Saturday, February 28, 2009

PetSmart Interupted

My brother had a dog named Riley. It was his first dog and a rescue dog. Riley came with some baggage. He was very possessive of his things-- stray ice cubes, food, toys, tennis balls.

One Friday in the Spring, Mark came home from work and played a game of fetch with Riley. Often when you have a dog that doesn’t understand the concept of fetch or who just refuses to give up the ball, you are given the advice to play two or three ball fetch with him. This means that if the dog refuses to give up the ball, that’s fine, just throw him another one. The dog will often catch on and will drop the ball he has in his mouth to run after the one you have just thrown. From there you can build on the concept and eventually play fetch the old-fashioned way.

Instead of dropping the ball to chase after a new one or running off with the old ball and dropping it when he got to the freshly thrown ball, Riley tried to fit all of the tennis balls in his mouth. By the time Mark realized what was happening the balls had become lodged in Riley’s throat and he was suffocating.

Riley died in my brother’s arms on the way to the animal hospital.

My brother and his wife had hired a dog trainer to work with Riley in their home. When Riley died they had extra sessions that they were not able to use. They eventually bought another dog but had by that time moved to Louisville. When they heard about Finn, Mark’s wife offered to transfer their extra sessions to us.

This is how we came to know Cody. Cody began to work with Finn when he was eleven weeks old. Several factors combined to make Cody a lifesaver to us. First, Finn was a terrible biter when he was small and Cody really salvaged our relationship with Finn. Second, Finn had such a nagging and relapsing case of kennel cough that we couldn’t take him to normal puppy classes. Cody has worked with us on all of the basic commands plus leash training and a couple of brain games.

At a little over four months Finn performs well at home. Now that he is fully vaccinated we have taken him out amongst the germs and people and overall he is doing well. Finn’s main problem is that he is such a friendly dog that the air generated from his flapping nub of a tail practically levitates him every time he sees a person (especially kids) or dog. It starts with the tail waging and ends in pulling on his leash to the point that he sounds like an asthmatic in a very dusty, confined room.

Obviously, our dog needs some additional exposure to people and their pets. We thought that he might benefit from some time in a group training class. So, after talking with some people at the park and an advanced call to PetSmart, we went over there today at the appointed time. We signed up, handed over our money and then five minutes later were told that the class was canceled and could we come back on Sunday. I was disappointed to not be starting that day and displeased that there was not more disclosure up front. I’ll wait until Sunday to make any further judgments.

Friday, February 27, 2009


We bought Finn at a pet store. Believe me, I have already heard enough opinions on this. We have even discussed the idea of just telling people we bought him through a breeder to avoid the comments and looks. Maybe I perceive the looks, maybe no one really cares where we bought Finn but it sure feels like they do.

The simple explanation is that we had never owned a dog or even really been around dogs growing up. We were totally new to the whole thing. We wanted someone to hold our hands through it and tell us exactly what we needed.

We’d been stalking puppies at Petland since Halloween with no real intention to buy one. And then one day we did.

This iPhone picture was taken during our first play session with Finn at Petland.

I was shocked to find that it takes hours to buy a puppy. I don’t think they prepare new parents as well as they prepare new puppy owners. Petland includes in the purchase price of the dog a “welcome home” kit. The kit includes everything you would need for your puppy during the first few weeks and beyond: a crate that will fit him as an adult, food, treats, toys, nail clippers, shampoo, tooth brush, etc, etc. They go through the whole kit with you and explain how to properly use everything. They give you step-by-step instructions on how to feed him, groom him, potty train him. They explain what is a medical emergency and what is not. On top of that, you can call them anytime if you have any questions or problems with the dog. It was reassuring to feel like we had some kind of backup system.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that Finn was not a healthy puppy. He was very sick for the first month or so that we had him. In the far future, if we buy another dog, I’m not sure if we’d go to a pet store. They were what we needed as first time buyers, but we are more knowledgeable now and more sure of ourselves.

It’s clear though, that they care about their animals. When we bought Finn we were stopped no less than three times on our way out of the fairly small store as employees wanted to say goodbye to the little puppy that was only there for a short time. When we’d come in later to buy puppy food, Mike, the guy who sold us Finn, would stop us, and ask about Finn by name. It was a caring atmosphere.

