Good Dog. Seriously. Say It.

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Photo by Jim Thomason

I have a lot of pets. And many of them are pet peeves.

Ba-dum-dum. Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week.

But seriously folks, I do have a lot of pet peeves, especially when it comes to the animals that share our world. And hey, one of my first pet peeves is that I don’t call them “pets.” I’m going to admit it. That word annoys me.

Pet is something I do to greet my dogs, to comfort them, to calm myself. It’s an verb for me, not a noun. Using the word pet to describe my dogs actually seems demeaning to me. My dogs, horses, chickens, unintentional house mice, etc., are my companions. They are my animal family. They are not furry/feathered humans, nor are they little slaves sent here to do my bidding. They are animals who are willing and kind enough to abandon a lot of their natural instincts to try to co-exist in our crazy, human-focused world.

That’s pretty amazing to me. I think it deserves a little respect.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the term “fur babies.” Nope. Let’s not go there.

Today’s pet peeve, however, actually focuses on how we speak to our animals, how we choose to try to communicate with them. As a professional dog trainer (fancy certificate, letters after my name and all!), I get a lot of calls about “bad dogs.”

“My dog is stubborn.”

“My dog won’t listen.”

“My dog is out of control.”

I listen. I ask questions. I imagine what I will find when we finally meet. And I’m usually spot on.

What I generally find on  visits with “out of control” dogs is a complete lack of clear, meaningful, and consistent communication. So what I’m telling you is that 98.9% of the time…it’s not the dog’s fault.

And more than a lack of dog training know-how, I have found that it’s actually a mindset issue. As humans, we still feel the need to be very large and in charge when it comes to our animals. And when other people come around, it seems humans often go into hyper-militant mode, as if to suggest that their dogs behave like perfect little angels every moment of the day…except right now. You should see how people act when an actual dog trainer steps into the mix. It’s as if everyone suddenly has something to prove.

“Sit. Bo-bo, sit. SIT. SIT. BO-BO SIT. Sit down. SIT. YOU SIT RIGHT NOW. Bo-Bo…come here. SIT. COME. NO. NOOOOO. SITSITSIT.”

Kind of makes me want to toss an “h” in that sit somewhere.

And then I get asked how to “correct” that. “How do I make him mind?” “See how stubborn he is?”

OK. I can’t give an entire dog training 101 here (because hey, I don’t give that away for free! Bills to pay, people. Dog food to buy), but what I can do is help you get your head in the game. The right game.

First, dogs require constant feedback when they are learning. That means as good as you are at telling them when they are wrong, you need to be equally as good at telling them when they are right. Equally good. Tell them when they are RIGHT. In fact, spend more time doing that than you do telling them how wrong they are.

I’m going to let you think about that one for a moment. Here’s a gratuitously cute puppy photo you can ponder whilst you chew on that paragraph…

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Ok…all done pondering? Great. So here’s my next free tip: Let’s change your vocabulary.

Sometimes changing your mindset is as easy as changing the words you choose. Here are my new training words for you:

  1. Instead of train, use the word teach.
  2. Instead of command, use the word cue.
  3. Instead of correct, use the word redirect.

Let’s start with those three and see how it goes. Teach, cue, redirect. Doesn’t that feel better already? Just switching to those words and paying attention to their meaning, their undertone, could make a world of difference in the relationship you have with your dog.

This is not a battle. Dogs have no hidden agenda to overthrow the world. They repeat behavior that gets them attention. They avoid things that are unpleasant (and we wonder why they don’t always come when called…). Let me give you some real-life examples.

I visited a home with an “out of control” dog. The dog was said to have horrible manners when guests came over. The dog wouldn’t listen. The dog jumped all over people.

“He knows better. He’s just being stubborn.”

The moment I hear that stubborn word, I wonder which being in the house it really describes. And then I giggle to myself. Usually to myself.

So I asked my client to show me the dog and let me see how they were dealing with the situation. That’s when I got the SIT-SIT-SIT-NOOOO-NOOOO-DOWN-SIT-OFFFFFF-NOOOOOOOOO routine. I listened to the tone of their voices. I saw the chaos escalate. I saw the humans growing frustrated and more excited. I saw the dog doing the same.

