Dog Training in (e)Motion

Often when I’m sitting at the PC, Scout will come and nudge my arm, or bring toy after toy to deposit in my lap, in an attempt to get my attention so I’ll go outside and play. I’m learning from some training books to ignore those demands; giving in reinforces that he can be a pest and get what he wants. Instead, I wait until he’s doing something else and then call him to go play. The idea is to get the dog to understand that the household runs on the human’s terms, not the dog’s.

Today, I was sitting at the computer catching up on email and I could hear Scout and Murphy going at each other in a rousing round of paw karate, when all of the sudden Scout came barreling into my office to stand at my side and bark. His ears were standing completely up, which is unusual, and he was barking and then lunging toward the door as if to say, “Hurry! Follow me!” It was a total Timmy and Lassie moment.

My first thought was that the cat had gotten hurt. When Murphy’s in the sink Scout will stand in the kitchen and bark, as if he knows the cat is misbehaving and it’s his duty to tattle.

But this was a frenzied bark, a clear call for me to Follow!! Right!! Now!! I jumped up as Scout ran down the stairs to the side door, and when I saw the cat coming from upstairs I knew something else was going on.

Every once in a while Scout gets this burst of energy that causes him to run at warp speed through the downstairs, jumping over the back of the couch, into the foyer, through the kitchen and back to the living room. When that happens, he gets this crazed look on his face – similar to the one he was wearing right now. I figured he must just need to go have a run around the yard. I opened the door, told him to go, and when I got to the back yard found him standing calmly with the glo-ball in his mouth, ready to play catch.

The emergency was that he wanted to play, and because I had ignored all previous requests he felt the need to up the ante. Play glo-ball? He’ll get no response from me. Alert me to a big emergency? I’m getting up to see what’s wrong.

And I fell for it.

When I saw him I laughed and threw the ball and then wanted to slap myself for being such a sucker. If I reward him even once he’ll know that only an emergency alert will get me off my butt and outside, on his terms and timetable, which usually happen to be in very cold and snowy weather. He should have been a sled dog.

In any event, I should have been prepared. I’ve just finished The Truth About Dogs, by Stephen Budiansky and he warns about just this kind of thing. In the introduction, Budiansky makes two points that made me laugh and then want to cry, because I realized that, like most dog owners, I am at the mercy of my dog.

“Dogs belong to that elite group of con artists at the very pinnacle of their profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air conditioner vent in the summer, they curl up in front of the fireplace in the winter, they commit outrages upon our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates … If we had a roommate who behaved like this, we’d be calling a lawyer, or the police.”

He goes on to write:

“Almost as common as the clinical accounts of dogs who have seized operational control of their households are the accounts in veterinary journals of dogs who engage in eccentric and obsessive behaviors that, were they exhibited in humans, would lead to swift institutionalization-or justifiable homicide by anyone forced to share living quarters with the patient.”

Scout is actually smarter than I give him credit for. When we came in, I gave him a biscuit for his Emmy winning performance (I can’t help it; he’s good) and he went to the foyer to lie quietly for a few minutes. He’s now barking as if someone’s come to visit. He doesn’t know, of course, that the mailman came early today so I’m not going to be fooled by that trick. And if someone was really at the door he wouldn’t be barking but standing there wagging his tail like an idiot.

I’m learning a few tricks myself.

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