry in the crate. When I looked in, the only potential deterrent that I saw was a very messed up bed, twisted and clumped. It wouldn't be comfortable for R to lie on it in that configuration. So, I fixed it up, and R leaped into his crate with his usual pizzazz. In the photo below taken at the end of my bike ride today, R has mussed up his bed, yet again...
Now, R always stops and checks the bed in the crate before entering. If he doesn't leap in, I know my job. He communicated what he wanted in one training session and now I respond to his cue every time!

So, tell me, who's the boss here?

My original dog training guru, who I knew a very long time ago, would have obstinately disapproved of the notion that I'm not always the unassailable boss. He learned to be a dog trainer when he served his time in the Israeli army, as a trainer of military dogs. As you can imagine, in that setting, there's only one boss - the soldier. He brought that view of the human-canine relationship to his dog training practice in the US.

But, I've learned that two-way communication is part of what makes dog relationships so rich. By the time my dogs become elderly, almost every daily routine has morphed into a compromise of how I want to do it and how my dog wants to do it. We find a happy middle ground over many years of living together.

I remember when K was a tiny puppy, having arrived in my life about 6 months after the death of my beloved Acadia. As I struggled to adapt to a completely naive puppy, I wished for that easy-going partnership that comes with years spent together. I expressed that longing to my trainer, Gigi, as I held the cute K in my arms. She contemplated each of us and then reassured me that K and I would develop that type of relationship. But, she said, it would take time and lots of love. How right she was.


  1. I'm glad you take turns!

    Khyra lets me be the boss sometimes as well!

  2. You've said a mouthful! Being the boss all the time is no fun and things always seem to go wrong. Your sit at a distance sounds like a great compromise. It's so refreshing to read about people on here, like you, who actually listen to their dogs and ascertain their limitations from them.

  3. That's one awesome relationship you have with each of your dogs - so much for us to learn from your words.

    woos, the OP Pack

  4. Lilly and I are still working on our distance STOP body position. I can totally see why K thought the down wasn't such a hot idea.

    Personally, I think it is not only fine but preferred that a person and a dog find a negotiated reality. As long as her choice honors the intent of your request, I say it's perfect.

    I would NOT have expected R to be such a Nancy Boy about his bedding. We call fussiness like that being the Princess and the Pea. Very cute.

    All of you will have to be my friends for a LONG time to see what happens in the future with me and dogs. Since Lilly is the first dog that I have this uber profound connection to, I'm not sure what I'll do or how I will feel with any other pups ... down the road.

    P.S. Love that shot of a baby K with her toy. She is so pretty.

  5. Chuckling - I am just happy to get to make a decision every now and then.

    Seriously, a balance is important. I have absolutes that the dogs must obey, but those are more around courtesy and safety. Everyday things are more about achieving a balance that keeps us all happy.

    Fun thing about Sibes is that even when they obey, they tend to mutter under their breath about the unfairness of it all. Sort of like teenagers without the college fund.

  6. While Stella doesn't have much training, she has an internal clock that is A-1. Breakfast is at 7 am, supper is at 5 pm (both precisely, set your watch by them).
    We go in the livingroom to watch the news at 5:30, Eggsackly! She usually barks when someone is at the door, but daily the mailman visits at 9:15 so no barks needed.

    I think your compromise is splendid, and while some would insist on R. getting over his fear, I say let him be comfy in his sit.

    Stella and Mom

  7. I think the sit stay is a good compromise. I'm ecstatic with any kind of stop I can get out of Java's progression. Actually, all I can currently get is a stop, a glance over the shoulder, and a slowed meandering forward out of her. We're working on it.

  8. Hi ya! Again a GREAT ride with a fantastic best friend! Love the sit at a distance....I'm working on those too...but at a much shorter distance, and when my hooman looks really urgent! Work in progress.... as always.

    Hugs and snaggle-tooth kisses,
    Sierra Rose

  9. K is a very beautiful dog, sitting is hard - apart from when theres food involved - for any lab!

  10. I teach all my dogs a "moving wait" - I don't care if they sit or stand or down, they just need to stop where they are and stay in that spot until they are released.

    And I love R - I think the most fun thing about dogs is developing a mutually understood "language". I love that it goes two ways - I want my dogs to be able to tell me what they need.

  11. How often have I wished a pup was mature and then in a moment - I turned around and noticed that my pup now had a white muzzle.

    Much love to you and those furry friends of yours...


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