Monday, December 3, 2007
The Ugly Duckling and His Fearless Leader
When I met my dog, Blue, at a rescue four years ago, he was about the ugliest little excuse for a puppy I had ever seen. I had no idea what breeds were mixed up inside of him, and he had a runny nose and two different colored eyes. One of his ears flopped over while one stood at attention, his tail looked like a droopy, grey feather duster dragging on the ground behind him, and his coat was at least six different colors at once. When I saw him, he was sleeping in the middle of a large pile of puppies. As I crouched down to get a better look at all of the slumbering miniature dogs, he opened one eye, it was brown, and then he opened his other eye, this one the palest blue, and he stared right at me through the bars of the pen. Slowly he stretched, trod clumsily over his sleeping brothers and sisters, and waddled over to me with his crazy tail in a slow wag, sweeping dirt back and forth on the floor of the enclosure. He was cute because he was a baby, but that was about the only thing he had going for him. He licked my fingers, and I scratched his homely little head then kept walking around to find the puppy who would become my faithful companion.
As I wandered around, taking in the other much more regal and beautiful puppies, it occurred to me that the unsightly little dog I saw first would probably get the snub from everyone who walked by him. Who would want to bring home a puppy that looked like a Star Wars character? What would happen to him if no one adopted him? I cursed my conscience as I made my way back to his pen. As soon as he saw me, he determinedly crawled over the other puppies again, stepping on ears and tails as he made his way, and came right back up to me, not breaking eye contact for a second. He nudged his nose under my hand, forcing me to pet him and stealthily closing the sale. I waved the rescue volunteer over and said, “I’ll take this guy”
The volunteer eyed me, but she did not ask me if I was sure. I think she had been in the business long enough to know a sucker when she saw one and to know that this puppy’s chances at a good life just improved greatly. She picked him up and handed him to me, and we bonded. This was going to be my best friend for the next ten to twelve years, I had better get used to looking at him.
In what is a rare, small dose of good karma in my life, Blue turned out to be a beautiful dog. His other ear straightened up, his tail started to take on a curl that made it look like a fancy plume in a pirate’s hat, and his two different colored eyes, which were just plain strange on a puppy, are actually quite striking on a large dog. We cannot go for a walk without someone commenting on how gorgeous he is. Upon hearing this, Blue will turn around and look at me with a very slight hint of “ I told you so” in his eyes. We owe each other for many things.
In addition to being a looker, Blue is also a really good dog. I worked hard to train him when he was a puppy, and that, along with the fact that he caught on really quickly, paid off. I used elements of the Monks of New Skete training method, which involves never using any negative physical contact, becoming your dog's 'pack leader', and never punishing your dog for something which you do not catch him directly in the act of doing. It was all about positive reinforcement. Blue has not had an accident in the house since he was ten weeks old, and he quit chewing anything that didn’t belong to him by 6 months. He sits, lies down, and stays on command. He comes when he is called (unless there is a squirrel involved) and he walks right next to me when he is off the leash (this was Mike’s training, not mine…credit where it’s due and all). Blue climbs mountains with us, camps like a pro, plays well with other dogs for the most part, and is well-behaved at my dad’s house on holidays. He has his quirks, but overall, he is a great dog, and I love him as if he were my own baby.
Blue and I lived a very peaceful existence for two full years, and then along came the second love-of-my-life.
Mike has always been great with Blue. They play together like little kids, and because of the way they roughhouse and wrestle around, Mike has become Blue’s alpha-male. So, awesome for me, my boyfriend loves my dog, and not-so-awesome for me, I no longer have my (sellout) dog’s undivided attention and respect. The little ugly baby I rescued, now turns to Mike for guidance and play. When I get home from work, Blue wags his tail and licks my hand, and then wanders off to find the cat. When Mike comes home, my dog can barely contain his excitement. Blue hears his car pull up, runs for the door, wags his entire backside, and pants like he just might not make it. I am the food-provider and the cuddler; Mike is Blue’s dad, pack leader, and best friend. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
Because of Mike’s paternal role in Blue’s life, and now that we are all living together, it is only logical that he should have some part in the raising of the dog. Taking his alpha-male status at face value, and even keeping the chest-beating to a minimum, Mike has decided to work on some of Blue’s little quirks, the ones that, over the years, I have just accepted.
One of Blue’s said quirks is his innate ability to sense that there is food within his reach on the counter, and that there is no one around to stop him from stealing it. He has stolen a number of things from the counter while I have been gone. He once pulled an entire pan of lasagna down and ate all of it, approximately three pounds of Italian goodness, leaving the empty pan on the sofa looking as if it had just come out of the dishwasher. Other than a slightly distended belly, and skipping his dinner that night, the feast didn’t even faze my dog.
While somewhat irritating, I think that this is pretty normal dog behavior, and since I am aware of the problem, I have tried to modify my own behavior. I try to never leave anything within his reach, and, in turn, he has nothing to steal, plus my kitchen is much cleaner. But of course, whenever the human element is present, there is always room for error.
