When the Curtain Grows Thin

On July 4th, Mr. Thomas Gibbons was walking on the road down by the campground where he was staying with family members, just north of the old H&H store. It was around 2 am and there were likely fireworks popping all through the night, and flashes of color as the celebration started early. People often remain active into the wee hours during summer on the Island, as the setting sun gleams on the horizon long past bedtime.

Drummond always does the 4th in style. Mr. Gibbons was visiting from Rapid River and like many others, planning on a fun holiday in the small, homey community.

But Mr. Gibbons’ life ended that night. Police are still in the process of finding the driver who hit him. When the news began circulating in the early morning, it put a shadow on the Island festivities. It was a stark reminder about how fragile our existence is; and how just as each moment passes, we can be gone in a flash, in the blink of an eye, never to return.

We don’t know where those people go. Even those dearest to us will vanish with no trace, leaving behind an empty shell, devoid of spirit. The essence of being is no longer there.

Beyond the traditional views of Heaven and Hell, the wisps of reincarnation and ghosts, some of us sense a continuation in the existence of others, especially those closest to us. We see them in dreams. They appear in other forms; eagles or butterflies. They send us signs. These visions may be our subconscious, our intricate brain sending just the right hormones to soothe the stress of loss, to ease our way through grief.

Or, maybe we have that connection, and the soul reaches out to us from wherever. They are okay. We will be okay. There are bonds within us that run deeper than our physical selves. The love lives on. We know this, with as deep a knowing as our own beating heart. This may be the closest we ever come to the glimpse of what lies beyond that glowing curtain. We go on. They go on. Until we meet again.

A couple of years following her death, my mother appeared to me in a dream. My dad, although he said he would appear, did not show up. But on the shore one day, shortly after his passing, an erratic-moving yellow butterfly flashed out of the woods and flickered low along the sand. It went directly to my Chihuahua and zigged in figure eights just above her head. She jumped for it, clumsily leaping and snapping, doing backflips as it zipped around in a taunting frenzy. I was doubled over in laughter. That was Dad! He loved that dog. And he knew I would be at the beach at that hour of the day.

Then the butterfly, as quickly as it had appeared, sped away again, disappearing into the trees. When it left, it was like a gut punch. I howled in anguish. It was not the message from him I was hoping for. I wanted him to show up and speak English, and explain everything, and give me some instructions. What the heck was up with this – a butterfly? Really?

And yet I had no doubt that it was him. It was obvious. That spirit, the essence of him had left his body. It was no longer there. But it was still somewhere. And he was the same person with the same teasing sense of humor.

Those of us who love, and have loved, know this deeply, and with certainty.

It is this knowing that makes our journey bearable; and even joyful. We are here for only a while. In these moments we see our real selves. The superficial layers fall away and leave us at our most genuine. We understand, before we forget again, that the most important thing is to love one another. The rapture of these moments, these weightless and insightful fragments of time, before gravity pulls us back, tell us all about the next phase. This is a glimpse into the lightness that survives, and where we are all headed.

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*With deepest sympathy to the family of Mr. Gibbons — may he rest in peace.

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Clifford the Painting Horse

So yesterday, Clifford the Painting Horse went viral. His video was suddenly popping up everywhere. He even actually appeared in a newspaper in Guam.

Kids Club Live Clifford Outdoor Art

The Painting Horse video was originally made by the Lansing State Journal, who came out to the house to do an article about him. Then someone took that video and edited it with cute music, complete with captions. Whomever did the video has a pretty good handle on our shtick.

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After reading some of the comments, I realized I had better clear a few things up.

  1. The paints we use are nontoxic, all water based, primarily kids’ tempera.
  2. Clifford paints with a scrubby-backed sponge, which gives him a rougher texture to grasp, and also prevents a lot of the paint (absorbed on the bottom of the sponge) from touching his lips.
  3. The paints are nontoxic.
  4. Clifford ingests very small amounts of paint, if any.
  5. Clifford does not give pony rides. However, I have ridden him for 25 years and he is a great trail horse.
  6. We do not have a petting zoo. We do have a nonprofit, the Foundation for Animals in Therapy and Education. We take paypal donations through FATEanimals@gmail.com.
  7. There is a book about Clifford, called Clifford of Drummond Island and he is the only horse in the world who signs his own biography.
  8. Clifford is house trained and visits schools and libraries, painting pictures, promoting literacy and empathy.
  9. Clifford likes to paint. I never force him. You know that old saying, “You can lead a horse to watercolor, but you can’t make him paint.”
  10. Clifford has his own Facebook page.
  11. Clifford is 27 years old.
  12. The paints are nontoxic.

