Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from PART TWO: Szczesliwego Nowego Roku)
Ben was and remains overflowing in his many loveable qualities. He’s cuter than most dogs out there (spoken like a real ‘father,’ I know), smart as the dickens, a tremendous athlete, great company, and exceedingly loveable, though on the last point I’ll admit, that this has been a gradual and very consistent development in Ben.
Ben is also incredibly strong willed and, in a word, he’s stubborn as hell.
I could accept almost any of his “opportunities” as just being Ben and have learned to adapt. The one training gap that was difficult to accept was the barking.
Having read Woodhouse’s book a few times by then looking for answers, I took away that I was the failure in this relationship because I hadn’t been able to communicate this boundary to Ben. According to Woodhouse, it was my failure to establish my dominance in our little pack – irrespective of what Andrea are were trying to work out ourselves – I had at least failed to establish that Ben wasn’t at the top. Woodhouse and her methods would suggest that a dog eat only after everyone else had and that when the dog showed signs of any assertiveness, we needed to nip that in the bud and make it clear we were the “alpha.” The goal was to create a confident and relaxed hound that was comfortable with his place in the pack – and who respected whoever was indeed the “alpha.” And to try and coax us new owners into this philosophy, Woodhouse repeatedly would say that this is what dogs “wanted” – that they wanted structure, as if they were a member of some Roman legion and needed to know their place to feel secure. I didn’t know any better and so I listened to my teacher and hoped for the best, but, in retrospect, I realize that my greatest successes with Ben have never been about establishing dominance in our relationship but rather establishing trust.
But in the first few days of 1997, I was still the “inexperienced owner,” and the need for change had to start with me.
We started with cicho … “quiet” whose corollary was teaching him to “speak,” which didn’t seem an overly smart approach. It felt akin to teaching Lee Harvey Oswald not to assassinate by taking him to a gun range and teaching him to shoot a rifle to get out his aggression.
Try as we did, I couldn’t get Ben to bark on command but I did manage to rile him up enough to be annoying. Ironically, holding a treat and saying “quiet” was a great way to escalate his barking. After a few weeks of canine cacophony, I abandoned the notion and went to plan-J.
Next up was the squirt gun. I remember it worked with my cats to keep them off the furniture and counters, but I was dubious that it would work on dogs. Didn’t dogs, after all, like swimming? However, I was committed and gave it a whirl only to end up with a wet carpet and a dog with a wet face. Worse, he’d often open his mouth to try and swallow the squirts I was shooting at him …only to catch one his throat and then launch into a hacking cough. Hmm, plan-K, then?
Somewhere I read that operant conditioning worked well in dogs. It seemed like a good bet given the success we’d had with getting him to pee outside exclusively. However, while lemons weren’t akin to the positive reinforcements of pieces of wiener, they were nevertheless strongly advocated as a non-cruel way of “correcting” a dog’s behavior. The technique was based on the notion that when the dog barked, I should rub some lemon juice into his mouth and this would ‘teach’ him to stop. I suspect this was concocted by some poor Floridian who predated the invention of the electric dog collar. What literature didn’t explain is how to walk around all day with a cut lemon wedge on your possession, then, when you hear the bark, somehow launch yourself across the room, brandish the lemon and squirt the juice. It was near impossible to execute given the fact the Ben was usually across the room or in another room entirely when the barking would begin. On a couple of attempts, I was successful in drilling home the lemon. The result? Sticky lemon juice all over Ben’s fur. I’ll grant you, it improved his breath, but what the hell was I supposed to do with my sticky dog? It was like wrapping a sucker in a tissue and shoving it in your pocket for safekeeping.
However, it didn’t take long for the training to take effect – yes, operant conditioning occurred. Ben developed a phobia anytime he saw a lemon … but the barking otherwise continued, unabated.
Now that the lemon had failed, I tried combining the notion of lemon juice with the previous squirt gun. Let’s call this plan-L. Oh my god, what a disaster was plan-L. I’d leave the kitchen counter a sticky mess trying to get juice from the lemon into the gun, but, worse, every time I fired at Ben, I left sticky lemon juice all over the house too. It is worth noting that is nearly impossible to pull off a single round of lemon juice (or even water for that matter) from squirt gun and hit your target … but, proof of my own stubbornness, I continued plan-L for a few more days which yielded only a few direct hits, including one into Ben’s eye (no, I hadn’t thought that one through very well, I know) before the experiment ended. The result: Ben was now afraid of the little red gun too.
Someone suggested “pennies.” Put pennies into a tin can and every time he barks, shake the can and he’ll stop barking. So we gathered up some Polish coins and tossed them into a tomato can, and waited to try.
A pigeon landed on the tin sill outside our window, and Ben leaped forward, barking. I grabbed the can from the ledge and began shaking it over his head. It worked – he stopped barking as he cowered. This was definitely a Woodhouse trick because it relied on putting a bit of fear into the dog to correct him. A few more times, Ben started to bark and each time, we’d grab the can and shake it at him and, with tail between his legs, he’d run and hide beneath a desk or into the bedroom. It pained me to see him like this and so I’d go to find him and pet him and try to comfort him, explaining that he just needed to stop barking. As pained as we both were by this correction, it was having zero effect on Ben’s overall barking and after a short conversation, Andrea and I agreed that the sound of the pennies was actually more annoying than the barking anyway, so we gave up.
Over the eventual years, Ben’s barking waned, but it has really never stopped. It didn’t hurt that, with time, his ‘voice’ deepened a bit and made it a little less like an icepick on an eardrum, but it never really got “better.” Ben and I would learn many tricks over the years and our relationship would ultimately rebound from the torture he went through that January … but he’s still never looked at a lemon the same way again.
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – Jacek