One day shortly before the holidays, I looked over from working in the study to see that the sun was casting a rectangle of light through the window onto the rug, and that Pundit had positioned his head and shoulders exactly in that rectangle and fallen asleep. Thank you, Pundit, for reminding us to grab the chance to sunbathe, especially in the winter, whether it means walking outside in the morning or at lunch, or just taking a minute to find and sit in the sunniest spot.
It’s January 8, and I’m still pushing. It was easy to fit in pushing over the weekend, and I even got my daugher to film me (see below). On Monday, I pushed with Cholula at 10:30 at night out in the dark and the cold. I could see the stars even through the many city lights in the clear night, which was lovely and inspiring until my hand, cold and wet from the dampened dog food, froze on the way back. This morning I took the food with me and pushed during a morning walk around the block before breakfast. In terms of unusual behavior, during this time, Cholula:
killed a squirrel
ate a piece of broccoli
The squirrel killing happened in the woods, when Cholula was off leash. Mostly, the squirrels hang out in the trees off the path, and Cholula darts this way and that, giving them plenty of time to get out of the way. This squirrel was sitting on the path. Why was the squirrel sitting on the path? Maybe it had already been injured. In any case, Cholula chased it, killed it, and then pranced around with it while I ran away from the horrible sight. Then she dropped it in the woods and ran happily to me. I sincerely apologize to the squirrel spirit and have no plans to let her off the leash again any time soon.
She has started playing ball, for real. She’ll still only play ball in our back yard, and only with these squeaky bumpy balls I got her. And she plays ball like a cat, leaping and pouncing on the ball, sometimes pawing at it before she picks it up. But she is playing ball for real–chasing the ball, picking it up, bringing it back to me, and dropping it for the next throw. This is a huge breakthrough for us and a long time coming. When I first got Cholula, among the many things she wouldn’t do was play. All of the play in this beautiful dog had been wrung out of her by the stressed/passive/avoidant attitude with which she approached life. As I’ve worked with her through Natural Dog Training, one of my overarching hopes has been to bring out her playfulness before she gets too old to want to play. The working on the bark, and now the regular pushing, is helping me continue to break down those barriers. I would like to put a video of her playing ball up soon.
The broccoli eating — ?? Pundit will eat anything and therefore if he ate a piece of broccoli it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. But Cholula has always been a picky carnivore. She loves meat, she loves salmon, she might begrudgingly eat some rice or potato. But broccoli? Usually, if we give her a plate of leftovers, she will neatly and delicately eat around each and every vegetable, daintily leaving them untouched on the plate. But my daughter dropped a piece of broccoli on the floor in front of her, and Cholula picked it up betwen her teeth, experimenting. She played with it briefly and then — the broccoli disappeared! Eaten!
Besides the ball playing, I don’t know if these other recent activities of Cholula are related to the pushing or not. What do you think?
Here is a video of me pushing with Cholula. If anyone is looking at this who doesn’t already know what pushing is, basically, I am offering her food with my right hand while holding my left hand against her chest so she has to push against my left hand to get the food out of my right. If you make it to the end, you will see my son come up and apologize for taking away my magic. I think he may have been giving it back, so I’m hoping it will help carry me through the coming week —
I’ve pushed for three days now. If nothing else, my New Year’s resolution to push with Cholula every day in January even if it means pushing with her at 10:30 at night has inspired me to find ways to push with her earlier in the day so I don’t have to do it when I’d rather go to bed. But there is something else–Cholula’s enthusiasm for the pushing has increased. This evening I pushed with her for her dinner in the back yard, incorporating some running away from her so she had to chase me down in order to push for the food, and with every push her tail was wagging hard and fast. Then when she came inside, she play bowed to me in the living room and rolled over on her back so I could rub her belly. This is how I’ve fit in the pushing so far:
Jan 1 (didn’t do it; I hadn’t started the resolution yet)
Jan 2: pushed with her around 10:30 as we walked down our main street. (When Pundit it with us, he always shares in her training, so he pushed as well; I just don’t let him push hard enough to get off the ground, as his hind legs can’t take it.)