Thank you to everyone for the nice compliments about Clifford!

 

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Clifford and the Thousand Kids

When my friend Nancy Phares invited Clifford to appear at Kids Club Live, I didn’t know what to expect. An annual event in Royal Oak hosted by Detroit Public Television, this live gathering of the TV show “Kids Club” includes notables like Barney the purple dinosaur.

Kids Club Live Clifford Outdoor Art

Clifford’s appearance was sponsored by the Michigan State Fair and there were a couple of tents set up for us with tables and banners promoting the fair. Expecting a large crowd, we fashioned a small “photo booth” next to an upright banner, under the shade of the tent, to discourage kids from wandering around and getting under his feet or going behind him.

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As the show opened around 9 am, the crowd went into the auditorium to see the Barney show. As it ended, they began to wander outside. Ignoring most of the other displays, which included temptations like bugs and dinosaur bones, the kids took one look at Clifford and made a beeline for us.

There was such a crowd that Deb stuck around and began to organize them into a line. That line stretched all the way across the parking lot to the door, and stayed that way until the first shift ended around noon.

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Both days had three shifts like this, which entailed a couple of hours of meeting one person after another while Clifford posed for photos with adults and children, babies and grandmothers. He posed with groups and single individuals.

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He posed with people of all colors, shapes and sizes. He wore his glasses for kids who wore glasses. He stayed in place when I walked away and waited, watching me until I gave the signal that the photo was done. He put his ears forward when I asked.

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One of the highlights was when Clifford got to meet Clifford, the Big Red Dog.

Between photo opps, I offered him water and asked him to do tricks, play fetch or paint pictures just to break up the repetition. I kept a constant barrage of various treats so he never knew what he was getting.

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Clifford really enjoyed the event. But by the time we reached the third shift on the second day, we were all getting tired. I whipped out my secret weapon: Pieces of fresh apples. This seemed to placate him and he hung in there with me through the last of it. Despite the exhausting schedule and repetition, he never became irritable and showed no signs of burnout or temper. There was not one tail swish, nor did he ever even pin his ears. As the day wore on his head would sag, and he fell asleep through some of the photos. But he was patient through all of it.

Through it all, Detroit Public TV’s Deb Nicholaou helped and supported us. She took photos for people, organized crowd control, gave Clifford lots of kisses and kept me company.

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Afterward, I asked her how many people we had met that day.

“Thousands,” she said.

Clifford was happy to get home and spent the whole next day hanging out with his sister.

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Thinking back, I realize that a lot of those people had never seen or been close to a horse. I hope we managed to leave them with a nice memory, and a small inkling of the tremendous generosity of the equine heart.

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The Ol’ Homestead (Or, Olmstead)

 

Those of us who grew up in and around DeTour Village all knew Ardis and Dolores Olmstead. But it’s funny how once someone becomes enshrined in memory, you appreciate them more. The long-married couple lived just around the corner from us, where Ardis’s barber shop pole provided a bright spot of color on the street. Dad would go over there purportedly for a haircut. But I suspect it was more a social visit than anything. Both men were born in 1925. I always wished Ardis would refrain from cutting the “lynx tips” – orange hairs – off the tops of Dad’s ears. But he always did.

Dolores was Mom’s friend. She was notorious for just letting herself in the back door. I never thought twice about it. Our back door kind of scraped across the floor; you had to force it. Dolores would burst through with a shout. “Knock knock! Anybody home? Hi Elaine! How you doing? I’ve been to the store and I got you these petunias.”

One time Mom and I were sitting on the front porch of the old Bailey house, facing main street, and Dolores drove past. She hung her head out the car window and started yelling questions. “Hi Elaine what you up to? I’m headed over to…” et cetera.