And even when the dog wasn’t actually trying to jump on me, the humans were still barking commands.

So when the dog came toward me and kept four feet on the floor, I quietly said, “Yes! Good boy.” Then I offered the dog a little treat.

I backed a few steps away and invited the dog to follow me. I had his attention now because I was speaking softly, I wasn’t stressed. He liked that. He followed.

When he came to me, I asked him to sit. He did. I said “Yes!” I gave him a tiny cookie. I praised him. Then I backed away and did it a few more times. Pretty soon, every time I cued the dog to “come,” he ran to me and slammed his butt to the ground with his tail wagging happily.

I praised him. And looky there, I used all three of our new vocabulary words.

I taught the dog what I expected instead of just waiting for him to screw up.

I helped the dog learn a cue, one indicating what I expected, and also a word that marked the moment when he did something right. “Yes.” I captured behavior I liked.

And I redirected the dog. The dog was jumping on people because he was friendly and wanted attention. I showed him a proper way to earn attention. He listened. He learned.

Here’s another example. I visited a family who had a dog that would not come when called. The dog would play keep-away, staying just out of reach. The family was frustrated.

So I asked them to show me.

We went out in the yard. The dog chased a bird. When he ran to the other side of the yard, one of the humans said “Fritz, COME!”

Now, don’t think for one second that dogs don’t understand the tone of our voices. They do.

When this person said “Fritz, COME,” the sharp tone me want to back away slowly. Seriously…why do we have to change everything about ourselves when we go into dog training mode?

So Fritz, who was still on the lookout for that bird, did hear his person say COME. And he did look back at us. That glance back was the moment of truth…what would happen next?

Well, the owner repeated his command even more sternly, “FRITZ! COME! COME!” It sounded angry to me. It sounded angry to Fritz too.

“FRITZ. RIGHT NOW. COME HERE RIGHT NOW. FRRRRRRITZ!”

Fritz didn’t come. In fact, he glanced away (which is actually dog-speak for “hey, human, chill out! Let’s all calm down).

“See? He’s stubborn.”

Huh. Ok.

“Let’s try something different,” I suggested.

I went to within a few feet of Fritz. In a happy voice, I said, “Fritz, come!”

The moment Fritz looked at me, I said, “YES! Goood boy! Good!”

Guess what? Fritz came right to me. Because I praised him in the moment he acknowledged my cue by looking at me, I gave him a reason to want to come to me. We communicated. I was teaching Fritz that the cue “come” would be followed by something good/fun/rewarding/calm/happy.

Fritz liked that. I wasn’t scary. I was nice. That made Fritz feel good and want to be near me.

So Fritz’s dad, who was also a really nice person when he dropped his alpha dog trainer persona, gave it a whirl. When Fritz heard the cue “come” and glanced at his person, he was praised. Oh hey, Fritz liked that and came RUNNING on cue.

Just capturing that one little questioning glace back and giving Fritz the promise of good things to come, made all the difference in the world.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The true key to good dog training is to be a teacher, not a trainer. And to give clear praise when praise is due. And perhaps most importantly to recognize when praise is due. Be in the moment. Your dog is.

OH if only I had a dime for every time I’ve seen people continually telling their dogs what NOT to do, but never capturing that moment when the dog is actually doing what they want. I would be a wealthy, wealthy retired dog trainer.

Think it through. Go talk to your dog. Talk. Don’t holler, yell, get all stern and scary. It’s not about intimidation. It’s about building communication.

Now get out there and play with your dog. Oh, and here’s another gratuitously adorable puppy photo as your reward. Good human. Goooood.

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(Bo-Bo and Fritz are not actual dog names. But the stories above are quite true. So true. Very true. Let’s just let all of my training clients wonder if it’s them…)

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It Was A Dark and Stormy Night…

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Photo by Jim Thomason

It was a dark and stormy night. The bank of clouds that had been building ominously on the west horizon all day had finally spilled across my landscape, churning and flashing with anger. There was no hint of a twinkling star, no sign of even one moonbeam to light the way home.

