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Training Cricket, Again

 

We are, once again, trying to intervene with Cricket’s bad behavior, but focusing small this time: just don’t bark on the way out the door. If she barks, I sit down and count to ten. The hardest part is remembering to follow through with the plan each time we take the dogs out. Cricket is very hard to train, and so am I. It’s usually the last trip at night, when other people are trying to go to sleep, that her barking is at its most inappropriate. She seems to think that I need to be reminded, even as I am getting her leash and putting on my shoes, that she really, really, really wants to go outside. And it takes her a while to notice that each time she barks, I sit down and start counting to ten, starting over at the beginning each time she interrupts the count. But I’m persisting with the plan.

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“I am Cricket. Hear me bark!”

It seems like a very small thing to try and improve about her behavior, especially because it has no impact on all of the other barking she does throughout the day: rushing to the front door of the apartment to tell the non-existent bogey man to go away; barking at boxes on our neighbors’ porches; and shadows on the grass fifty feet ahead; and, of course, barking at random humans who dare to walk in her yard. But it’s a place to start.

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Hmm. This method could work too.

Mom is trying to go along with the plan, but she’s set in her ways too. She tries to talk Cricket into being quiet, which just makes Cricket bark more, because she thinks they’re having a conversation. And Mom doesn’t like having to sit down each time Cricket barks, especially at night when she’s already exhausted. So I sit, and Mom stands, and Cricket thinks that means Mom can be convinced, so she jumps at her grandma’s legs and paws at her, in vain. Eventually, Cricket figures it out and quiets down, and we go outside.

I wish I could convince Cricket to stop barking at babies, and other random residents of the co-op, when they try to pass within five hundred feet of her; I wish I could convince her to keep her teeth to herself, especially when I try to wipe the goop from her eyes; I wish I could convince her that the bath tub is not a torture device. But my many, many, previous attempts at teaching her those lessons have been utter failures.

anger

Cricket has some anger issues.

I rarely try to train Butterfly in anything anymore. Early on, we had to teach her how to poop outdoors, and climb the stairs, and take pills. After that, I thought I’d try to work on basics with her, like sit and stay, but she looked at me like I was a crazy person. She has her own learning style and it doesn’t include responding to voice commands. I’d love it if I could teach her to be less stubborn when she’s walking on her leash, or maybe teach her to sleep past seven o’clock in the morning, but after numerous attempts she is still indifferent to my efforts. And she’s twelve years old. She never bites anyone, and only barks to tell me that she’s hungry or needs to go outside, so, I’ve decided to let it go.

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Yes, Butterfly knows how cute she is.

But Cricket is a menace. The noise pollution alone is at toxic levels, and I can’t, in good conscience, stop trying to protect my neighbors from the full panoply of Cricket’s behaviors.

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“Who me?”

One magical moment happened, though, a few nights into the new regime. After three barking eruptions, and three full counts of ten, with no sign of a let up, Butterfly walked behind Cricket and gave her a look that seemed to say, please don’t bark anymore, because I really need to pee, and that actually seemed to work. Cricket quieted down, and we all went outside in relative peace. But most of the time, Butterfly is too busy having one last kibble for the road to expend too much energy in teaching her sister how to behave.

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“Psst.”

So I guess it’s up to me.

Training A Butterfly

            Butterfly peed on the living room rug. She started by peeing on the hardwood floor in front of her food bowl, but then it was the rug, in front of me. She may have thought we kindly went out and bought her an expensive, floor wide, wee wee pad. She had been, mostly, potty trained, but this reminded me that I needed to get back to work.

Butterfly and her rug.

Butterfly and her rug.

I haven’t been very focused on training Butterfly since we moved to the new apartment in May. My big goals, since she came home from the shelter last November, were: to train her to pee and poop outside, and walk on a leash, and climb stairs, and respond to her name. And she learned everything, at her own unique pace.

            Cricket had her own list of skills to teach Butterfly, like the appropriate way to greet humans when they return home (jumping in the air and hyperventilating), and how to really walk on a leash (pulling your human where you want to go), and how to bark to get what you want.

Butterfly can now beg for food while standing on her back legs.

Butterfly can now beg for food while standing on her back legs.

            Butterfly has also learned, on her own, that she can say no. If we take her outside, and she pees right away, she will sit down on the sidewalk and stiffen her neck, because she has finished her work and does not want to walk any further. This is the first time I’ve seen, up close,  the biblical image of a ”stiff necked people,” all in one tiny dog. She is, if possible, more stubborn than Cricket. She doesn’t bite or bark or whine, she just refuses to move. And when her mind is made up, it stays that way.