I was a teenager then. I turned to my mom and said, “That’s the only person I have ever known who can carry on a conversation while driving past you on the street.”

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Ardis and Dolores were as big-hearted as they were gregarious. They had one child, Lester, and they adopted three Native American kids and raised them as their own. It took me a long time to figure out that those raven-haired children were adopted. They were just part of the family and it didn’t occur to me to even think about it.

The lone girl in the bunch was Katrina. She was attracted to our house because there were girls, and she could hear us laughing and yelling all the way across the street and around the corner. Trina grew into a tall, leggy beauty with golden brown skin and her hair was long, straight and jet black. We called her Twiggy.

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I last saw Katrina in 1974 right after she joined the service. As happens so often, we lost track of each other, but then reconnected on Facebook several years ago. The more I talked with her online, the more those old memories came flooding back. I found out that she has a career working with kids with disabilities, inspired by my sister Amanda.

Trina is an animal lover and wanted to meet Clifford so we made a date for her to come to the house on her next trip to Michigan. On June 21, it happened. I was not surprised to find her still tall and graceful, all these years later, with that same inherent kindness. Her voice is just how I remembered, with its hills and valleys and bright notes, “like a harmonica.”

I wish I could say Clifford behaved better. He had just finished two exhausting days posing for photos with a thousand kids in Royal Oak, for a Detroit Public TV event. When I say a thousand, I do mean literally a thousand. He worked from 9 to 6 pm both days, with a couple of breaks each day.

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So when Trina showed up with her bag of peppermints and Twizzlers, he was not his normal enthusiastic self. He did agree to pose for photos. But performing tricks was another matter. I threw his cone and he went and picked it up. Instead of bringing it back, he trotted right past me, then broke into a gallop heading for the back yard. He threw the cone down on the way, jumped over it and kept on going.

We laughed and laughed.

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It occurred to me that one of the gifts of a small town is having people who still feel like family, even after 40 years apart.

Trina headed north to the old hometown to visit her dad. Ardis, bless his heart, is still living in DeTour at 93 years old. It’s very possible that I will still be able to remind him about those lynx tips.

 

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Puppy Boot Camp Day 8 – Loki Learning “Speak” To Change A Bad Habit

When I first got Loki nine days ago, his human parents warned me that he liked to bite.

While I didn’t experience a lot of biting, I noticed that he does like to snap the air. He seems to like the sound of his teeth clicking together and he was using his mouth a lot.

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When I praise him, pet him or hug him, if I get too effusive he goes berserk-o. He can’t handle a lot of affection; it just overstimulates him. He wants to jump up and hug me and bite me. He may think they are love bites — but it’s too much mouth.

Therefore, while training, I have used exercises that keep him off my person. We don’t have a lot of physical contact, although I do pat him now and then and tell him, “Good boy.”

This seems like a shame; after all, who doesn’t want to hug their dog? But I think it will pass. As he learns new habits, and calming behaviors, he will not feel the need to explode with joy anytime someone gives him a little attention.

With the teeth gnashing, I started encouraging it by doing a quick imitation “play bow” while he was in the down position. He loved this! He would immediately stretch his legs and snap, snap the air.

I started clicking him for that, and then put it on cue with the words, “Tell me!” (This could be changed to the traditional “Speak” if his owners want to, later.)

Today, for the first time, he actually barked out loud, instead of just snapping the air. And, the snapping behavior is already beginning to decrease at other times.

Most folks think that tricks are just for fun, but many times, they do begin with a purpose.

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Puppy Boot Camp Day 7 – Loki’s First Week

Doberman mix puppy Loki has had a massive bombardment of new information over the past seven days. Being up in his brain more has naturally caused some of the “bounce” to smooth out of him — of course it probably had a lot to do with many hours of outdoor play time.

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He had at least two training sessions per day; sometimes more, with intermittent lessons learned throughout.

We have made good strides on all of our goals, which were as follows:

Learn to walk on loose leash without pulling.

Loki very quickly learned that his job when walking on leash is to keep up with the handler. He had the sudden realization that the handler changes direction without warning, sometimes doubles back, and will step on his toes if he gets in front of her. But he also learned that there is plenty of praise and treats for walking nicely on the left side, and life is just generally so much easier there.

