Old Yeller Comes Home

Part Five of Five

And so in anticipation of these prolonged agonizing escaped-convict chases, we’d take two leashes, two walkie-talkies, and two containers of useless treats, knowing we might be at the task for far more time than we wanted, generating way more angst than was fitting for our once-bucolic lives in the era of Gandy, Tsuga or Buster. 

And in the end, one of two things would happen. One, he’d surprisingly show up in the vicinity of one of us, after we had split up to go different directions that the dog might go. Rarely, after as little as ten minutes, he would let us leash him and get him back home. Or the more likely second outcome, he would be totally missing for an hour; then appear over by the barn or down in Yucca Flats; or be walking down the road and out of sight; or heard barking from the neighbor’s house. That was the last straw—when he began to go bother the neighbors. We couldn’t have that.

When he was in full escape mode, the only thing that worked was to leave the front and side doors open. And after an average of an  hour and fifteen minutes (depending on the heat) he would reach a level of sheer exhaustion and walk in the door like nothing had happened. We wanted to wring his neck!

I used to joke that the likelihood of him giving up his freedom was directly proportional to the length of his tongue. The longer it drooped as he panted, the closer he was to surrendering to the authorities.

Except that is the point: WE were not the authorities. He had no allegiance or obligation or desire to please us when he was in his feral state. He acted as if he could not hear or smell or see us at all. We ceased to be a part of his consciousness, even as he ran in front of a passing truck while we waited helplessly for this tedious episode to end—until it was repeated just the same way the next day. 

Why? What made him so affectionate indoors but bolt and then totally fail to listen or care the instant he was off-leash? My theory was that, in his first life, the only time he was free-ranging was when he escaped. And when he was recaptured, he was NOT praised for coming back but punished for the aggravation he’d caused. We tried very hard NOT express our true feelings when the dog finally drug his sorry self through the open doors after a tense and fretful hour or more of being on the loose.

And it was at this point that I began writing the emails to shelters explaining why we must reluctantly “rehome” Scout. But there was one last thing to try.

I still had a “stim collar” (or e-collar) I had purchased for Dingo, a blue heeler who we reluctantly took in back last fall when he showed up and would not take no for an answer.  He was probably the smartest dog I’ve ever attempted to train—indoors. But he was freaked at passing cars. He actually was run over once, front to back of a passing truck full of good ole boys, and only lost a little fur. But the e-collar was my desperate hope to break Dingo of his car-chasing habit. The collar arrived a week before he bit me, unprovoked, the second time, just before the grandkids were coming. With great reluctance, we decided we could no longer keep him. 

So, this frowned-upon training tool was my last hope. I probably spent an entire work-week watching training videos for how to use an e-collar correctly. This was another training tool that could be and had been misused, and so there are a lot of haters—for prong collars and e-collars. And I understand that. But the point was made again that used properly, the stim collar was to be a means of communication, not punishment. And what I liked about the current crop of devices was that they offered a variety of modes of communication, with a hundred levels for vibration and electrical stimulation. 

And yet I worried that unless this negative reinforcement was applied at just the right time and with just the right cues and then positive rewards, it could make the dog want to run AWAY from us to get away from the tingle. I put it off as long as I could, knowing this was Scout’s last chance to succeed. Frankly, I was not hopeful.

I combined the retractable leash with the stim collar over a month or more, mostly using mid-range vibration (like a smartphone vibration that signals information without making you wet your pants) or very low stim levels (less than 20 out of 100). Over and over, Scout would be walking ahead almost to the full extent of the leash. I’d call COME! and press and hold the Vibration button until the instant he turned and looked my way and started in my direction. At that point, I’d gently pull him my direction, even walking quickly backwards to let him cover more ground until he reached me. I’d offer a treat, but he generally preferred GOOD BOY! And a pat on the head.

In early November, the moment of truth had come. We took the dog—with no small dread—to the end of the pasture. We allowed him sit calmly for a minute. I unclasped the leash as gently as possible so he couldn’t even tell at first the he was free to bolt. But he bolted. He ran—in big sweeping, joyful circles around us, then back and forth between Nameless Creek and the New Road, and then back to us for approval. We wanted to cry. He understood. He heard us. He wanted to follow. Leading is a lot of work, and it’s lonely at the top.

Scout is now a member–and not the leader–of the pack!

There have been the occasional lapses requiring more than verbal commands while he still wears the orange collar with the black box on it. But in late January, a typical day includes a half-dozen outings off leash—sometimes over short distances even without the stim collar. I will make a video hopefully to include with this final story—final for now at least. 

