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Old 04-04-2013, 09:57 PM
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Default My training stories

I started writing down some of my favorite training experiences, and thought some folks here would get a kick out of them. :-) This is the first.

First up is Otto, a black standard poodle from 2004 in LaPorte (northwest of Ft. Collins). Otto's mom called me out of concern for his hyper-vigilance; she said he was constantly stressed, agitated, constantly on alert, and becoming destructive. Carol and George lived in a palace; they'd built a beautiful house instead of retiring, and Otto was EATING it. The supports for the house were huge, exposed tree trunks that were basically irreplaceable, and Otto had taken to chewing them.

I always show up at a new job prepared for the worst. When I'm told a dog is reactive or highly alert, I'm ready for the possibility of getting chewed on a bit. I bring my band-aids and a spare long-sleeved shirt, in case I bleed. But on meeting Otto, I found him to be strikingly normal. -Exceptionally- normal, if there can be such a thing. He was a shelter dog, well-groomed but without the horrible poodle haircut, which told me his parents loved him for his doggy self, rather than as a mobile decoration. He was friendly and polite, just your regular old calm, self-possessed, sweetheart poodle. He'd had some traumatic health problems as a puppy; he'd almost lost an eye to a wire fence, caught giardia which led him to anorexia, and then a bout of bloat as his appetite returned. It was clear that he owed his life to his well-off parents, who provided him with top-notch nutrition and health care. At five years old, he still had a weak tummy, which is normal for a dog lucky enough to survive a bloat incident. But after an hour of chatting with Carol, I saw zero evidence for this "hyper-vigilance" that I was there to address. He greeted me, brought me a toy, we played, and then he went to lay down. Regular poodle.

So having gotten his background info, I asked about Carol's main concerns. Otto had dug through a good-sized area of the floor, and destroyed a fair chunk of the load-bearing trunk that met the floor in that spot. It wasn't the loss of the wall or floor that was worrying Carol, it was Otto's well-being. She loved him desperately, and she teared up as she described his stress. She said it was as though someone flipped a "crazy switch" in his head, and he went from calm and normal to obsessively destructive in a blink. As Carol spoke, Otto hopped down from the couch and began to pace in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows. When she began to tear up with concern for her pooch, Otto began to bark. Big, loud barks, that reverberated painfully in the cavernous room. "See?" Carol asked. "There he goes again!" Moments later, we were bodily pulling Otto away from the demolished floor, luckily having caught him before his digging bloodied his paws. We spent about ten minutes calming him down again. Then I began to tell Carol what I'd witnessed.

This was a dog who'd had three life-threatening emergency events before he was two years old, and would have a tender tummy for the rest of his life. From one thing to another, Carol had nursed this sweet puppy back to health over and over. In her eyes, he was basically made of glass at this point. She worried about him constantly; if she was away from the house, she wondered if she would come home to a dead dog. And it was hard to blame her. She had pulled him, covered in blood and screaming in pain, off the wire fence. And she'd driven him to the emergency vet again when his stomach twisted and inflated like a balloon, by her own account begging him not to die the whole way. And now something in his mind was driving him to destroy the house she'd worked for her whole life, tearing his paws and mouth to shreds as he did it. She was an absolute wreck over this dog.

I told her first that what I saw was hunting behavior. She lived in a rural area in a house made of nesting material. Her palace had mice, definitely under the floor and probably in the walls. I waited while she called an exterminator. (As we learned later, the mice were doing a lot of damage themselves!) That, by itself, took care of Otto's problem. But there was a much bigger problem, and this was all in Carol's head. I told her what I'd seen when I came in: an extremely normal, happy dog. Then I told her what happened when she began to worry about him. He paced, barked, and went for the mice. He clearly adored his mom, and watched her every move. Even when he'd been napping on the couch, his ears moved toward her when she shifted position or laughed. He was keyed into her every activity, every mood, and every emotion. It was simple: she worried, so he worried. When she saw him worrying, she worried more. It was a perpetual cycle of neuroses.

