January 1, 2009
Tamar Geller wrote a book called The Loved Dog. I picked it up a while ago because I couldn't find one called The Mostly Liked, But Sometimes Barely Tolerated Dog. As you know, I had to do something about Willie. He doesn't chew stuff as often or as thoroughly as he used to (at one time I compiled this list of Willie Treats that he helped himself to), and in fact, the only materially important thing he has chewed lately is a newly delivered box of PICC line supplies carelessly left on top of the drop-leaf table by the front door. A whole year has passed since he pulled the ten-pound pork loin roast off the counter while it sat patiently waiting for carving.
The problem isn't his inside behavior, it's his outside behavior. The Tennessee Titans have two runnings backs, Smash (LenDale White) and Dash (Chris Johnson), known for their force (LenDale) and speed (Chris). Willie channels them both every time he goes outside. Plus, his auditory system picks up noises made by bunnies and field mice burrowing and imaginary sources of danger kilometers away, but not anything broadcast on the human voice frequency.
Because we have a neighbor who shoots canine intruders to his property and others living nearby who don't appreciate Willie dashing up and smashing into them, I set out on a course to train him, using Tamar Geller's methods. Ms. Geller, a former Israeli Intelligence officer and wolf pack observer, somehow combined and parlayed those two career experiences into a third career as a life coach (?) for dogs. She highly recommends using a hierarchy of treats (gold, silver, and bronze) to reward and reinforce the behaviors you want your dogs to have. Sounds good, right? So far, I have trained Willie and Teddy to sit on command (unless they are really distracted by taunting squirrels or unless they are already sated by a wagonload of gold treats) and to lie down sometimes. We are working on the only one that really matters to me: Willie Come.
Gold treats come from the parts of meat dishes that older, paunchier folks like me should eliminate from their diets anyway (roasted chicken skin, the fat from the Christmas day standing rib roast, anything, practically that gives meat extra flavor). If Willie hasn't wandered too far away. . .if he isn't distracted by hunting small, scampering mammals. . .if he isn't playing with one of his best friends (everyone is his best friend). . .if he doesn't smell something stinky and alluring, he will come to me and sit when I call him, give him a jackpot of gold treats, and (as Tamar Geller recommends) make a party for him with a high, singsong voice and much praise and attention.
He has learned many important lessons from being treated like a "loved dog." Here's one: When we take our morning walk, he can get my attention by running as fast as he can down the back side of the dam, across the fence into the ranch, and directly towards the neighbor's cows. I then call "Willie come" and he races back across the pasture, through the fence, up the dam slope to sit at my feet. Then, I give him chicken parts from the zip-lock bag in my pocket. The first time he came back, I was as proud as if he had presented me with an All-A report card. The next day when it happened, I bragged about him some more. After that, I decided that I hadn't trained him; he had trained me. Before I started passing out the gold, he rarely crossed the fence. Now he does it regularly. I swear his ears are perked as he runs away, waiting for me to call "Willie come" so he can come busting back and get his jackpot.
I guess this is my week for lessons. I learned another one last night from Erin: Don't take your daughter to get tanked up on red blood cells on New Year's Eve, unless you were planning on staying up to make a party and welcome the new year in. We got home from the hospital about 9:00 last night, and Erin was . . .what's the word? Lively. Quite Lively . Walter and I, on the other hand, had visions of pajamas, absorbing, though not stimulating books, and a couple of night caps. Guess who welcomed in the new year? The Buengers, you bet!