I’m starting to think there are no stupid dogs, only stupid dog owners. And I’ve been one.
I have a new dog, a 3-year-old rat terrier mix named Luke, whom I adopted from the Humane Society of Indianapolis. I grew up with fox terriers, but have never had a dog of my own. The Humane Society marked me down as experienced, but in fact I’ve discovered I’m not.
He’s a fine, healthy little boy with an uncertain background. He’s well-socialized in some ways, seldom barks or gets aggressive when he shouldn’t and has a wonderful instinctive disposition to be a most happy fella. But at other times he’s absolutely clueless; for instance, he doesn’t know how to play. He has no interest in squeaky toys or chasing after a ball; I thought all dogs knew how to do that. He won’t play tug-of-war with a sock. He loves to interact with me but his repertoire is limited to jumping up or lying on his back for a belly rub. I suspect he mostly grew up on the streets.
But he’s also been around people, probably from spending the last few months at the animal shelter; he has no problem accepting a leash and sleeping in a crate. He has a good appetite, is the ideal weight for his size and breed (10 pounds) and walks away from his dish when he’s full, leaving a few pellets behind—so I don’t need to worry about giving him too much food. The shelter feeds their dogs once a day so that food dishes are never empty, while I feed Luke twice a day. He generally cleans his plate but not always, so I’m able to adjust his amounts for what he needs.
But toilet training has been an issue, and I’ve been clueless until the last few days. But now we’re getting there, and each day is better and better. He can’t learn if I don’t know how to condition him; it’s Psychology 101. Perform the desired behavior, get a reward. The onus for performing the desired behavior is on me, not on him. He’s a dog, he no speaka ze Inglish.
I can’t “make him do what I want.” But I can and must help him learn behaviors that put us both at ease. How awful it must have been for him the last two weeks to figure out what I want when I no speaka ze Dog. Why is this crazy person upset with me?
But he hasn’t given up or lost any affection for me, he just keeps trying until he gets it right—meaning I do. And yesterday he learned a word: Sit.
He already knew how to sit, but he didn’t know how to Sit. But now Sit = Treat! Luke likes his treats. Oh, is that what you meant? Why didn’t you say so?
It’s been two days now since he pooped on the rug. And two days since I learned always to have treats in my pocket.
I get treats for pooping? Hmm, this ain’t a bad gig. No, boy, it’s where you poop that counts.
More little lessons await us. “Sit” ≠ “before we go outside.” Sit = sit wherever we are, before something good happens, no matter where we are. I’m the one in charge of his mental associations. He can’t associate unrelated concepts unless I teach them to him, and the way to teach a dog is with rewards.
I’ve changed more than he has since I got him October 22. He’s always been affectionate and reasonably smart, but now he’s starting to have a competent human to be with. Yay for our side!
One of my biggest lessons has been to stop thinking that restrictions are bad. His crate helps him stay out of trouble, and besides he likes it; it’s Luke-sized, with a very nice stadium blanket (Indiana University, fit for a dog here in Purdue Land), great for sleeping. That it also keeps him from eliminating when I’m asleep or not watching means he doesn’t get in trouble and there’s no friction in the house. We’re both happy fellas.
Yesterday we tried another new thing: another restriction (to my former way of thinking) that in fact increases his freedom. We went to Wally World and bought a stake-out kit, so he could be outdoors with me while I rake leaves. The idea of being outdoors without going for a walk was new to him; he lasted about 20 minutes before I decided he was getting overstimulated and took him back in the house. It was mid-afternoon, kids were getting out of school, other dogs were going on walks, the guy next door was also working outside, and it got to be too much. But now Luke knows he can be outdoors in the sunshine and I’m right over there, while he has more independence and can look at stuff. He’s got a 30-foot radius but that’s a 60-foot diameter, outdoors in fresh air. We’re going to try it again this afternoon, because I’ve got a lot of leaves to bag up.
Before I met Luke I would never have chained up a dog outside. But in fact it makes us closer emotionally, and gives him a better idea of what’s our yard and what’s not. That is crucial, because I don’t have a fence, and of course I don’t want him running off and getting lost or being hurt.
That’s really been my #1 concern, helping him adjust to a new home and a new human relationship.
Home is a place with walls—that is, restrictions AND safety. The outside world can’t come in, this is our house.
This is our yard, from here to here. Dogs of course have a territorial instinct, but Luke’s got to know where his territory is and is not. It takes time to figure out. (I’m so glad for that new stake and chain.)
This is our neighborhood. If he does someday find himself on his own, I want him to be able to find his way back to my crate, where his supper dish is, where his pal lives.
Once he knows everything he needs to know, we can try even more freedom. But it’s all got to have a structure; Sit = sit. First you sit, then supper comes. First you sit, then we go outside. First you sit, then you get what you want. It’s not just “do as you’re told,” it’s “follow the rules so you’ll be safe.”
And it’s my job, not his, to know the rules and provide the structure until the rules are his own habits. Go ahead and run, baby, but when I call, you come back. I’ve got treats.
There are no dumb dogs, just dumb owners.++