Carol began to understand how her feelings were manifesting in Otto's behavior, and developed control over her worrying. Once she became aware of her part in his difficulties, she made a complete turnaround. Over the course of two four-hour appointments, I held her hands a dozen times and had her repeat after me, "There's nothing wrong with Otto. Otto is just fine." We did some breathing exercises to reign in her stress, and I sent her to yoga class. A month later, the mice were under control, Carol's attitude had relaxed, and Otto's crazy switch had disappeared. A year later, Carol was still going to yoga three times a week.
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Old 04-06-2013, 01:28 AM
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I was hired once to teach a dog not to wag his tail. Lewis was a three-year-old greyhound, rescued by Pam in Fort Collins. He was big for a greyhound, with a beautiful red brindle coat. He looked like a predator that should’ve been out hunting the savannah, but like every greyhound I’ve met, he was just an overgrown couch potato. He could switch from zero to full-on hyperactive play mode instantly, and fell on the goofier side of the play spectrum. Sweet, funny, and happy, he was Pam’s best friend.

But those who know the breed also know that their skin is like tightly-drawn tissue paper; it’s not unusual to see a puckered scar on a greyhound from some minor injury that had to be stitched. Leaning too hard on an unwieldy material can cause bruising, and sudden contact with that same surface can tear straight through the skin. Lewis’ vet had recently suggested to Pam that it was time to think about docking his tail. Within seconds of my arrival at the house, Lewis’ tail had exploded into a blood sprinkler after contacting the corner of the wall. Pam wearily cleaned the new wound and applied a gauze bandage, just a few inches behind another from the day before. She’d gotten good at this, but in spite of her speedy response the entryway looked like a crime scene. She grabbed a package of disposable wipes from the table just inside the door and we cleaned the floor, walls, and ceiling, while Lewis stood by, grinning and wagging.

In the kitchen, we drank coffee and used more wipes to clean off our clothes and my training bag. Lewis had broken his tail once and suffered countless cuts, all because he just couldn’t stop wagging. His vet had given up, but Pam hadn’t. She didn’t want Lewis to lose his tail. “He’s just not responsible with it,” she told me. I told her I had some qualms with teaching a dog not to wag; if she had the dock done, he could still wag his stump and come out the other side with all his blood still inside. Pam’s concerns came from her brother, who had lost a hand in an accident. He suffered from a phantom limb, wherein the missing body part seems to still have sensation. It caused him continual pain, and there was very little that could be done. She asked if docking Lewis’ tail could result in a similar condition, and I had to admit that, although I didn’t think we could know for sure, it seemed perfectly possible. I could definitely see her side.

My first requirement for taking on this job is that Lewis would never be punished for wagging. We could teach him to be responsible with his tail without burying the emotions that made it wag. But we were sure to have some accidents along the way, and we’d have a few more crime scenes to clean up. Pam agreed completely, and was, after all, well practiced in dealing with Lewis’ exploding tail.

We took the training into the yard, where there was nothing hard for Lewis to strike with his tail. (I immediately noticed the little ash tree with a foam-rubber pad tied around the trunk.) The first thing we did was teach him to dance. We used clickers and praise to get him tapping his toes, front and back. He thought it was great fun, and was soon rocking back and forth on his hind legs like an excited puppy. This would be his replacement for wagging; we wanted him to express his tail through his feet, and he took to it instantly. We played and played with him, saying, “Are you happy? Wanna dance?” and “Are you having fun? Let’s dance!” Pam burst out laughing a few times, saying she wanted -less- limb movement, not more. But this was just step one. He was quite the sight, with all four feet dancing and his bandaged tail flying behind him.

Next came the difficult part: discouraging the tail without discouraging the attached dog. We worked slowly, relying on the principle that behavior is constantly varying, and rewarding the rare instants that the feet were moving without the tail. It took Lewis a while to figure out what we were after. We waited for his pattern recognition to kick in, first rewarding less tail movement and finally only rewarding none. But the rules said he could dance all he wanted. It is at this point that he earned the nickname “Twinkle Toes,” which I believe remains his nickname to this day.

