I began drawing cartoons when I was a teacher, using a rabbit to express the feelings of the high school kids in my classes. On a day when I was giving a test, I’d come in, plop my books down on the desk and draw a rabbit on the blackboard. He might be lying on his back, holding a daisy, his eyes little crosses to show he’d died. Or he might look worried and the balloon over his head would say, Oh, no, I forgot to study. After a while, I began to put the rabbit right on the test and one morning when I was late and forgot the rabbit, the kids went on strike. They wouldn’t take the test until I drew the rabbit on the board.
It was easy to see the power of cartoons, particularly ones that showed emotions not always that evident in “real life.” But there was something else going on. Because the rabbit stood alone against a plain background, because there were no extraneous distractions, the message was always clear and memorable. More than that, it was funny, and humor, I discovered, is a great teaching tool.
It was natural to continue cartooning when I became a dog trainer and began to write articles and books about dogs. Here was a way to show the foibles of the human in a memorable and non-insulting way. Here was a way to show the emotion a dog might be feeling to give the information more punch. Here was a way to avoid the distraction of everything else that would be in a photo, things that had nothing to do with what I needed to say. And here was a way to let the image do the talking – to remind dog owners, say, that a leash should be loose, not tight, by drawing it that way. Or not. All the better when I made myself the human who was doing everything wrong.
The interesting thing about graphic presentation is that it requires a different kind of engagement from the reader. It is more like a brain game, a game in which you need to see the elements in the drawing, the distractions the dog must ignore, the loose curve of the leash, the simple buckle collar, the body language of dog and human or dog and dog, the connections between species – mental, physical and emotional, the shared affection – now made visible in “art,” the humor involved in raising and training a dog, and the love, all clear if you take a moment to look.
Some people think they should wait until a pup is half grown to begin training. But the time you miss is still training time for puppy. He’s learning every day: that when you pick up his leash, it means he’s going out, that when you are not looking, he can grab a tasty shoe or have an “accident” on the rug, that “no” means “no,” or that it doesn’t. He begins his education the moment he comes home, so best if you jump in early and get him started on the right track. That’s a lot easier than changing his opinion later on.
What’s first? A “Follow Me” game. You want your puppy focused on you. That focus helps create the bond that makes living with a dog not only delicious, but makes training easier and life with your dog more rewarding. So, take a walk, in your house, and entice your pup to follow. You will not need to use a leash and pup does not even need to be wearing a collar. Just walk from room to room (or back and forth if you live in a studio apartment) and see if the puppy follows along. If not, if he starts and stops, if he gets distracted along the way, no problem. You can whistle, chirp, call him by name, sing “puppy, puppy, puppy, GOOD puppy.” You can carry a little squeak toy and give a squeak when something else catches the pup’s attention. You can move faster. You can flop to the floor and let puppy catch you for kisses. All in all, a few minutes is plenty, but try this game a few times a day. This simple activity will teach the pup to keep his eye on you, a necessity before you teach anything else.
A simple game or teaching one new command, working for five minutes or less at a time at first, may tire out a little pup. Working his mind will tire him more quickly than working his body and it’s just as important.
To help your new pup become more focused, more bonded to you, easier to train and smarter, a little game of follow the leader will do the trick.
Where do we go from there? Easy. I’ve got you covered.
Most of us with pure-bred dogs do not live the kind of life where our dogs can do what they were bred to do. In fact, most of us with mixed breed dogs don’t keep sheep, hunt, search for lost children in the woods, have a used car lot in need of protection, have a secret place where we hunt for truffles or have a rodent problem on our property. Some dogs are content with a daily trip to the dog run, a long walk along the river, a chance to retrieve a Frisbee and then a good, long nap. But some are not. Some need to be able to use the instincts passed down to them by generations of breeding for a specific task and sometimes, without the chance to use what they’ve got, they will find a way to do so on their own, developing obsessive compulsive habits that reflect the work they were meant to do. So what’s a person to do?
You needn’t move to a sheep farm, go out and buy a rifle, train your dog for cadaver recovery or become a truffle farmer, though I hear there’s good money in the latter. Instead, find an activity or even a game that uses some of your dog’s special abilities. And play the game seriously enough that your dog feels he’s working, that he feels what he’s doing is important.
Your retriever might like to carry something on his walks, or even carry home a small bag when you go shopping. Dogs of any breed or mix love to find things using their fabulous sense of smell. It’s easy to start this game with a small biscuit and gradually work it so that your dog is finding objects by name hidden out of sight. The dog who loves that game may graduate to finding objects that are out of place. Try dropping a glove, say, behind your back as you walk through a field or on a trail. Then send your dog back to find what you dropped without telling him what he should be looking for.
Once, when my first Border Collie, Flash, and I were out for a long walk, I could see that he was desperate to retrieve. This time, I had nothing with me I could toss and anyway, we were on a city street. Still, wanting to satisfy my darling boy, I pulled out my money, hoping I’d find a single I could tent and drop behind me, then send Flash back to find. Alas, the smallest bill was a five. I looked into my dog’s eyes, then tented the five, continued to walk and as we went, dropped the bill behind me. At the end of the block, hoping no one had come along and scooped up my dough, I sent Flash back, telling him, “Find it.” This he did, dropping the folded, wet five happily in front of my feet. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
If you have kids, you can have your dog retrieve out of place items from all over your house. That should keep him busy! By reading the history of your dog’s breed or by noting what talents your mixed breed dog has, you can come up with activities to satisfy his instinct to work, concocting brain-teasing, fun and deeply satisfying activities for the pup you love. And here you were wondering what to do next weekend!
