Tag Archives: rhodesian ridgeback

When so much is expected – Focus on the butterflies

Argos taking a break from his daily training (c) Donatella Lorch

Argos has proved he can outsmart me. I’ve been trying to teach my five-month-old, 60lbs Rhodesian Ridgeback ‘recall.’ That’s when you call your dog and he happily stops what he is doing – chasing a cat or running after a car or jumping up on the Amazon delivery man, and enthusiastically runs back to you. Just like in the movies.  Argos however has a tendency for selective response. On a recent morning, walking off lede, he took off at a zooming gallup and, oblivious of my call, he jumped into a nearby pond’s reeds and disappeared. He then re-emerged violently shaking his head, his teeth clamped on the neck of a very dead duck. He not only did not come when summoned, but he spent the next half hour evading my efforts at capture.

There must be another duck out there (c) Donatella Lorch

Dog trainers agree ‘recall’ is the hardest order to teach and the most critical. Most advise to hook the collar to a long lede then call him and gently tug him rewarding him with treats when he returns. Resilient ‘recall’ can take months of training. I started working in a meadow with Argos on a 30-foot lede. We saw geese, a rabbit, and all sorts of flying insects. Twice Argos took off but returned with a call, a gentle tug and a small piece of cheese. But then, whenever I hooked him to the lede, he just sat by my side. He had in his own way taught me my most important lesson: training a dog goes beyond a list of repeated techniques.

There isn’t a day that I don’t question my ability to successfully train Argos. He can be a devoted angel, with a pro ‘heel’ on our morning walk only to metamorphose into a snipping, whirling, leaping brown blur. Some days, he lets me jump over him as he lies down immobile. Other times, he digs in his heels and refuses to follow me on leash or nips my calves. It is exhausting. For me and probably also for Argos.

I know I have a narrow window for basic training. Around his sixth month – thats next week – he becomes a teenager, a metamorphose that lasts for another year or more. That’s when ignoring commands becomes a skill. Ridgebacks lose the desire to listen and cooperate. Ridgeback males can hit 100lbs as adults. They are stubborn and strong. A lunge on leash can pull you to the ground. For several weeks now, I’ve been feeling that I am trying too hard, wanting too much, stuck in a rut of my creation. The COVID puppy boom has booked in-person dog trainers for the next year.  Facebook floods my feed with smiling, energetic and magical trainers that promise to teach behavior techniques that – at a price – will  deliver a perfect pet. Even The Wall Street Journal has become a financially-focused canine expert.

Puppies are apparently not trained in utero to appreciate the wonders of the loose leash. Argos took to the leash with the speed and strength of a lede horse at a chariot race. Argos is quick to show his frustration. He jumps on my chest only to dash behind and jump on my back. I’ve sourced the extensive dog internet, called friends, re-read a few of my dog books and spent a considerable amount of time lying on the floor, eyes closed, analyzing my failures.  I felt stuck, frustrated, unsure. I had expected the final product – a trained puppy – could be created with specific ingredients.

  Perhaps, part of this is due to decades of being a reporter, digging and pushing for information and for access.  As a TV correspondent, my producer nicknamed me ‘bulldozer.’ It’s taken me a while to admit that my strengths as a journalist are not techniques appreciated by a puppy.  A few years ago, I hit a similar wall when my family and I lived in Nepal. The capital Kathmandu was home to more than 20,000 stray dogs. Thirty of these lived on my street. I feared and avoided them. With time many became my walking companions. I learned their habits. Absorbed their wisdom. Fed them. Mutual respect meant I even began to appreciate their nighttime howling.  I let them guide me. Recently, a friend suggested I watch ‘Stray’ a love letter of a documentary filmed in Istanbul that follows the lives of several stray dogs. The camera trails them at dog level but never interferes. Dignified and quiet, gentle but street savvy, the dogs are oblivious to humans’ problems.  It was the balm I needed.

There is no meanness in Argos. No anger. No dislike.  He greets with exuberance every dog and every human and chases every squirrel. He responds to recall most of the time though at times at a slow walk. Argos likes to sit on my feet. Crawl between my legs.  Steal my slippers. He follows me everywhere. Even into the shower. When I take him shopping at Rural King, or Lowe’s, he is a people-magnet. His loose leash has good moments. Yes, he caught the duck and also dug up and ate a goose egg. But it’s also the miniature white butterfly bivouacs that mesmerize him. I love watching him zig zag, leaping, left and right, up and down trying to catch one. So far, they’ve out matched him.

The Education of Argos

How to train a pup (during COVID)

Van Morrison “These are the Days.

Biko surveying his world and getting it ready for Argos
Biko in Kathmandu – always wanting to be part of the conversation – socializing with our neighbors. Biko was born in Kenya and lived with us also in Nepal, Turkey and the U.S. He died October 22, 2020 in Rappahannock Va

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? 

Biko and my son Lucas – inseparable