Over time, consistent work by Pam ensured that Lewis expressed himself with his feet more, and his tail less. She worked with him in any situation she recognized could pose a wagging danger, keeping her enthusiasm the whole way. Her drive for Lewis to keep his tail made her an admirable trainer. A follow-up visit several months later found Lewis dancing in the entryway, his unbandaged tail barely swishing by his boogying ankles. Thanks to Pam’s dedication, there was no bloody sprinkler, and not a package of disposable wipes in sight.
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Old 04-06-2013, 02:49 AM
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I rather enjoyed that! Great detective work with Otto, and good problem solving with Lewis
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Old 04-06-2013, 09:24 AM
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I enjoyed them also! You could write a book, I'd read it!
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Old 04-06-2013, 10:29 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Brattina88 View Post
I enjoyed them also! You could write a book, I'd read it!
^ I agree! ^
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Old 04-06-2013, 07:42 PM
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We want MORE!!!
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Old 04-06-2013, 08:06 PM
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Thanks, everyone! I'm finding it surprisingly cathartic writing them out. They've been in my head so long, it didn't occur to me to write about them until my hubby suggested it. I've got loads more. I'll keep them coming.
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Old 04-06-2013, 08:22 PM
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Sammy the German Shepherd was a neurotic mess. His solution to his problems was to circle the dining room table. Always counter-clockwise, always to his left, always in the same path. He had literally worn a hole in the carpet around the table. The claws on his left legs were notably shorter than those on the right. Gabby and Scott had three jobs and five children between them. I counted three TVs on the ground floor, all of them on. Gabby’s sister was working on dinner in the kitchen. I had trouble remembering which of the kids racing through the house and yard were theirs, and which were friends and neighbors’ kids. At any given moment, there were between four and fifteen people in the house. Amid this chaos, Sammy circled. He circled for an estimated nine or ten hours a day, stopping only to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom, and these under duress.

Dogs are sensitive animals. We engineered them that way. GSDs have the potential to even more sensitive than most, and Sammy was the most sensitive I’d ever seen. When I interrupted his circling to examine his mangled claws, he dutifully sat and let me handle him. He didn’t try to give me an obliging lick, or wag, or even look at me. He was looking at his circle.
This is the closest I’ve ever come to bursting into tears in front of a client. Gabby and Scott weren’t really doing anything wrong. They loved Sammy, and their kids loved him. All his physical needs were well met. They had gone so far as to get him a set of dog booties to protect his worn claws, but he’d worn them out as well. They were now supplementing his diet with glucosamine—at five years old, he was showing signs of arthritis. He had lost his mind, and his body was ready to follow.

We turned off the TVs (all of them), and shooed the kids outside. I asked Gabby to block off the dining room, so we could be with Sammy while he circled. Then I had the hardest talk I’ve ever had with a client. I told Gabby and Scott that Sammy was very sick. He was terminal. (If they hadn’t shown me his rabies tag, I would have believed he had that horrible disease.) Their way of life was not compatible with Sammy’s needs, and he was slowly dying. Their home might have been perfectly fine for 95% of dogs, but not Sammy. His only comfort was in this obsession, and because I knew they loved him, they knew he could not live this way. They had two choices. First, they could radically change their household. They could throw out all but one TV and leave it off for all but an hour a day, keep the neighbor kids out, stop the slamming doors, and institute a rock-solid indoor voices rule. Second, we could find Sammy a new home.

Gabby and Scott slept on it. The next day, they called the kids in for a family meeting. They called me that afternoon and said Sammy needed a new place to live. I told them that I know it was very hard for them to make that decision, but I knew they’d done it for Sammy. I spent a week looking for the perfect home. I wanted someone compassionate and tolerant, wealthy enough to take care of him, and overall a quiet environment. Along came Lisa, the friend of another client. She lived alone in a quiet neighborhood, worked from home, and had no other pets. She had a slow, stable schedule. She had recently lost her own GSD, and was missing him sorely. She also didn’t have a dining room, or a table to put in it.

Lisa met me at Gabby and Scott’s home. We took her to the dining room to meet Sammy. She got down on her knees and said hello. She got no response, as Sammy continued to circle. She held out a hand for him. He saw it, but didn’t go for a sniff. When she stood up, Lisa had a huge smile on her face. “He’s so beautiful!” she said. It didn’t matter that he’d all but ignored her. It was love at first sight.