When I pass an outdoor, open staircase, I go around behind it, put Sky’s duck on the highest step I can reach and tell her “Find it.” The first time I did that, she had to figure out how to get to the duck, assessing the “puzzle” and seeing that she needed to go around to the front of the stairs and run up as high as the duck, snag it and return. And so she did.
You can put your foot on a low barrier and ask your dog to jump over your leg. Or go under it. Help your dog get the idea quickly by tossing a ball over your leg or rolling it underneath. This game can be done at home on rainy day,s like today, when you don’t want to stay out too long and it can be played with as many dogs as you have. In fact, while playing, the dogs will have to learn to wait their turn, more good brain work.
Does your dog know a variety of commands? Excellent. Now add a hand signal to each, using voice and hand together until your dog will folllow the hand signal alone. Don’t fret if you don’t know the hand signal for “speak,” let’s say. As long as you are consistent, you can make one up. I tap thumb and forefinger together which looks like a little barking mouth, at least to me.
Got the hand signals down pat? Now whistle a tune for each command. It won’t matter what tune says “sit,” as long as it’s always the same one. Ours is the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. We get a lot of laughs that way, but I wouldn’t use one that long for an emergency command.
You can teach your dog to fall over “dead” when you point a finger at him and say “bang.” You can teach him to bring a tissue when you sneeze. You can have him make circles around you as you walk forward. It doesn’t matter what you teach, it only matters that you teach. A little brain work every day can go a long way toward having a smarter dog.
More ideas, you guessed it, in Dog Smart, The Art of Training Your Dog, available wherever ebook are sold. And if you love it, please post a review wherever you bought it to help other dog lovers find it and enjoy it, too. Much appreciated!
Sky and I were walking on the High Line yesterday, enjoying the early blooming flowers, the view of the Hudson River and the chance to be doing something fun together. Right after passing a couple going north, as we were, I heard the man say, “Border collie. Better keep in a straight line.”
Funny? Yes. Silly? That, too. Border collies with jobs do not herd people. The Border collie is just a blue collar bloke that needs a job. Give her one, not necessarily working with sheep, and she’s as normal as the next dog.
She will still spend an inordinate amount of time thinking, trying to figure out how to do her job better than any other dog on earth, thinking of ways to be useful, clever, funny, comforting, amazing. She will work hard, play hard and sleep hard. But, trust me, she will not herd humans. That’s an act of desperation when she’s unemployed, because what’s her choice? She can’t hang out at the local pub drinking beer and cursing her fate. She can’t go back to school, unless someone takes her. And there’s no use waiting on the unemployment line because she can’t endorse her check.
There are lots of ways to keep your smart dog’s mind and body occupied, to make her feel she’s a useful dog. Figuring out which ones to teach, well, that’s your job.
What does it mean to a dog to travel, to be in other cities, to climb a mountain, to hike into a bird sanctuary?
How will your relationship with your dog change when you travel together?
How does a dog process new places?
What will your dog learn? What will you learn about your dog?
What will you learn about yourself?
When we took Flash to Paris, before and after each museum visit, we found a place to throw the ball for him. Often, it was the plaza right outside the museum. Sometimes it was a grassy area alongside the boulevard where we were walking. But then we noticed that when we passed the little alleyways so common in Paris, the back exits, narrow cobblestone walkways where the garbage was put out, that Flash would stop and look longingly down the alleyway and then longingly at the pocket where I kept his ball. He was able to pick out places where he was safe from traffic and never places where there was the danger of cars. On our first museum visit, he learned to take a few steps and then stop and wait without being asked to heel or sit or do anything at all. What we were looking at, Picasso paintings, has no interest for him, but in the first gallery, he figured out what we were doing and acted accordingly. He took in each new environment, processed it and came out smarter on the other end. We had more fun because he was along and it was easy to see that though we were in a city and not climbing mountains, he had a simply wonderful time.
It’s more obvious that a dog would have fun out of the city, hiking, running along a beach, swimming in an ice cold lake.
But the best part is doing all of it, doing any of it, together. When I travel with my dog, I see what I see and then, as best I can, I see what she sees. Together we marvel at the big toad in the leaves at the side of the path. Would I have seen him if my dog weren’t there, not moving, blending in the the leaves and twigs? Together we climb, we walk, we breathe different air, we taste different food. And then, each night, after a last outing in the dark, the stars shining over Paris, France or Corner Brook, Newfoundland, over New Orleans or Memphis, over the cool dark grass, over the mountains on the other side of the road, over the cobblestone path, over the creatures she can smell and I can’t, after all that, we crawl into bed together to get ready for another day.
After all that, we can’t wait to find out what we will do and see tomorrow, how we will come to know each other better, how we will be glad we are together for this and every adventure.