            My renewed training efforts have been focused on teaching her the verbal commands Cricket learned in her puppy classes, like “sit” and “down.” Cricket is an impatient role model, though, and expects twice the treats for her efforts to show her sister the ropes, so we are running through chicken treats at a very fast clip.

The girls are ready for their chicken treats, um, training session.

The girls are ready for their chicken treats, um, training session.

            I’d never really planned to do this kind of training with Butterfly. I figured, at eight years old, after a life in a puppy mill, she shouldn’t have to work so hard. And really, she is as close to perfect as she could be already.

Butterfly, already her best self.

Butterfly, already her best self.

            A few months ago, I noticed white butterflies massed in front of our apartment building, specifically in front of our building, and not the ones on either side of us in the complex. They fluttered all over the place, in packs, kissing leaves and being beautiful and doing as they pleased. Logically, I’m sure, they are here because the plants in front of our building are especially attractive to white butterflies, but I would like to believe that they recognized that my little white dog was their kin, and they came to be with family, and train her how to be a butterfly.

The butterfly family, checking in.

The butterfly family, checking in.

Dancing Puppies

Always start with a stretch

Always stretch first

 

Cricket first came home as an eight week old puppy, in September of 2007. She was adorable and tiny and running in every direction and we took her to puppy class that October, determined to start her off right. She needed socialization, and manners. And we needed some idea of how to make her stop biting us.

Every Monday night, after class, we drove home discouraged, and turned on the TV for some relief. I don’t remember if I’d watched Dancing with the Stars before that season, but it was on after class and it was undemanding, so it became a staple.

I picked up my exhausted, angry puppy, and we learned how to dance. She liked the calm, slow, up and down twirls of the Waltz. I liked the sharp, staccato turns of the Tango, paw in hand. But her best dance was a free form mix of the Latin dances. She loved to shake her tushy. I held her in the air and twisted her to the right and the left, shoulder shimmy right and left. We sang the “I like big butts” song and the “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” song, though Cricket does not have much of a milkshake.

Cricket demonstrates a dance lift

Cricket demonstrates a dance lift

Each week, we danced with the contestants and tried new rhythms and new lifts, and the dancing bonded us in a way the class, with its forced sits and holding-puppy-on-her-back to get her calm, never could.

I’ve tried to teach Cricket some dance moves she can do on her own. There’s the slow turn on two feet, and the two-steps-forward-two-steps-back, and the sit-down-stand-up-jump combination. All held together with chicken treats. But, honestly, she’d rather be getting scratchies.

Cricket mid-spin

Cricket mid-spin

When Butterfly first came home she wasn’t up to dancing. She’d been living in a crate for her eight years at the puppy mill and needed to start slow. The first step was to get her moving, just walking around the block, using her legs, climbing curbs and steps. She learned about jumping for treats from Cricket, and she taught herself how to twirl, just for fun.

Butterfly learns by watching Cricket

Butterfly learns by watching Cricket

Now that she has all of her dance steps, she prefers to dance on her own instead of with me. She has a very specific, well choreographed poopy dance. First she starts to run, back and forth, back and forth, to warm up. Then she starts to hop and skip in circles, in one direction and then the other. Then there are the spirals. She ends with a few small, hopping circles, lifting her hind end up and bouncing it off the ground.

Then, finally, she stops and poops.

Butterfly mid-dance

Butterfly mid-dance

It’s possible that Butterfly’s puppy mill was near a ballet school. I can’t imagine how she had the room to develop this dance routine living in a crate all day, day after day. She must have been dreaming this dance her whole life.

 

 

 

 

Harness Houdini

All of Cricket’s harnesses

 

 

When Cricket was little I heard a lot about the collar versus harness debate. That, especially with small dogs, the vertebrae at the neck are so fragile that the collar can do real damage if she pulls too hard at the leash. A harness is safer and better. Just like a crate is better than leaving the dog to roam free and sleep on your bed. And homemade food is better than store bought. And you need pet gates and wee wee pads and hourly trips outside, and on and on.

I was determined to be the perfect pet owner this time around. We bought everything on the list from the breeder, including special food and treats and toys and a crate. For my whole life, our dogs went without all of that. They ate regular dog food, and chewed on socks and couches and never stepped foot in a crate or an obedience class.