The couple got to know Lisa over coffee. They were visibly upset, but they held it together. When Lisa excused herself to the bathroom, Scott confided that Lisa was perfect. I asked if they wanted her back for another visit, but they decided to send Sammy home with her that day. Lisa was overjoyed, and gave hugs all around. She reassured one of the children that his dog was going to be very happy, and told him he could come visit Sammy whenever he wanted. Sammy was led to her station wagon and loaded in, and they were gone.

I was prepared for a difficult transition. I knew that even though Sammy’s situation was too much for him to handle, it was familiar. His single source of comfort, that worn track in the carpet, would be gone. I warned Lisa that it might be a long time before Sammy warmed up to her. He could become angry, depressed, or destructive. He might need a new source of comfort, and that could manifest in any number of negative ways. But I wanted her to go on with her normal routine, and we’d work with Sammy together three times a week. And we’d get him through it.

The next day, I called Lisa to see how things were going. “Great!” she bubbled. “Sammy slept in my bed with me last night, then we got up and had breakfast and went for a walk. He’s fine!” We kept our appointment for two days later. When I arrived at the house, I wasn’t expecting much. I was steeling myself for destroyed furniture, stories of aggressive behavior, or—the worst possible outcome—a dog who was nearly catatonic with depression. I knocked on the door and heard a hesitant woof. He woofed! He was engaging in his surroundings! I must’ve broken out in a huge smile, because Lisa answered the door and said, “Did you hear that?”

Sammy sniffed my hand as I came in, but quickly retreated to a dog bed in the corner of the living room. I noticed the new toys and doggy items scattered around the room. Lisa had gone all out to make her new roommate feel at home. But no destroyed furniture didn’t mean we didn’t have some major emotional work ahead of us. I put Sammy on a strict diet. I wanted to limit his intake of grains (which produce sugars in a dog’s colon), and make sure he got plenty of old-fashioned meat and bones. Lisa was way ahead of me. She’d been supplementing a high quality kibble with a variety of fresh foods. She had also been showing him his toys, and had gotten him to watch with interest when she rolled a tennis ball on the floor. She was asking him to engage with her if he was comfortable, which was a pretty sharp instinct on her part. She didn't push him to interact with her.

I asked how he’d ended up in her bed the first night. She said she’d left him in the living room on his new dog bed, but he’d come in a few minutes after she had settled in to read. She said hi and patted the bed, inviting him up. He’d left the room, and she laid back down. Again, though, he came back. She invited him up again and he’d slowly crawled up, staying as far away from her as he could. Lisa had gone back to her book, and over the course of about fifteen minutes, Sammy had weaseled his way closer to her. By the time she turned off the lamp, he was curled up with his head on her feet, watching her.

Sammy got better and better. He adopted the bed in the living room as his “spot”, but he hadn’t torn a hole in it. The swelling in his joints began to subside, and Lisa started taking him for easy jogs. She said he always favored the healthier right side, but he thoroughly enjoyed their outings. We worked to engage him with games and training, keeping everything low-key and fun, but never mandatory. We let him choose what he wanted to do, and encouraged him. If he wanted to watch us roll the ball back and forth, that was fine. If he just wanted to be alone, that was fine too. He never developed a great love for crowds or children, but he grew obviously fond of Lisa. He learned to relax with her, and enjoy her attention. He was never what I would describe as 'normal', but Lisa would happily ask me, "What is normal, anyway?"

The last time I saw Sammy was about three months after his adoption. He never had been much for wagging, but he did lay his head on my leg and allowed me to scratch his ears. I call it a win.
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Old 04-06-2013, 09:58 PM
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When I first spoke to Caroline on the phone, I knew we had a problem on our hands. Two problems, to be precise, named Delilah and Bodhi. I could hear perpetual barking in the background. Even though it was early spring and chilly, Caroline explained that she had gone into the backyard to call me. What I heard was the sound of the dogs inside, filtered through the sliding-glass door.

Before I met Caroline and her partner Allie, I freely admit I had no idea what “problem barking” really was. Caroline and Allie met me in front of their little house. After our initial greeting, I asked them to show me the problem, even though I could hear it clearly from where I stood. Hand to god, Caroline offered me earplugs before we went inside. I declined.

