Happy First Birthday, Greatest Little Teacher

Life with my dogs

Happy First Birthday, Greatest Little Teacher

Today my little puppy turns 1. 1? One year? Twelve months? No way. Of my three dogs he is by far the one who is still the most puppy at his first birthday. Fusion was still a puppy in terms of wildness and (uhm) being uncontrollable at times, while being a hard worker and incredibly coordinated and physically capable. I’m not sure if Kix ever was a real puppy, the only puppy qualities she had were needing to pee every 10 minutes and destroying everything inside my house. She always trained, moved and thought like a grown-up dog.

Party however – he may be my eternal puppy. He is every bit as unreasonably happy, strangely clumsy and inconceivably cute as a three month old dog. When we clicker-train he still places his feet with the same slow deliberation and deep thoughtfulness as a puppy in his first couple sessions. He gets incredibly excited whenever he sees me (while the Border Collies barely get up from the couch when I enter the house) and he has kept his number one puppy habit to this day: Waving. It was one of the first tricks I taught him and he quickly learned that he could get anything with a well-timed wave. See someone with dog treats? Sit in front of them and wave. Want to have that ball in Steffi’s hand? Wave. Jealous of Kix’s bone? Wave. (Yes, he actually waved at other dogs for a while. Unfortunately this was never successful, so he stopped that after a bit.)

He still makes the sounds very young puppies make during sleeping: an adorable combination of sighs, groans and whimpers. There are few things as cute as waking up in the middle of the night and having a fluffy ball next to your pillow that makes puppy sleeping sounds.

As with every dog, he has taught me so much more than I could ever teach him. There were lectures on humility, rethinking, patience and trust.

Here are the big lessons I learned from my Not-A-Border-Collie:

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Not All Dogs Train For Kibble

This one was the universe whacking me in the head for years of my arrogant claim of “You do not really need dog treats, all dogs will train for kibble!” I really believed this to be true (I actually published a YouTube video on that topic) until a little black and white fluff ball showed my what he thought of kibble: It was edible, but required a lot of time. A lot. Even the tiniest pieces of puppy kibble Party would (and still will) not swallow in one bite, instead he chews them with astonishing slowness, moving them around from one side of the mouth to the other, until after 5 seconds he finally swallows and looks at me with an expression of exasperation about this unusually difficult-to-eat food. Kind of hard to keep a rate of reinforcement of 18 per minute if your dog can only eat 12 treats per minute, and this is if he does nothing but eat, behaviors are not yet accounted for!

I was not going to be beaten yet. I experimented with every puppy kibble brand I could get my hands on. I soaked it, for minutes, for hours, in the microwave, you name it. I would put the soaked kibble into little tupperware containers in my fridge and line them up by soakiness until it looked like I collected my dog’s post-meal puke. I stored kibble with salami in the hopes of increasing the flavor.

When this didn’t change his eating habits, I tried to change them by training. He would swallow a piece of hotdog without the chewing ritual, so I would give him a couple pieces of hotdog, sneak one piece of kibble and more pieces of hotdog. While that worked, it did not transfer into non-sneaky kibble feedings: these were still crunch-crunch-crunch.

I tried to make him swallow quicker by using toys. This again only worked as long as the toys were right there. Show him a ball, offer a piece of kibble and throw the ball right after made him swallow the kibble. As soon as I tried to fade the ball, hello the chewing ritual.

Throughout all that he did not actually refuse to eat or train for kibble – it just slowed down things so much that we could never find a training flow. Eventually I realized that I was wasting so much time training him how to literally eat dog food when we could spend the time learning fun tricks or agility or obedience…so I stopped. He is my first dog who is exclusively treat-trained.

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Those First Couple Months Are Really, Really Important

Party and I had two wonderful months together after I brought him home. Unfortunately though, when he was five months old I got quite sick with pneumonia. For the next three months of his life I did not have enough energy most days to get up to make myself some food, leave along train and socialize him the way I would usually do.

Thanks to amazing friends he still got walked and played with every day, and had all the exercise and engagement time with people that he needed. His socialization however suffered a lot, especially his exposure to unknown dogs and people. The first time I took him to a puppy class after I was better, well…let’s say he did not make himself known as a social butterfly (rather the teeth-baring little monster who had to attend class 20ft away from everyone else because this was the closest distance he could function at).

Thankfully, we have overcome his dog reactivity completely and he enjoys meeting other dogs now. We are still working on his stress in crowded or new places – all he knew for a long part of his childhood was our private forest, so this is where he feels the most at home. Party in the forest is still a much different dog than Party in our city center, but we are getting closer to having the same happy Party everywhere.

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Some Dogs Just Love Luring

I also used to claim that all dogs can love shaping. Party finally does, but it took him quite a while! In addition to the extremely slow chewing he would also move incessantly slow during training. I now understand that this was probably because he likes to know exactly what he is doing and how to do it right.

