How to train a pup (during COVID)
My puppy is coming home. I’ve been counting the days since Argos’ birth in mid-October. That’s when serendipity and long hours of searching connected me with week-old new-born Rhodesian Ridgeback puppies 800 miles from where I live. But even before Argos’ eyes were open, his education was a main concern. Without a good school system, disaster loomed.
I’d been through the early years once before but that was in Kenya and over 11 years ago with Biko our Rhodesian Ridgeback. The bar was high. Biko, who died this October, was remarkably well behaved and socialized. He was, as my husband John reminded me many times, a charming and intuitive dog who had perfected the art of communication.
RRs – as they are known among afficionados – are a highly intelligent breed recognized for their stubbornness, strength, strong-willed independence, quirkiness, self-centeredness and last but far from least athletic handsomeness. Well trained, they are a dream companion, a funny, deeply loyal, sensitive, adored, gentle family member. Have I mentioned that they are handsome? Untrained, their large size, uncontrolled independence, tireless energy and strength can wreak havoc. Puppies can quickly become an exhausting domineering nuisance. Adolescent RRs are powerful velociraptors. Ingrained in my memory is watching a friend’s young RR flying across her living room from couch to couch, over chairs and children.
Having trained Biko all those years ago, in Nairobi (Kenya), I knew that aside from puppy-proofing the house, our new RR addition needed consistent training and positive motivation. But I was not prepared for the plethora of training options, the dozens of books, internet pages, and deeply divided opinions on training methods. The philosophies on how to train dogs are mind boggling.
I am of course armed. Pages of instructions, based on a Pavlovian school of positive enforcement, have been sent to me via email. I have dutifully read them and taken notes. I’ve followed the detailed directions of Dr. Ian Dunbar’s: “Before and After Getting Your Puppy. The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy & Well-behaved Dog.” That’s definitely the type of obedient dog I want to create.
I contemplated my future living with an un-trained young RR, a title that translates into unstable nitroglycerin. It left me anxious and terrified. To train my puppy I had to arm myself with pounds of treats: bulging my safari jacket pockets, in my closets, in my purse, in the car, in each room of the house, in Argos’ bowl, in his crate, and definitely in his Kong. Treats to sit, treats to come, treats to lie, treats to heel, treats to let me lift him up, a treat to get into the car, treats to play games, treats to stop barking. Even treats to bark. There is a whole treat-based technique to make a dog happy when you grab his collar. Then there more treats to deal with the omnivorous eating and chewing, peeing indoors, and the guaranteed pulling on the leash.
Some of these phases last two years! How will we all survive? I’d forgotten that in addition to everything mentioned above, Argos will have very sharp teeth. What if he developed habits such as eating dirt and rocks and furniture? Could treats cure that?
I am not saying that the Dunbar technique is wrong. I just can’t bring myself to solely having a food-based relationship with my puppy. There was so much to remember that I needed reems of notes to keep me from forgetting. Aside from feeling as if I was training a laboratory rat, would I have the energy and the patience to do this for longer than a few days?
I started exploring the internet. I liked Nate Schoemer and watched at least 10 of his videos. But I was overwhelmed when he suggested buying and wearing at all times a special vest with pockets on both sides and on your back for holding treats. They were apparently necessary for confidence building exercises. Puppy training is a complex ballet and focuses on engagement exercises that include primary and conditioning reinforcements, marker sounds, free shaping, luring and leash pressure. And yes, I am not sure what half of those entail. There is a well-ordered sequence: start by stating your order followed by the hand signal, then the food and finally the clicker. Precision, Nate warned, is critical. So is holding the treat in the nook of your palm and regularly alternating hands.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are The Monks of New Skete, a Christian monastic community in Cambridge New York that has well known dog trainers and authors. They do not use treats as training methods but rather techniques focused on building human to dog relationships relying on patience, repetition, discipline and praise. They are also controversial. Critics say they use outdated punishment and some techniques are harsher as in relatively longer crate stays.
Biko’s breeder, Jeff Greene, the founder and owner of RidgeBack Africa, a dog training business then based in Nairobi, is a dog whisperer. Greene, a former Special Forces soldier, as well as his wife are professional trainers of protection, therapy and companion dogs such as Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. At the time, they bred RRs as a small sidebar to their business. His dogs were not trained via treats. Yet they were well-behaved and attached to their trainers. RRs don’t have the same work drive as those breeds but Biko and I still joined basic training sessions. We never made it to the professional training circuit but we learned enough for Biko to live in harmony with the family while obeying all basic orders. Though he never climbed on couches or beds or ate furniture, he insisted on occasionally sitting on one particular folding metal chair which remained with us across three continents. At dinnertime, he didn’t beg but he would stealthily crawl under the table and slowly and gently remove paper napkins from people’s laps then tear them to shreds before disappearing behind a sofa. In those treacherous adolescent first two years, Biko ate one flip flop, chewed one Birkenstock, counter surfed once on the dining room table by eating ¼ of a round of Gouda. He clipped one of our friends while zooming at top speed on our lawn, pushing her to the ground (luckily unhurt and to this day an ardent Biko fan). His weak point was a love of chasing bicycles. Music calmed him. Biko sat immobile close to my son during years of daily violin practice. In Nepal, he was mesmerized by cymbal chanting Tibetan monks and wandering cows and goats. In Turkey he patiently let himself be petted and often kissed during his daily walks. Even 11 years later, he still obeyed all basic commands. And after he returned the US, he barked only when he saw the UPS man.
Still in this COVID-19 world of isolation and distancing, I don’t think I can replicate on my own either of these essential training techniques. I am not a dog whisperer. I’ve been reading, studying, analyzing and Amazon ordering while pondering puppy destructiveness. According to Dunbar, Argos will need as part of his early critical socializing to meet a minimum of two new adults every day. I must throw a “meet the puppy” party where each adult and each child must pick up Argos and play and hug him. I don’t think Dunbar would approve of a Zoom party as a substitute. I live in Rural Virginia. My mail box is a 15-minute walk from the house. Most neighbors are even further. All puppy play classes are closed down.
Biko lived interacting mostly just with us and our visiting humans. In Kenya no one socialized their dogs with the neighbors. In Nepal, we were surrounded by unvaccinated stray dogs but Biko preferred the neighborhood goats and cows that followed him on his walks. Now I have to ponder what had never occurred to me as a first-time dog owner. If I won’t train Argos through buckets of treats and don’t have the know-how and ability to mold a service animal, should I be Buddhist and choose the middle path?