We did walks out in the back field, about 20 minutes per day, and then yesterday took him for an hour on the trails at Grand Ledge. He is a lot more conscious of the leash now and more interested in what his handler is doing.

Stop jumping up.

This has been a challenge and has been handled through extinction rather than correction. He doesn’t get any attention when he is climbing up or jumping on people. He is rewarded for “4 on the Floor.” He still wants to hop up when he gets excited, but it’s getting less important to him. He gets a lot more attention and treats for sitting and lying down.

Stop biting.

I haven’t experienced his biting except for once when he nipped my ankle and I screamed like a hysterical puppy. That was the last time he bit me. But I don’t rough house with him and he is not loose in the house during idle time. When we are outside, together, we are working on jumps or playing chase with the other dogs, or taking a leash walk or something else fun.

Come when called.

He is doing exceptionally well with this. I don’t say his name a whole lot. When I talk to him I might say, “Puppy Puppy” or “Dobie Doo.” I use all the dogs’ names when I line them up for cookies, and each gets his turn. Loki has quickly tagged his name with the giving of this cookie. He also identifies the other dogs — he knows when I am calling someone else. He has to wait at the door for others to enter or exit. He does not pass through a door until his name is spoken.

This significant method of name recognition training makes the recall much more powerful. It is also important to remember not to saturate the dog with his name during these weeks/months before the recall is solid.

Stop chewing/destroying household items.

Loki has not had the opportunity to chew or tear things up. He is in a crate, or in training, or being hugged/petted. The danger comes when one ignores a pup and leaves him to his own devices.

A puppy outgrows this destructive adolescent stage, but introduction to the household space must be gradual and heavily supervised.

A dog his age has a strong need to chew, but he gets plenty of opportunity with stuffed Kongs in his crate, and other chewy goodies like his bull trachea and bull horn.

Stop chasing cats.

Like the jumping up, the introduction to the cats has been treated as an incidental, although they do share in the morning training session. As long as the cats are not a focal point, and there is more interesting stuff going on, he should eventually lose interest in chasing them.

He did “lock on” to my kitten one day, getting into a staring match with her, which got her hair up. But I quickly broke that up and moved him on to something else.

You had a great first week, Loki. Good boy.

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For more info, check out my books:

25 Ways To Raise a Great Puppy

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Dog

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Cat

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Puppy Boot Camp Day 6 – Proofing the “Stay” – and Help From Older Dogs

Lively Loki the Doberman mix puppy has had his world turned upside down over the past week, as he has moved into a highly regulated training regimen. Two days ago, we began working on “stay”, and today we employed it in some practical ways: On a hike on a Michigan trail. We did this with the help of Til, my 7 year old border collie.

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First of all, we picked a trail that I am familiar with, and we chose to go early in the day so we wouldn’t run into a lot of other hikers with dogs. Puppies in training are best not exposed to a lot of other dogs on leash, at least not outside of class. It seems everyone wants their dog to meet mine.

At the risk of coming across as rude, I do not encourage dogs to meet on a trail. A dog should mind his own business and pay attention to his handler. Other dogs invite a loss of focus, and they run the risk of injury or even spreading disease. The owner may not be able to control his dog. There are just too many things that can go wrong when you interact with a strange dog, even if the owner tells you how friendly he is.

We managed to walk for an hour and didn’t encounter any other dogs. Yay!

Our mission was for Loki to remain walking politely on a loose leash. This was a good opportunity to let him see how it works in normal life: a nice long walk, maybe a little limited sniffing, lots to see, other hikers to encounter, and of course, squirrels!

Goals:

Learn to walk on loose leash without pulling.

Stop jumping up.

Stop biting.

Come when called.

Stop chewing/destroying household items.

Stop chasing cats.

When we started out, he was crowding and bumping me a little. I just began to walk crookedly, crashing into him, apologizing every time, but pretty soon he learned that I am clumsy and he should keep just a little space instead of hugging my leg.

Every new experience that you can give a puppy goes into his “Log Book of Learning.” If it is a bad experience, it may be one more thing you have to overcome. If it is a good one, it is one more stride toward confidence and good behavior.

