When Donna came home with us, we pretty much had access to what was most accessible in the mass media – Cesar Milan and his Dog Whisperer series. You’re either a fan or a hater, or you couldn’t care less. Me? I thought the Dog Whisperer wasn’t a bad thing. It gave us newbies a clue as to what can get really bad with a dog and sort of prepared us for our first foray into dog shelter wonderland. I mean, come on, I never had close contact with dogs in my entire life, of course I’d be scared of walking into a shelter full of happy go lucky, barky dogs running around. So yes, I followed “No touch, no talk, no eye contact” that very first time we went to the shelter. Made a beeline for the bench right at the back of the big yard the ten or more dogs were in and plonked my butt on the bench and just sat there, soaked up the atmosphere. Had a big dog Mario plonk his head on my lap, as casually as the old school cat that used to climb into my cross-legged lap and nap there after I fed her (that was always the highlight of my day back in my teenage school life and yes, I was more a cat person than dog haha). Mr P’s cousin identified the dogs by name to us.
An hour or two later, we went out of the fenced yard with no dog in mind. To my untrained eyes, they look all the same! The only dog I can identify with 100% success rate was Mario, because he was the only white dog there. But he was too big for our apartment and we were looking for a younger adult dog who can spend many years with us. We were close to just leaving the shelter when Florence stopped to speak with us and suggested Donna, who was sharing a small yard closest to the exit, with the old male dog Buddy and a washing machine.
The introduction, now that one comes to think of it, is comical. Come in, this is Buddy, he is human aggressive. Just don’t go too near to him (maybe I just have a warped sense of humour). Donna was lying around sleepy after her meal, but she responded to treats, sat and pawed for us. Florence did some selling and we thought Donna was a possibility.
We subsequently had two trial homestays with Donna.
The first one freaked me out when she got so excited she pranced up and down the sofa and basically tuned me out. I tried to get her down the sofa, but her mouth was snapping at my hand. I went out to the balcony to regain my calm, by the time I returned, she calmed down too. Florence laughed and told me Donna never bit anyone before when I told her about the incident. On hindsight, we realised that she was having fun playing and never really intended to bite, but to someone like me with no real understanding of dogs, it can be unnerving with an out of control, excited dog.
By the second homestay, we had more confidence in ourselves after having visited Donna for many weekends walking her. We knew that Donna at the shelter is a different dog from Donna at home. Donna at the shelter was fixated on the main door, doesn’t finish her food, likes to steal morsels of food from Buddy, is challenging to leash when she squirms around in excitement and can rival an Olympic gymnast twirling a ribbon as she spins endlessly in circles, saliva trailing after her. Donna at home still turns her nose up on food, but is calmer and doesn’t spin frantically in circles. We may not entirely be assertive, but we are pretty calm and we have learnt after the first homestay to prevent her excitement from building up by stopping play and ignoring her until she calms down again.
Donna came home permanently with us at the beginning of this year. Florence warned us that all the bad habits will come out when she adjusts to her new home.
I did think of it as bad habits, but as I did more research on Donna’s behaviour, I started to think of it as the dog adjusting to a new abode and trying to make the best of living with two new humans. Donna was previously house-trained, so it was not difficult to get her back to using the newspaper. But if the newspaper was removed, or if the kitchen rug was in closer proximity, the kitchen rug became the next preferred place for her business. This to me was not ideal since it prevented me from getting my meals and her meals. Clean up became the top priority when she did it on the kitchen rug and clean up was a pain and I did lose my patience. I ended up throwing the rugs, and replacing them with new ones. Things went back on track for a while until I slipped a tray under the newspapers. It made sense to us as the tray can collect any seepage and we can push the tray under the sink so that the common toilet can still be used by house guests without the yucky feeling of dog pee on the toilet floor. Unfortunately, Donna decided she had a fear of the tray and went back to the next most sensible spot (to a dog) — the kitchen rug. By then, I was convinced that no matter how well trained, there is always the potential for mishap, so Donna was barred from the kitchen. We installed a child gate. And since I enjoyed our walks and hated cleaning up her pee and poop at home, I stopped lazing in bed and took her out for walks on time in the morning (delays could mean she would go at home) and also later in the evening and at night before her bedtime. My ultimate dream is for her to finally learn to poop on demand!
Fast forward to today, which is about two months since Donna has come to live permanently with us, I am starting to think that living with a dog will always be as much as an on-going process of adjustment as living with another human being. The difference is that there is so much more that one needs to actively learn in order to manage the dog since it cannot speak with us, give us verbal and easy to understand feedback like a human can. The Dog Whisperer continues to be a fun sort of entertainment where you can see all sorts of dogs that you may not see on the streets in Singapore, but we’ve also learnt that there is more than just one methodology when training your dog. Do we really need to be all dominant and always eat before we feed our dog, which pardon me, sounds a little wacky :P So more and more, I veered towards trying different things from bodily blocking her and stopping her from entering the study (which is out of bounds to her) to positive reinforcement of actions that I like from her. If I see her sitting calmly by herself outside the study while I work, rather than clattering in and demanding attention, I surprise her with a treat. After a while, she learnt to relax and chill out, catch a nap by the door.
I’ve also tried negative punishment – if she starts tugging, we walk in the other direction from where she wants to go, and when she stops tugging, she gets to continue the walk and that worked really well so that we can at least enjoy our walk together without inconveniencing the people around us particularly on narrow sidewalks.
But yes, two months is a short time and we are still very much a work in progress, trying to figure out how we fit and gel together from food to play to engaging and bonding with our new dog.
Note: This post is written March 06, 2013. It’s now 21 Oct, 2013. I’ve seen become better at reading dog body language and no longer watch Cesar Milan for entertainment. I find it quite painful to see the fearful dogs being dominated by a “trainer” who doesn’t understand the behaviours they are showing… too painful to watch.