Friday night we were in a hurry. We had a busy weekend ahead of us, and we still needed to put up the Christmas tree. I was going to make chili on Saturday, so I pulled some frozen hamburger out of the freezer to defrost. I normally would have put it on top of the refrigerator, but I was doing too many things at once and forgot. So there it was, a pound and a half of frozen hamburger just sitting there for the taking. Insult to injury, Mike, who was also in a hurry because I was ordering him to be in a hurry, left a package of tortillas on the counter. We were already a couple of miles down the road to meet our friends when it hit me. “I left the hamburger on the counter. Crap.”
“Do you really think he’ll steal frozen hamburger? I mean since it’s frozen, he might not even be interested in it, right?,” Mike asked, not even remembering that he had left the tortillas out, too.
“Maybe not,” I rationalized right along with him “it should be ok.”
I knew that this was a complete farce and that Blue would indeed steal the hamburger, but we were already late, and I so I talked myself out of going back.
Two hours later, when we got home, Blue had, of course handily disposed of the hamburger and the tortillas, the empty packages strewn across the floor of the guest bedroom, evidence of the crime that had taken place. Time of hamburger death, between the hours of 7 and 9 pm. The guestroom is where Blue always takes his stolen treasures. I think that, because we don’t go in there that often, he thinks that the trash leftover from his little foray into thievery will go unnoticed.
I pictured Blue sprawled out on the floor in the guest room making little burritos with the tortillas and frozen meat, a dog- friendly version of the Food Network. He would say to his audience of Collies and Schnauzers, "Now you can defrost yours at home, but I prefer it frozen, fresh off the counter." I smiled at my mental movie, while Mike looked frustrated. “Aren’t you even going to yell at him?” he asked, incredulous.
I explained for the twelfth time that the training method I’d chosen to use with Blue instructed using angry words with your dog only if you catch him in the actual act of whatever horrible deed he may decide to commit. Dogs don’t have the cognitive ability to remember that the crime they committed an hour ago is the cause of the punishment they are receiving now; it wasn’t fair to punish him when we didn’t catch him misbehaving.
Mike was not really satisfied with this explanation because he knows, like I do, that Blue is fully aware when he has done something wrong. When we came home, he wagged his tail tentatively, but didn’t move from his perch on the back of the couch (another quirk). When I walked into the kitchen and saw the missing meat, I went straight to the guestroom to look for evidence. Blue took this opportunity to run right past me and out through his dog door. He hung out in the yard for a few minutes until he was sure that our lack of cognitive ability would prevent us from remembering that he was the prime suspect, and then he put just his head and front legs inside through the door and stood like that for a minute or two to make sure the coast was clear. Although I couldn’t see it, I’m sure his tail was wagging to and fro outside the house. He was toying with us.
The next day, as we were driving down the highway to a friend’s birthday party, Mike put his foot down; he does not like to be toyed with. “We really need to do something about Blue stealing food from the counter”, he said with authority.
I asked him what exactly he was proposing. I love my dog, but I am definitely open for good training possibilities, especially since Blue is usually pretty receptive. Besides, Mike is all “Dog Whisperer” now that he is Blue’s chosen one; maybe he had a plan. Mike began to wax intellectual about the finer points of dog rearing when a picture suddenly came into my head. Remember that Public Service Announcement from the 80’s about marijuana? I think everyone knows it. The dad in the commercial catches his son smoking pot and is yelling at him, “Where did you learn how to do this??!! WHERE???” And the kid is kind of cowering away from him, and then he gets brave for a second and says “I learned it by watching you, Dad. I learned it by watching YOU!!”
It was all very dramatic.
It occurred to me that Mike was just like this hypocritical, pot-smoking dad, except for that he doesn’t smoke pot, and he has a dog instead of a stoned teenager, and he is also thankfully minus that 70’s-porn-style mustache. But basically, the concept was the same. Mike had the audacity to be upset about Blue stealing food from the counter, when it is an activity that he himself engages in on a daily basis. I pictured Mike coming home from work while I’m making dinner and stealing from whatever pan or bowl I am using while I swat violently at his hand. He does this every single night. When we are on our way out the door to go to dinner, he will suddenly decide that he is too hungry to wait and he will go get a snack, even while I am yelling at him that we are on our way to an actual restaurant where they will give him some food (this is how the tortillas ended up on the counter in the first place.) If we make cookies, Mike has his fingers in the raw dough constantly even though I beg him to stop. When the recipe says it yields three dozen, I know that, at my house, it yields two. I have hidden things I don’t want him to eat in the very back of the freezer or pantry many times. He finds all of these items within mere minutes, a human dog, sniffing out frozen hamburger. Sadly, the Monks of New Skete training method does not work on him. I catch Mike in the act of stealing all the time, and I try the loud handclap and firm command that they recommend, but it just doesn’t work, even with his highly developed reasoning and language cognition skills.
So I have decided not to pursue any corrective actions where Blue’s counter clearing behavior is involved. I am going to put Mike in charge of that part of raising our dog. If my genius plan works, and if reverse psychology is still effective, they should both be cured any day now. Now where did I put those cookies?