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On our walk, I carried the currently-essential pocketful of goodies — just a mix of kibble and broken biscuits. They were actually pretty low value treats (as opposed to cheese or cooked chicken) but since Loki hadn’t eaten since the night prior, I figured he would be plenty motivated. Plus, this was a relaxing walk, not a rigorous training exercise.

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Along the way, we made various stops to work on short “stays,” wherein I posed both dogs on flat surfaces and took their picture. They only have to sit for a minute while I fumble with the camera.

This is one of the advantages of having an older dog to set an example. Loki has had only a few lessons in “stay” but because Til is willing to stay still, it encourages Loki to do so, as well.

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Til also does not hesitate to climb up on rocks or benches when asked, therefore Loki follows happily.

These brief “photo stays” are a handy learning tool, which delivers the true meaning of the word (and hand signal) to the dog.  The stays are in different locations, on different surfaces, with food reward, and over with quickly. All good fun for a puppy on a new adventure.

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And, there were the stairs. You have to climb three flights to get to the top of the ledges. But Loki handled them with aplomb.

Today’s log book has Loki one step closer to a reliable “stay.” A dog that can “stay” is more inclined to be grounded, and one step closer to breaking the constant jumping up habit. We are so busy concentrating on other tasks, that he doesn’t think so much about jumping anymore.

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For more info, check out my books:

25 Ways To Raise a Great Puppy

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Dog

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Cat

 

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Puppy Boot Camp Day 5 – Proofing the “Stay”

Loki does not like working outside. I am not really sure what the reason is for this. Yesterday he shut down completely, but was very enthused inside the house. Today I was able to coax him into a little session. It wasn’t too much torture as the temp is a balmy 65 here and sunny.

It’s really important to train your dog in different locations so that he doesn’t associate the behavior with the location. “When I say sit, I mean sit, even at the pet store. Sit, even at the ball field. Sit, even in the living room.”

Goals:

Learn to walk on loose leash without pulling.

Stop jumping up.

Stop biting.

Come when called.

Stop chewing/destroying household items.

Stop chasing cats.

He was relaxing on the deck after a morning of hard play with Jasper. He is good and hungry, having not eaten since the night before. I had brought Jasper into the house and Loki was resting on the deck alone. I managed to sneak out to the gate with him not knowing, probably because the neighbor was running his mower. I called him from the gate. He may not have realized where the voice was coming from at first, but then he did a beautiful recall from the back porch.

This is the type of recall worth building on.

Next we worked on a down stay, which he handled even though it was his first time ever doing it outside.

We like a nice, calm puppy, and in order to have that, he must get all his required daily aerobics in prior to the training session. I am lucky in that I have other dogs that will help with this aspect of his training.

The sit stay was more difficult. He was a little nervous (note the yawn).

His sad expression is due in part to the fact that he hates working outside. But it is also due to having to concentrate on the task at hand. He is working it out.

He got up and then heard my disappointed groan (which serves as a no-reward marker) and he tried to correct it by sitting again. Notice he doesn’t get a correction or get dragged back to the original spot. He just gets a groan and no click and no treat. We try again.

On our next attempt, he did just fine.

We kept the session short and sweet, leaving him with a “jackpot” treat on the ground. He got to go back in the shade and rest with Jasper.

This is just one more step in the long, long process of teaching a dog to stay. For a dog like Loki, it is a great exercise in self-control. For a dog with a compulsive jumping habit, it is a nice way to re-learn keeping all four paws on the ground.

For more info, check out my books:

25 Ways To Raise a Great Puppy

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Dog

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Cat

 

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Puppy Boot Camp Day 4: Loki Beginning “Stay”

The “stay” cue isn’t hard to teach, although it is easy to nullify in short order.

The reason is usually due to a lack of proofing during training.

With this in mind, teaching “stay” is a long-term process that has to be done in stages. It can last for days, weeks, or even months depending on the duration expected and the conditions of the environment.

“Stay” is a great thing to teach because it comes in handy during unexpected times, and is a good exercise in self-control for impulsive pups like Loki.

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Goals:

Learn to walk on loose leash without pulling.

Stop jumping up.

Stop biting.

Come when called.

Stop chewing/destroying household items.