Is there even a moon tonight? I wondered as I switched the headlights back and forth from high to low beam finding no setting that cut through the swirling foggy mist. Full moon? Crescent moon? I couldn’t even remember. But it didn’t matter. Not tonight. The impending storm owned this night and all I wanted to do was win the race with it to my farm.

The first crack of lightening zigzagged its way across the sky casting an eerie glow just as I pulled through the gate to make my way down the long drive. The dogs were going to be bonkers by the time I finally got inside the house to shoo them outside for a quick potty break. Hopefully we could beat the rain that the impatient cloud bank was soon to release and avoid a dozen muddy paws.

All I wanted was to get inside, change into my comfy pajamas and house shoes, start a pot of chili on the stove, and enjoy the drama of the storm from the safety of my living room couch. But no. That’s not how life on a farm works. Even when you’re completely spent from a long day at work, you have to come home to your other job. The animals don’t understand “I’m taking a day off…take care of yourselves.”

Thankfully, the horses would have already been fed earlier in the day. I’d just make a quick run to the barn to be sure our old girl, GoGo, was safely inside so she wouldn’t get drenched in the storm. Then, I’d need to tuck the chickens in their coop for the night. I could surely get all of this accomplished before things got too bad. Surely.

As I put the Jeep into park another huge flash of lightening was immediately followed by a window-rattling roar of thunder that exploded all around me. Great. The storm was sitting right on top of me. Not a minute to spare. I cracked the car door open just a bit. The wind, seeming to sense my arrival, started swirling first one direction and then another as the cold front descended, promising a strong “weather event,” as our forecasters are so fond of calling it.

Taking a deep breath, I darted out of the Jeep and ran for the barn, grateful that I had on my Nikes. I’m no wimp about a little rain, but lightening really unnerves me. I’m not in favor of potentially being a human lightening rod. And right now, that barn sure seemed a lot farther away than it had earlier in the day.

Racing into the shelter, I was greeted by several startled snorts as our herd of horses and donkeys paced around nervously.

“I hear you guys…I’m not happy about this storm either.”

But everyone, including our matron mare GoGo, was safe and inside. The water trough was full. There was plenty of hay in the feeders.

One step closer to those jammies and chili!

Another deep breath and I was off to check on the chickens. No reprieve from the weather this time. The lightening was intensifying and the rain was teasing me with giant random drops hurling down to splat on the top of my head, and trickle down the back of my neck.

The coop was situated near a small grove of trees by our pond. The trees offered the chickens shelter from the hot summer sun and a little camouflage from soaring hawks overhead. Normally, I loved that little grove of trees, but tonight, the gnarled branches appeared to be reaching out to grab me and every little gust of wind crackled through the underbrush like a pack of predators in wait for a tasty meal.

Oh me and my imagination. Sometimes my best friend, but tonight, my worst enemy. Stop it, I ordered myself. Just focus on the chickens. You do this every single night. Focus.

So I peered into the coop and counted heads. As usual, I was one hen short. “Henelope?” I called out as I squinted in the darkness hoping to quickly see where my rogue hen had decided to roost this time. After just a moment, that seemed like an hour, I saw her dark form perched on the far edge of the little pen attached to the coop. Henelope gave a startled little squawk as one of the enormous raindrops beaned her right on the top of her head.

“You crazy chicken!” I said as I scooped her up and tucked her quickly inside the coop. “It appears neither of us has the sense to come in from the rain.” I secured the door on the coop and slid all of the little air vents shut so the chickens could ride out the storm snug and dry.

Another huge clap of thunder had me jumping. Just then there was an unmistakable rustle in the brush just behind me. I laughed nervously to myself. Stop being so silly, I admonished myself. You’re fine. You love storms. Well, you love them from INSIDE the house. Now, stop standing here looking around like the tragic figure in the horror movie who can’t seem to find any of her friends. Get inside to that chili!