Delilah was a three year old West Highland Terrier. Bodhi was five, and part mini Schanuzer. (The other parts were anyone’s guess.) They were both very cute, and both indescribably loud. I had never encountered barking like this, and never have since. It was unending. Caroline and Allie had had no guests over since about a month after they’d adopted Delilah. If they needed to use the phone, they went outside. They used headphones if they wanted to watch a movie. Their lives had been structured around accommodating their dogs’ barking for two and a half years. They hadn’t known what to do, so they’d done nothing.

Once we were inside, I was unable to communicate to Caroline and Allie what I needed to do, so I just did it. I helped myself to a bathroom in the hall, grabbing up the rug, hairbrushes, a blowdryer, and trash can, and moving them into the hall. I grabbed the dogs’ water bowl, switched on the light and fan, and hustled Delilah in for her first ever time out. I found a guest room across from the bathroom, and similarly cleared out some breakables for Bodhi, cracked the window, and popped him in. Caroline and Allie watched with interest.

Somehow, even behind closed doors, the barking was even louder. We humans found our way to the living room on the opposite end of the house to talk. I told them honestly that I’d never seen anything like this, and that I had significant admiration for their willingness to put up with it. Lesser people would have resorted to surgeries, or simply have gotten rid of these dogs. And barking like that in a humane society was a sure way to get passed over for adoption. Their inaction had saved these dogs’ lives.

I’d been exposed to the noise for maybe fifteen minutes, and I had no idea how they had lived with it for as long as they had. Allie briefly tried to assure me that it wasn’t always this bad, but Caroline cut her off: yes it was. Always. There was quiet only when the dogs were sleeping or eating. I was astounded that their voices didn’t simply give out. Allie told me that Delilah would occasionally go a bit hoarse, but Bodhi could apparently go all day. I asked them to estimate a frequency for how often the dogs barked when they were going about a normal day. The conclusion was about two times a minute from Delilah, and maybe four a minute from Bodhi. All day. And any event—dinner time, the doorbell, a ringing phone, a kid passing on a bike—resulted in nonstop barking from both of them, for several minutes. During this conversation, the dogs continued to bark behind their respective doors. The two-minute timer I’d set had run out. I was listening and counting for three seconds of silence from either of them. Now it was up to them when their time outs ended. I explained what I was doing to Caroline and Allie. There were some other issues here, like diet and obedience, but we could do nothing until we got this compulsive barking under control.

Delilah made it to three seconds first. I opened the bathroom door. She took two steps out, looked up at me, and began barking. Back in she went.

We went over the rules of time out, in between moving the dogs in and out of their respective rooms. The dogs needed fresh water, light, and air circulation. Anything they could tear up needed to be removed, or we needed to be ready to sacrifice it to the cause. Because once they were in time out, there was nothing they could do to be let out before their time was up, or before we got those sweet three seconds of silence. They would get no reward for exiting time out, and likewise they were no longer in trouble; life simply resumed. This was to be the routine from now on. One bark equaled one time out. The next time, we’d insist on four seconds of silence before ending the time out. Then five. Then seven. By withdrawing their family’s attention in the bluntest possible way, we would communicate to the dogs that what they were doing was unacceptable. Consistency was the key: quiet dogs got to enjoy time with the family, loud dogs got to go to time out.
Caroline and Allie were wonderfully resolute. They had been given the power to do something about the noise for the first time in years. Over the course of an hour, we had successfully gotten ten seconds of silence from each dog. They were improving already. We just had to keep it going.

Our next appointment came a week later. I knocked on the door, heard barking, and waited for Delilah and Bodhi to be put in their time out spots before Allie greeted me. Caroline hovered diligently near the doors, waiting for silence. “What are we up to?” I asked. “A minute!” she said, meaning a minute of silence before the time out would end. I gave her a thumbs up, and sat down with Allie to discuss nutrition and manners.