Stop chasing cats.

Once your dog is lying down pretty reliably on cue, it is time to incorporate the “stay”.  I decided to train Loki from the “down” position because he is typically very animated and it takes more energy to break a down than it does a “sit.”

I teach “Stay” as if it is a dance. I back away one step, and click at the farthest point away from the dog. Then I return to give the treat. The dog knows the treat is coming so typically just waits.

From there, I build up to greater distances. I walk around the dog or back farther away. I generally walk backwards at first. At the farthest point, I click.

If the dog gets up at any point during the retreat, I am progressing too fast and must click sooner.

One rule of thumb is I tend to return to the dog rather than calling them out of the stay. I broke that rule in the video just to show that Loki is very animated and gets up easily.

Despite his high activity level, Loki has been a really quick study about this and even let me leave the room. I just go around the corner and back.

Hearing the clicker, the cats want to get in the middle of it, but he is already accustomed to that.

 

As an aside, on my list of to-dos for Loki is to help him learn to stop chasing cats. This has been done gradually but with no correction. By keeping the cats as an incidental rather than a focal point, he is becoming desensitized to their presence.

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For more info, check out my books:

25 Ways To Raise a Great Puppy

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Dog

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Cat

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Puppy Boot Camp Day 3 – Loki Learning Recall, Beginning Agility (And the Power of the Time Out)

It seems to finally be dawning on Loki that his life is about to change forever. He kind of shut down during his training stint today. He acted like he didn’t recognize any of the cues he has just learned — he wouldn’t lie down, turn in a circle, or even sit. His eyes just got all glazed over and he kept jumping around acting like a kid on too much sugar.

So, we did a time-out. I call it, “Packing Up My Barbies.” If it’s clear that the dog isn’t in the frame of mind to be able to focus, I don’t force it, but I don’t keep giving him attention either. He had already spent the morning outside playing with Jasper. So, back outside he went. He just lay on the deck contemplating life, poor little dude. I sense he is a little overwhelmed.

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He spent about an hour just thinking things over, while I set up my set of pathetic makeshift jumps.

By this time he was bored and hungry enough to want to concentrate, although a little bit of the fizz was taken out of him due to the prior activity.

Goals:

Learn to walk on loose leash without pulling.

Stop jumping up.

Stop biting.

Come when called.

Stop chewing/destroying household items.

Stop chasing cats.

Thanks to the hula hoop action last night, his translation to these pole jumps went pretty smoothly. They started out at ground level. Again, he was hesitant so I clicked once for him just leaning over the pole. He instantly recognized the game and the word, “Jump!” and he stepped over the pole. I raised it in increments until it was about chest level on him.

I must add that dogs his age and younger have to be careful about doing too much jumping. The impact is awfully hard on their joints and can make them arthritic later. At sixteen months of age, Loki’s growth plates may have closed already; I’m not sure. So we are taking it easy.

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He was distracted by the pounding and buzzing of some nearby construction, so he kept wanting to wander off and look around. I just used it as an opportunity to practice the recall. He did come back every time.

Thanks to the hula hoop, he was even able to process me pointing at the jump and calling him over it to me. Loki’s new owner has an interest in agility, which would be a fitting career for a dog of his build and activity level.

 

This early jumping is all good practice for agility where a dog focuses on the task at hand despite the position of the handler. An agility dog can work from the right or left side indiscriminately.

This type of informal recall is the most powerful way to teach it. No leash involved. No yanking. It’s all free choice, and no tiresome, mandatory “sit” at the end. (One of my pet peeves! Why in the heck would you destroy a beautiful recall, on a dog who is just learning, by demanding a “sit” when he gets to you?! Throw a party when that dog gets to you! Forget the “sit”! Teach a joyful recall first, and then polish for formal obedience later. Even then, a “sit” should NEVER be demanded every freaking time the dog comes to you.)

Humans are cool. Humans are fun. Humans have snacks. “Hey, look over here!”

After our little recall and pole-hopping lesson, Loki was happy to get back in his “comfort zone” with his frozen treat, and is now snoozing away the afternoon.

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For more info, check out my books:

25 Ways To Raise a Great Puppy

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Dog

15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Cat

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