For this reason he also excelled at luring – can’t go wrong if someone shows you where to go with a piece of food in his hand! After a couple times of being lured he would usually have picked up the behavior so well that I could fade the lure within a session or two. The resulting behavior was fast and precise. Trying to get the same with clicker training would take much longer and result in a far slower end result.

In the past couple months we have reached the agreement that he can in fact free-shape, as long as either 1) the tricks are very similar to tricks he already knows or 2) he is in charge of offering whatever he likes and I just go with it. He has no interest in free-shaping completely new tricks, they are still all started with luring in some way or another.

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Lap Dogs Are Really Happy On Your Lap

One of the first trips Party ever took was to a friend’s bbq the day after I brought him home. He briefly played with their dog, then settled into my lap and slept for the next three hours. I knew then that this was quite a different sleeping style from the Border Collies!

When the Border Collies think it is time to work, it is time to work. Nothing will change their mind, let alone me petting them. Pulling a ready-to-go Kix onto my lap for snuggles would be equally well-received as putting her back into the car right after arriving at our training field.

Party however can be snuggled to sleep at one time, any place. No matter how wound up and wild my puppy is, taking him into my arms and kissing his fluffy head and massaging his back will make him fall fast asleep within less than a minute. This is an incredibly useful skill to have, especially when he decides it is time to get up in the morning: putting him onto my pillow and petting him for 30 seconds will always get me another round of sleep.

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Playing Always Pays Off

Party’s relationship with toys has been mixed. At first of course he preferred food, then he got used to toy play and switching from toys to food – after while he regressed a bit and refused to play with toys in the presence of food or eat in the presence of his beloved balls.

Retrieving was also a story with many ups and downs. I followed the protocol I recommend to my students as well: Play at your dog’s best moments of the day and set him up for success. But if he still refuses, the session is over. If he refused to take my toy as a reward for sitting and instead went to sniff, I picked him up and carried him inside and we would train again a little later.

I was not always sure that this was the right approach – what if there was just not so much toy drive to get out of him as there is in the working dogs? – but eventually I was rewarded for my insistence. He plays well now and switches between balls hotdogs and tug toys and kibble (remember, he can swallow kibble while in high drive …) and chicken.

Not Every Dog Gets Sucked By Tunnels

Most agility dogs love tunnels, right? And once puppies know tunnels, they want to do them all the time, right? Well…unless you ask Party. Party has had the most complicated relationship with tunnels that I have seen.

You see, the thing is that Party wants to know the tunnel he is about to run through. Personally. Specifically, this means he wants to have run through the tunnel for pieces of chicken a couple times before he is willing to do it in a little sequence.

This applies to every single tunnel. He had been happy with the green and the yellow tunnel I had on my field, we had introduced him to the with a lot of chicken and he was happily tunneling through them.

Then I got a third tunnel. It was yellow and pink, barely distinguishable from the yellow tunnel Party already knew. I thought it was close enough – I was wrong!

I cued him in a little sequence to go and take the yellow-and-pink tunnel. He must have thought it is his familiar yellow one and happily sprinted towards it. When his little head had already disappeared in the entry, he stopped dead in his tracks. Mayday! This was not a known tunnel! He came out backwards and stood in front of it, looking at me disapprovingly. How could I have nearly tricked him into going into a tunnel he did not know?

He has the same peculiar tunnel behavior in his weekly agility class. Our routine is now to just do a tunnel, eat some chicken and then try it within a sequence. He is quite advanced in his knowledge of specific tunnels and can even distinguish two identical tunnels by whether or not he has run through them before.

This is going to be interesting if we ever go to a trial!

Neutering Can Make A World Of A Difference

Party used to have one big weakness: the ladies. From the time he was about 9 months old he lived for girl dogs. This was brought onto by meeting a female in season.

For me having a Casanova dog like this was a totally new experience. Kix is not spayed, and while Fusion is neutered now we went through a couple of Kix’s heat cycles with Fusion intact. He was the perfect gentleman who would not bother her, was able to go on off-leash walks and train around her and I only separated them when I could not supervise.

Party had different feelings about females in season. They were everything he wanted. This carried on long after they had come out of heat as well. He would whine, drool and not want to have anything to do with me at all. Not even with his beloved cooked chicken!

As per the contract with his breeder I neutered him. I did not kid myself and imagine that this would solve all our attention problems around girl dogs. I hoped for a small improvement, perhaps just enough so that I could become interesting in any way for him again.

The universe was on my side however and within weeks of neutering he had forgotten all about flirting. His interest in the ladies stopped completely and I had my little, eager-to-learn dog back.

I always warn clients to not see neutering as an easy solution to attention problems. I never saw such a profound and sudden improvement myself before Party. He taught me that for some dogs, maybe it is exactly what they need! Not only did he make it easier for me, but he himself seems a lot happier without always being on edge about finding a girlfriend.

Let’s Celebrate.

We started the day as we start every day: We played, practiced his tricks and then we went for a long walk in our beautiful forest. We played some more and now he is snoozing next to me.

Onto the next year, greatest little teacher.