Jan 3: Coordinated getting the kibble in the fanny pack before I took the dogs on a morning walk around the block and pushed with her as we walked. Then, because I ended up having to walk her again at night, I got the kibble together again and pushed again.
Jan 4: As my husband cooked dinner and the kids were watching videos or helping cook and I had a few minutes of rare early evening downtime, I realized that if I pushed with her then, I wouldn’t have to do it later before bed. So I put her dinner in the fanny pack and we went into the back yard and pushed.
I’d love to hear others’ thoughts, efforts, experiences. What has worked for you in terms of fitting in or enhancing the pushing or other basic training?
Happy New Year! I have a lot of dog-related goals for the coming year—I’d like to get really Cholula playing ball! And able to hold a tug toy as she walks down the street! And I’d like to know that wherever we are, whatever we are doing, if I call, Cholula will come! And I would like to take good care of aging Pundit and never ever step on his sore, arthritic feet no matter how in the way he is! And I’d maybe even like to get another dog! But when I start thinking about when, realistically, am I going to make time for all of these goals, I get anxious, and fretful, and I know that’s never helpful when it comes to working with a dog.
So for January, at least, I’m stepping away from these end-point oriented goals. When I think about Cholula’s progress over the past year, amidst the limited effort I managed to put into training her, this is what I come up with: once or twice a week, on average, I worked with her on speak on command. This was the primary suggestion of my master dog trainer, Kevin Behan (www.naturaldogtraining.com) Cholula and I made some progress, as you can see in my recent post, Cholula Shows Her Speak; you can also see in my recent post that her bark is still not perfect.
The bark training led to some direct effects last year–first of all, finally, she (sort of) barks on command. Second, when we are out on a walk now and I see her getting stressed about another dog on a leash I can often get her to release the stress in a resounding bark and continue our walk in peace (this in fact was the main goal of the speaking on command and so this is something I am happy about indeed). But the biggest change that has happened with Cholula over the past few months is something seemingly unrelated to her speaking on command—it’s how she walks in the woods.
There is a triangular stretch of woods near our house with paths running through it; bordered on all sides by a neighborhood or a road, so it has clear boundaries. My husband often takes the dogs walking there on weekend mornings and lets them off leash; I take them there less often. Cholula often would bound off into the woods like a leaping deer, returning onlly when she was ready. We stopped bothering to call her because, really, there was no point to it. At least half of the time he went to the woods with her, my husband would come back irritated that Cholula had disappeared and he’d had to wait for her. I’d had the same experience, so I knew how irritating it could be.
But recently, my husband starting coming back from every walk to the woods in a good mood. He started saying things I’d thought I might never hear, things like “Cholula and I had such a nice walk this morning.” Over the holidays, I had the chance to take the dogs to the woods a number of times, and I saw what he was talking about. Cholula still bounds off, darting down the ravine or up the hill after squirrels she (cross fingers) never catches, but she circles back. In a loose, relaxed spirit, her forays down or off the path now seem to naturally lead her right back to us, so that when we want to put the leash on and head for home, she is there, panting, wagging, happy, and ready to go with us.
How did this transformation occur? I think it’s a side effect of the bark training. I think that what Kevin Behan sometimes calls the “softening” of the problem dog through things like bark training has softened Cholula’s huntress spirit so that while she still loves to hunt, she is less driven to forsake us. Sang Koh has also written about how when you focus on Natural Dog Training’s basics, a lot of problem behaviors that don’t seem directly related to the basic NDT exercises of pushing, barking on command, and tugging nevertheless melt away.
I’m going to keep up the bark training as I have been, mostly on the weekends. But my resolution for January is to go back to another one of Natural Dog Training’s basic practices, and push with Cholula. Every day in January, five minutes a day, push with her for food. Just to do it. Just to see.
I know that with my family’s schedule, this means that there will be days when I’m out pushing with her at 10:30 at night. But if I can’t find the time earlier in the day, I think I can commit to giving her 10:30 to 10:35 every day of this cold, quiet month. Does anyone else want to commit with me? Cholula and I would love the company, and I would love to hear in comments how it goes.
I’m going to try to post a video of me and Cholula pushing in the next few days, but until I can convince my videographer (aka 6-year-old daughter) to work with me, here is a good description of the practice from Lee Charles Kelley: Please join me and Happy New Year to you all!
Growing up in the 70s, in the fall, the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was a magical place to be a child. Bumpy spherical fruits, roughly the size of a softball, would fall out of the trees where they had hidden, unnoticed, all summer, and land on grass, roads, sidewalks. With their nubby skin and faintly citrus scent, these osage oranges were fascinating things to hold, rub, sniff. Their heft made them satisfying to throw, too. All of us kids threw them into the street to be smashed by cars, where they would turn into large, pale green circles of guts and gore that would rot with an increasingly fruity stench.
And then, on another scale, there were the berries that appeared on the vines that wrapped around bushes and across any open space along the edges of the meadows of Rock Creek Park and other woodland areas. Clusters of pink, blue, lavender, magenta, and purple berries appeared on these leafy vines, many different colored berries even in the same cluster. It was as if the Porcelain Vine invented princess colors long before the Disney princess phenomenon; the colors of these berries could not be more reflective of princesses and magical kingdoms. We picked these magical kingdom princess berries to create potions, swirl around in our palms, count, feed dolls and toss to the birds.
And then, of course, there was the created magic of jack o lanterns on front porches on Halloween, candles flickering inside toothy grins. We never made it much further than down one long block, but there were the rumors of razor blades in apples, the darkened house we weren’t allowed to go to, the house we were allowed to go up to, but at which nobody ever answered the door. Those precious bags of candy that were stashed in dresser drawers and carefully winnowed down until they eventually disappeared. “The dog must have eaten the rest,” we always told each other. I fully believed this story; not until I had kids of my own did I learn that my mother had eventually thrown the bags of aging candy away.
We live in D.C. now, but in a different neighborhood, where I haven’t seen any Osage Orange trees. And while I jog by the Porcelain Vines in Rock Creek Park, their berries as startling a part of the fall as ever, my kids haven’t been turned loose down there to find them. But I walked into our back yard the other day after the kids had been busy with their friends there for hours and found seed pods and grasses and flowers plucked from neighboring back yards drying on our patio table. I saw the kids’ horror at the news that Halloween might be ruined by a coming storm. Our neighborhood is still a magical place to be a child. Isn’t yours?
When we were up in Maine last week, we went to Popham Beach. Dogs aren’t allowed on the beach in the summer, when we are usually up there, so Pundit and Cholula had never been. The kids, cozy in front of the fire, hadn’t wanted to go– “We don’t want to go to the beach when we can’t swim!” — My six year old went so far as to state, “I am NOT going.” Nevertheless, we all went. We got to Popham at low tide, when there is a tremendous vista of sand stretching to the sea, with various inlets of ocean curling along the hard rippled sand and a sand bridge out to an island that becomes covered at high tide. There were a few other people out, and a few other dogs, but by far the overwhelming sensation was of sea and sand. It was lunch time, and we’d even brought chips. But as my husband and I chose a spot and put down our blankets and sweaters and picnic items and opened the chips, the kids and dogs just ran. The kids tossed off their shoes and grabbed the dogs’ leashes and took off across the sand, wading through the inlets of cold water and running on and on, to the ocean’s edge and then along it.
What could my husband and I do? We ran after them. Pundit, our water dog, was tremendously excited to get to the ocean and stand in it and bark. Cholula–I hadn’t predicted how Cholula would feel about the beach. But the open vista where she could see a mile in any direction and the brisk breeze put her in a frenzy of joy. At one point she pulled her leash out of my daughter’s hands and dashed off towards the horizon along the sand. I was momentarily fearful we’d spend the rest of the day looking for her–but she heeded my call and bounded back and jumped on me, and from then on, she ran on leash with us, happy to go in any direction, at any speed.
The sea gulls ate our chips while we were racing around, and a bag of cookies too. But I would so rather be among the ones who drop everything to enter the glory of the moment than among those who stick with their plan, who guard what they have gathered, who hold on to what they have.
An art show on the road to the dump? We followed the signs from Route 209 and drove past the dump to an old Maine barn where there was, in fact, an art show of local artists. Andrea Brand, a Maine artist, had pulled the show together. By the next summer, she had turned the barn into a full-time seasonal gallery and we went there this week, just as her second full season was ending. We bought a sea glass sailboat, ladybug painted rocks, a photo of a juvenile sea gull swimming above its reflection in the glassy wake of a fishing boat, and a love collage.
We also got to chat with Andrea. She said that on her first date with her husband, he charmed her by bringing her out to this barn, which was at the time filled with baby pigs. Now, he is a lobsterman and she uses the barn for her art and her gallery. She also said that one of the many things she loves about her husband is that he leaves her alone to do her work.
I loved seeing the materials on her work table–jars and jars of sea glass sorted by color, shells, sand dollars, paints, driftwood, twine. I love that she has has created such space in her life to do her art–and that with the barn gallery, she created space to show and sell not just her art, but also the art of others in the community to those of us willing to stop by. And that she created it in a barn on a side road with little through traffic–other than the traffic to the dump, for which most cars would turn around after getting to the dump without ever passing the barn) and no other commercial enterprises–it was not an obvious space for a gallery, except for within her vision and willingness to create it. (She also has a blog if you want to check it out.)
I’ve been wanting to post a video of Cholula speaking for a while. But with one thing and another–some technical difficulties and the fact that with my six year old as my videographer I had to wait for a break in her busy six year old life to get her to film me with Cholula–here we are. Finally, I have a video showing her progress. (As is typical in our training sessions, Cholula’s bark gets better as the training session goes on. If you make it all the way to the end of the video, you’ll hear her best.)
I’ve been working with Cholula on the speak command for over a year and a half now. Clearly, some of the slowness of her progress is due to my own ineptitude and inexperience, and the fact that I don’t train her every day. But I was able to get my other dog, Pundit, to speak in a few days, and recently, after all my practice with Cholula, able to get an uninhibited 8 year old lab to speak within a matter of minutes. But Cholula is different. For close to a year, Cholula would respond to my efforts with maybe a play bow, or a pawing of the air, or jumping up–but she would not open her mouth. When she finally did start opening her mouth, she would curl her lips back and bite, sometimes quite ferociously, at the air, but with no breath. No breath at all. The breath still completely absent when the bite motion was there. Then came the sneezes, the huffs, the moans, all of which are present still in our training, as the video shows. And finally, the bark. Not a perfect bark, but a bark.
So a dog who it seemed might never bark finally does; what does it mean? In my dog trainer Kevin Behan’s words (www.naturaldogtraining.com) “The point of training a dog to bark on command, is that it becomes a way to stress the dog, and then he resolves the stress by a clean, clear, deep bark. Why is this important? Because it gives the dog a way to express fear without having to act on fear. .. energy that moves is safe, energy that is being held back is always dangerous.”
While I can’t prove that the huge progress Cholula has made in leaving behind leash aggression and unpredictable aggression around other dogs (the critical problem that emerged when I brought Cholula home from the shelter and that brought me to my dog trainer, Kevin Behan, for help) this is what I have come to understand over the past year and a half that I’ve been trying to get her to speak. Central to Cholula’s problems was that the survival mode she had worked out through whatever combination of nature and nurture she had grown up in prior to landing in the shelter and, eventually, with me, involved minimizing as much as possible any actual interaction with her owner. While she might go into a frenzy barking at the neighbor or lunging at another dog, when it came to dealing with me and my husband, she held everything back. Initially, she wouldn’t even eat when we put food down in front of her, much less take it from our hand. A dog this shut down might appear calm and sweet, but actually, she’s lost in her own world, almost unreachable, waiting for a perceived threat or prey to arouse the energy that otherwise she has bottled up. As Kevin described above, that repressed energy was unstable and dangerous. With such a shut down dog, it is very difficult to find a way into her such that she can actually engage in the training. Sure, she might apathetically sit, shake hands, etc., but as long she is obeying commands as part of her ongoing project to avoid as much as possible any trouble with her owner, really, she remains lost in her own world, and no real progress is being made towards chnging her perception of the world such that she no longer felt the need to attack other dogs.
I’ve written about my journey to get Cholula to bark several times on this blog, but what I came to realize over time was that the speak on command was so hard for Cholula because it meant actually directly interacting with me. Not just obeying me but responding to me with her full self. I think you can see in the video the full-on body work Cholula uses to get her bark out–and the pleasure she gets from doing it and getting her reward. Finally, we are face to face, and she is telling me how she feels. (I’ve also written recently about how now, in the presence of an actual trigger such as a dog or a skateboarder, I sometimes can get an astonishing waterfall of barks out of her, the full energetic expression of her emotional state).
For so long, I thought of the speak on command as an end goal. The slowness with which we moved towards that goal tested my patience–in fact, it helped develop patience, and, I hope, strengthened my ability to accept each moment of effort as progress and to keep the chains of frustration loose. Now, though, I see that the speak on command is an opening to something new. Far from closing in on our end goal, we are at the beginning of our real relationship, and I am wondering where we might go.
So here it is, Cholula, sort of, speaking on command:
This week is my Dad’s 77th birthday. Thus, this Thursday inspiration.
Sometimes, my Dad is the slowest person I know. My sister and I burst out laughing when my mother told us that on their more recent tour-group travels, everyone else in the group was invariably waiting on the tour bus while my father finished looking at the art works in the museum, or the ancient ruins, or the mountains at a scenic overlook. We remember too well being stuck in the car or walking behind him in various nature preserves while my father stared raptly through the binoculars at a bird on a far away branch. At the time it seemed absurd. We wanted to get back to the hotel, to a pool, and snacks, and t.v. Now I wish I had his patience, his ability to take the time to absorb beauty. It is a gift, something for the rest of us to cultivate as best we can.
My Dad is also one of the most active people I know. Whenever he hears about something to go see –an eclipse, a fallen tree, a new park, a new exhibit, a parade– he goes. Once he brought back an alligator skull from a work trip to Florida. “How did you get that?” I asked. “Well, I had a couple of hours between meetings, so I went for a walk along a canal behind the hotel. I got a little lost and went father than I meant to, and I saw some bones sticking out of the mud, so I scraped away the mud and found this amazing skull. Then I had rush out of the canal and I wans’t sure where I was. Thank goodness a cab came by or I never would have made it to my next meeting.” How many of us, with a couple of hours between work meetings in a strange locale, with a nice hotel room and t.v. waiting, would find our way to a deserted canal path on which there just might be a alligator skull? And yet which is the hour better spent? It is an inspiration.
He is a hobbyist and as I get older, the more of his old hobbies I find I take up. Photography, aquariums, the treasures of the ocean-sea glass or shells. I don’t play bridge. I don’t race sailboats. I don’t have any cacti–but ask me in 10 years. As well as passing on full-fledged hobbies, he brought me into some of their beginnings. We windsurfed together when hardly anyone did. I dabbled in windsurfing over the years while my father ranked in eastern championships for his age group (getting old can be advantageous). The two of us took our first scuba diving course together. I was in high school and didn’t follow up with it much. He dove in many of the beautiful dive spots of the world. While I’m completely at peace with the tiny amount of scuba diving I’ve done, I’ll always remember driving out to the suburbs of D.C. as a 10th grader to sit at the bottom of a pool with my Dad, practicing breathing through the contraption.
My Dad brought me and my sister into the world with him, confident that we could take the time he could to appreciate the beauty around us, even when we couldn’t fully match the depth of his absorption, and confident that we, like he, could always take the time and energy to break from our daily routines to see what there was to see. It wasn’t always easy. We didn’t always want to follow his lead. But I’m pretty sure that we were always glad that we did.