Taking a deep breath, and cursing the lightening that still threatened to send silvery fingers down to turn my straight hair into fried curls, I turn and started toward the house, with my shoulders hunched and my head down as the rain intensified, immediately soaking my sweatshirt.

What was that sound? It almost sounded like something growling from the corner of the house. No. Nope. Stop it. Just get inside. You are doing this to yourself. Just go.

Cursing myself for not having the foresight to leave some lights on when I left the house that morning, I made my way gingerly through the inky night toward the front porch, adjusting my course with each flash of lightening.

Suddenly every hair on my neck and arms stood straight up in that moment of premonition. Then he was on me, grabbing me around my waist and clamping a hand across my mouth just as a piercing scream escaped that no one beyond my pack of frustrated dogs could hear.

I struggled, I kicked, I heard…I heard…

Laughter.

Dammit Jim.

Revenge will be sweet.

 

This story was inspired by a little “creativity prompt” that was posted in my online creative group, The Crazy Ones. It was also inspired by the thousands of times I’ve let my imagination get the best of me. And most of all, it was inspired by Jim…who popped out from dark shadows to scare me SO many times that I almost don’t react any longer. Almost. While this story is fiction…well, lets just say there’s a lot of truth in fiction. Thanks for keeping things interesting, Jim. 🙂

A Sheep by Any Other Name

meeting-bobI stepped outside to breathe in the fresh cool air of an Oklahoma Indian summer evening possibly, maybe, kind of surrendering to fall weather. The sky held a hint of  blush still highlighting the horizon before the darkness settled in. It was peaceful. And it was quiet. Very, very quiet.

Too damn quiet.

What was missing was the serenade of our old ram. Every evening prior to this for the last decade, if you stepped outside within sight of the pasture just to the south of the barn, you would be treated to a hopeful…no, that’s not the word…a demanding, somewhat plaintive one-note song.

Baaaaaaaaaaahb. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahb. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahb.

Ok, when you attempt to say that, be sure to make the “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah” part sound as if you are gargling when you say it. Then you’ll nail it.

This cry was so distinctive that said troubadour earned his name because of it.

Bob.

Ok, I would have typed it the way it was really spelled, but in print, well, you would have ended up saying “boob” in a warbling voice and…no. Nope. Wrong on so many levels.

But back to Bob.

On this evening, Bob did not call to me. Bob was not with us any longer. It’s simple really, Bob got old and needed to move on to the big pasture in the sky.

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Baby Bob

I remember when Bob first joined the Tails You Win Farm family. He came to us via a friend who found a stray little lamb. Yes, a stray baby lamb. It was right around Easter time in the spring. Perhaps Bob was an overzealous parent’s version of gifting the kids a bunny (please don’t do this) or a baby chick (even more of a don’t do this!). Or perhaps poor little Bob just strayed from the safety of his flock and apparently met up with a not-so-sheep-friendly dog or coyote. Bob had some wounds, a sore, swollen leg, and he was scared.

Fortunately for Bob, he found a very sheep-friendly human and she immediately starting doing her best to care for him. Ok, the one thing she did wrong? She actually named him Lambykins. Yeah. No.

She also immediately started looking for a safe haven for Lambykins-soon-to-be-Bob.

So yadda, yadda, yadda (do I REALLY have to explain that Jim and I jumped at the chance to have a baby lamb join our four-legged family?) and tiny, scared Bob-no-longer-Lambykins was secure in our horse trailer and headed to the farm. At the time, we had a llama that would be the perfect woolly companion and protector for our dear little lamb.

Now, when I say “lamb” you likely picture a precious, fluffy, white little creature with big brown eyes and an undeniably innocent, sweet nature. That’s what I pictured too.

