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The Phoebe Chronicles VIII: Excuses, Excuses

While Phoebe couldn't come along, I spent a happy five days last month visiting with her family, the Genabacab clan of collies: mother Quiz, grandmother Kiwi, littermate Tilly, and assorted aunts and great-uncles. We all gathered in the Cotswolds, UK, the second weekend of October for Kay Laurence's Clicker Conference and Challenge.

squirrels

It was fascinating to pick out traces of my girl's characteristics in her relatives. Both Phoebe and her sister Tilly are long-legged romps compared to her graceful, composed mother and petite, sweet grandmother. Tilly has a serenity that may yet come to Phoebe… or not. Grandma Kiwi has Phoebe's impatience with boredom, yet endless willingness to stick with you as long as you're going somewhere. I could see in Quiz a maturation of Phoebe's fearlessness, the tendency to take the reins if she feels you're not up to the job.

Roger Reed, Tilly's buoyant and smitten owner and trainer, has done an impressive job of giving her a range of behaviors, each sharply on cue. She spins, she does a high high-five, and much more. I was, in truth, slightly chagrined. Phoebe has a lot of behaviors, too, but few are as well finished as Tilly's.

Well, I consoled myself, I'm so busy. What with these sons, and my work, and just life, I don't have time to train my dog really properly. Then every chance I do have to train, we're interrupted. And then there are all the bad habits other people teach her, like ankle-biting and leash-pulling and jumping up. If I cannot control my life, how can I control my dog?

Then I remembered that I am a clicker trainer. It's not about controlling my dog. It's about communicating with my dog. The erratic environment in which my dog lives may make intensive training sessions hard to come by, but there's no need for it to blur the clarity of our communication.

Take loose-leash walking. A lot of different people take Phoebe for walks: my sons, the little girls from down the street, my dog walking partner. Can I depend on any of them to walk her correctly, not to let her pull? Of course not. In fact, to a one, they unwittingly train her to yank them down the sidewalk. Even I don't always want her trotting by my side looking up at my face. Sometimes she needs be at the end of the leash, to sniff every smell, and find just the right spot to relieve herself.

Yet, when I want her trotting beside me, pacing herself to my step, and ignoring squirrels and scents in favor of me, I want it instantly. The cue for walking nicely, then, can't simply be walking on leash. That covers too wide a territory-too many people, too many places, too many variables-in Phoebe's world. I need a clear signal to her that says, "now, with me, in this place, I need you to walk that particular way I taught you." The more erratic a dog's environment, the more specific our cues need to be.

Drawing on my horseback riding days, I've turned Phoebe's leash in a rein; its position on her neck is her cue for the type of walking I desire. When I want her to walk by my side, it droops to the right, resting across her shoulder. She feels it as she walks, cueing her to continue the behavior. If she forgets herself, slight pressure on her shoulder, rather than her neck, reminds her. It doesn't hold her in position, but is a lightly felt signal. If walking at the end of the leash, sniffing and roaming as we go, is allowed, then the buckle of the leash moves up to between her shoulders. Conveniently, that's where it sits when anyone else walks her, so the behavior she gives them automatically receives the correct cue. While I haven't trained it yet, I think the cue for walking backwards (just for fun) will be draping the leash across her left shoulder. The position of the leash as a cue for walking manners didn't take long to train. It just required, and provides, clarity.

I empathize with pet owners who surrender to having half-trained dogs or chronic annoying behaviors because they can't control all the influences in their dogs' lives, all the inconsistencies that end up reinforcing unwanted behaviors. Yet, the clarity of clicker training-one clear signal for one specific behavior-is the antidote for an uncontrollable environment. We don't have to ask everyone to train the dog, a hopeless enterprise. We just need to teach each cue clearly and completely, a little bit at a time. No excuses.

Endnote:
Thank you all who offered so many good wishes for Phoebe's recovery from Coonhound Paralysis. She continues to regain her strength and will have no lasting effects, so we're feeling very lucky indeed.

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Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.

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