And what you’ll see is that Scout looks up frequently from his mousing to see where we are. “This way!” I tell him and he knows we’re changing direction. “Let’s go home” and he knows play time is over. “Let’s go to the garden” and he goes to the gait and waits for us to open it. 

What remains is the weakest link—a critical and absolutely necessary lesson yet to come. We (I) have to train him to NOT chase cars or trucks; bicycles or motorcycles; horses or people walking down the road. Never. Ever. I used to tell Ann, who was less worried about his great escapes than I was: “If he’s loose we’re liable.”

So this will be a challenge. And the opportunities to train him to not chase cars is made more difficult by the fact that we have very few cars, and they come at unpredictable times each day; and fewer horses or cyclists. But they will come, more and more as the weather moderates. And I will have to somehow reinforce SIT-STAY no matter what it is that you want to do, pup.

Our other dogs have learned this, more or less. But of course they were with us from 8 weeks on. If we succeed here, coming from where we were in the summer, it will seem miraculous. We came so close to giving up, to losing hope, to sending this dog back into a crate, waiting for one more chance to fit in.

1-Outside of a Dog 
2-Finding Old Yeller
3-And I Am Not The Alpha Male
4- Old Yeller Comes Home

Coming to the End of Our Leash

Part Four of Five…

When Gandy died on Valentines Day last year, we vowed we would not have another dog in our lives. At this point, any dog we get is likely to need a foster home before the end of its life and after the end of ours—or at least after we are able to house or care for a dog due to late-life circumstances. It just did not make practical or emotional sense to take on the future pain of losing another one at this point in life. 

And this resolve was firm during the two-week fog of grief and loss, made more firm every time I looked out the kitchen window at Gandy’s grave, covered with new white quartz stones from the creek as we find them, even today. 

But as the sadness dulled a bit, it became clear that this place and our lives would not be complete without a dog—whose short absence since Gandy left us with a missing tooth. You just can’t help being aware of it the loss of a 24/7 presence when it is gone from your life. And so we talked it out, and decided we would look for a female puppy of a breed (if not another Lab) that would be big enough to take care of itself, but not so big we couldn’t manage it in our mid-seventies or later.

And what we ended up with was nothing like that: a 13 month old male dog that weighs more than half Ann’s weight. So much for plans and intentions. It is what it is. The heart has reasons that reason does not know, Pascal said, and this confirmed the claim.

So on April 19, we brought home a late-stage puppy pre-wired with bad habits, almost too old to reprogram, and vastly stronger than the smaller of us could manage even on level ground and good footing—a dog determined to lead the pack and indifferent to bribes or rewards to conform to the rules on Goose Creek. The worst of it was, as I have told, that outdoors he was master of his own choices. He would pull us when and where he wanted.

A turning point came at the very last class of dog classes where I pulled the assistant aside. “We’re learning here how to reward desired behavior with positive reinforcement. How do we extinguish undesired behavior with treats?”

Seeing the problems we were having with Scout in the chest harness and how strong-willed and determined he was to not give up leader-dog control, she suggested we look at a prong collar. I was ignorant but did the homework. They look horrible, and can be misused, and of course, the Internet is well-populated with worst-case images and videos. But we were up against the wall. Scout stood in real jeopardy of being “rehomed” to younger humans with a large fenced yard.

Used properly, a “prong collar” is a crucial and painless tool for training

And so this (Herm Sprenger) collar, from the first few days, worked not so much physically as psychologically to encourage Scout to take his lead from us. A gentle tap on the leash—not a violent painful yank—was all it took for him to look around as if to ask “What is it you want me to do?” Before a pull on the leash only produced a harder pull in whatever direction he had decided to go. And so like some training videos explain, the prong collar  used correctly is a communication device, not a punishment.

The collar never caused Scout any pain, but it prevented pain and injury for Ann, whose back could not withstand the strain of holding a strong and strong-willed dog. She had not been able to walk the dog by herself with the chest harness or regular collar; she could do so with the prong collar. And by the way, we haven’t used it in a few months–because we no longer need it.

The second element in this success story—if not the half the book of Scout’s coming into the family—was the use of a retractable leash with the prong collar. This gave him 16 feet of choice, and more of a sense of walking near us but not in lock step. It gave him the chance to explore and range within limits. 

And yet, after three months of this leash training with the prong collar, when we got to the back of the pasture, four hundred yards from the road, and unleashed him, he was off into the distance, disappeared into the autumn foliage. (I really wish I’d taken a BEFORE video of this heartbreaking pattern–especially now that I know the story has a happy ending.) We’d hear him bark from time to time, but in these deep pockets, it was impossible to tell just where he was.

We were coming to the end of our rope–er, leash. Physically and emotionally, we could not keep doing this, day after day. We only had one last possible thing to try.