But Bob was different. He was a black sheep. And when I say black sheep, I mean it in every sense of the term. I think Bob could have been considered cute and sweet for maybe one month of the 120 months that he shared our home. After that, especially after shearing time, he looked somewhat like a prehistoric alien and we had to start using adjectives like ornery, stubborn, thick, and not-the-sharpest-crayon-in-the-box to describe him.

bob-and-scoutBob got rather big, rather quickly. And Bob was pushy. Especially at mealtime.He wanted his supper and the supper of every single animal in the barnyard. So, at feeding time, Bob morphed into a black, fuzzy missile charging from feeder to feeder, pushing even the biggest of our horses off their grain so he could nibblenibblenibble it up at an alarming rate. The horses would stamp, snort, bite and kick in protest, but Bob in his woolen suit of armor was seemingly oblivious.

I recall Jim and I commenting to each other on more than one occasion, “This can’t be good for him.” You see, sheep really aren’t supposed to eat horse food. Sheep are supposed to eat sheep food.

So we tried to sequester Bob at mealtime. We tried to convince him to eat his special sheep food. He, in turn, discovered how very hard the top of his head was and tried to butt us into the next county.

Oh. Hell. No.

Picture Nancy, with a feed bucket swinging like a medieval flail, yelling and chasing after Bob (perhaps with a slight limp after having Bob’s helmet head meet squarely with my hip joint) while threatening all means of bodily harm if he EVER did that again. For the record, the threats were empty, Bob evaded me with great ease, and we never cured him of his exceedingly poor mealtime manners.

Oh sure, we could have put him in a separate pasture. And we tried that. We put Bob in Jerry Swinefeld the hog’s pasture (nobody, not even Bob dare steal food from Jerry!). The result? Well, where there is a will, there is a way, and where there is a way, there is a Bob. If Bob wanted to get out of a pasture, he got out. Add to that the fact that when Bob moved into Jerry’s domain, Jerry was not amused and moved right out. Yes, 700 pound hogs CAN somehow crawl under a pasture fence. Who knew?

Jerry vacated his comfy pig pasture and took up residence in our front yard and in the shade of the trees alongside the pond.

You know. Loose. Able to amble over to see what was going on at the neighbor’s house.

Now we had a large ram and a really large hog on the lam.

Back to plan A. Good luck horses. Duke it out with him. We surrender.

Then there was the time that we presented Bob with his first round bale of hay. If you are not familiar with “farm stuff,” a round bale is a large – generally five feet in diameter and four feet wide – roll of hay. You set it out to feed groups of animals during the fall and winter. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet for pasture dwellers.

Jim carried the heavy bale into the pasture via our trusty blue ford tractor and set it down about 20 feet from Bob. Bob stood staring at this new feature to his pasture and instead of saying “hooray, lunch!” Bob screamed “INTRUDER!” as he reared up, tucked his chin to his chest, and charged head-first into the side of the 900-ish pound bale.

WHAM.

Bob rebounded off the bale and landed firmly on his backside. And you know what happened next? He repeated the charge. He landed on his ass-end again. And then he repeated this feat no fewer than 10 times.

Oh Bob. It’s food, not foe. Bless. Your. Heart.

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Young Bob and our mini horse, Trigger

All in all, I think we gave Bob a pretty good life. He had plenty of room to roam. He had horses who tolerated him, he had donkeys and one fine mule who protected him from the coyotes (because yes, there was that one time the coyotes tried to lure Bob away to certain demise and Ferris Muler saved the day).

Bob always had fresh water to drink. He always had shade. He had several bad haircuts to help him stay cooler (and no, we never did master the art of keeping his wool clean or finding ways to spin it into woven tributes to his life here). He had shelter in bad weather and cool breezes on beautiful days.

And he seemed happy. He liked to have that tough spot on the top of his head scratched. He liked carrots and apples. And when he surveyed me with his funny, alien-looking sheep eyes, I think I saw a flicker of affection from time to time. Maybe ours was a bit of a love-hate relationship, but love won out. I admit it. I think Bob would admit it too.

bob-and-nanBob was our first sheep. Bob was most definitely our last sheep. But hey, Bob, I’m sure glad YOU got to be our one and only. You were an experience from start to finish.

Now get out there and enjoy stealing from all of the other animals’ feeders in sheep heaven, you big woolly bully. We’ll miss you. We’ll miss hearing your name.

Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahb!