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Monday, March 21, 2011

Living with a smart, sweet dog

Tonight I came home late, at around 9:30PM and the first thing I always see when coming in the front door is her smiling face. Now, dogs don’t smile, but there’s definitely a very happy and excited look that Maggie has, and if you didn’t know her, or if you were afraid of dogs, I don’t think you would like that face very much because her front teeth and fangs are all out, and her eyes are narrow as if she were ready to attack.

I must pause writing at this moment because hers truly came up to get my attention by sitting patently at my desk and giving the quiet “growl” sound she learned gets our attention. I typically respond to these rumbly “mmmmmm”s by standing and saying “show me” which she uses as a sign to lead me through the house to the thing she wants: either the front door for a walk, or back door for yard play, or a toy for tug, or the “food station” for the things that come from there. But tonight to my surprise when I said “show me” she didn’t respond, so when I kneeled she showed me what she really wanted by rolling on her back and exposing her belly for some affection. While I pet her stomach she shows her standard reciprocal affection by putting her paw somewhere on my person (in this case my stomach) and pressing to make some firm contact.

Speaking of which, I’ll share a slightly personal story. Saturday morning I slept late, and Maggie didn’t bother me. So when she heard me trundle around upstairs, she came up to meet me. She was certainly in need of a walk, and she was coming up to ask me so. Now like I said, she will lead me in the direction where she wants to go. Typically she’ll stand facing the direction and then look back to see if I’m following. Now I should point out that since I just got out of bed, I wasn’t what you might call “dressed.” We met on the second floor landing, and rather than lead me downstairs, she led me back to my bedroom. In other words, she took me to get dressed before taking me downstairs for a walk. Neither of us taught her that. She figured that out on her own.

Getting back to tonight - so, after the greeting and the pets and the licks, I told her we were going to do some “training”. Sometimes “training” means working on commands and responses, but in this case we were just going to play with some of her brainier toys. These are a set of three toys made by Nina Ottonson.


When I bought the first of these toys I thought to myself “How the hell is Maggie going to learn how to use these?” But with some patient training from Beth, she was really able to master these. Here’s an old video of her doing the “Dog Smart” puzzle. I assure you she can do these puzzles much faster than she could back then in September.

We did all three of these puzzles tonight, and her performance was typical -- she solves Dogsmart with surprising speed, Dogfighter with reasonable confidence, and with Dogbrick needs a little work and a little help. Watching her struggle with Dogbrick I thought about learning in general, and how she struggled with moving the bricks: with her nose, her teeth and her paws. I have no doubt that with more regular practice she will master it. And this made me think about my own career, and how practice is what makes you good at a task. It doesn’t make you smarter; it just makes you more competent. It helps that Maggie is a smart dog to begin with, but the practice made her an expert at Dogsmart.

We finished the puzzles and with the few remaining pieces of her training treats we went over some basic commands: “on your side”, “stand”, and “stay”. I tried testing her on the very last treat by putting her “on her side” and making her “stay” while a training treat was about two inches from her face. She patiently waited for 30 seconds, her eyes moving between me and the treat. I asked her to “stand” and instead she moved for the treat. I gave her a surprised “Hey!” because .. you know .. hey! Yelling would be wrong, but admonishing her with a loud noise is fine.

Training must always end on a positive note, even if it’s for the stupidest thing, so I resolved to give her one more thing to do. I stood up and so did she so I told her to lie back “down”. After that I had her go “on your side”, and made her “stay”. But then I walked from the living room to the kitchen out of her sight and continued to repeat “stay”. I expected to hear the jingle of her collar tags when I opened the bag of treats, but nothing happened. I was stunned to return with her still “on your side” even though I had been out of sight for so long, and so she was rewarded with a large amount of treats.

Now as I conclude this post she’s lying on the carpet in my office. She fell asleep and is making the distinct barking noise she makes when she’s dreaming. Is she dreaming about a “squirrel”? That’s another word she knows.

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