See also in this five part series…

1-Outside of a Dog
2-Finding Old Yeller
3-And I Am Not The Alpha Male

And I Am Not The Alpha Male

His name would be Scout. This dog just looked like he should have that name. I think the notion came from some old 50s cowboys and Indians TV show stored deep in childhood memory. Forget Coco—a name he must have come with to the humane shelter. What a  sissy name for a studdly dog. Scout. Come Scout. Stay Scout. Scout, Go Find Timmy!

So we got him home, well and good, save for having to lift a reluctant, fearful 55 pounds into the back seat of the car. I do not want to lift this dog ever again. And once in the house for the very first time, he seemed to have been indoors before. That was a relief. (Dingo, not so much. He thought the dining room table was just another place to lie down.) After marking his territory indoors the first three nights, he “got it” that ALL THIS was his territory. Oh you lucky lucky dog!

We’ve always shared our home with the family dog. Not everyone does, but his previous owners must have. This dog had definitely been up and down steps before, like maybe he lived in the basement and went UP to eat or to go OUT. He disappeared to Ann’s room at the top of the stairs before we closed the back door behind us on Day One. We still keep a barrier across the foot of those steps; and Scout discovers every failure to put it back in place.

On that very first day, we discovered that this dog didn’t give a rat’s acetabulum about food; or about treats. He could not care less. He still goes full days without eating, kibble and table scraps on the floor in front of him.

And that single fact set him apart from every other dog we’ve had since the Regan administration; set him apart from every other dog who would do ANYTHING for a mere morsel of kibble. Zack, Buster, Tsuga or Gandy (and the transient Dingo for that matter) would crawl on their bellies from here to town for a bit of scrambled egg.  Scout sniffed it and walked off. Gravy? Meh!

Scout yawned at all that. And this set the stage for a long and unsatisfying struggle to train this dog. If positive reinforcement didn’t mean squat, how would we reward and assure future desired behavior when it really mattered?  Sit, stay, come, leave it! Forget all that.

Flash forward from Scout’s first days here in April 2018 to October. We learned at (dis)obedience school that some dogs respond well to microwaved hotdog bits, and (whoodaThunk) string cheese. It worked sufficient (for a while) to reinforce basic commands. He loved playing hide-and-seek, both of us hiding and calling COME! (He gets a treat!) And back and forth he went. 

And so by October, some considerable training had happened—inside, at least, and in a distraction-free setting. But when other dogs and people were around (June dog-obedience classes in Christiansburg for instance) rules and patterns of behavior in the house totally vanished. We got back home, he became Good Dog Scout again. Indoors, he was affectionate, obedient, fun to be with, and increasingly devoted, especially to me. 

All the more heartbreak outdoors then, where he was NOT a joy. But we confess, in hindsight, to some early mistakes. We’d change this if we ever had it to do over again; but we won’t.

From the start, we wanted control over the dog on walks, where he was prone to take the lead. A chest harness took the pressure off his throat and distributed it through his chest. This seemed logical, but it was a mistake. His strength and drive to lead the pack pulled us like a plowshare behind a draft horse on crack, in then out of the creek and across the pasture. The harness gave him authority to be pack leader. I watched Out the window, Ann in this dance, the water-skier behind the powerboat. Land skiing is NOT a pretty sight.

So morphing Scout into the comfortable, reliable companion dog like each of his predecessors had been to us would mean that we could confidently and routinely have him with us, off-leash, for our walks around the pasture. Eventually, we hoped, he would stay with Ann when she went to gather twigs, go with me to haul wood up from Yucca Flats, be with us every time we went outdoors multiple times every day, good weather and bad.

This, some of you will recognize, is Gandy, from about this time a few years back. Look what she found! I realize now I have very few shots of Scout outdoors. That will change.

Scout would be responsible for keeping up with us, not us with him—and, most importantly, he would sit-and-stay reflexively, calmly, a safe distance from passing trucks, bicycles, horses and motorcycles on the one-lane gravel road, rare though those passers-by might be.

Alas, into November, it never happened the way we longed that it would. We’d walk a bit down the New Road along the pasture margin, with the dog on leash. At some point one of us would say “You think this is a good place?” And very subtly I’d unhook the clasp from the leash to the harness ring, hoping he would get it this time that he belonged along-side US. But the instant he was free, he was gone. Outta sight. His off-leash breakouts averaged an hour and change. 

And so we loved him under a roof and loathed him under the sky. Scout was disturbing my peace, having become canine non grata. And yet, Ann “just knew” that some day, he’d morph into a devoted, intelligent, obedient dog. And when we told him to, he’d go find Timmy.

Read Part One: Outside of a Dog

Read Part Two: Finding Old Yeller