I was especially proud of Cricket’s car harness. It was black nylon on the outside and plush on the inside and solidly made. I snapped her into the harness and tightened the straps and then attached it to the seatbelt in the back seat of the car just like the instructions told me to do. My preference would have been just to hold her in my arms, or buy one of those soft carriers you see in the catalogs. Dog catalogs are like crack for new dog owners, addictive and very bad for you.

She was sitting calmly in the back seat when I turned the key in the ignition. This was just a test trip, because I’m a worrier, and Mom was there with us in case of trouble. And, of course, within thirty seconds of my turning the key in the ignition, Cricket had escaped her harness and jumped into the front seat.

The car harness, for just a moment

The pressure to put her in a harness didn’t go away, though. Whenever we took her out walking, we were told that her collar was too skinny to take the pressure of the leash pulling at her neck. So we went back to the store and bought a strappy red harness for her daily walks. By the time we reached the sidewalk on the first outing with the new harness, she had removed the whole apparatus, this thing that took me five minutes and ten red scratches on my arms to put on her. One minute she was at the end of the leash and the next she was in the street, bewildered.

Mom found a wider collar, meant for a larger dog, and then altered it by adding more holes in the collar so it could be tightened down to Cricket’s size. With the wider collar, we read, the pressure would be more evenly distributed along her neck as she, inevitably, pulled like an ox against her leash.

We took a break from harnesses for a year after that, but when Cricket went to her second training class, the teacher recommended harnesses again, and told us which one to buy. She carefully tightened the straps in all the right places before class and told us Cricket would be fine. Within two minutes, Cricket had worked her body into such knots that the harness was wrapped around her ankle and holding her foot in the air.

The teacher had never seen such a thing, and after another few failed attempts, she told us to stick with the collar and make do.

Finally, five years along, Cricket has a harness that stays on. Mostly. It’s pink and silver and looks like a little tank top. And this time, we tailored it so it fits her skinny shoulders and stays right under her armpits. She can stay in it for a whole walk, but even with this one, she can pull part of the mechanism over her head, so that the leash is dangling from her throat. I don’t know how she does this.

The pink and silver harness

The fact is, with enough motivation, like one of her human cousins trying to drag her across the yard, Cricket can even get out of her collar, let alone any of her many harnesses. She’s an escape artist. But the only place she escapes to, is behind my legs, where she feels safe. Go figure.

The pink harness out for a walk

 

Cricket’s English Comprehension

 

           

Sometimes I think Cricket understands full sentences. Like the times when she starts barking at her Grandma, trying to boss her around.

First, of course, I say “No,” in a firm, loud voice. But Cricket ignores the command and keeps trying to get Grandma’s attention. So then I tell her, in my conversational tone, that she’s being rude to her grandma and it is not time to go out or have a snack and she can rest for now. And Cricket listens to me, and stops barking, and crawls under Grandma’s chair to go to sleep.

Cricket knows the important words, like: walk, poopie, grooming, bathtub, chicken treats, cheese, out, go, sit, no, and Cricket. When we are out walking and I say the word “water,” she looks to the bag that holds her Tupperware cup full of water. If she hears the word “breakfast,” she will lick her lips. One time, when we were outside, I said the word “foot,” and Cricket lifted her back foot and stared at it.

            She has selective hearing, like any other child. When she’s exhausted, she’s less sensitive to words like “toy” or even “walk.” The “G” words almost always get through to her, though. If I say “grooming,” she runs to the bathroom and climbs into the bathtub, which is where the grooming happens. She loves grooming because it’s her most reliable source for chicken treats. She would prefer to stand in the bathtub and be fed treats without having to get a comb through her hair, but the treats make anything bearable.

When she is over excited, she can’t really hear me over the noise in her own head, or the screeching she’s doing out loud. When I take the leash out, she jumps two feet in the air, over and over, like a Jack Russell, and if I try to tell her to sit, so I can attach the leash, she seems to be screeching “What? What?!” as if I’m speaking French.

I remember seeing a dog on TV who could identify each of her thirty toys by name. Her dad, a psych professor, would say “fish” and she would dig through a toy box and come back with the fish. Cricket knows that “toys” are in her toy box or scattered on the floor, but individual names for toys don’t seem to be strongly correlated for her. If I say “Fishy” and it’s the only toy she sees, she’ll bring it, but if her birthday cake or purple dinosaur is near by she might pick that up instead.

She is very smart, but she has no interest in making the most of her potential. She’s not a working dog or a people pleaser. I wish I could accept this about her, but some part of me still dreams of index cards and word drills and Cricket hearing the word “fish” and digging through her toy box to bring me a fish. Because that would at least make me feel smart.