It was then that I learned why the dogs had gotten to this point. I had noticed on my first visit that neither dog wore a collar, and I asked why. Allie told me that before Delilah had come along, Bodhi had had a big sister, another Westie called Maggie. She and Caroline had gone out to a nice dinner for their anniversary, and returned home to find Maggie strangled by her collar on the arm of a rocking chair. They rushed her to the emergency vet, giving rescue breathing, but she had died long before they found her. She sobbed as she spoke. Caroline joined us, with two quiet little dogs in tow, and asked if we were talking about Maggie. She became choked up as well. I pointed to the dogs quietly sniffing my jeans, and both women smiled and laughed.

I told them how sorry I was that they’d experienced such a horrific accident. I couldn’t imagine the guilt they must’ve felt, no matter how misplaced. I was sorry I couldn’t meet Maggie too. And I understood now how and why discipline had fallen by the wayside, and why they had twisted their lived into knots in order to cater to their dogs. I said, “I don’t know how many times you must’ve told yourselves this, but what happened was not your fault. Sometimes you need to hear it from someone else.”

Caroline fetched a photo album, and we looked at pictures of Maggie and Bodhi for quite some time, all of us alternately laughing and crying. These women had no one in their lives who understood how they felt about Maggie, and what had happened. Allie’s mom had the attitude of, “It’s just a dog.” They were embarrassed to tell anyone how they felt. They only had each other to dig through a mountain of guilt and sorrow. And two happy little dogs, whose barking would be suffered gratefully simply because they were alive.

We switched Bodhi and Delilah’s diet to limit the sugars in their system. We worked on some basic obedience, all the while keeping a strict time out rule. The dogs learned quickly, and by the time a month had passed, it was well under control. At our last session, Allie and Caroline gave me a Polaroid photo of Maggie. The photo is holding up well, considering I keep it with me in my training bag. At the end of that year, I got a Christmas card from them, with a photo of Bodhi and Delilah on Santa’s lap. Inside, Allie had written, “Thank you for everything. Love from Caroline, Allie, Bodhi, and Delilah.”
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Old 04-06-2013, 10:32 PM
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Annie weighed less than a pineapple. Her parents, Steph and Robert, threw her a “birthday” party when she reached two pounds, and that was the weight she kept. She was a yorkie-maltese mix, and remains to this day the smallest dog I’ve ever trained. We were doing a straight obedience program; Steph and Robert wanted Annie to sit, stay, come, and heel. I’m always encouraged by owners of small dogs who want obedience training. Sure, you can just pick up a dog that size and move her, but teaching her to use her head and follow directions does wonders for her attitude. The best way to be sure your little dog ends up with a foul temper is to treat her like a little dog. Annie relied on her own legs to get around, so I knew her parents were doing well from the start.

Although she was a delight to train, Annie’s size presented a few challenges. We trained on our knees on the floor, so she could see what was happening. She could work for about ten minutes before she needed a nap; she was simply too small to maintain a productive energy level. And treats, that good old fallback that we trainers use to quickly buy our way into a dog’s attention, were out of the question. I normally break training treats into the size of large peas, and these were way too big for Annie. I’d give her one, and she’d chew for the next minute. It was a meal for her, and after two treats, they were no longer motivational because she was simply full. I tried cat food…still too big. When we motivated her with play, she tired even faster, cutting our sessions that much shorter. We were working on a very tight energy budget and the only motivation at our disposal was praise, which bored her quickly.

Robert and Steph were getting frustrated. Training was fun for Annie, but only for very limited sessions. And without varied rewards, she was thinking of other things she’d rather do. We tall people sat down to brainstorm.

Treats were no good. Play was no good. Praise and petting were hit or miss. We had to come up with a way to tell Annie she was doing well, without boring her to tears. My next go-to was toys; Annie had lots of toys, mostly designed for cats. But none of them had the simple brevity of rewarding a lab with a tennis ball. They were just too big, and playing with them required some major work on Annie’s part.

I finally asked, “What did she chew up when she was a puppy?” Every puppy chews something. Perhaps we could turn an old shoe into our quick reward—a brief game of tug, then back to work. Steph’s eyes lit up. “My adding machine!” she exclaimed. She balanced the family’s accounts on an adding machine, and caught Annie chewing the tape several times before placing a basket on the desk to collect it. She hadn’t thought of it since. Steph fetched some blank adding machine tape, and off we went. Annie later passed her basic obedience test with flying colors and an adding machine tape parade.
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