Today at the puppy park, we ran into Mike and his dog. Finn definitely seemed to remember his short time in Mike’s care as he ran up to him, put his paws on his shoulders and gave him a vigorous face licking. Which, as everyone knows, is Finn language for “you’re one of my favorites.” It was sweet and it solidified in our minds that we did make the right choice buying him from a pet store, or at least that specific pet store.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The puppy version of slamming doors

Finn is 4 months old (18 and a half weeks) and he is beginning to only selectively listen to certain commands. We taught Finn the command “go to your bed” at around 10 weeks. Before then, we were picking him up and basically shoving him in his crate. That method worked fine with a small puppy but one day I had a flash forward to us trying to manually maneuver a head-strong, 30 pound adolescent puppy into his crate. Having gotten over the horror of that vision, I started to work with him on the new command right away.

First, we held a treat in front of his nose and led him to his crate while saying, “go to your bed.” Then we moved up to tossing a treat in his crate and then giving him the verbal command. It didn’t take long after that for him to obey only the verbal command. He knew the payoff was coming because, after going into his crate on verbal command only, we always gave him a treat through the crate bars while saying, “good boy, good go to your bed.”

He got really, really good at this command. He would bounce across the room, fling himself into his crate and eagerly await his reward. He was a rock star at the “go to your bed” command. He had “go to your bed” groupies. There was even a dance.

And then one day, not so much anymore.

When we gave him the command, he would turn away from us, look forlornly toward the exit and hold his ground. If we went over to him and picked up his leash, he would walk on his own toward and into his crate but he would no longer go only on our command.

Today I realized that he would actually still go to his crate on my command but he has to have time to pout about it first. Basically, I have to say the command, and nothing else, repeatedly. I also have to give lots of pause in between each repetition of the command. Finn is an Australian Shepherd, which means he’s bold, confident and stubborn by nature. In between each command I could see him weighing his options. He was quietly deciding whether he wanted to obey me.

Although it’s annoying to have to patiently guide him to make the right decision, I have a feeling this practice is building our bond. The fact that he is giving in and doing something he doesn’t want to do proves to me that he respects me. I’m not forcing him or being pushy, I’m just calmly and evenly persisting.

Still, I hope he grows out of this phase quickly because I am a human and by nature not the most patient creature.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Street Legal

Finn recently finished up all of his vaccinations, which means that we can finally take him out in the world. I worried about all of the socialization that he wasn’t getting. All of the books and websites tell you how it’s essential that puppies get socialized during the 2-4 month period. At the same time they tell you to not take puppies anywhere that strays may roam, which includes, parks, pet stores, your neighborhood, shopping centers--- pretty much anywhere besides your home.

In the end, we took him very few places. We went on walks around the neighborhood while we tried to leash train him and once we took him to a group class held by our trainer at a local park. I think we would have ventured out more had he been a healthy puppy but he was very sick for the first month and a half that he was with us. All of those vet visits, however, did cure him of his dislike of car rides.

Even under normal circumstance we would have been counting down the days until his final vaccination but now even more so. Last week Finn finally got to go to the dog park for the first time. We were so much more excited than him.

He did a great job. Our local dog park is split in two; one for under 20 pounds and one for over 20 pounds. On his first trip there, the under park had only one very small dog in it so we ventured to the large dog area. He loved being off leash and held his ground nicely around the big dogs. He’ll eventually be a big dog so it probably doesn’t hurt to have him around his future peers.

Our trainer tried to tell us that Finn was an aggressive dog but we have learned that aggressive is not the right word. Finn can be stubborn and obstinate but he’s also confident and bold—two important traits of his bread. No matter how many times he was run over by the big dogs, he still approached them to play. It was nice to see how submissive he became when it was clear he was being dominated. Even when he plays with smaller dogs, he will go into the down position because he’s aware that while they are taking swipes at him, he should not swipe back. Maybe when he’s older we’ll see more signs of aggression but right now he is a friendly, good-spirited puppy.